Sunday, March 29, 2009
Dionne Brand's What We All Long For
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!)