When discussing newcomer literature in Canada – not to mention Canadian Black writers, Canadian woman authors, and queer Canadian authors – Dionne Brand is certainly one of the first names to come to mind. With her mastery of poetic prose, Brand eloquently captures her experiences of migration to Canada as well as her experience of living in the Black diaspora in such a way that the affect of her experience of transitory belonging is made perfectly clear to her reader. A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), loosely defined as Brand’s memoir both begins and ends with a depiction of her grandfather and his inability to name the African peoples where his family’s heritage could be traced. As Dionne writes, though, “[h]is forgetting was understandable; after all, when he was born the Door of No Return was hardly closed, forgetting was urgent” (223). Her grandfather’s inability to remember is thus viewed by Brand as a form of self-preservation: should he remember the nation the trauma of the slave trade, here represented by the Door of No Return, could overwhelm not only Brand’s grandfather but her entire family, its legacy hanging over all of them. This inability to remember, though, complicates the – already complicated – idea of nationalism for Brand: “National identity is a dance of artificiality” (72). Her position in the diaspora makes the artifice of the nation all too clear for Brand.
The public conceptions of race and ethnicity in the West, however, are made immediately apparent for Brand when she bears witness to court proceedings for teenagers of colour in the courthouse on Jarvis Street in Toronto. “The defendants,” Brand writes, “are Chinese, Hispanic, Portuguese, Italian, African/Caribbean, Vietnamese, Russian. But not really. None of them know these origins except through their parents or grandparents. They were all born in this city” (105). Brand is thus commenting on the ways in which white Canadians refuse to look past the racial and/or ethnic identities of their fellow Canadians, thereby relegating any member of a racialized or ethnicized group to a dual identification as “___-Canadian,” conveniently forgetting the fact that white Canadians hold no claim over the nation which we stole from the Indigenous peoples.
It is not only in Canada, however, that Brand is made aware of the pervasiveness of her markers of difference. She writes that a clerical error on her birth certificate indicates that her first name is Deanne rather than Dionne, a simple mistake due to a small spelling error. While this fact does not impact Brand in her first twelve years, she eventually encounters Miss Sirju who vehemently refuses to call Brand anything other than her official name. According to Brand, however, this girl, Deanne, was “a girl without a story” (113) and she was unable to recognize herself in the name. Because of this lack of identification, Brand did not respond to questions addressed to Deanne and, eventually, “the other girls” in the class “looked at [Brand] as if the word Deanne were an accusation” (113). That Miss Sirju was Brand’s English teacher is too perfect, existing as a thinly veiled metonym through which Brand’s reader is meant to understand the English fixation on anglicizing names that are deemed to be “too foreign.”
In an almost too perfect coincidence, the copy of Brand’s prose poem “No Language is Neutral” that I had taken out from my library was largely marked up with previous readers’ annotations, some of which were attempting to “correct” the grammar in Brand’s poem, ostensibly to make the poem easier to decipher for this previous reader. The irony, however, is palpable; in a poem largely devoted to the power that language holds over our lives, and especially the lives of newcomers to a nation, Brand’s language has been modified by a, likely, Western reader in order to conform to “proper” Englisah grammar. Instead of appreciating Brand’s use of the multifaceted nature of the English language, this previous reader has demonstrated a discomfort with the plasticity of language, relying instead on grammatical rigidity.