Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dionne Brand's What We All Long For

Mater in Toronto last summer, in front of the Royal Ontario Museum's
Michael Lee-Chin Crystal
As I mentioned last post, I've been teaching Dionne Brand's What We All Long For. My students are finding much to discuss -- they're an all-white class, still grappling with a growing realization that Canada's claims to tolerance and multiculturalism and lack of racism are not always reflected in the reality of immigrants' lives, nor, even, in the lives of second-generation Canadians and/or visible minorities. Occupying the position of "other," even if only through the imagination and on the page, is a challenge for them, but they try their best, most of them, to rise to it.
Only a few of my students have ever been to Toronto -- not as surprising as you might think, given that we on the West Coast tend to believe our own hype about living in "the best place on earth" (yes, it can get tiresome!). Re-reading the novel, I was pleased to be able to picture the places Brand describes after my visit there last summer. Obviously the book can be understood and appreciated without having seen Toronto -- that was the case for my first reading, several years ago, but the city is a major character and knowing it firsthand gave an extra dimension to this reading. It's not the Toronto of Bloor Street or Yonge or City Hall or the University, however, but one of immigrants, of Kensington Market, of subways and demonstrations and nightclubs and art installations. Perhaps most significantly, it's a city which operates as a hub or node for an ever-shifting population in a globalized world, a population with pasts in other places, pasts that intrude and interrupt and continue. . .

While the ending of the novel is challenging, disturbing, overall we agreed as a class that the work has a redemptive energy -- many of the students said this was their favourite reading of the term, and they were keen to recommend it to others. I'd agree: I recommend it to you!

(again, I have to say, especially in regards to a novel so deserving of a fuller treatment as this one, that my intention in this blog is not to provide book reviews, but rather to keep track of my own reading, and when lucky, to exchange ideas about books with those of you who might want to respond -- I simply haven't the time to do more here!)


  1. I can't comment on the book but I love reading about what you are reading because you discuss so many things that are completely out of my frame of reference. It is probably a shame that as an American and a literature major I have so little knowledge of Canadian writers and fiction.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Mardel. I was actually really impressed, earlier, to find that you'd read Bill Gaston, a Canadian writer. My own knowledge of American literature is not nearly as broad as I'd like it to be. OH, for a year or two of nothing but catch-up reading!

  3. Thanks again for another good book suggestion! Living in the US now, I'm just not keeping up with my CanLit, as I feel the need to read some American classics.

    For some reason I always feel that?Canada is an immigrant friendly country. Even personal experience has proven me wrong, as I met many people new to the country and became friends with some, and found that their problems were challenging to horrific.

    However, when we moved here problems seemed much more exaggerated. My son went to an elementary school with a mix of black, Asian, Hispanic and white students.
    I joined the PTA and my son made friends and brought them home. At one PTA meeting, one of the women suggested to me that my son was making the "wrong" friends. I asked what was wrong (bullies?) and they hemmed and hawed, and suggested Nick make some white friends. In 2002.

    I guess my colour is naive.


  4. Christine: Lovely to have another reader commenting here, and even better if you like the referral. Brand is a powerful writer and this novel is a good way into her work.
    I think our veneer of politeness, as Canadians, masks some of the problems we have with multiculturalism or diversity, and that masking makes the problems difficult to address.
    Your experience with your son's schooling would have been eye-opening and challenging. I wonder how much the kids he brought home were aware of the parents' responses and how quickly they picked up those attitudes and values.

  5. Very interesting, Mater. I haven't read the book but I learned a lot just reading your discussion of it. I've always been interested in the history of race relations in the U.S. and have added to my interest now expanding to Canada in the last five years or so. Your post just piqued my interest a bit more. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for visiting, Sallymandy. The history of race relations in Canada is much more complex than we previously understood it to be and Brand really calls us to be aware of that. Not only our history, but our present situation, for that matter.
    She's a fine, fine writer -- should you ever have time to read her work, you'll be well rewarded.