“They thought that the time would come when they would live, they would get a chance to be what they saw, that was part of the hope that kept them. But ghostly, ghostly this hope, sucking their jaws into lemon seed, kiwi heart, skeletons of pawpaw, green banana stalk.”– Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here
If a favourite poet writes a novel, I’m probably going to read it, especially when the poet is Dionne Brand. I’m writing this review very soon after reading Brand’s non-fiction book, “A Map to the Door of No Return“, and I’m seeing her experiences and thoughts on immigration, identity, the diaspora, colonialism etc in that book, displayed in this book. Prior to this I’d only read a few volumes of her poems; in prose form, she is just remarkable and this is a beautiful, intricate book. It did take me a while to get used to the language but once I got into the flow of things it was wonderful.
This book is set in Ontario, Canada and an unnamed Caribbean island (possibly Grenada?). The main stories are those of Elizete and Verlia. Verlia immigrates to Canada as a teenager, becomes a member of the black power movement in 1970s Toronto, then goes back to her island to try to ignite a revolution there with the exploited sugarcane workers. She meets and becomes lovers with Elizete, who eventually moves to Canada herself. The women’s lives as immigrants in Canada were very difficult and transformative. When Verlia moves to Sudbury, Ontario to live with her relatives, her observations of whiteness as a black immigrant to Canada were quite interesting. She witnesses and questions the assimilation approach of her aunt and uncle and how this is toxic and seems to result in their emotional death. As immigrants are we supposed to embrace whiteness? Verlia decided she didn’t want to:
“They are imaginary. They have come as far north as they could imagine. And they have imagined themselves into the white town’s imagining. They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them. Swell her uncle’s heart. Wrought the iron in Aunt Idrisse’s voice.”
This book made me think, and at times it touched on personal thoughts or the many stories I’ve heard about from fellow-immigrants: immigration isn’t easy. The tough life of a single, black female immigrant in 1970s Canada must have been even tougher. Brand is honest with her portrayal of Canada, and how others often perceive it in a way that sugarcoats very real issues:
“Except that everyone is from someplace else but this city does not give them a chance to say this; it pushes their confusion underground, it wraps them in the same skin and slides them to the side like so much meat wrapped in brown paper.”
In this Brexit era when so many immigrants hear the phrase, “Go back home”, it’s a good time to understand why certain immigration patterns even happened. Often people rarely take into account history and how damaging and pervasive the ills of the Empire have been. There’s a realization by so many of us that there is no place where we can be truly free because of history and neocolonialism.
I appreciated this book for highlighting the traumatic experiences of immigration. There were several passages that were heartbreaking because they spoke to loneliness, depression, confusion, waiting…:
“She was working edges. If she could straighten out the seam she’d curled herself into, iron it out like a wrinkle, sprinkle some water on it and then iron it out, careful, careful not to burn…”
“She has too much to tell. That’s the answer, too much she holds and no place to put it down that would be safe.”
“She was trying to collect herself again, bring her mind back from wherever the pieces had gone skittering. She had deserted herself she knew, given up a continent of voices she knew then for fragmented ones.”
This is definitely a book I think will appeal to many. It’s beautifully-written, very thoughtful, and gives a voice to Caribbean immigrant women in the big city in Canada.