A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging- Dionne Brand

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I have not visited the Door of No Return, but by relying on random shards of history and unwritten memoir of descendants of those who passed through it, including me, I am constructing a map of the region, paying attention to faces, to the unknowable, to unintended acts of returning, to impressions of doorways. Any act of recollection is important, even looks of dismay and discomfort. Any wisp of a dream is evidence.- Dionne Brand, A Journey to the Door of No Return

There’s a short list of books that I’d say have recently changed my worldview and how I view things. This is one of them. From my research into the black diaspora through literature, art, and stories, etc, I always marvel at is what was saved and what was lost. This book goes a lot into what was lost and I read it from a personal place, identifying strongly with many of its themes.

The main premise of this book is the Door of No Return in the Black diaspora. The door in the book’s title is defined as “a place, real, imaginary and imagined…The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed.”  I think I’m fortunate to know where my “door” is; but for others in the diaspora this relationship is much more fraught with confusion. Because The Door is not an imagining for me,  I initially felt that the book was more suited to North American and Caribbean Black people who might not know their origins, but the more I read the more I saw that oppression was universal and the Diaspora has a strong connection:

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast.

It never occurred to me until a few years ago how the importance of maps goes further than just showing us where a place is situated. In a lot of literature I’ve read, it’s clear that maps are very political. In a lot of black literature in particular, there seems to be a focus on redrawing maps metaphorically, creating maps, changing frontier lines and so on. I thought about this poetry excerpt I wrote down a year or so ago by Jamaican poet Kei Miller:

“We speak to navigate ourselves

away from dark corners and we become,

each one of us, cartographers.”

(from: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

I enjoyed how Brand used her life experiences to support the theories she came up with. Her life in the Caribbean, moving to Canada, and travelling to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and Oceania: all her observations and experiences tie in to discussions of belonging, blackness, identity, and diasporic connections. Colonialism and its violence is evident in a lot of the places that Brand travels to.

Brand is Canadian and as I live in Canada I can relate to her even further on that point. She discusses erasure of blackness, something Black Canadians know well. There was so much in her writing about Canada which I wish was discussed on a more national scale. About Canada she says:

“How do we read these complicated juxtapositions of belonging and not belonging , belonging and intrabelonging. In a place such as this, so full of immigrants, everyone is deeply interested in belonging.”

And:

“National identity is a dance of artificiality, since what it dances must essentially be unchanging. Some would say, well, no, Canadian identity has changed over the last thirty or fifty years. Not at all.  We are drawn constantly to the European shape in its definition. A shape, by the way, which obscures it own multiplicity. And when we read the hyphenated narratives we see the angst produced by this unchanging quality.”

It’s important to say that Brand is a poet because her metaphorical and intuitive language really illuminated a lot for me. This book is rich and extra-sensory, great depictions of history, the land, the people. Reading this was like going on a journey with Brand and learning a little something about myself and my place in society and history at every stop. It was a very enjoyable and thought-provoking process., and she leaves us to think about how true the following is: “To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction–a creation of empires, and also self-creation.”

In Another Place, Not Here- Dionne Brand

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“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.

 

 

 

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem 

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“What is a witch? I noticed that when he said the word, it was marked with disapproval. Why should that be? Why? Isn’t the ability to communicate with the invisible world, to keep constant links with the dead, to care for others and heal, a superior gift of nature that inspires respect, admiration, and gratitude?”- Maryse Condé, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

With my interest in discovering hidden stories, this book was right up my alley. I can hardly think of a worse fate than being an enslaved black woman in the New World in the 17th Century. I know about the Salem Witch Trials but I didn’t know that there was a black witch who had played a role. Tituba, who was born and raised in Barbados but moved to America, ends up playing such a pivotal role in the Salem witch trials, yet I’d never heard of her until I came across this book. I think it’s obvious that what was omitted in history clearly shows what (or who) has been valued in history. It also shows that in many cases black people weren’t even considered worthy of a footnote.

Angela Davis’ foreword is very powerful, and one part I kept coming back to because it resonated with me, as I believe it would resonate with anyone who wasn’t taught their proper history:

“Tituba looked for her story in the history of the Salem witch trials and could not find it. I have looked for my history in the story of the colonization of this continent and I have found silences, omissions, distortions, and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations.”

But literature is powerful and gives life and a voice to people long dead and sometimes long forgotten. It is indeed a moment of triumph when Condé decided to give Tituba a voice. Even if someone didn’t get justice then, they can at least get some sense of justice through literature, especially when their story, which may have been ridiculed, is finally understood.

“Tituba’s revenge consists in having persuaded one of her descendants to rewrite her own moment in history in her own African oral tradition.”

The Book of Night Women- Marlon James

Every negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will. A circle like the sun, a circle like the moon, a circle like bad tidings that seem gone but always, always come back.”- Marlon James, The Book of Night Women

When I first read this book in 2012,  I didn’t think I would ever read it again. The depictions of violence were really hard to read, mainly because I knew that although they were fictional, they were probably very representative of what had taken place to people who looked like me. However, I decided to bite the bullet and read it again, mainly because Marlon James was going to be at one of the events I attended a fortnight ago, and also to see how differently I read it the second time around.

I’m so glad I did reread it. There was a lot to take in during the first read and in retrospect I don’t think I could have seen enough the first time around. Also, with additional knowledge of slavery, and also with being familiar with the story from my first read, I was able to understand the story at a much deeper level.  I was even able to look more closely at the other stories I had “missed.” For example, the “romance” of sorts between the main character, slave Lilith, and the Irish overseer, Quinn, a romance that came about due to two lonely people, lonely for different reasons. When we may often see homogeneity in whiteness, it was clear from this book that that was not the case in the colonies, and there was a rigid hierarchy of race, even within whiteness. A book that was recommended by my favourite professor is  “How The Irish Became White”, and in this book it was interesting to see how the Irish man was treated by the English, French etc.

To me, this has been a lesson in the benefits of rereading. My first read left a very visceral reaction; I felt indignant and angry, almost nauseous at times. I felt things weren’t fair and that the atrocities that happened to slaves were never atoned for. I know I’m a sensitive reader and reading this gave me  a helpless feeling. The pain was too real, the lack of support that these people received, mainly because they were black and not considered capable of worthy thought, subhuman in fact, was always at the back of my mind:

“You tried to use the mind, the brain, but you silly girl, those things are lost to the negro. What you have is a back that won’t break, a skin that won’t crack, legs like an ox and teeth like a horse.”

During my second reading, I was also struck by  the cognitive dissonance of the slave-owners; the fact that the black were the ones who were considered uncivilized and subhuman, yet it was the so-called “civilized” Europeans who came up with so many inhumane ways to shame, humiliate, hurt and destroy these people, was something that made me wonder how could they could see their cruel actions as acceptable. I would not want to live in their heads.

In spite of the harsh and graphic content in this book, I would highly recommend it. There were  moments of triumph,  in spite of the situation the characters find themselves in, and Marlon James is a great storyteller.

Lucy- Jamaica Kincaid

“That morning, the morning of my first day, the morning that followed my first night, was a sunny morning. It was not the sort of bright sun-yellow making everything curl at the edges, almost in fright, that I was used to, but a pale-yellow sun, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still it was sunny, and that was nice and made me miss my home less.” Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy

In many ways I feel as though the protagonist of Kincaid’s “Annie John” found her way into this book, except instead of leaving Antigua for England, she goes to America to work as an au pair for a rich American family.  This results in an interesting coming-of-age story, with themes of race and migration added to it, as well as colonialism, the remnants of which continue to reverberate.

This book definitely resonated with me and I could relate to Lucy’s experiences in some sense. Having myself left a former British colony for Canada at the same age as Lucy, I also remember having similar observations about my second stint in the West, especially as an adult. Although my observations were not quite as strong as Lucy’s due to travel and other factors, I could understand her feelings of wanting to leave her home, to start a new life away from meddling eyes, but missing her home when she did eventually leave, because those were my exact sentiments too. Growing into womanhood away from a familiar and protective environment, yes, I can relate.

But unlike Lucy, it took me years until I could put a finger on what annoyed me about people’s questions about home; the way they asked them, and what they asked:

“I wished once again that I came from a place where no one wanted to go, a place that was filled with slag and unexpectedly erupting volcanoes…Somehow it made me ashamed to come from a place where the only thing to be said about it was “I had fun when I was there.”

The idea of symbols and images meaning different things to different people was an especially interesting point. In particular, the daffodil, to the American woman, meant the beauty of Spring and the promises of new beginnings, while for Lucy who’d had to learn Wordsworth’s poem, it meant remembering colonialism and the absurdity of having to memorize poems about flowers that didn’t even grow in her part of the world.

“I felt sorry that I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene she had never considered, a scene of conquered and conquests…”

But what an unlikable character the protagonist was. I found her thoughts and revelations quite interesting but she was so bitter!  I wonder what the reasons were, as she seemed too old to be experiencing teen angst. Still, I really enjoyed this book, primarily because of Kincaid’s absolutely beautiful writing style.

Fire in the Canes- Glenville Lovell

History is a funny thing. It like the water running down a hill. It does only change direction when something strong enough stand in the way.”- Glenville Lovell, Fire in the Canes

This was an interesting story and a reminder to me to read more Caribbean literature. Set in a Caribbean island village called Monkey Road, it looks at a black community post-slavery, still reliant on the plantation for work. The book is ostensibly a love story that weaves in Caribbean myths and magical realism to the stories of the island community’s African forebears.

I liked the discussion on how Africa was seen by the descendants of the slaves; the image of Africa held a mythical impression, and the black inhabitants of the island felt the bones of the slaves who were brought over from Africa were still not at peace because they were on foreign soil.

There was  a lot of discussion of the supernatural, and an unusual love story that continues to have repercussions years later. Memory was definitely an important theme.

“Memory and dream may be alike but you do not bring evidence back from the voyage into a dream. Or do you? She was not sure.”

“She would never admit to being a superstitious woman. There was nothing superstitious about the things she felt in her blood. She came from a long line of women who were highly sensitive to the supernatural.”

I was curious about how people “did” relationships, and one of the numerous terrible effects on slavery, which a lot has been written about and discussed, is how the black family as a unit during those times was pretty much non-existent;  black families could not really remain in their family groups because they were often sold. In a sense this book shows that the repercussions of these acts carried on in this society at least. While this was true, as a woman it was quite disappointing to see how relationships played out in a post-slavery society. “But slave habits die hard” is how the author put it.

I liked this book and I think it was a good reminder to those of us who forget that slavery also occurred in places outside of the U.S., and that the results were disastrous wherever it took place.