New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies


Cultures of Expulsion: Memory, Longing and the Queer Space of Diaspora



Dina S. Georgis

Queen’s University



From the fissures of a wound, life in the diaspora is inaugurated. Diaspora marks the end of an easy relationship to homeland. For some diasporic subjects, such as those descended from black Atlantic slavery, it signals the end of intelligible ancestral origins, “the end of traceable beginnings;” but, paradoxically, is the “creation place” of black people in the new world.[1] What roads do you take, then, if your origins, as Dionne Brand writes, “[seem] to be in the sea”?[2]  Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return questions the value of maps that do not show the way to the door of expulsion, which is that “place emptied of beginning”.[3]  Insisting that we consider this emptiness, Brand challenges the myth of home after expulsion. Loss of home is not marked by a memory of life but of a forgotten memory. The door to such forgotten memory leads to more mystery, garbled residues and a haunting silence. But while the space of mystery and silence is empty of a thinkable beginning, it is not empty of affect. This affect is not resolute but nomadic: lost but longing for something, perhaps even beauty. It is much like a hummingbird whose paths, Brand writes, “are the blood of its small body. It is a bird whose desire to find its way depends on drops of nectar from flowers”.[4]


Much of Brand’s writing has grappled with questions of national belonging. In works such as In Another Place Not Here and Land to Light On, she demonstrates the paradoxes of national identities by staging the tension between national yearning and the fragmentations of identity when negotiated through the treacherous terrains of a new place. In Map to the Door of No Return, however, all maps of home are rendered politically impossible. Brand refuses fictive imaginings of diasporic beginnings and challenges the nation as the site where identities are produced and negotiated. Here, Brand calls for maps that are primed from the ineffable space of painful origins and steered by a want that does not fill the emptiness with answers; for answers, we learn, are the very things that diasporic peoples have disinherited.[5]  This want seeks the literary, because it is in the literary that we have access to the emotional landscape of diasporic loss.  Brand rhetorically asks “Does all terror become literary?” Forgetting and re-constructing the past is the condition of living after trauma; and in the literary, the garbled residues of loss are re-articulated in language. From the space of darkness, of not knowing and understanding, the trauma of expulsion from a place and its memory lives as an “absent presence”[6]: a deep elusive wound that finds expression in the way diasporic peoples fabricate their lives. Diaspora is interpretation; it is the condition of making meaning from the psychic space of being cut off, cast off, and abandoned. By refusing to provide a map of recovery from the original site of expulsion, Brand expresses loss and forced exile by foregrounding affective narratives as the new social sites of diasporic unanswerability.


In this essay, I explore the melancholia of diasporic loss and the place of longing in the re-negotiation of space and home. Freud understood the melancholic state to be the condition of not being able to let go or recuperate something that has been lost. And while he saw this as pathological, recent readings of melancholia also suggest that it is an emotional resource for insight, cultural production, and mourning loss. While melancholia is inaugurated by being cut off from the loved object, which for a diasporic subject is home, this condition does not necessitate that the melancholic subject is emotionally shut off. Indeed, Freud suggested that melancholics maintain an affective connection to the lost object. Psychically entangled with the object, melancholics “never willingly abandon a libidinal position”.[7] What this teaches us is that loss not only has a libidinal economy, but that the conflictual affect of loss cannot simply be willed away. If that is so, what cultures might the libidinal space of diaspora engender? How does the presence of erotically charged attachment to home unsettle the heteronormative nation and affable kinship ties? I suggest that diasporic space is a queer space, or a space that opens us to Eros, not only because people with non-normative sexualities and diasporic subjects share the experience of expulsion from home, but because expulsion from home is a return to the fundamental trauma of relationality and renounced desire. So, though expulsion from the family home and from the nation are not equivalent emotional realities, both are nonetheless reminiscent of an expulsion related to the severing of a sexual tie for which there is also no recovery, only mourning. Since melancholy underwrites the articulations of these differential traumas of “home,” it provides another lens into understanding the site of creative production for the cultures of expulsion.


What can we then learn by thinking through diasporic experience in relation to the queerly sexual? I began this essay with Brand’s poetic exposé Map to the Door of No Return because it symbolically sets up the psychic landscape of the loss of home and, more precisely, the significance of what it means to emotionally refuse the knowledge that home is lost. This text stages the psychic dilemmas of loss by asking: what would it mean to return to loss if we were not invested in recovering or mending the effects of expulsion in coherent national and cultural memory, but instead paid attention to the affect and the effect when we risk facing the Door of No Return. I propose that to make this return is to look back queerly. Brand’s most recent novel, What We All Long For, is a literary elaboration of such a return to loss. In this story of diaspora, the lines between the psychic space of expulsion, the emotional space of lost desire, and the cultural space of diaspora are blurred. The novel opens the door to the affective spaces of Toronto’s diasporic communities: a city whose many dwellers have found varied ways to make a life from trans-generational loss, new political traumas, and contemporary forms of social expulsion. Through this door we encounter young diasporic people for whom a nostalgic return to home is long abandoned but for whom the memory of a past life is not quite obliterated. Within this tension, many lives are imagined through an ineffable or confused longing engendered from the site of expulsion. Embedded in the past and its constituent primary attachments, this longing incites queer libidinal ties from old conflicts.


 By offering an extensive reading of What We All Long For later in this essay, I will make a relationship between the loss of the sexual, which informs my conceptualization of what it means to be human, and the contemporary queer diasporic subject for whom the confluence of loss of family ties, the “homeland,” and the sexual is an emotional reality.  Imagined through the exemplar of the Door of No Return, not only are we able to see how the confluence of loss and longing produces the human, but Brand’s work suggests that we pay attention to what is human so that we might re-imagine our political responses to the new challenges of living within an unrelenting culture of racial hatred.[8]



Queering home

There is a significant body of scholarship (Anderson, McLintock, Grewal, Kandiyote, Accad, Alexander) that thinks about how nations are imagined and produced through sexual tropes. This scholarship articulates the discourses of power which invoke (typically) women’s bodies, symbolically and literally, as the site of struggle and land dispossession. While this body of literature demonstrates how the nation is symbolically invested in the sexual, it does not help us think about how the sexual, or rather acceptable sexuality, comes to be invested in home to regulate the sexual. Scholars on queering diaspora redirect us to consider how sexuality has a fundamental relationship to home. Gayatri Gopinath, for instance, reminds us that the figure of the woman in nationalist fantasy, and even for those who critique that fantasy, is always assumed to be heterosexual. Gopinath is therefore interested in thinking about how non-heteronormative sexuality might interfere with how we think about the nation. The conditions of the queer diasporic subject provide a particularly interesting vantage point to consider how the “nation demands heterosexuality”[9] and negates sexual and gender variance. For Gopinath, nations are often imagined by queer diasporic subjects at a distance, from the site of the new home, and from the memory of loss of home “as a fantasized site of geographic rootedness, belonging, and gender and erotic play”.[10] Hence, the location of a perverse national subject whose memory of home is one which involves longing but also repudiation and expulsion from domestic spaces lends itself to queering the nation and, in my view, to thinking about how queer subjects are predisposed to the space of diaspora, because expulsion from home, and homeland, is fundamental to the emotional reality of queer subjectivity.


     David Eng echoes Gopinath but argues against a “diasporic viewpoint that subsumes the domestic,” by suggesting that the “the diasporic and the domestic were intertwined from the start”[11] and, furthermore, we must consider the “investigation of diaspora as a function of queerness”.[12] With specific reference to Asian American diasporic strategies, Eng points out that if nationalist projects were carved out by claiming home through the domestic and heterosexual, and in opposition to racist representations of (queer) feminized Asian masculinities, then Asian American racial and sexual formation is “shaped in the space between the domestic and diasporic”.[13] In this light, queerness is the repressed content of the fiction of nation and home. This is an interesting formulation because Eng is suggesting that queerness actually belongs to diasporic nations. And that queer diasporic subjects, commonly castigated for betraying the nation, are actually its precondition.


Both Gopinath and Eng refer to home as the site through which sexuality is played out. They place different emphases on how queer sexualities and home are intertwined: Gopinath from the site of individual memory, nostalgia, and loss of sexual play and its force on the present for re-thinking home, and Eng from the site of domesticity and how its repression or effacement of homosexuality becomes embedded in social and cultural paradigms of representation and then returns in new queer formations of diasporic identities. I would like to consider how the relationship between home and sexuality, specifically the fantasies of home and the regulation of the sexual into a normative ideal, might have deep origins in expulsion and loss. This allows us to bridge the gap between individual experience and cultural and social formations of home.


Freudian psychoanalytic thought has taught us that belonging at home, to one’s family home, necessitates the re-articulation of incest ties to acceptable sexual identities. “Home,” then, teaches us how to re-fabricate originary sexual attachments to affable kinship ties and thus provides the foundation for learning how to be social subjects, and since the birth of the modern nation, how to be national subjects. The implication on the modern subject is a melancholic relationship to the nation rooted in the melancholia of relationality and the foreclosure of the sexual. Hence, I am suggesting that the relationship of queer experience of diaspora has less to do with sexual identity and more to do with the lost memory of the renounced sexual and early libidinal attachments. Indeed, in What We All Long For, only one of Brand’s protagonists has a queer identity, the rest move through life negotiating their confused longings queerly. For these young diasporic subjects, the regulation of the sexual is undermined by the melancholic affect of severed family ties, ties that are complicated by the trauma of displacement. The queer affect for subjects such as these is the discarded content of home; when it returns in longing, it unravels the lost memories of home and, thus, has much to teach us about our relationship to home and the space of diaspora.




Cultures of expulsion, melancholy and the lost sexual

Judith Butler, David Eng, and Ann Anlin Cheng are among contemporary psychoanalytic scholars arguing that diasporic subjects must mourn the interiorization of loss. This is becoming more clearly worthy of consideration in a social context, where despite avenues to “correct” human rights abuses, we remain, as Cheng argues, in a state of racial grief.  Similarly dissatisfied, Alessia Ricciardi argues that postmodern culture puts us particularly at risk of not mourning loss because of its emphasis on the “public, intersubjective, and cultural aspects”[14] of modern life. In reaction to modernism’s conceptualization of the self which articulated the inherent value of mourning but did so by  representing the raced subject as the most primitive human to which the modern subject must return to re-negotiate a more integrated self, it has been difficult for contemporary thought to imagine mourning as something relevant to cultural and political recovery. The postmodern oeuvre, while allowing us to think through the self in its various and shifting cultural and social encounters, has favoured a “virtual loss,” in Ricciardi’s terms, over “a more vital relationship to temporality and memory”.[15] A psychoanalytic reading of melancholia, from Esther Sanchez-Pardo’s view, “aims to open up a dialogue between the psychic and the social”[16] to demonstrate how they are intimately entangled or confused. This means that we might want to consider how home, nation and place — the spheres of social reality — might be interwoven with memory and the psychic reality of the self. The challenge of articulating this relationship is to consider loss as an historical event in the formation of the self that haunts the subject.


To think about how we might historicize the melancholy of the self as an event that implicates the self in the social bond, I turn to Julia Kristeva very briefly. The self, in its very fibre, is melancholic because, as Kristeva (2000) points out, culture demands that the subject give up the sexual for a self that is invested in language and for participation in sociality. In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt, she draws on Freud’s Totem and Taboo, where he argues that brotherhood, on which the social bond rests, demands the exclusion of pleasure and desire. Kristeva makes a compelling argument that subjectivity is inaugurated through the loss of the incest tie, primarily with the mother. Language, she argues, is the achievement of that loss, which is the phallic symbolic order. While access to the symbolic order, guarantees us love and connection (i.e. family, community, nation and so on), what gets foreclosed is perverse sexualities. Hence, the cost of coming into selfhood by way of language means that we relinquish pleasure for a self that promises us love by means of a symbolically constructed social tie. But though abandoned, our lost sexual perversions, are not obliterated.  When the affect of this loss returns, often in a form of a surprise, or if you will, an unintelligible protest from within the self, and what Kristeva calls the self’s revolt, it has the effect of troubling our symbolic systems of meaning. For Kristeva, our systems of meaning are necessarily melancholic because they are underwritten by the renunciation of the sexual tie and thus are haunted by the loss of human pleasure. In other words, sociality, which is our propensity to form social groups, is the effect of loss, but because that is so, it is also haunted by loss.


If home, sociality, and language are the effects of loss and melancholy, then perhaps, as Sanchez-Pardo argues, “the ‘privileged’ victims of a new urban, industrialized, and capitalist world order: women, lesbians, gay men, blacks, Jews, ethnic minorities and in general those who suffered the consequences of deterritorialization and diaspora after the wars”[17] are more prone to melancholia. The space of melancholia is a privilege because in melancholia the self’s always already ambivalent relationship to the social returns in new editions of cultural expulsion. This has the effect of awakening us from the deep sleep of human injury brought about from the demands of the social tie of family, nation and community. Expulsion from sociality, particularly accented for queer diasporic subjects, positions us in the privileged psychic space of the self’s structural melancholia, producing subjects and cultures of loss generated from the psychic enterprise of having to re-construct ourselves from traumatic dispossession. Put differently, from the sites of our social injuries, the deeper violences of the self are recalled in troubling, sometimes in even devastating consequences, but also in potentially exciting ways, because, when we become “undone” by each other, to use Butler’s term, we are presented with an occasion for working through social injuries. Mourning is a creative process that is generated from loss; and loss, I am suggesting, is an emotional resource for cultural production. 


Thinking about the work of mourning and melancholia on history, Eng and Kazanjian suggest a “double take on loss”.[18] This conceptualization attempts to consider both melancholic responses that defend against loss by holding on to past attachments and fixities of meaning — a defensive refuge from getting undone — in tension with responses that demonstrate an active mourning of loss. Mourning and melancholia are overlapping states. No one embraces the violence of being undone gracefully. Indeed, mourning is the work of resisting melancholic attachments. For diasporic subjects that attachment might be to anachronistic ties and identity attachments to home that cannot be psychically abandoned even if that home has rejected you or even expelled you. The imperative of mourning, then, is not so much forgetting but letting go. Letting go is difficult because we do not give up what we love that easily, even when it is already gone, and has perhaps betrayed you, and even when your attachment seems to have turned to hate. Anyone, who has loved and has suffered a broken heart knows what this means. Indeed, ambivalence always underlies the melancholic subject’s desire for the lost object. For Sanchez-Pardo, the political work of the social is to integrate love and hate, to reach, in Melanie Klein’s (1935) terms, the depressive position. If the lost object is a lost home, then the paranoid schizophrenic state, which wants to fragment and split the world into good and evil, might suggest that we are either in a nostalgic relationship to a place or in repudiation of our attachment to it.


If melancholia is, in Sanchez-Pardo’s terms, “an illness of love”,[19] how might we awaken that love such that we have an encounter with loss. When we encounter loss, our stable meanings break down and provide an occasion for learning and making new insights from the troubled and contradictory connection to home.  Queering, as I have articulated it, is the emotional space of lost attachments. Therefore queering the space of home might be what wakes us up from the sleep of compelling origin stories and moves us towards the painful “creation place”[20] of the Door of No Return. Queer longing is melancholic because it is a site of expulsion from home and from sociality. Hence, when we desire queerly, we are recalling loss and the conflicts of love and belonging. In and of itself queer affect is not transformative. But from this site, all familiar maps are suspect because we are in the midst of our origins rendering all “nationalisms to their imaginative void”.[21]


The space of diaspora is not the space of home but the space of loss of home. It is the space of loss from which loss of home is recalled melancholically and from which our “illness of love” and the terror of belonging and not belonging are re-imagined. When repudiated desire, which is to say queer affect, enters the space of the nation, we return to the space of diaspora: to our ambivalence, to our fraught longing, to our aggression and negation of home, and to the Door of No Return. Literature, and the aesthetic phenomenon, embody this fragmentation, and in Sanchez-Pardo’s words, “[memorialize] the cultural and emotional losses of our pasts”.[22] In so doing, the aesthetic enacts “the ontology of the event”.[23] From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, that would mean that the emotional reality of the event of loss, the event’s discarded and troubling content, is re-invoked in aesthetic representation. Hence, the work of the cultures of expulsion is the work of awakening the affect of loss and the desire that underlies that loss. Indeed, if the cultures of expulsion, namely diasporic cultures, queer cultures, trans cultures, women, raced and generally disenfranchized cultures, are “privileged,” as Sanchez-Pardo argues, it is because they share the experience of expulsion and the conditions of that experience lends itself to cultural work that brings us closer to the ontology of human loss and love, subjectification and the phantasmatic formations of national memory.





The diasporic city: “an illness of love”

What We All Long For can aptly be read as a story about “an illness of love” where expulsions from the place of origin and from the place of arrival are sites of love and hate. This illness is articulated through the literary and by looking back to the loss of childhood and the inauguration of the self to the horrors of the social world. The affect of love and illness in Brand’s novel is expressed through the city: a real place from which diasporic people are surviving the traumas of lost homes and displacement, and also a metaphor for what it means to learn how to love again and how to re-make oneself through a new object of love. Understood as embodying the sediments of events, human relationality and invention, the city reflects the spirit of a place and all its corresponding human conflicts. Reading Paul Ricoeur, Graham Livesey writes that “architecture and spatiality can be understood as part of the world that prefigures narratives, as meaningful structures and as symbolic systems”.[24]  The architecture of a city elaborates our relationship to events before we are able to articulate our relationship to them in narrative. Hence, cities are made from human actions whose motives belie unconscious activity and forgotten memories. Taken as a metaphor that awaits interpretation, the city, Livesey points out, “reveals worlds that might be inhabited and contribute to our inhabitation of the material world”.[25]  As a “method” for interpreting the past, the heuristic city therefore gives us access to human disaster and human creation but also provides us the material legacies from which to inhabit and re-inhabit the city.


Brand’s novel can be read as a love story with the city of Toronto; and of course, much like all love stories, it is riddled with frustration and difficulty. As it chronicles the everyday lives of four young urban diasporic subjects — Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, and Oku — the city stands as the site from which the traumas of social expulsion and cultural displacement are being negotiated. But for each of these four young people, this negotiation has to reconcile with the affective forces of family traumas and an unfinished past returning to haunt the present. In taking us back to the time of the parents’ arrival to Toronto, Brand provides a lens into how the children inherit the legacy of loss. The stories of immigrant struggle and adjustment to a foreign city in the 1970s for the parents’ generation are varied but converge in the transgenerational haunting of another place, and in melancholy. But in their children, all 20-something and dissatisfied with the responses of their parents to displacement, “opposition to the state of things held them all together”[26] as did the city, where these young subjects re-imagine their status as raced subjects.


Set in 2002, the events of the novel take place a year after the last anti-globalization demonstrations in Quebec and occur only a few months after September 11th.  Left political culture is subdued, almost without affect. Tuyen and Oku, the two activists of the group, are stirred by World Cup nationalism because, as Tuyen’s narrator remarks, people in the city “are spinning on emotion”[27] and “they [Oku and Tuyen] were both always trying to find something tingling on the skin”.[28]  After the thrill of Quebec, young activists are bored and hungry for any kind of group elation. Might this represent the space of left politics? Has the political left become listless in the face of radical oppositional anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics gone awry? For if September 11th was an extreme act of opposition then perhaps our familiar critical discourses of opposition have been shaken and rendered untenable?  Judith Butler in Precarious Life (2004) comments that September 11th rendered criticism of the US impossible. That may be so, but might we also not be at an impasse because we have not found new ways to respond to political conflicts. So how might we think of the future of left politics? How will young diasporic subjects negotiate this space? And what might we learn from youth culture? Brand’s novel suggests that left political culture is suffering from a melancholic foreclosure of loss, and therefore a lack of engagement with the world; so perhaps returning to the space of the sexual might be what is required to mourn recent political events. The mourning I am speaking of is not individualistic. Though rooted in interiority and recalling the past, it has life in the social through art and the literary.


Wendy Brown has recently considered the significance of what Walter Benjamin calls “Left melancholia” which is the psychic dynamic that keeps us in an anachronistic place in our politics. This is so because politics has an emotional economy of a melancholic formulation that refuses to be in the present. She writes “The irony of melancholia, of course, is that attachment to the object of one’s sorrowful loss supersedes any desire to recover from this loss, to live free of it in the present, to be unburdened by it. This is what renders melancholia a persistent condition, a state, indeed, a structure of desire, rather than a transient response to death or loss”.[29]  While Brown rightly asks us to resist melancholy, it is only from the site of melancholy that we can mourn loss. For though melancholy, as she points out, is a refusal to recover from loss, this refusal, in Freud’s estimation is ambivalent. For what underlies the repudiation of the self in the melancholic is, paradoxically, as I have suggested earlier, the hatred of the lost object. One could in effect say that melancholia provides the emotional resources to mourn loss. The ambivalence of the melancholic state is the space of longing, which is the space of wanting to grieve the past. In longing, we embody our complex relationship to the past: its unknown or discarded content, which we long to be free of, and the ways we have constructed the past in intelligible collective memory, to which we are compelled to cling to so that we might be spared from the affect of loss. The affectless state of left culture staged in Brand’s What We All Long For might be the transitional space of mourning. If September 11th shattered our fantasies of politics but we haven’t quite embraced the death required to reinvigorate our positionalities, then this might be the time to reflect on our longings and its constituent ambivalence. 


Brand’s four young protagonists are indeed ambivalent subjects with precarious longings. Our first encounter with Brand’s four diasporic subjects is on Toronto’s packed tightly 8am subway train. Most people are quiet except three of these four friends who are just coming home from a night out. The city feels theirs. They talk and giggle and call attention to themselves. It is one of the first days of spring, beginning is in the air. We eventually become familiar with all their longings. Longing comes easy to them, but not desire. Subdued by the “taut silence around them”,[30] they abruptly end their conversation. We are reminded that in a city like Toronto, “it’s hard not to wake up here without the certainty of misapprehension”.[31]  Misapprehension is indeed in the air. New York is not so far away from Toronto. And a previously existing culture of suspicion has now soared to new heights. Young black and brown subjects feel this misapprehension on their skin. So they live in the city with varying degrees of comfort.


Carla loves the city and loves riding through the “muscle of highways”[32] but did so tentatively for “she saw the city as a set of obstacles to be crossed and circled, avoided and let pass”.[33] Carla wants more from the city. She wants the graffiti artists who live across from her apartment to paint “a flowering jungle or a seaside”.[34] Oku sees the city as his refuge from his Caribbean father’s “old school” tyranny. In Kensington Market, his daytime home and family, he has earned the title of in-house “poet.” Jackie, who spent her childhood alone while her parents went partying at the Paramount on Queen Street, finally ensconces herself back there when she opens her very own post-bourgeois vintage clothing store. At a distance from black popular culture, painfully reminiscent of her parents’ distractions and neglect of her, Jackie re-makes herself on her parents’ old ground. Tuyen, the only queer identified among the four, is not afraid of the city; indeed the city is a resource for her artistic imagination. She loves its “polyphonic, murmuring. This is what filled Tuyen with hope,”[35] what allowed her to “stave off her family—to turn what was misfortune to something else,”[36] but regardless of conscious intention, spectres of her parents returned in her art over and over again. Undaunted by what she might encounter, she does not “muscle” through the highways of the city, as Carla does. Instead, she traverses Toronto as though the city was made up of arteries. Pulsating with pain and longing, the city’s images and sounds wash over her and lead her to difficult inner spaces.


Brand’s young protagonists are neither in the space of radical opposition or rendered inert by the post September 11th culture of anxiety. They are in mourning: in the process of learning new ways to be raced subjects in a changing landscape. Indeed, living in multiple realities and learning to negotiate contradictions is not unfamiliar territory to most second-generation immigrants. There is the old world of their parents, where love of the originary home is an illness, invoked by nostalgic memory that is cordoned off from the realities of the hostile environment and their everyday strategies of survival. And then there is “the rough public terrain,”[37] the world in which they were abandoned and for which their parents were unable to prepare them and instead “regaled [them] with how life used to be ‘back home’”.[38] They are perhaps exemplary of a generation that can neither hide behind nationalist sentiments of identity (certainly September 11th devastated the residues of that fantasy) nor can they deny their marked difference. Their identities are instead built on creating spaces that allow them to inhabit the city and claim their differences in ways their parents could not. This space is invested in the erotic, but none of them have easy sexual ties. While all four refuse their family’s moral conservatism and the social conditions of exclusion that their families faced at their age, they are not settled in their identities and in actuality are riddled by a restless longing that renders them in emotional limbo. The queerly diasporic that propels this longing is perhaps what separates these four young subjects from their parents. In the parents, who are not looking to be stirred or to be awakened to loss, melancholy has become the structure of life. But in the borderless queer lives of their children, where the foreboding sexual is not foreclosed but held at bay in longing and in the process of grieving loss, Brand, I think, is gesturing towards hope for the future of politics.


Much of the emotional structure of the novel revolves around Tuyen, Brand’s central protagonist, whose losses and longings are most directly articulated in the novel. Of the four, she is most rebellious: in her ambiguous gender, her anti-establishment politics and her brazen queer sexuality. Living as an artist in a threadbare apartment on College Street, the very street her family settled on upon arrival to Toronto, Tuyen affectively returns, not to the dream of home, but to the site of originary loss where the discarded contents are left behind.


Tuyen’s family history in some ways sets the stage of Brand’s novel and my concern of how to live with melancholic attachments after a traumatic severing of another life. This loss is dramatically symbolized in the opening scene of the novel set in the chaotic refugee camps in Thailand in the 1970’s. The family has fled Vietnam from political conflict and is on route to the new world. As crowds of people are rushing to get on the boats, the hand of youngest born slips away from his mother’s grip and he disappears into the night. Unable to find the child they named Quy, which means precious, they board the ship without him. Quy does not make it much beyond Thailand, at least not until he is found many years later by his brother. Left to survive treacherous terrains, he grows up to be a dangerous and callous man. Quy is the reviled object; the materialization of what was once beautiful turned ugly, frightening and no longer bearable. If their beloved Quy symbolizes home, then the story of his loss might suggest what it means to be in relationship to the thing from which we have loved but from which we are cut off. The family abandons a place they loved because it was no longer livable. Quy’s life signifies the painful ruins of that place. Haunted by the memory of what they lost, the family does not find freedom in Toronto. No amount of money, hard work, senseless consumption, or “good” immigrant status obliterates the violence of the past. Tuyen’s parents had one longing — to have Quy home — which kept her father up drawing buildings every night and her mother pacing in their separate bedrooms. Unable to live with the loss of cutting off a child from his family for the chance of a life in the “civilized” world, all other longings were abandoned and thrown into the sea. 


Freud’s description of melancholia as the “cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love [and] inhibition of all activity” aptly describes the state of Tuyen’s parents. Cam and Tuan survived the loss of their child but they did not survive it well. In Tuyen, the legacy of her family’s trauma is not lost on her but revisits her in melancholic cultural production. Indeed, melancholy is unequivocally a resource for her creativity. In one of Tuyen’s installations entitled Traveler, she recalls the family trauma in an artistic re-creation of her mother’s obsession of holding on to everything and laminating it. This strange practice returns in Tuyen’s art when she actually embodies her mother’s traumatic compulsion by covering herself in bubble wrap, with stickers from many countries pasted on it, and then has her body passed around in silence for ten minutes. What's more, she learns how to draw from watching her father, who in his sleepless state spends his long nights sketching out “all the buildings in the city as if he had built them”.[39] Once a successful engineer, now diminished by living in a foreign city over which he had no authorial design, his fantasmatic relationship to the city is later queerly materialized in his daughter who professes she hates familiarity and makes her art from strange and unknown materials she collects from the city: photos, lost possessions, longings.


Her re-creation of the city is most pertinently described in an installation she names her lubiao, a great structure made from collecting the discarded remains that lie dead on the beach: “tree stumps, twigs and rope, debris,”[40] lumber she bought, and railway ties. The lubiao conjures the image of death, an “exquisite corpse,” but also travel, movement and the sea: another re-construction of her family’s loss that is re-written with the hope of mourning the past. The lubiao is a figure of making life and connection from loss. It is a signpost where people in the city come to visit so that they can deliver messages to each other, much like the signposts that still stand in her neighbourhood in Chinatown, which a long time ago were used for pinning messages against the government. The lubiao then stands as a symbol of renewal in the city for diasporic communities. Indeed, later in the story when Tuyen was thinking about her lubiao, it occurred to her to ask people what they long for. In her final reference to the lubiao, Tuyen remarks how she sees it as a relic of sorts because in each longing that hung on it she saw an articulated story about “bodies hurt or torn apart or bludgeoned”.[41] In that moment, Tuyen might have come to see that there is no line that separates death from Eros. In other words, the objects we most long for might be the ones which recall our deepest and most painful losses.


Such longing seems to be true for all of Brand’s subjects. For even though the unutterable affect of loss is arbitrated in sublimation and in creative cultural production, it also returns in frustrated loves: a holding back which recalls early experiences of attachment, betrayal, revulsion, and the severing of originary family ties. But it is in Carla and Tuyen’s relationship that Brand expresses the horrific effects of what happens when melancholia thrives and when grief and mourning do not enter the space of re-imagining the future. In this way, Brand’s novel stages the significance of awakening the sexual, which always recalls unspeakable loss, for political renewal. In Tuyen and Carla’s connection, we see how the severed relationships of the past compromise the capacity to love well in the present, sometimes with devastating outcomes.


Carla lives next door to Tuyen. Sometimes they lie in bed at night, hugging and massaging one another. Sometimes, they drift off in this state and wake up together. Tuyen loves Carla’s body. Carla often flirts with Tuyen, but dismisses her affection as friendship. Both Tuyen and Carla lose their parents: Carla to death, Tuyen to chronic melancholy. Tuyen condemns her family’s melancholic responses to Quy, the abandoned son in Thailand. Much of her identity, it would seem, is constructed from refusing to become and therefore replace the lost adored child who can do no wrong. Tuyen instead cultivates her badness and her opposition to her family in very colourful ways. But her devotion to Carla belies the defenses she fosters to survive her family. Spectres of her unavailable parents, who live by the laws of family duty, much detested by her, return in Carla. Carla is bound up by her family drama and an unbreakable tie to her brother Jamal, who was left in her arms as their mother jumped off the balcony of her St Jamestown public housing apartment. This tie rendered her, Carla claims, with “no desire”.[42] So with Carla, Tuyen lives in a state of constant melancholic longing and is always afraid of being “cut” out “completely”.[43] Unable to make a love attachment to anyone else, Tuyen is listless. Carla is a compelling object of desire for Tuyen because with Carla she gets to re-live, and potentially work through, her mother’s devastating devotion to the lost son. Hence, her attachment to Carla belies her confidence in erasing in her life the legacy of the lost innocent child, metonymically the lost nation, which claimed her parent’s economy of love. Tuyen is the figure of the second-generation raced subject who is discarded by her parent’s illness of love. She is the “ruins” of diaspora, the irreverent raced subject that nationalists love to hate and yet must make a life in a place where the only maps that are offered are the ones that tell you how to be a good immigrant.


Though Tuyen never moves out of the space of melancholic longing where Carla is concerned, her art gestures towards the hope of renewal because here she negotiates her ruins in mourning. In her art, the queer unspeakable affect of loss, which is her vulnerability to love, finds expression. But unable to embrace this vulnerability, relationally or politically, her actions occupy a Manichean splitting oscillating between melancholic devotion and reactionary opposition, which is to say between love and hate. Urging us to think about how the traumas of relationality occupy a significant place in contemporary political culture, especially after the ruins of September 11th, Butler warns in Precarious Lives of the necessity of grieving traumatic political events, so that we are not precariously defending ourselves from human vulnerability. To achieve this is to reach, in Kleinian terminology, the depressive position, where love and hate are integrated.


In What We All Long For, art and cultural production stands as a site for grief and mourning the failures of a politic of opposition when nostalgic melancholic attachment to place has already been rendered untenable. Not entirely resigned to the reality that grief and mourning might be the only path to take for finding new political meaning, Tuyen is restless for something that would make her skin tingle. The novel ironically ends with an act that is commonly performed by young men for its tingling effect: stealing cars. The thief is Carla’s reckless brother Jamal, and the owner of the stolen Beamer is Tuyen’s shady rich brother Binh. To make sense of the significance of this moment in the novel is to appreciate Carla’s melancholic relationship to the sexual. For Carla, erotic passion recalls horror because it leads to her mother’s suicide: the most devastating expulsion. It is a cutting off from which there is absolutely no recovery, only mourning. But Carla is far from mourning loss because she never gets close enough to risk getting cut off again; in the narrator’s words: “She kept from loving because she loved Angie,”[44] who is her mother. Carla is the most melancholic of the four friends. Loss consumes her. She could only imagine her freedom as escape from the burden of caring for the child that was literally left in her arms by Angie. When Carla finds her freedom with the “solution” of handing Jamal over to her father, she sighs with relief, has a glass of wine and waits for Tuyen to come home. Longing to hear Tuyen “chipping and chiseling away next door,”[45] Carla sits back and waits for her life to begin, but as she is having this moment, another trauma is ensuing.


As Quy was waiting in his brother’s Beamer to see his parents for the first time since he was lost in Thailand, Jamal and his friends viciously attack him. The wreckage, which we can only imagine will be devastating for all, is reminiscent of the cycle of revenge that has ensued since September For Jamal is the lost and angry diasporic subject that “terrorizes” the world because his life encounters have not provided the conditions for imagining hope, only hate. He is the subject of colonial violence that has gone awry with violent opposition. And he is the diasporic figure who we must mourn, not save or disregard. In contemporary political culture, he might be the discarded content of colonial history that has returned to haunt us from the sleep of our anachronistic political positionalities.


To awaken us from this sleep, I have suggested that we consider the place of Eros, which is the fundamental site of loss in the self. As our deepest loss, it is the resource for thinking about how we might mourn and renew our political attachments. Since the sexual is what we repudiate and defend ourselves from to be social beings, the discarded sexual stands as the thing that we might want to return to when the social meanings we have created are no longer working. Carla may have worked very hard to resist the sexual because of its menacing potential. But even with her, queer affect is not entirely foreclosed. Tuyen, after all, lives next door. And here lies Carla’s tragedy and the tragedy of the diasporic subject whose life is structured by melancholy. Cut off and defended from the affect of her loss, she remains separated from herself, not really living and waiting for Jamal to change. But as Butler reminds us, mourning is not an outward solution; it has to do with the self “agreeing to undergo a transformation”.[46]  Mourning therefore turns us inward. It is the place of being ready to allow ourselves to be changed by loss. The hope of changing the world might only be possible when we come to terms with the “difficult knowledge”[47] that we have to change ourselves first. The implication of this means that we make a political practice of paying attention to our queer longings, that we reflect on the vulnerabilities which are awakened by such longing, and that we consider how the emotional and psychic geography of the human might re-invigorate our political imagination.



Dina Georgis is an Assistant Professor in the department of Women’s Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.





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[1] Dionne Brand. A Map to the Door of No Return. (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001),5

[2] Ibid., 12

[3] Ibid., 6

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 213

[6] Ibid., 21

[7] Sigmund Freud. Mourning and Melancholia, vol. 14. (1917(1915). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans., James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. (London: Hogarth, 1973-74), 253

[8] In this essay, I will make an argument for how home - the domestic space that psychically produces the self - and homeland (nation: material or imaginary) collapse into each other, particularly as they are imagined from a queer and diasporic location.  Indeed, I will be suggesting that the experiential, psychic and historic geographies of diasporic subjects, read in relation to one another and through loss, produce a conception of home that is much more nuanced and that blur modern constructions of spatial boundaries. As I note later in the essay, the city/Toronto comes to be a site through which these diasporic narratives literally materialize these nuances geographically. 


[9] Gayatri Gopinath, “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora.” In Uprootings/Regroundings:questions of home and migration. Ed. By Sara Ahmed et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 139

[10] Ibid., 144

[11] David Eng, Out Here and Over There: Queerness and Diaspora in Asian American Studies.” Social Text, 15, no. 3-4 (1997), 38

[12] Ibid., 39

[13] Ibid., 32

[14] Alessia Ricciardi, The Ends of Mourning: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Film. (Standford: Standford University Press, 2003), 3

[15] Ibid., 7

[16] Ibid., 5

[17] Esther Sanchez-Pardo, Cultures of the Death Drive: Melanie Klein and Modernist Melancholia. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003),194

[18] David Eng and D. Kazanjian, “Introduction: Mourning Remains.” In Loss: The Politics of Mourning ed. D. Eng and D. Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 2

[19] Esther Sanchez-Pardo, 5

[20] Brand, 6

[21] Ibid., 49

[22] Sanchez-Pardo, 388

[23] Ibid.

[24] Graham Livensey, Passages: Explorations of the Contemporary City. (Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2004), 35

[25] Ibid., 36

[26] Dionne Brand, What We All Long For (Toronto: A.A. Knopf, Canada, 2005), 19

[27] Ibid., 204

[28] Ibid., 204-205

[29] Wendy Brown, “Resisting left melancholia.” In Loss: The Politics of Mourning ed. David Eng and D. Kazanjian, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 459

[30] Brand, 2005.,3

[31] Ibid.,5

[32] Ibid., 32

[33] Ibid., 32

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 149

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 19

[38] Ibid., 20

[39] Ibid., 113

[40] Ibid., 14

[41] Ibid., 158

[42] Ibid., 51

[43] Ibid., 50

[44] Ibid., 111

[45] Ibid.,319

[46] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence.

(London: Verso, 2004.), 21

[47] Deborah Britzman, “If the story cannot end: Deferred action, ambivalence, and difficult knowledge.” In Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Representation of Historical Trauma by Roger Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, & Claudia Eppert, 27-57. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.)