New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

 

What We All Long For

Dionne Brand

Toronto, Random House, 2005.

336 Pages ISBN: 067697693X

 

 

Reviewed by: David Chariandy, Simon Fraser University

 

    

Over a decade ago, Dionne Brand published an essay entitled “Brownman, Tiger…” in which she offered a haunting portrayal of second-generation Black youths living in Toronto:

 

They’re not immigrants so they’re not grateful for the marginal existence they’re afforded….  They think their mothers dupes for slugging it out in hospitals and nursing homes.  They see a weakness in that and in the promise of making it.  They’ve been roughed up, ground down and sidelined in this city’s classrooms.  Nobody knows what they really think and they’re not saying except in the jammed-tight basement parties or dance hall parties….  They’re not on the street like my generation before them; their view is inward, nursing wrath.[1]

 

Brownman, Tiger…” remains today the most riveting and suggestive essay of its kind.  However, it has been joined, in only recent months, by a flurry of newspaper articles, magazine essays, and talk show debates each drawing attention to second-generation visible minorities writ large.  By and large, this mainstream attention appears to be motivated not by some direct or vested concern for the lives of second-generation visible minorities, but, rather, by a series of high-profile events, occurring on both local and global scales, that have helped renew and reformulate the historic anxieties about Canada’s multicultural citizenry in our current 9/11 contexts. 

 

Locally, incidents of youth crime in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto have stirred up the old fears of young men of colour.  But globally too, events such as the demonstrations of second-generation Africans and Arabs on the outskirts of Paris, the demonstrations of second-generation Lebanese outside of Sydney, and even the contrastingly inexcusable transit bombings in London (committed, it was quickly noted, by second-generation British citizens), have together motivated many mainstream critics to attend to the seemingly sudden and alarming presence of second generation visible minorities in Western democracies.  Certain Canadian critics have responded by newly musing on the limits or crises of ‘our multicultural tolerance,’ or else speculating that ‘home-grown terror’ could be brewing at this very moment in the darkened ethnic neighborhoods of Surrey, Scarborough, North York, or Longueil.  Other Canadian critics have adopted more optimistic tones, reassuring citizens that Canada, unlike Australia and France, is a “multicultural paradise on earth,” and that here, second-generation visible minorities have been safely integrated into bourgeois culture.  Conspicuously missing from either ‘side’ of these debates are any sustained efforts to appreciate the oftentimes uniquely fraught social and inner lives of second generation visible minorities, especially when feelings of sorrow, frustration, and, indeed, “wrath” result not only in headline-grabbing social unrest, or woeful acts of violence, but in everyday forms of creative self-expression and dissent.

 

     Thankfully, Dionne Brand has renewed her intelligent and sympathetic exploration of second-generation visible minorities in her third and latest novel entitled What We All Long For.  Each of the young adults in the novel (Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, and Oku) have been “born in the city from people born elsewhere,”[2] and they are all visible minorities — with the very interesting exception of Carla, who is of African descent, though not always recognized as such.  Linking together this interracial circle of friends is what the narrator describes as their “unspoken collaboration on distancing themselves as far as possible from the unreasonableness, the ignorance, the secrets, and the madness of their parents:”[3]

 

They’d never been able to join in what their parents called ‘regular Canadian life.’  The crucial piece, of course, was that they weren’t the required race.  Not that that guaranteed safe passage, and not that one couldn’t twist oneself up into the requisite shape; act the brown-noser, act the fool; go on as if you didn’t feel or sense the rejections, as if you couldn’t feel the animus.  They simply failed to see this as a possible way of being in the world.[4]

 

This is a detail worth noting.  Some mainstream debates appear to assume that the second generation stands in danger of passively inheriting their parent’s ‘ethnic’ practices and beliefs, and are all too willing to self-segregate themselves within urban and suburban ‘ghettos’ without properly integrating into the dominant society.  But What We All Long For foregrounds quite different pressures and circumstances.  The parents in the novel offer in the very same breath, and without any sense of contradiction, endorsements both of a sanitized ethnic heritage and an uncritical consumerist lifestyle.  Here, ethnicity is not an obstacle to proper integration; indeed, their parent’s specific articulation of ethnicity seems to lend itself naturally, if not inevitably, to mainstream neo-liberal ideologies.  In contrast, the alienation of the youths in the novel has little to do with the ‘foreign’ traditions and manners that they have either rejected or adapted towards their own ends, but with the plain and apparently non-negotiable fact of being instantly read, in their country of birth, as racial minority ‘others.’

 

     Another detail well worth noting is the setting of Brand’s novel — as if one could ever do otherwise.  What We All Long For is set in 2002, only months after 9/11, and during the year in which many Western nations (including Canada) plunged into a new epoch of race and ethnicity based surveillance and distrust.  Nevertheless, Brand chooses — undoubtedly very strategically — to set her novel in the lively heart of a Toronto in the midst of a revitalizing spring.  “[T]he city’s heterogeneity” and its “polyphonic murmuring”[5] are evoked in terms that are gorgeously rapturous and perhaps unprecedented in contemporary literature; and one of the most memorable scenes is when the narrator exuberantly (but also cannily) describes the downtown World Cup ‘soccer’ celebrations, as ethnic neighborhoods find themselves “spinning on emotion”[6] and joyfully proclaiming the most complex and perhaps even contradictory transnational attachments. Readers will likely feel profoundly exhilarated by these scenes.  However, readers will also note that neither the narrator nor the youthful characters of the novel are naively smitten by the city.  All are aware of the abounding cruelty, bigotry, and cynical commercialization. The youths in Brand’s essay “Brownman, Tiger” would appear to be silenced and literally driven underground by such negative forces: (“[n]obody knows what they think and they’re not saying except in the jammed-tight basement parties…”).[7]  However, the youths in What We All Long For have discovered for themselves altogether different attitudes and degrees of agency.  They strive, if not always successfully, to articulate their inner lives to each another; but they also, in each their own way, remain joyfully ‘open’ to the voices and moods of the city as a whole.  The latter is most explicitly the case for Tuyen, a struggling artist of Vietnamese background whose hope is to capture the multifarious longings of the city and to “make them public.”[8] Indeed, What We All Long For itself functions as a splendid example of what Tuyen so desperately yearns to achieve.

 

     The novel is thus about racialized youths and a heterogeneous civitas coming to voice; but it is also, as strikingly, about feelings that remain unspoken and yet work in powerful ways.  The youths in the novel are united by their conscious rejection of their parent’s elsewhere past — those “other houses, other landscapes, other skies, other trees.”[9]  Nevertheless, the youths do continue to be haunted by this past, and most acutely by those events which are judiciously left out in their parent’s romanticized accounts, and of which the youths “can only draw half conclusions, make half inferences, for fear of the real things that lay there.”[10] This diasporic haunting is perhaps most markedly the case for Tuyen, whose parents now count themselves among the “newly rich”[11] and whose brother (also second generation) is a successful unscrupulous businessperson.  However, Tuyen’s parents were in fact refugees from Vietnam who were forced to abandon their son Quy during their flight to Canada.  While Tuyen’s parents have never forgotten this incident, nor stopped trying to look for their son, they have also never found the words to explain this incident to Tuyen.  Tuyen finds out about her lost brother through various clues, including a photograph and a letter, but also — and perhaps most forcefully —through lingering or uncanny emotions such as the “strange outbursts and crying” of her parents.[12] As the narrator explains, “[s]he not so much overheard as sensed [her brother’s fate], since her own understanding of Vietnamese was deliberately minimal”.[13]  We, as readers, eventually find out about Quy’s fate, and of his grueling journey through a series of brutal settings to the only apparent safety of his parent’s upper-middle-class suburb; and we do so through Quy’s first-person account, which is effectively dispersed throughout the main narrative.  However, it seems at least as significant that Tuyen and her companions encounter their ancestor’s legacies of displacement and disenfranchisement not through official histories or even family tales, but through a doubly unwilled circulation of feeling.  In contemporary theoretical parlance, we might suggest that, here at least, the second generation awakens to its diasporic legacy not through willed symbolic exchange, but also through an unconscious transmission of affect.

 

     Brand’s novel compels us to think in yet another way about the transmission of affect both among, and in relation to, diasporic subjects.  And here it might again be useful to return to Brand’s essay “Brownman, Tiger,” and specifically to its unnervingly prescient conclusion.  Citing the racial tensions surrounding the Rodney King trails in the United States, Brand speaks in her essay of those “times [when] Black people feel most unsafe, most vulnerable… when we are almost one person… when some incident happening to just one of us somewhere — doesn’t matter where — sends a warning to the rest of us to watch out…”.[14] Brand then concludes her essay with this statement:

 

When the unrecognizable pictures of four young men came on the television screens and the front pages of the local and national newspapers, we flinched.  In fact, we flinched even before that, listening for the descriptions, knowing that any crime allegedly done by a Black person in this good city is opportunity for white attacks…  But we also flinched because we are waiting, too, for the water to break, for the gush of rage to envelop us in retaliation or self-hatred.[15]

 

Brand here addresses a very specific event in Toronto’s race relations when the shooting of a white woman in a café by four black youths was caught on video camera, and the hazy images of the fugitives broadcasted and disseminated throughout the newly enervated city.  That was over a decade ago; but the recent London transit bombings precipitated unnervingly similar representations and attitudes, though this time on a global scale.  The London bombings were likewise committed by four young men; and it was a crime likewise and suitably decried by all of the broader religious and ethnic groups to which the young men belonged.  But the London bombings also produced its own ‘hazy’ representations of young men of colour, in general, as society’s worst enemy.  And the bombings, quite clearly, have introduced a new generational demographic towards which to direct that old question: are we truly safe within a multicultural space?

 

As such, can it simply be a coincidence that What We All Long For (though quite possibly completed before the London bombing) introduces its main characters in the congested public space of a subway car?  One morning, as the city is waking to a bright spring day, three “children of people born elsewhere”[16] enter a subway train full of early morning commuters.  The youths are immediately sized-up as the sort who party well into the early hours of the morning, and their very presence itself becomes an affront to more responsible people on the train.  Nevertheless, something about these youths triggers a shift in the very atmosphere of the train, even though very little verbal exchange takes place.  The easy charm and irreverence of the youths turn out to be strangely infective; and in a most astonishing display of narrative prowess, Brand represents the drift and interpenetration of people’s minds and bodies in fully unanticipated ways.  “Anonymity is the big lie of the city,”[17] the narrator tells us.  “People turn into other people imperceptibly, unconsciously, right here in the grumbling train,”[18] she adds, after offering this striking clarification:

 

What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance.  People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them.  They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not.  Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.[19]

 

In our post 9/11 affective economy of terror and distrust, we desperately require more ‘lost safety’ of this kind — more critical visions of radical human inter-subjectivity and compassion.  What We All Long For offers precisely what so many of us have longed to see both uncompromisingly and beautifully represented: a youthful lifetime of feeling different, and a future for feeling differently.

 

 

 

David Chariandy is an Assistant Professor in the department of English at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Brand, Dionne. What We All Long For. Toronto: Random House,

2005.

 

Brand, Dionne. Bread Out of Stone. Toronto: Coach House

Press, 1994.

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Dionne Brand. Bread Out of Stone. (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994),101-102.

[2] Dionne Brand. What We All Long For. (Toronto: Random House, 2005), 20.

[3] Ibid.,19

[4] Ibid.,47

[5] Ibid., 143, 149

[6] Ibid., 204

[7] Bread Out of Stone. 101-102

[8] What We All Long For. 151

[9] Ibid., 20

[10] Ibid., 21

[11] Ibid., 54

[12] Ibid., 226

[13] Ibid., 65

[14] Bread out of Stone., 120

[15] Ibid., 121

[16] What We All Long For. 3

[17] Ibid., 3

[18] Ibid., 4

[19] Ibid., 4