What York longed for: A reading by Dionne Brand

On Jan. 26, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented writer Dionne Brand. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Have you ever smelled this city at the beginning of spring? Dead winter circling still, it smells of eagerness and embarrassment and, most of all, longing…

– from What We All Long For
by Dionne Brand

As students and faculty made their trek to York on the evening of Jan. 26 by subway and bus, it’s quite possible that a curious onlooker might have wondered how their lives and imaginations might cross over, how the city itself may influence their fears and desires. When she was writing What We All Long For (Knof, 2005), Canadian author Dionne Brand (right) was such an onlooker. The lives of students and that of Brand intersected at York University when the celebrated author visited to read from her work as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series. This was also the first audience to get an advance reading of her newest volume of poetry, Inventory (April 2006).

In What We All Long For, Brand explores the lives of a five young people set against the backdrop of a living city. Toronto becomes more than just the setting, it becomes another character that breathes and grows as they do. Like her young protagonists, it is a city that is perpetually in a state of becoming.

Brand didn’t always know what her book would become though her aim was to capture the multi-voiced complexity of an increasingly multi-cultural city. Some of the characters she constructed from many different angles but one in particular demanded a more intuitive approach. Quy is the lost son who was accidentally left behind in Vietnam when his parents immigrated to Canada. His adult arrival in Toronto, like the ghostly return of a shadowy past, is an explosive collision with all of their lives. Unlike the other characters, Brand chose to have him speak in the first person, to write himself into being. The result is a character that is more richly layered than the “refugee” that would have been perceived and constructed by the Canadian narrative.

Brand believes it’s her “job as a writer in this city to think about multiculturalism in deeper ways…to make issues and lives more complex, at least to each other”. The other young characters are first generation Torontonians, negotiating between the past of their parents and their contemporary environment. Tuyen is a young artist who is simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by her family history. Her parents are petrified by the moment just before they left Vietnam, partly for grief for their lost child and perhaps because the present does not live up to their immigrant dream. “Part of the immigrant dream is crafted by the way the city constructs the body.” One discovers that you need “to choreograph your own way against images of you in the media.”

Even in respected Canadian newspapers, there are only certain ways for people to appear in those texts. Dionne Brand would rather examine these lives in all their overlapping layers of despair and delight, their struggle against how they are “drawn by the city”. Asked if any of these stories are true or autobiographical, she replied: “Nothing in this book is a lie. It all depends on how you tell the truth.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Thursday, March 2, Ramabai Espinet will read from her novel The Swinging Bridge. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.