Recognized with an honorary doctor of letters during York University’s Fall Convocation, poet and writer Dionne Brand offered graduands a reminder that it’s OK to dream of utopia, and to chase after that dream.
Brand delivered the convocation address on Oct. 17, during the fourth ceremony held for graduands of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
She is a renowned poet, novelist and essayist. She is a major and singular voice in Canadian writing whose work is notable for the beauty of its language and for its intense engagement with issues of social justice. Brand is a writer engagé, whose work is insistently political, formally beautiful and precise.
“As you can tell from by biography, I am a writer and a poet, so therefore I won’t do here what may be expected of me, because writers and poets never do, which is to tell you what you must go out and do in the world after graduating,” she opened her speech with.
Instead, she pointed to the world that students have been living in the midst of – a world among family, neighbours, friends, and a world that is immersed in the news, music, pop culture, conversations and conflicts.
“You have been living in the world and surviving, and you know what the world is and that there is no world outside waiting for you,” she said. “You are living in it and have plans in it; plans that may be curtailed because of racism, because of sexism, because of Islamophobia, homophobia and ableism, and how these determine class and condition – you know all this.”
Brand congratulated graduands for making their way through with courage and ingenuity, and said she would not tell them to how to achieve wealth, well-being or success in their futures. She is unwilling, she said, to use herself as an example of accomplishment.
She turned to reflect on issues affecting the world, and the future, and recognized that students leaving university have been living among those issues and, further, have the opportunity to imagine their own future.
She highlighted the net worth growth by top one per cent earners in the country, and contrasted the net worth decrease of the bottom 50 per cent earners; she cited fossil fuel companies that are linked to more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions; she noted that 60 per cent of birds, fish and reptiles have been “wiped out,” and that Sarnia refines 30 to 40 per cent of Canadian oil despite being in the middle of a First Nations community.
“I am a writer and a poet and I listen to people who manufacture this state of the world when they tell us that we cannot do what comes from this type of extractive social logic, this type of exploitation of the planet,” she said. “They tell us, if we stop this, where will we find jobs; they tell us, it’s alright for pie-in-the-sky bleeding heart people like you to go on about the environment, but how are we going to put food on the table? They say economic growth is the only logic – or they say there’s no racism, or we’ll fix all that, that there’s time.
“I can only invite you to imagine differently, and act differently. I can only invite you to imagine yourself outside of these structures, which I don’t think will be very difficult for all of you to do.”
The world and those within, she said, are being governed by those who side with the people who burn the forests, make species extinct, organize outsiders and insiders at borders, contaminate drinking water and land, and claim it is for the population’s well-being.
“You are aware of these contradictions,” she said.
“When they say to a poet like me, ‘What is it that you want, utopia?’ I answer, ‘Yes, yes, utopia is what I want, for why is it that we cannot envision, expect and exceed the simplest level of human regard that I call utopia?’ It is thinkable. It is attainable.”
She urged those graduating to sit in their own thoughts, their own contradictions, and imagine where they would be tomorrow, or next year, or 10 years from now.
“I’m a poet and a writer, and that is the indivisibility, utopia, I’d like to gesture you toward,” she said.