Chapter 14
Me and the City That’s Never Happened Before”:
Dionne Brand in Toronto

by D.M.R. Bentley


Canadian society has become overwhelmingly urban, in parallel with the United States, Australia, and the European countries. Immigrants now head automatically into the urban labour force…. The political debate of the day is about the problems of a society that chooses to live within compact urban areas not conspicuously different from those of small countries.

– F. Kenneth Hare, “Canada: the Land” (1988), 46, 50

Roland Barthes … describes cities as the “place of our meeting with the other.” In similar vein, Richard Sennet suggests that urban dwellers are always “people in the presence of otherness.” From the beginnings of the modern industrial city, commentators have been enthralled by this diversity: some rejoicing at the energy it injected into everyday life in cities; others blaming it for loss of communitywhat they saw to be the modern condition of alienation.

– Jane M. Jacobs and Ruth Fincher, “Introduction,”
Cities of Difference (1998),1

I’ll tell you what I’ve seen here at Yonge and Bloor,
At this crossroad….

– Dionne Brand, Thirsty (2002), 42

In Searching for Safe Spaces, her 1997 study of “Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile,” Myriam J.A. Chancy writes that “[c]ommunal diversity and tolerance are touted as Canada’s trump cards, differentiating it from the United States and other leading First World countries as a place where true democracy … has taken root and flourished” (80). But, she adds, “[h]istory of the unofficial variety … reveals a much different picture,” one in which the descendants of the African-Americans who constituted ten percent of the Loyalists lived in “quasi-segregated communities” such as Africville, in which a female slave, Marie-Josèphe Angélique, burned “part of the city of Montreal … when she learned of her impending sale,” and in which a woman of African descent, Mary Ann Shadd, was Canada’s “first newspaperwoman” (she was an editor of the Provincial Freeman [Toronto] from 1853 to 1859) (80-81). It is also a picture in which the houses of African-Canadians are all but invisible, a rare exception being Patrick Shirreff’s observation in A Tour through North America (1835) that in a “negro settlement” on “the boundary of the Huron tract, next to the London district” the log-houses “appeared of a particular construction, having the chimney stack on the outside … [and] composed of thin sawn timber, placed horizontally, and mixed with clay” (178). Like their owners, the places and spaces of African-Canadians remained almost invisible to other Canadians until the final decades of the twentieth century.

    Yet even in Shirreff’s brief observation, it is evident that immigrants of African descent brought distinctive cultural elements to Canada: the chimneys of most early Canadian log-houses were on the inside, but those that he describes were on the outside, “a common practice in the southern states from which most … [runaway] slaves came,” and they were so “uncommon” in Upper Canada that they were “probably not found anywhere else” in the province (Rempel 19). Present on “the boundary of the Huron tract, next to the London district” (a tellingly marginal location) was material evidence other than that provided by the Native peoples that the nation in the process of becoming would resist being defined narrowly and racially as British North America. Almost invisible though they were, people of African origin had already created in the form and sites of their houses a distinctive cultural presence that anticipates Rinaldo Walcott’s contention in Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada that “Black Canadian works” are “not merely national products, but … occupy the space of the in-between, vacillating between national borders and diasporic desires, ambitions and disappointments” – “works [that] suggest the possibilities of the ‘new,’ but in many cases cannot leave various kinds of ‘old’ behind” (xii). “Those who are descendants of Africans (New Worlds Blacks) dispersed by TransAtlantic slavery,” observes Walcott, “continue to engage in a complex process of cultural exchange, invention and (re)invention, and the result is cultural creolization” (hybridity or syncretism) (xii).


[I]s not the commercial strip … almost all right? … The seemingly chaotic juxtapositions … express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity, and they produce an unexpected approach to unity as well.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966; 2nd Ed. 1977), 104

A black Canadian writer who is deeply engaged in the process that Walcott describes is Dionne Brand, a poet, novelist, historian, polemicist, and film-maker who was born in Trinidad in 1953 and moved to Ontario in 1970. A Marxist, a feminist, and a lesbian who holds an honours degree in English and Philosophy and a masters degree in the Philosophy of Education (both from the University of Toronto), Brand is one of several American and Canadian “Afro-Caribbean scholar-activists” who, as Chancy writes, “remain conscious of the diasporic dimensions of their work, as they are forced to overcome various oppressions as well as a certain ‘homelessness’ made visible by the foregrounding of exile as a central feature of self-definition” (18). Rather than attempting to ignore or avoid the “‘doubleness’” or “double-consciousness”1 of her situation as Caribbean immigrant/Canadian citizen, Brand explores and uses it to negotiate new “‘social’” and “literary space[s]” (Linda Hutcheon, qtd. in Morrell 9). More than this (and in Walcott’s words again), Brand has deployed her “immigrant/citizen status” to “redraw … boundaries of knowing, experience and belonging” “in order to announce and articulate a black presence that signals defiance, survival and renewal” (38). Precisely situated as they frequently are in what Walcott calls “the urban spaces of migrant existences” (38), Brand’s works contain some of the most accomplished and engaging architexts written in and about contemporary Canada.

    In an interview with Maya Mavjee conducted in 2001 and published in Read Magazine, Brand forthrightly states her position with regard to conventional monocultural concepts of nation and national identity. “National identity is a dance of artificiality … [that] obscures its own multiplicity by insisting on itself as unchanging,” she had recently written in A Map to the Door of No Return (2001) (72), her most extended meditation to date on the black diaspora and the questions of personal and national identity that continue to flow from it. “So now, who am I?” she asks herself in the interview; “I really want to think about that. My objections lie with the people who hang onto what they call identities for the most awful reasons, and those are the reasons of exclusion” (2). Against exclusionary identities and their manifestations, both personal and national, Brand sets the possibilities provided by Canada’s largest city: “Toronto has never happened before, and that’s something incredible…. [I]t hasn’t ever happened before because all of these different types of people, sharing different kinds of experiences, or what we call identities, have just not been in the same place together before.”2

    To Brand, Toronto is the site of a largely moribund monoculture as well as the vibrant and progressive multiculture that she celebrates. In A Map to the Door of No Return the “national culture” that is beamed “across the country” from the “great building of the CBC” “near the SkyDome [now the Rogers Centre], near … theatres”3 consists of “incessant, repetitive European classical music [with] deracinated jazz tucked away at night, [and] waxy talk so careful, so nervous” (98-99). In the poems of Thirsty (2002), however, Toronto’s multicultural environment is a “roiling” admixture of destruction and creation that is rich in personal and poetic potential. The pairing of the self and its unprecedented urban surroundings at the outset of the following catalogic passage is more than just an echo of Brand’s conversation with Mavjee. It is a statement of identity emplanced in a city whose outwardly ugly and chaotic combination of decay and vitality holds the promise of something wonderful in the making4:

                                            … just me and the city
that’s never happened before, and happened
though not ever like this, the garbage
of pizza boxes, dead couches,
the strip mall of ambitious immigrants
under carcasses of cars, oil-soaked
clothing, hulks of rusted trucks, scraggily
gardens of beans, inshallahs under the breath,
querido, blood fire, striving stilettoed rudbeckia ….

Whereas A.M. Klein’s Montreal is essentially a bicultural and bilingual city haunted by remnants of the Native peoples (see Chapter 10: “‘New Styles of Architecture’”), Brand’s Toronto is multicultural and multilingual: Italian (“pizza”), Arabic (“inshallah”),5 Spanish (“querido”), and North American (“rudbeckia”) are all in the mix as, if etymology is taken into account, are French and English. Verbally as well as visually the catalogue asks the reader to imagine Toronto as a place of convergence and contingency, of physical, cultural, and textual interaction. “These are the muscles of the subway’s syrinx,” observes the speaker elsewhere in Thirsty,

Vilnus, Dagupan, Shaowu, Valparaiso, Falmouth and Asmara.
The tunnel breathes in the coming train exhaling
as minerals the grammar of Calcutta, Colombo,
Jakarta, Mogila and Senhor do Bonfim, Ribeira Grande
and Hong Kong, Mogadishu and the alias St. Petersburg....

The “me” and the Toronto that are “in the middle of becoming” (Brand in da Costa 3) in Thirsty are parts of a “political community” (Benedict Anderson 4) that is imagined, not as a mechanism of exclusion, but, in the terms of Homi K. Bhabha’s Nation and Narration, as continually “incorporating ‘new people’ in relation to the body politic, generating other sites of meaning” (4). Like the catalogues of discarded objects and immigrant languages in the volume, its numerous different verse forms reach towards the variety and scope of a Toronto that is redolent of the possibility of new “experiences” or identities and a new civic and civil order. “Yes, this [is] the beauty of the city, its polyphonic murmuring,” affirms one of the second-generation Canadians who are the focus of Brand’s most recent novel, What We All Long For (2005): “[t]his is what always filled Tuyen with hope, this is what she thought her art was all about – the representation of that gathering of voices that summed themselves up into a kind of language, yet indescribable” (149).

    Brand’s conception of Toronto, as in Bhabha’s terms, “Janus-faced and transitional” (4) – fixated on the past as it is in the process of forging the future – finds expression in her work in responses to the city’s built environment as well as in its languages and ephemera. “In a new city there are ghosts of old cities,” she writes in the section entitled “Ossington to Christie, Toronto” in A Map to the Door of No Return:

There are lies and re-creations. Everyone thinks that a city is full of hope, but it isn’t. Sometimes it is the end of imagination…. Ghosts try to step into life. Selam Restaurant, Jeonghysa Buddhist Temple, Oneda’s Market, West Indian and Latin American Foods, Afro Sound, Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, Longo’s Vegetable and Fruits, Astoria Athens Restaurant, Coffee Time, Star Falafel, Vince Gasparos Meats … [and so on for several more lines].6 (110-11)

“A city is not a place of origins,” states Brand earlier in the book; “[i]t is a place of transmigrations and transmogrifications. Cities collect people, stray and lost and deliberate arrivants. Origins are rehabilitated and rebuilt there” (62). Transformations of identity (“[a] torturer in Chile becomes a taxi driver … a farmer from Azores a construction worker …” [62-63])7 have parallels in transformations of architectural spaces: between Ossington and Christie streets (and subway stations) elements of the streetscape have been altered to become the “Selam Restaurant” and the other premises itemized in Brand’s catalogue, each of which implies a localized identity from elsewhere and testifies to the ways in which dislocated people(s) generate signs of origin and identity as they strive to express their distinctness and establish themselves economically and culturally in their new place. Nevertheless, the “street[s] and the [grid] plan” of which they are a part persist as Rossian “permanences” that to an extent “condition … the urban area” that is now occupied by the new premises (Rossi 59).8 The resulting dialectic between the already in place and the recently emplaced is parallel to the dialectic between, on the one hand, the older French and English identities that imposed their patterns on the land and the Native peoples during the colonial era and, on the other, the myriad newly arrived and arriving identities of the postcolonial era. As Brand observes in A Map to the Door of No Return, “[h]ere, at home, in Canada, we are all implicated” in a nation-state whose “exclusionary power structures” are “based solely on conquest and acquisition,”9 but at the same time “origins” are continuously being “redefin[ed]” (64), especially by immigrants as they work to achieve “a degree of belonging” by, among other things, imprinting Canadian streetscapes with elements of other countries and cultures. In Brand’s Toronto, the streets are the enduring “spatial unit[s]” of an imperialistic culture that, like the city and the architectural that surround them, “remain deeply implicated in shaping … [the] everyday experience” of their users (Boys 217). But those same streets and buildings also host changes of appearance and content that reflect the city’s growing capacity to “‘incorporate … the humanness of [its new] citizens’” (Jackson 65, quoting Oswald Spengler).

    Although these themes achieve their most polemical and lyrical expressions in A Map to the Door of No Return, Thirsty, and What We All Long For, they also appear in Brand’s work of the late ’nineties, especially in her novel In Another Place, Not Here (1996), which focuses on the complexities of exclusion and belonging for immigrants to Canada from the Caribbean. Because they are black lesbians, the novel’s two protagonists, Elizete and Verlia, are acutely conscious of the racism and sexism that exclude them from existing Canadian society and as deeply desirous of achieving the condition of belonging in a community that as yet lives only in their dreams and imaginations. For Verlia, however, Toronto contains both the reality of exclusion and a semblance of belonging:

There are two worlds here in this city…. One so opaque that she ignores it as much as she can – this one is white and runs things; it is as glassy as its downtown buildings and as secretive…. The other world growing steadily at its borders is the one she knows and lives in. If you live here you can never say that you know the other world, the white world, with certainty. It is always changing on you though it stays the same, immovable…. This warp is what the new world grows on. The new world growing steadily on the edge of the other. Her streets of barber shops and hairdressers and record stores and West Indian food shops bend and chafe to this wind. A basement is a bar room and a dance hall, a bookshop and a place for buying barrels…. A room upstairs a store is an obeah house, a place for buying oils…. (In Another Place, Not Here 180)

The relationship between “warp” and woof in this rich architext replicates the dialectic of “permanences” and new premises, but more striking is the identification of the “glassy” but “opaque” office towns of Toronto’s business area with the stasis and inscrutability of white Canada and the city’s “streets” and “basement[s]” with the flexibility and creativity of immigrant culture. Change may not be entirely absent from white Canada, but the passage as a whole leaves no room to doubt that greater dynamism exists between and below the highrises, in the interstices and liminal spaces in which immigrants work, eat, and drink, have their hair done, listen to music, and dance. In What We All Long For, suburbs such as Etobicoke and Richmond Hill are “drear[y]” and “antiseptic” places where people live “neat little lives” in “sovereign houses and apartments and rooms,” but the streets and crossroads of “downtown” and the subways that lead to them are “vivid” and “excit[ing]” spaces of flux and transformation (28, 55, 29, 3, 28).


Nations are to a very large extent invented by their poets and novelists.

– Aldous Huxley, Texts and Pretexts: an Anthology of Commentaries (1932), 50

From what has already been seen, it will probably be apparent that Brand’s writing since at least the late ’nineties performs on a discursive stage dominated by postcolonial theorists, most prominently Benedict Anderson, Homi K. Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, and Wilson Harris. Not only do the concepts and terminology of postcolonial theory raise loud echoes in such theoretically informed texts as In Another Place, Not Here and A Map to the Door of No Return, but these and a number of other works by Brand that were published from the mid-’nineties onwards appear to be partly the results of a creative dialogue with Gilroy’s ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: the Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987) and The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) and with Harris’s “A Talk on the Subjective Imagination” (1973) and “The Limbo Gateway” (1995).10 Of special importance to this dialogue are three or four elements that coalesce in Brand’s hands into an energizing and empowering political and poetic programme: Gilroy’s concepts of race, culture, and nationhood as dynamic and syncretic rather than fixed and ethnically determined and his evocation of the ships and ocean of the Atlantic slave trade as a middle passage of cultural in-betweenness11 and Harris’s experiments with hybrid narrative strategies and his emphasis on the middle passage as a liminal space of unique cultural genesis.12 It is in the neither … nor space between genres as well as places that many of Brand’s most accomplished and engaging works find what home she deems possible for heirs of the black diaspora.

    Drawing on the concept of the middle passage to relate the journey from the Caribbean islands to the voyage from Africa to the New World, Brand repeatedly figures the ocean as simultaneously a site of cultural identity and transformation and the “door” that closes off the possibility of all but a sentimentally nostalgic return to or recovery of the lost home and culture.13 For diasporic black consciousness, home in the sense of “authentic presentness” can be neither “here” nor “there,” but with the affirmation of the liminality of the ocean in between – the “black Atlantic” – as a “signifier of identity” (Luft 31-32) comes a sense of history and self that transcends national boundaries and permits creative agency. Thus in the first of the “recollections” and “recognitions” in her largely autobiographical Bread out of Stone (1994), Brand looks out at the Atlantic from Playas del Este in Cuba and characterizes herself as “a Black woman whose ancestors were brought to a new world laying tightly packed in ships … in the Middle Passage” (21) and in In Another Place, Not Here Verlia “dream[s]” as a young girl “of riding out to sea, a weeping sea, its eyes translucent, its tears glistening, going to someplace so old there’s no memory of it” (126).14 In Thirsty, Brand continues to draw upon the concept of the middle passage, but with an emphasis on inbetweenness as a liminal space of creative cultural hybridity. “Consider the din of beginnings, this vagrant, fugitive city,” enjoins the speaker in Poem XX, before envisaging Toronto as a site of the journeyings, relocations, and interactions that generate newness, freedom, and enduring human connections:

… no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation. The Filipina nurse bathes a body, the
Vincentian courier delivers a message, the Sikh driver navigates a
corner. What happens? A new road is cut, a sound escapes, a touch lasts.


Life in the streets of postmodern and postcolonial Toronto is certainly the continual “insertion [of] … individual subjects into a multidimensional set of radically discontinuous realities” that Frederic Jameson describes in “Cognitive Mapping” (351), but in Brand’s work it is also a source of new and enduring experiences and relationships. It is no more fortuitous that at the beginning of Bread out of Stone Brand describes herself as living in one of Toronto’s “semi-detached, old-immigrant houses, where Italians, Chinese, Blacks, Koreans, South Asians and Portuguese make a rough peace” (9; emphasis added) than it is that many of the poems of Thirsty are open-ended in their lack of punctuation15 : both the architecture and the poetics of her strongest works are brilliantly imbued with her affirmation of the broken but on-going voyage of migrancy as a source of connexity, agency, and creativeness.

    It is fully consistent with Brand’s affirmation of migrancy and liminality as against stasis and nationality (both racial and spatial) that her work contains few references to imposing buildings and national monuments and exhibits an increasingly pronounced emphasis on travel and modes of transit in all their forms – streets, highways, subways, cars, trains, aeroplanes and, of course, ships and boats. Very likely because they were written prior to her engagement with postcolonial theory, neither of Brand’s first two slim volumes of poetry – ’Fore Day Morning (1978) and Earth Magic (1980, 1993) – displays either an interest in migrancy or a complex treatment of liminality.16 This begins to change in the early ’eighties, however: Primitive Offensive (1982), Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983), and Chronicles of a Hostile Sun (1984) all indicate an emerging coalescence of poetry and theory around diasporic and feminist themes and concerns. Cantos III and IV of Primitive Offensive portray black women in Europe and North America as the “dismembered” exiles of a “dismembered continent” (8, 9) and Cantos X and XI in the same volume figure houses in Toronto and elsewhere as structures that are disturbingly indifferent, even hospitable, to acts of racism.17 Several of the pieces in Winter Epigrams focus on journeys and portray Canada in general and Toronto in particular as neither home nor away for a black female immigrant.18 “A white boy with a dead voice / singing about autumn” is incomprehensible; northern Ontario is the frigid “skull of the earth” whose towns are traps that must be escaped;19 and Toronto is a scarcely warmer place of “exile,” but such locales as Hagerman Hall (a venue for Caribbean music) and El Borinquen (a salsa club and Spanish restaurant) are havens of vitality and human contact “in the middle of it all,”20 as is “driving along Bloor street” “singing to Oklahoma, to a sailor in Valparaiso / and to Billie Holiday” with “Tony, Filo, Pat, [and] Roberto” (3, 7-8, 18, 5, 13). By decorating her apartment with artefacts from outside Canada (“Mexican blankets … persian rugs … pictures of … my childhood …”), she can be both home and away and neither (12).21 Journeys figure in a number of the epigrams, but they are even more prominent in Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, where one poem begins “I am now in Saskatchewan / on a bus passing through Blackstrap …,” and another: “four hours on a bus across alberta and saskatchewan …” (66-67).22 Both pieces are coarsely political, but in their references to “explaining imperialism … / in a library in Saskatoon,” to “third world supplicant[s]” in a country fearful of “strangers,” and to the absence of any “sign of africville” in Halifax (66, 67) both provide further indications of a “new road [being] cut” in the direction of Bread out of Stone, In Another Place, Not Here, A Map to the Door of No Return, and Thirsty. This is especially true of “four hours on a bus across alberta and saskatchewan …,” which, as its lower case proper nouns suggest, diminishes the territorial aspects of Canada while appreciating its geographical extent. The volume concludes with a vignette that leaves the city to which it refers unnamed23 but characterizes it as at once inhospitable and, by implicit contrast with Granada (which, of course, had recently been invaded by the United States), relatively though not absolutely secure from attack:

the metropolis
blocks of sturdy brick
iron street
concrete tree
planes, helicopters, bombs
will probably never touch this.

The predominance of nouns and attributive nouns in these stark lines underscores the “thingness of the thing[s]” that they describe (Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought 22) and thus their seeming imperviousness to destruction. Yet there is stasis and an absence of life in the lines as well – an alienating absence of Venturi’s “vitality and validity” that bespeaks the culture’s antipathy to creative as well as destructive “touch.”

    Several of the short stories in Brand’s first collection of fiction, Sans Souci and Other Stories (1988, 1994) also anticipate her more theoretically informed later work in their focus on black female immigrants on the move both physically and psychologically within and between Canadian cities. In the programmatic opening story of the collection, “Train to Montreal,” the protagonist travels from Toronto’s Union Station (“a cavern of dull heels on concrete, stunning fluorescent lights, and chrome sticks, marking where to stand”) to join an ex-lover for whom “fresh possibilities seem … to [have] emerged” in Montreal (17-18). In “Blossom,” the eponymous protagonist, a Trinidadian woman who once made her living babysitting and cleaning houses for white Torontonians, has escaped the city’s “concrete, white surfaces” (Sturgess 223) to an “obeah house and speakeasy on Vaughan Road” where linguistic and racial boundaries as unstable as herself provide a setting consonant with the mental breakdown that results in her transformation into the “priestess of Oya, Yoroba Goddess-warrior of winds, storms and waterfalls” (41). And in “At the Lisbon Plate,” the first-person narrator is a black woman “in constant flight” who finds in and around the Portuguese bar of the story’s title a space that is necessarily hybrid and hybridizing, for although run by a woman who “look[s] … kindly, colonially” on black women because she has “[p]ossibly lived in Angola or Mozambique,”24 it is located, not in a Portuguese colony, but on Kensington Avenue in Toronto with views of both “Kensington market” and “a statue of Cristobel Colon” – “Columbus, the carpet-bagger” (98-99).25 In all three short stories the black female protagonists are in search of something that, as the protagonist of “At the Lisbon Plate” puts it, “I will recognize, once I see it” (98). Like the country itself as described by Arnold H. Itwaru in The Invention of Canada: Literary Text and the Immigrant Imaginary, they are “in motion” from earlier constructions of themselves to what they see themselves as becoming and to what they are becoming (24).

    From the later ’eighties onwards, migrancy and in-betweenness appear increasingly in Brand’s work as liberating alternatives to the confinements of nation-spaces and spaces saturated with nation. The narrator of another short story in Sans Souci, and Other Stories remembers standing “stiffly in the elevator” as she rode with other immigrant women to the “immigration department” on the tenth floor of 400 University Avenue in Toronto to “plead … with someone there” and then temporarily replaces this stifling memory with a dream of flight in which she rode “the subway … to the end, where the work crowd thinned out” (92). “She sat there for hours,” she recalls, “getting back on the train, changing stations, only to find herself sometimes back in the elevator trying not to breathe the perfume, the smell of whiteness around her, a dull choking smell.” Earlier she characterizes the city as a whole as “claustrophobic”:

She felt land-locked.… She wanted to rush to the beach. But not the lake. It lay stagnant and saltless at the bottom of the city. She needed a piece of water which led out, the vast ocean, salty and burning on the eyes. The feel of the salt, blue and moving water, rushing past her ears and jostling her body, cleaning it, coming up a different person each time as she dove through a curling wave. Not knowing how it would turn out…. Suddenly every two years she felt like leaving, going to dive into the ocean just once. (87)

Here, as in the subway-riding dream, repeated present participles reinforce the sense of movement and connect the longed-for experience of the ocean figuratively, rhythmically, and, as it were, by rhyme to the fluidities of the urban crowd (“jostling”) and to an affirmative sense of uncertainty (“[n]ot knowing”), a series of affinities that await the theorization of the later work.

    Journeys outwards, between, and through are major components of Brand’s principal publications in poetry and prose in the mid-to-late ’nineties. “In the middle of afternoons driving north / on 35…. Rough road ahead …,”26 states the speaker of one poem in Land to Light On (1997), and the speakers of other poems are equally given to journeyings: “On a highway burrowing north … rounding 35 to 121 … I have been losing roads / and tracks and air and rivers … / … and a sense of myself…. Anyway I was driving here and you can’t believe this city, man, it is filthy…. in the middle of traffic at Church and Gerrard, I notice someone…. All that day the streets felt painful and the subways tender as eggshells” (13, 14, 15, 22, 24). An entire section of Bread out of Bone is devoted to Toronto’s “Bathurst Subway” as a space of transit that felt like home to immigrants of African descent in 1970 “because of the people who passed through it that year … of new Black pride”:

They first took you to Bathurst and Bloor to locate you, your place, the point from which you would meet this country…. They took you here for you to get a sense of your new identity, the re-definitions you knew were coming but could never have anticipated…. Bathurst was the site of new definitions…. Bathurst Subway was the passageway, the nexus from which we all radiated, the portals through which we all passed, passing from Negroes into Blacks…. Bathurst Street led to College, to 355 College Street where the U[nited] N[egro] I[mprovement] A[ssociation] hall was, and there my education began…. So we’re not going any place, and we’re not melting or keeping quiet in Bathurst Subway or on Bathurst Street or any other street we take over…. If our style bothers you, deal with it. That’s just life happening, that’s just us making our way home. (68-81)

For black immigrants and the black community, the Bathurst Subway and the UNIA hall are what the human geographer Kevin Lynch calls “nodes”: “the strategic spots in a city into which an observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he [or she] is traveling” – spaces such as “enclosed square[s],” but also, as here, “junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another” (47). Conspicuous by their near absence from Brand’s inscription of black identity in Toronto’s interstices are references to Queen’s Park, City Hall, the CN Tower and other icons and “landmarks” (Lynch 48) of white Canadian history and culture.27 The icon of Brand’s sense of Canada as a possible home place for black immigrants is typically a space of transit(ion) among other and similarly fluid spaces of passage and intersection, especially subways,28 streets, and highways, and, by extension, street corners, crossroads, parking lots, and other sites of traffic that are preponderantly “constituted by and through … subjects” (Freiwald 50) who are in motion.29 Indeed, at one point in A Map to the Door of No Return, Brand figures Toronto as a whole as the “parking lot of civilization” and herself as its “citizen” (107, 110). In the now somewhat hackneyed but still valuable terms of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guatari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1987), the subways and streets of Toronto’s inner city are the nomadic spaces and rhizomic system in and through which immigrants move as they elude and resist the impositions of nation space. They are the “in-between-spaces” (de Laurentis 25) in which, in Kay Anderson’s words, “reside the structural tensions of communities incorporated within structures of race, class, politics, and administration but not fully determined by them; communities shaped by but not wholly assimilated to colonialism’s cultures” (216).

    Contributing to Toronto’s role as a place of transit(ion) in Brand’s work of the ’nineties and later is the city’s contradictory and even paradoxical character, for this enhances its capacity to host the confluence and co-existence of differences. By turns “mother” and “liar” (Winter Epigrams, 4, 5), in Thirsty it is a source of aesthetic and sensual pleasure (“The city is beauty / unbreakable and amorous as eyelids” [1]), and in an early collection of poems, No Language is Neutral (1990), it can be aesthetically and ideologically repellant:

               It don’t have nothing call beauty
here but this is a place, a gasp of water from a
hundred lakes, fierce bright windows screaming with
goods, a constant drizzle of brown brick cutting
dolorous prisons into every green uprising of bush.
No wilderness self, is shards, shards, shards,
shards of raw glass, a debris of people you pick you way
through returning to your worse self, you the thin
mixture of just come and don’t exist.30

The city can produce the “claustrophobia” of Sans Souci and Other Stories, the intoxication of Thirsty (“I did hear the city’s susurrus, / loud, wide, promising, like wine, obscurity and rapture …” [40]), and the enabling sense of liberation from the deadening hand of the past that comes to Verlia in In Another Place, Not Here:

She hates nostalgia, she hates this humid lifeless light that falls on the past, it’s too close for her no matter how many years she spends away. Give her these streets right now, hard as hell. She’d rather this any day. When she first came face to face with that concrete highrise, when she fell in love with its distance and grit she was not mistaken. No ties, nothing hanging around your feet. (182)

By foregrounding the productively contradictory elements in the Toronto environment and suggesting that a New World newness is in the process of emerging from the interaction of opposites and differents in the city, Brand casts it in fundamentally Marxian terms as a living system whose outward forms are the materialization of historical forces that are at work moving Canadian society towards ultimate freedom. In the obstetrical model that this implies, Toronto is the delivery room in which are being born the progeny of a non-absorptive synthesis of white and immigrant cultures. “Breaking their doorways, they left the sleepwalk of their mothers and fathers and ran across the unobserved borders of the city, sliding across ice to arrive at their own birthplace – the city,” observes the narrator of What We All Long For of Tuyen and her second-generation Canadian friends Carla, Oku, and Jackie: “They were born in the city from people born elsewhere” (20).31


The right angle and straight line, convenient for the division of land, are equally convenient for the erection of buildings, [and] for the laying of pipes and rails.

– Hans Blumenfeld, The Modern Metropolis (1967), 27

We are confronted with the nation split within itself … a liminal signifying space… internally marked by the discourse of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference.

– Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration (1990), 148

When he credits Brand not only with “redraw[ing] and remap[ping] the Canadian urban landscape,” but also with “bring[ing] a new cartography to the question of race and space in the Canadian context” (38), Walcott puts to somewhat hyperbolic use a topos – the counter-map – that began to gain currency in postcolonial writing and theory in the ’eighties and came to prominence in Brand’s work in the late ’nineties. An early move towards cartographic revision occurs in Poem XIII in Land to Light On, where the snow-covered northern landscape, an icon of Canada since well before Confederation, acquires an ugly racist dimension when “Three Blacks in a car … / … between a gas station and Chatham,” Ontario (the site, perhaps, of the “negro settlement” described by Shirreff) are pulled over by a police cruiser. Drawing a parallel between the inclemency of winter weather and the hostility of a white policeman whose very uniform is the colour of gun metal, Brand represents the event as a revelation of the hidden topography of racism that lurks beneath white Canada’s myths of tolerance and “civility” (Bread out of Stone 10):

In this country where islands vanish, bodies submerge,
the heart of darkness is these white roads, snow
at our throats, and at the windshield a thick white cop
in a blue steel windbreaker peering into our car, suspiciously
even in the blow and freeze of a snowstorm, or perhaps
not suspicion but as a man looking at aliens.
                    ·                     ·                     ·
                                                      We stumble
on our antiquity. The snow-blue laser of a cop’s eyes fixes us
in this unbearable archaeology.

Caribbean (“island”) and other black identities may seem to vanish and, more sinisterly, “bodies [to] submerge” in Canada, but a moment of racial stereotyping in which people of African descent are treated as “aliens” – as other than citizens and other than human – throws into stark relief the racial and imperial ethos that underwrote the construction of Canada’s “white roads” as surely as it did the concept of darkest Africa that Conrad anatomizes in Heart of Darkness.32

    Although Poem XIII in Land to Light On is a deeply disconcerting representation of a deeply disconcerting event, its disclosure of the falsity of a Canadian myth is salutary, as is the affirmation of agency implicit in its articulation of the “unbearable[ness]” of the persistence of Europe’s racist/imperialist past in the present. So, too, is its implication that the landscape of Canada needs to be re-envisioned so that places, people, and the “darkness” concealed by white illusions become apparent. In large part (though not, of course, exclusively), this is the goal of much of Brand’s work since the late ’nineties, where Canada’s urban landscape has been radically re-mapped to bring into view neighbourhoods, landmarks, and buildings of importance to African-Canadian and, though to a lesser extent, other immigrant and ethnic communities. (The bar in “At the Lisbon Plate” is a centre for a Portuguese community and, it will be recalled, the “old-new immigrant houses” of Bread out of Stone are home to “Italians, Chinese, Blacks, Koreans, South Asians, and Portuguese” as well as Caribbeans.)33 With Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (1984) what Brand will come to call in No Language Is Neutral (1990, 1998) the “tough geography” (40) of “Black Canadian … space” (Walcott 40) takes up the prominent position in her poetry that it occupies in Bread out of Stone and other prose works of the mid-to-late ’nineties, not least In Another Place, Not Here.34 It is in A Map to the Door of No Return, however, that Brand’s counter-cartographic project per-se becomes most explicit and most extensive. “The book is a map,” she would tell Mavjee – “a map to my journey for a new kind of identity and existence” (1). It is also a Heideggerian uncovering of a hidden typography of racial and cultural suppression, a record of deterritorialization and a call to a revisioning and reformation of nation-space. “Suddenly a landscape … is redrawn; we see it differently, and we see it as contested terrain,” Brand has said of one recent Canadian novel, and of another: “[i]t gives us opportunities to reimagine the country” (da Costa 5).35

    Several sections of A Map to the Door of No Return reinforce the cartographic thrust of the book’s title. One of these, entitled simply “Maps,” signals its debt to diasporic theory with a quotation from Harris and proceeds to a moving account of the consequences of the re-naming and re-mapping of a part of what became British Columbia. The passage as a whole is characteristic in its emphasis on modes and spaces of transit(ion) as sites of racial and cultural confluence that are at odds with the grids and nomenclature of imperial culture:

Vancouver 2000. Waiting for the bus at Granville and Robson. The bus arrives. A Black man is driving it. The city has few Black people. So few that when they meet on the street they nod to each other in surprise, perhaps delight, certainly some odd recognition. Two stops along a Salish woman gets on. She asks the driver for directions – if she is on the right bus, if she is headed in the right direction, where she is situated, how much does the fare cost….
    This road along which the bus travels may have been a path hundreds of years ago. This jutting of land through which this path travels has lost its true name. It is now surrounded by English Bay, False Creek, and Burrard Inlet. And Granville Street, whose sure name has vanished, once was or was not a path through. That woman asking directions might have known these names several hundred years ago. Today when she enters the bus she is lost. She looks into the face of another, a man who surely must be lost, too, but who knows the way newly mapped, superimposed on this piece of land; she asks the man the way and sits down. The man driving the bus is driving across a path which is only the latest redrawing of old paths. He is not from here. Where he is from is indescribable and equally vanished from his memory or the memory of anyone he may remember. He is here most recently perhaps from Regina, Saskatchewan, where his mother arrived with her new husband from Toronto, and before that Chicago and still again Bridgetown. And then again the Door of No Return, El Mina or Goree Island, somewhere along the west coast of the continent [of Africa], somewhere safe and deep enough to be a harbour and a door to nothing. This driver knows some paths that are unrecoverable even to himself. He is the driver of lost paths. And here he is telling the Salish woman where to go. The woman from this land walks as one blindfolded, no promontory or dip of water is recognizable. She has not been careless, no. No, she has tried to remember, she has an inkling, but certain disasters have occurred and the street, the path in her mind, is all rubble, so she asks the driver through lost paths to conduct her through her own country. So the driver through lost maps tells the woman of a lost country her way and the price she should pay, which seems little enough – $1.50 – to find your way. The woman with no country pays and sits down. The man with no country drives on.
    It is only the Granville bus, surely. But a bus where a ragged mirage of histories comes into momentary realization.
(219-20; ellipses in the original)

Overly insistent as it is in spots (“She asks … where she is situated” is especially heavy-handed), this remorselessly acerbic vignette is worth quoting in full to exemplify Brand’s ability to give voice to sites and conditions of removal and displacement in which the past is “indescribable” because recoverable, if at all, only as “inkling” and “ragged mirage.” Part of the power of the vignette comes from its use of the present tense of the verb to be and of deictic terms such as “this” and “here” to induct the reader into a sense of being(s) in a particular place, the now and here of Vancouver in 2000. Both the Salish woman and the Black driver have all but lost their paths, but in the social microcosm – the temporary and mobile communitas – that is the “Granville bus” they have learned the ways and means of interaction, she, as the narrator later observes, by “ask[ing] the way redundantly,” he by “driv[ing] through” – along and potentially beyond – “lost paths” (221). The statements with which the narrator ends her meditation on the “Granville bus” refers to herself, her companion, the Salish woman, and the bus driver but by grace of the cumulative power of the vignette they also include its readers: “all marvel at their ability to learn and forget the way of lost maps. We all feign ignorance at the rupture in mind and body, in place, in time. We all feel it” (221). In the social “transaction[s]” (221) between people of different races and cultures that occur daily in Vancouver, Toronto, and other cities and in the empathetic unconcealment of “lost maps” and “rupture[s]” lie keys to the behaviour and understanding that are crucial to civic and civil co-existence.36

    An important component of Brand’s “counter-cartography” of Toronto is the identification of landmarks whose presence and significance are not registered on maps that are insensitive to matters of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In A Map to the Door of No Return, these include “the city housing at Lawrence and Bathurst,” “a new light post” “at the corner of Primrose and Davenport” where in July 2000 “a wreath and a bouquet of flowers” mark the spot where “Ma died,” “the corner of Bathurst and College” where a member of “the growing citizenry of homelessness” greeted everyone with “‘Have a nice day, have a nice day’,” “the courthouse on Jarvis Street,” and the “Mimico Youth Detention” facility” (27, 83, 100, 103, 107). In Bread out of Stone, sites of significance are the area from “Christie Pits, gaping wide and strewn with syringes, to Landsdowne and Bloor,” “the desolate schoolyards and lunch-rooms and malls and public high rises … in the north” of the city, the Royal Ontario Museum for its controversial “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibit, “the corner of Dufferin and Queen” where a Black woman, Audrey Smith, was strip-searched by the police, the “Jane-Finch project,” the Coq d’Or bar on Yonge Street,37 and, of course, the Bathurst Subway (9, 103, 22, 127-8, 109, 110-11). In What We All Long For, Bathurst, College, Yonge, and Bloor are again given prominence, as are Alexander Park and dance halls such as the Paramount that were significant to Toronto’s black communities (see especially 94-95 and 257-66). There can be little doubt that Brand shared the dismay of Violet Blackman, one of the contributors to No Burden to Carry, her 1992 collection of “Narratives of Black Women in Ontario,”38 that the sale of the United Negro Improvement Association building on College Street in the nineteen seventies deprived Toronto’s black community of an important piece of its history and a means by which future generations could establish a connection with that history. “We rallied with that building!” recalled Blackman and “[w]hen … [it] was sold I took sick, because that was one building where I felt … my young children … could open that door, and no one could tell them that they can’t come in. But they have nothing now …” (No Burden to Carry 41, 45-46).

    Brand’s cartographic project is closely related to her concern in Bread out of Stone, In Another Place, Not Here, and elsewhere with (re-)naming places as a means of inserting black immigrant identity and culture into Canadian nation-space. Her earlier as well as her recent fiction abounds with instances of her deployment of Creole words, cadences, and syntactical structures in a Canadian context to mark both the distinctness and the hybridity of immigrants from the Caribbean. Here is Blossom in Sans Souci and Other Stories: “Well now is five years since Blossom in Canada and nothing ain’t breaking. She leaves the people on Oriole for some others on Balmoral. The white man boss-man was a doctor. Since the day she reach, he eyeing she, eyeing she. Blossom just mark this down in she head and making sure she ain’t in no room alone with he …” (33). And here are passages from two poems in No Language Is Neutral that emplace elements of Caribbean language and speech in the space and dialect of Toronto: “Is steady trembling I trembling when they ask me my / name and I say too black for it … calling Spadina Spadeena39 / until I listen good for what white people call it…. I walk Bathurst Street until it come like home / Pearl was near Dupont, upstairs a store one / Christmas where we pretend as if nothing change we, / make rum and sing … / song we weself never even sing but only hear when / we was children” (26, 27). The poem from which this second passage is taken is especially poignant in its depiction of the inbetweenness – the betweenity – of two women for whom Toronto is only “like home” and the Caribbean is an escapist fantasy. “Well, even / our nostalgia was a lie,” concludes the speaker in tones no longer as heavily marked with her Caribbean origins – “skiltish as the truth these / bundle of years” (26). In No Language Is Neutral, as elsewhere in Brand’s work, immigrant nostalgia for the lost and imagined home is the enemy not only of being and dwelling in the new place, but of poetry:40 “Not a single / word drops from my lips for twenty years about living / here,” recalls the speaker of a subsequent poem, “language seemed to split in two, one branch fell silent, the other / argued hotly for going home” (28).41

    One of the most radical aspects of Brand’s counter-cartography and of the political counter-culture that has doubtless given it impetus is the renaming and refiguring of elements of the built environment in accordance with radical African-Canadian (and American) values. Not surprisingly, the most conspicuous examples of this strategy occur in the sections of Bread out of Stone that chronicle manifestations of “racial unrest” (155) in which Brand was directly or indirectly involved. In 1990, she recalls, the Royal Ontario Museum was dubbed “the ‘Racist Ontario Museum” by African-Canadians demonstrating against the “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibition (22), and in 1978 the shooting of Albert Johnson by the Toronto police “on his staircase in his house on Manchester [Street]” sparked plans for a “rally [that] would start on Manchester, go to Henson-Garvey Park (… [as] some of us called Christie Pits …), then up Oakwood to the police station on Eglinton near Marlee” (74).42 The renaming of a site on Yonge Street in honour of Joseph Henson, the African-American slave who fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad and whose autobiography helped to inspire Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Marcus Garvey, the prominent African-American leader who, among other things, initiated the “Back-to-Africa” movement, reappears in In Another Place, Not Here as a joyful act of communal assertion that is closely imbricated with the emergence of a new Black identity in Canada: “Look at us laughing into the park. Henson-Garvey Park, we named it, right here in Toronto. Look at us laughing into this new name and into our new selves” (158). “[T]opography sets the stage [and] dictates of law and cultural influences work together in creating the form of a city,” observes Richard M. Levy, then “[u]nique paths are followed by each community that contributes to a sense of place” (58)


That polychromatic murmur, the dizzying
w aves, the noise of it, the noise of it ….

… to embrace its urban meter …

– Dionne Brand, Thirsty (2002), 8, 5

More than anything else, it is the sense of the city as a space in which “new selves” are possible that underlies Brand’s always realistic but often celebratory treatment of Toronto as “the city / that’s never happened before” in her conversation with Mavjee and in the poetry of Thirsty. By turns “mordant,” “forgetful,”43 and “ordinary,” Toronto is a place of “caustic piss,” “toxic sunset[s],” “blind houses, … cramped dirt, … broken / air, … bricked lies / … [and] steel lies” (Thirsty 5, 60, 63, 5, 20, 24). Its “horizon[s]” are “damaged … [by] skyscraping walls,” its “stink” is “sometimes … fragrant, / sometimes putrid,” its “corner[s]” are sites of “anonymous things” that are violent and demeaning to women,44 its “suburbs undifferentiated, prefabricated, [and] from no great / narrative, except cash,” its climate and atmosphere inimical to “wild mimosa” (5, 62, 36, 42, 13). Yet its “flowers” are “blissful” as well as “tortured,” its “toxic sunset” a “gorgeous spit / licking … [an] airplane,” its “lush smog” home to multifarious “languages,” its “ugliness” “sweet” and conducive to lyrical affirmations of its “beauty” (24, 20, 24, 1). One such lyrical affirmation is to be found in Poem XXII of Thirsty:

                                       I did hear the city’s susurrus,
loud, wide, promising, like wine, obscurity and rapture,
the bright veiled Somali women hyphenating Scarlett Road,
the eternal widows, Azorean and Italian at Igreja de Santa
Inez and Iglesia de San Antonio. At the Sea King Fish Market,
the Portuguese men have learned another language. “Yes
sweetie, yes dahling, and for you only this good good price.”
This to the old Jamaican women who ask, “Did you cut the fish
like I told you? Why you charging me so much?” This dancing,
these presences, not the least, writing the biographies
of streets, I took, why not, yes, as wonderful …

“When I walk around Toronto, ... I see people from all over the world make a living out of it, [and] I think that’s fantastic,” Brand told Paulo da Costa in 2001; “[f]abulous possibilities exist, things haven’t been worked out, and we see the becoming of it. We’re in the middle of becoming, we have these yet-to-become people, and that’s interesting, definitely”(2).

    As both the passage from Poem XXII and her statement to da Costa indicate, Brand’s perspective on Toronto is often that of a flâneuse, a figure in motion at street level and among Toronto’s “yet-to-become people.” In manner as well as in matter, Poem XXII is consistent with this epistemological position: its subjects are apprehended horizontally rather than from above or below; its lines are stretchingly horizontal in form and given to enjambement and caesuras that convey a sense of physical, mental, and verbal movement, hesitation, and informality; and its most flamboyant trope – “the bright veiled Somali women hyphenating Scarlett Road” – maintains and carries forward the horizontality that comes with the word “wide.” Although two vertically oriented structures – the Portuguese and Italian churches – are mentioned, their verticality is not evoked. Moreover, both linguistically and by association with the implied black dresses of the “eternal ... Azorean and Italian” “widows,” the two churches are linked to European pasts and customs, which, out-of-place though they may seem to some, nevertheless retain their meaning as visibly and validly as the “bright veil[s]” of the “Somali women.” Like those of her fellow Torontonian and emigrée Jane Jacobs, Brand’s eyes are firmly fixed on the street and show little inclination to gaze upwards at the office blocks and communication tower on which Toronto has for so long rested its claim to be a world-class, modern city. It is the postcolonial and postmodern mix of its people that makes Toronto world-class in Brand’s eyes, and that is nowhere more vitally evident than in the sights and sounds of the people(s) in its downtown streets and markets.

    Since one purpose of Poem XXII is to open the ears as well as the eyes of its readers to “the becoming” that is Toronto, Brand introduces its aural and visual observations with a statement that describes, demands, and rewards attentive listening: “I did hear the city’s susurrus.” Echoing as they do a phrase from the Analytical Concordance to the Bible that is much used by born-again Christians and perhaps alluding specifically to Young’s version of Acts 7.24 (“‘I [God] have seen the affliction of My people ... in Egypt, and their groaning I did hear, and came down to deliver them”’), the opening words of the statement invest what is to come with an aura of revelation and affirmation. For anyone attuned to its biblical resonances, the phase also evokes a context of entrapment and misery that is in the process of giving way to freedom and happiness. Ramified further, the allusion suggests a parallel between the Egyptian captivity of the Israelites and the colonial (and worse) oppression in the past of large numbers of Toronto’s recent immigrants. Purely at the level of text, the words “their groaning” have been replaced by “the city’s susurrus,” the sound of “affliction” by an urban sound that, although “loud,” is by no means disconcerting but, on the contrary, suggestive of whispering, of rustling leaves, of intimate and receptive communication in a congenial situation. That Toronto is indeed to be understood in these near-sexual and near-pastoral terms is confirmed by Brand’s subsequent characterization of “the city’s susurrus” as “wide [and] promising, like wine, obscurity and rapture”: in the broadness of its embrace and the hopes that it generates, the multilingual and multicultural Toronto that is in the process of revealing itself to those with ears to hear and eyes to see is a source of liberation, fascination, and ecstatic delight. In its ultimate consummation (if that were possible), it might even be Maurice Blanchot’s “communauté des amants,” the Oneness in which Otherness achieves fulfilment and harmony (see 51-92, especially 68-69).

    Such an extrapolation may seem far-fetched, but it is not inconsistent with the dialogue later in the poem between “Portuguese men” and “old Jamaican women” in “the Sea King Fish Market.” Although conducted in an architectural and commercial context that betoken the underlying economic assumptions and practices of present-day Canadian society, this dialogue is an interaction as well as a transaction. As has been seen, Portuguese immigrants often figure in Brand’s work as among the worst practitioners of imperialistic oppression whose mentality is made all the more repugnant by their nostalgia for the colonial past. Here, however, the Portuguese fish mongers “have learned another language,” one with an imperialistic history to be sure, but also one capable of carrying colloquial expressions of affirmation, affection, and generosity:

sweetie, yes dahling, and for you only this good good price.”
This to the old Jamaican women who ask, “Did you cut the fish
like I told you? Why you charging me so much?”

So masterfully does Brand convey “the old Jamaican women”’s bantering tone and slight deviation from standard English that even in the absence of knowledge about their race and background it would be difficult to miss the sense of an affinity between the old women and the poem’s speaker. Yet Brand does not distance her speaker or herself from the Portuguese fishmonger but, rather, affirms and, with her own subsequent “yes,” echoes his playful banter as a necessary part of the face-to-face interaction (Gemeinschaft) that she renders (or imagines) with a combination of reportorial distance, personal investment, and, finally, writerly self-consciousness: “This dancing, / these presences, not the least, writing the biographies / of streets, I took, why not, yes, as wonderful....” The “danc[e]” between “the Portuguese men” and “the old Jamaican women” transcends but does not negate differences of race, sex, language, and history, and it is only possible because the dancers no longer inhabit their former states and identities but are now present together in a market on a street in Toronto.45

    To the extent that the streets of Poem XXII are synechdocic of what makes Toronto “wonderful” (or, in the terms of Brand’s interview with da Costa, “fantastic” and “fabulous”), then their “biographies” – the narratives of the people who live, work, and interact in them – are the biography of the city and of a people in the process of “becoming.” “Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history,” observes Peter Ackroyd in the Introduction to his own London: the Biography (2000), countering in his own defense that he has “subdued the style of [his] enquiry to the nature of the subject,” which “cannot be conceived in its entirety but can only be experienced as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares” that are “in a continual state of change and expansion”(2). Even more than Ackroyd’s project, Brand’s is limited in scope: although similarly street-level and peripatetic in its viewer position, it focuses primarily on immigrant experience (no “courts” here) and on personal experiences of present-day city life. Thus when Poem XXII continues across a stanza break, the distinction between biography and autobiography wavers, and does so in a manner that at once blurs and retains the distinction between personal experience and the urban environment, happy reminiscence and present perception:

                                          ... writing the biographies
of streets, I took, why not, yes, as wonderful

summer teems, College and Bathurst, Queen and Yonge,
St. Clair and Dufferin, Eglinton to the highway,
at these crossroads, transient selves flare
in the individual drama, in the faith of translation,
at the covert dance halls, at the cut-rate overpriced
shopping malls, there are impossible citizens …

(Thirsty 40)

Propelled by affirmation, rendered connective and fluid by enjambement, becoming almost a chant with the sequence of paired street names, these lines mobilize a poetics of the postmodern city to figure downtown Toronto as a site of intersection where a host of vividly differentiated individuals, languages, and cultures are in contact and in transition. In T.S. Eliot’s London, “the brown fog of a winter day” (65) correlates with a deathly and phantasmagoric modern condition of mass culture and alienated individuals in which regeneration is a feared and seemingly remote possibility (and see Pike, The Image of the City in Modern Literature). In Brand’s Toronto, by contrast, “summer teems” with the sights and sounds of postcolonial streets where a new Canadian citizenship is coming into being.46

    Brand is far too good a poet to burden a short lyric with a treatise on citizenship, but, as already seen with the brief reference to Blanchot, the sight and sounds that she describes invite the reader to recognize in the poem some of the characteristics of a functional postcolonial society. The first of these – the acceptance of difference – comes to the fore with the celebration of the “bright veiled Somali women” and the second – the exercise of civility – soon follows with the playful interaction between “the Portuguese men “ and the “old Jamaican women.” Others that then emerge are the retention of self-performance (“the individual drama”) coupled with a belief in the need to adapt to changed circumstances (“the faith in translation”), for without the two working in concert there could not be the balance and sharing between and among individualities and commonalities that, to adapt an argument in Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, permits the existence of a “set ... that is at the same time an aggregation of singularities” (as in the Canadian, a Canadian, this Canadian, that Canadian) (9). No less important than any of these is a further characteristic that is implicit not only in the dialogue in the Fish Market, but also in the very nature of Poem XXII as a poem is what Jean-Luc Nancy terms “compearance”: “the appearance of the between as such: you and I ... in which the and does not imply juxtaposition but exposition,” the recognition that “you shares me (‘toi partage moi’)”(29).47 “Singular beings compear,” writes Nancy: “their compearance constitutes their being, puts them in communication with one another.... The singular being appears to other singular beings: it is communicated to them in the singular. It is a contact, it is a contagion: a touching, the transmission of a trembling at the edge of being, the communication of the passion that makes us fellows, or the communication of the passion to be fellows, to be in common” (60-61).

    That there are aspects of Toronto’s present culture that militate against the coming community is apparent in the “covert[ness]” of the “dance halls” and in the “overpriced[ness]” of the “cut rate ... / shopping malls” of the second part of the poem. Where companionship has to be found covertly, acceptance and exposition (in Nancy’s sense) are incomplete, and where there is misinformation resulting in exploitation, communication and civility are absent (and, as a result, Gesellschaft – mute exchange – the likely order of business). Nor are these the only aspects of existing society that demand attention and correction. Less colourful but nevertheless observable on Toronto’s streets are “impossible citizens, / repositories of the city’s panic,” mentally ill men and women whose psychological state prevents them from being functioning members of the polis. And finally there are the homeless, the victims of unknown elements whose “autumnal arctic stone ... face[s]” set them apart from the brightness of summer and identify them as Native in actuality or by association:

                                                ... there are those
here too worn as if by brutal winds, a pocked
whale-boned, autumnal arctic stone of a face,
not wind at all but some unproven element works
there, Spadina and Bloor to the Mission
and the Silver Dollar south, unproven, not unseen
(Thirsty 40)

At the Scott Mission, in the Silver Dollar Tavern, and on the streets in between are to be found men and women whose plight defies explanation and whose presence must be carefully recognized, and recognized with care.48 Like many (but not all) the poems in Thirsty, Poem XXII lacks terminal punctuation, and appropriately so, for the postcolonial project of which it treats is on-going and the crucial importance of openness to others is one of its messages.

    “One enters into community not by affirming oneself and one’s forces but by exposing oneself to expenditure at a loss,” writes Alphonso Lingis in The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common: “[c]ommunity forms in a movement by which one exposes oneself to the other, to forces and powers outside oneself, to death and to the others who die”(12).49 It is towards that exposure that Poem XXII moves in its final lines and it is towards that exposure that “the Portuguese men” moves when they call“the old Jamaican women” “‘sweetie”’ and “‘dahling’.” Immediately following Poem XXII in Thirsty is a poem that depicts the corner of Yonge and Bloor as a site of violence and sexual exploitation. Immediately preceding it is a poem that ends with the word – ‘“thirsty”’– that gives the volume its title and that occasions the only phrase in Poem XXII that has yet to be quoted: “which is to say, human”(40). To be fully “human,” the three poems and the volume as a whole imply, is to thirst for the human, and to do what can be done to make being human bearable for all. It is – or should be – what we all long for.

    That the word “thirsty” is the final utterance of a young black man who has been shot in the chest by a white policeman gives to Poem XXII, to the other more-or-less celebratory pieces in Thirsty, and to the volume as a whole the quality of tragedy as defined by Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo and honed into contemporary relevance by the English poet Tony Harrison. “[I]f there were to be only one Muse left … I think I would have to choose … the Muse of Tragedy,” writes Harrison in “Facing Up to the Muses,” for

[t]his is the Muse … “who deals with the most monstrous and appalling that life can offer, when it turns upon us its Medusa-like countenance of frenzy and despair”…. [Tragedy] allows us to gaze into [that terror], “yet,” … Nietzsche add[s], “… without being turned to stone by the vision.” In an age when the spirit of affirmation has almost been burned out of us, more than ever we need what Nietzsche also calls tragedy …, “the highest art to say yes to life.” (16)

In the poems of Thirsty and in her oeuvre as a whole, Dionne Brand gazes unflinchingly at the pollution, the ugliness, the violence, the poverty, the injustice, the racial prejudice, and the sexual and economic exploitation that are still appallingly present in Canada, but she also celebrates the existence of life-affirming beauty, gentleness, love, sociability, individuality, adaptability, and compassion. In so doing, she challenges her readers to recognize their own faces in the mirror that she holds up to Canadian life and to ask where they stand in the perennial human struggle between “the spirit of affirmation” and the powers outside and within us whose fearful energies can create monsters and whose terrible gaze can turn people to stone.


  1. This term was of course coined and applied to African-American experience by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where it is defined as “a peculiar sensation …, [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others …,” as a felt “two-ness,
  2. – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body” (8-9). In “Contesting a Model of Blackness: a Meditation of African-Canadian African Americanism; or the Structures of African Canadianité,” George Elliott Clarke asserts that “the African-Canadian consciousness is not simply dualistic” but “divided severally” (40), a condition consonant with postmodern constructions of identity as fragmentary. See also Dina Georgis on the “persistent attachment … to two nations” that “begets persistent ambivalence” (29) in the protagonists of Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (which will be discussed in due course) and Ian Hacking’s Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory for a discussion of the displacement of “soul” by “memory” in the late nineteenth century that is of considerable relevance to the notion of consciousness as well as memory in Brand’s work and the surrounding theory and criticism. [back]
  3. In a conversation with Paulo da Costa in October 2001, Brand replied as follows to questions about whether “Canadians have an advantage in understanding issues of identity” because of “our multicultural mosaic” and tradition of tolerance: “No, I don’t think we are in a position to say that we’ve got this or that figured out. I think we are in an interesting state of becoming. I think there are great possibilities. When I walk around Toronto, the city I live in primarily, and I see people from all over the world make a living out of it, I think that’s fantastic. Fabulous possibilities exist, things haven’t been worked out, and we see the becoming of it. We’re in the middle of becoming, we have these yet-to-become people, and that’s interesting, definitely. But … other issues remain”: “[t]he blood boils in Canada around the French / English conflict, and the ground boils around First Nations issues” (2-3). [back]
  4. Elsewhere in A Map to the Door of No Return, Brand registers the “glittering glass doors, … self-conscious nearness, [and] … disposable modernity” of a Toronto theatre, perhaps the Prince of Wales Theatre or Roy Thomson Hall (109). See also Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (1996), where the chants of protestors “bounce … back and forth against the stalactites of business and money” in Toronto’s “glass-towered Canada Place” (186-87). In Brand’s descriptions of Canada Place and the CBC building, it is apparent that she associates dominating architecture with white cultural and financial dominance. [back]
  5. Brand’s 1999 novel At the Full and Change of the Moon is infused with a similar but bleaker conception/perception of Toronto: “I am here in a city at the end of the world, Mama,” writes Eulalia, a Black immigrant from Trinidad. “It is rubble. It is where everyone has been swept up, all of it, all of us are debris, things that a land cleaning itself spits up. It is the end of the world here. The office buildings and factory buildings and houses and shops and garages all wreathed in oil and dust and piled up on top of themselves. It is as if some pustule erupted from the ground and it is this city. It is bloated and dry at the same time, crumbling with newness, rubbled in glitter…. The streets here are full of decay…. Mama, everyone here is decaying. When I first came they were all new, at least they all seemed brand new all the time. Now they are all decaying in the streets, and the streets themselves seem old and crumbling, the concrete is chipped and old garbage bags decay in the gutters (238, 240). [back]
  6. “If God will.” [back]
  7. See also “the tiny shops of untrue recollections” in the opening poem in Thirsty (1). [back]
  8. Brand’s most recent novel, What We All Long For (2005), is centrally concerned with transformations of identity, a theme laid out programmatically in its opening chapter:
  9. “at any crossroads there are permutations of existence. People turn into other people imperceptibly, unconsciously.... In this city [Toronto] there are Bulgarian mechanics, Eritrean accountants, Colombian café owners ... Tamil cooks in Thai restaurants, Calebrese boys with Jamaican accents ... Russian doctors changing tires ... Haitian and Bengali taxi drivers with Irish dispatchers” (5, and see 20, 291, 310, and elsewhere).[back]
  10. The fluid and hybrid nature of Toronto is also apparent in the streetscapes of Brand’s fiction, as, for example, in the following passages in her 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Here and in What We Long For: “Old house turned into an office. The street pushed open diagonally from St Clair Avenue. Vaughan Road. At the bottom was a church and a Jamaican restaurant [Albert’s Jamaican Foods]; an ice-cream parlour [Dutch Dreams Ice Cream] and a spiritual store took the bend” (In Another Place, Not Here 99);
  11. “Next door [to the bar] the Lebanese shawarma place, which had been a doughnut shop, and had once been an ice cream store, and would in another incarnation be a sushi bar, now exhaled odours of roasted lamb. A stream of identities flowed past the bar’s windows. Sikhs in FUBU, Portuguese girls in DKNY, veiled Somali girls in sneakers, Colombian teenagers in tattoos.... Trying to step across the borders of who they were. But they were not merely trying. They were, in fact borderless” (What We All Long For 212-13, and see 310-11, and 314). Contrast the open and fluxic nature of streetscapes and identities in such passages as these with the description of London, England in A Map to the Door of No Return: “The British must have built every place they settled in according to the same city plans as London. How else would I know that walking down each main street I would come to a roundabout, that streets would angle and twist into an inner square, that the width of streets would summon in me a particular stride, that Charing Cross Road would be right where it was? No matter what the landscape it seemed they imposed the same plan of narrow streets, cobbled alleys, squares and circuses. Then they laid government buildings along the same brown-and red-bricked way…. In the line at Heathrow [airport] we all know each other, then. We have the same road maps in our heads. We’ve walked the same streets of colony” (77). [back]
  12. To the extent that immigrant communities settle in certain areas of a city and displace existing portions of the community, they may be regarded as neo-colonists who, even as they find their place in their new country, extend or add a layer to the process of imperialistic appropriation. “There are Italian neighbourhoods and Vietnamese neighbourhoods in this city,” observes the narrator in What We All Long For; “there are Chinese ones and Ukrainian ones and African ones. Name a region on the planet and there’s someone from there, here. All of them sit on Ojibway land, but hardly any of them know it or care because that genealogy is wilfully untraceable except in the name of the city itself” (4). [back]
  13. As Clarke observes, Brand “has acknowledged … the influence … of … the Guyanese Wilson Harris … on her writing of Primitive Offensive (1982)” (270 niz) and, as will be seen above, she quotes him in A Map to the Door of No Return, where she also includes The Black Atlantic among her sources (see 219 and 229). [back]
  14. The Black Atlantic is pertinent in its entirety, but see especially Gilroy’s contention that Du Bois’s “travel experiences raise in the sharpest possible form a question common to the lives of almost all … figures who begin as African-Americans or Caribbean people and are then changed into something else which evades those specific labels and with them all fixed notions of nationality and national identity” and his suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective” (19, 15). As “a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion,” the “ship … is especially important for historical and theoretical reasons,” he argues, for “[s]hips immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts…. The history of the black Atlantic …, continually crisscrossed by the movements of black people
  15. – not only as commodities but engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy, and citizenship – provides a means to examine the problems of nationality, location, identity, and historical memory” (4, 16). A number of scholars have used Gilroy’s ideas to explicate Brand’s work; see, for example, Joanna Luft, 32-39 and Johanna X.K. Garvey, passim. [back]
  16. The concept of the Middle Passage is consonant with the postmodern emphasis on movement across and, as indicated by the presence of “neither … nor” above, with the deconstructive (specifically Derridean) emphasis on third terms and states between or to the side of binary constructions. In this case, the third term or state is the no-place of the ocean and ocean journey conceived as place. For a discussion of the trans-Atlantic journey as transformative for early British emigrants to Canada, see my “Breaking the ‘Cake of Custom’.” [back]
  17. See also Garvey, passim, Luft 26-31, and 37, Bobb-Smith, 107-13 and 124-25, for discussions of home in Brand’s work (Garvey, Luft) and of female Caribbean identity in Canada (Bobb-Smith). [back]
  18. Earlier in the novel, Elizete meditates on her sense of “[i]mpermanence”: “perhaps you felt [it] all along. Perhaps it was built into you long before you came [to Canada] and coming was not so much another place but travelling, a continuation, absently, the ringing in your ears of iron bracelets on stones, the ancient wicked music of chain and the end of the world. Who would know riding on the Jane Street bus …, who could make out the wet brow of people walking out of the sea, who could make out the bridges leading nowhere …” (65). The day-dreaming of the two protagonists of In Another Place, Not Here can be construed in Heideggerian terms as a flight from place and embodiment that is symptomatic of their inability to achieve full being and dwelling. [back]
  19. Again, this is consonant with the assumptions and techniques of postmodernism, in this instance the rejection of formal closure as inimical to the processural nature of experience. Related to this are the run-on lines in the middle of the passage. [back]
  20. “Summer Places,” and “Shanty Town” in the former (12, 27) and “To Town” in the latter (16) do gesture slightly towards these concerns. [back]
  21. In Canto X the speaker is disconcerted and “scare[d]” by a house and in Canto XI “banisters” and the “windows” of houses are means by which racist murders are committed and disguised as suicide (46, 50; and see Sans Souci and Other Stories 106, where the narrator of “At the Lisbon Plate” reads in the newspaper of how “African laborers got killed [in South Africa] and, besides that, fell to their deaths from third-floor police detection rooms in Johannesburg”[106]). [back]
  22. Thus the views of Lynette Hunter
  23. – that the “Winter Epigrams” “allow the reader to contextualize ‘they’ as white (wintry) Toronto” (270) – and Edward Kamau Braithwaite – that in “Winter Epigrams” “[p]oet and place interstand each other; each ijs own space; each ijs learning distance” (20) – are not incompatible. [back]
  24. Brand’s depictions of Burnt River, Sudbury, and other built environments in northern Ontario live outside the scope of the present undertaking, and are seldom other than negative; see, for instance, In Another Place, Not Here 134-51. [back]
  25. See also Bread out of Stone, where Brand names “night dances on St. Clair and at Hagerman Hall” as occasions of “companionship” (140), and What We All Long For, where the Paramount and Elephant Walk (both dance halls) are also mentioned, as are Pope Joan and Aphrodeasia (two dance halls favoured by lesbians), and several other establishments (94-95, 178-79 and f., 269-73, 316). [back]
  26. “Here, there were many rooms but no place to live,” is Elizete’s early experience of Toronto in In Another Place, Not Here: “No place which begins to resemble you, had you put a chair here or thrown a flowered curtain on the window or painted the trim of a door pink or played a burst of calypso music through its air or even burned a spice …” (63). Apartments and apartment buildings are especially hostile environments in Brand’s work. “The apartments along the wide street towering out of cement-baked hills … [are] stunning” to Elizete, and in “No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences” in Sans Souci and Other Stories, the Black female protagonist lives in an apartment that “ha[s] tried to kill her” and “hate[s]” “bachelor apartments” (85). [back]
  27. The use of lower case letters for proper nouns is another common device in postmodern poetry. Here it serves to de-emphasize the components of the nation state and nation space. Heather Smyth observes that Brand’s sparse use of the names of cities and countries in In Another Place, Not Here “reinforces the novel’s focus on place rather than nation” (153). [back]
  28. This poem finds echoes in Brand’s description of Ottawa in Bread out of Stone that point to it rather than Toronto or another city as the poem’s inspiration: “After Granada I came home to a city that seemed impregnable in light of what I had just seen. Devastation, physical and political. Ottawa looked wickedly concrete. I grudged its girded self-satisfaction, envied and hated its square, squat contentment. It looked like a fortress in comportable repose, the ground hard, the blood frozen in the cool river veining through it. The thought occurred to me that nothing could shake it, no one would ever bomb it regardless of its Cold War fantasy as a target, its military congregations and its pretenses” (131). [back]
  29. The bar-owner is one of the more benign of the establishment’s Portuguese patrons: “The old-timers boasted about how many peizas de indias they could pack into a ship. The young soldiers talked about the joys of filling a Black with bullets or stuffing a Black cunt with dynamite. Then they gathered around Columbus, the whoremaster, and sang a few old songs” (105). The narrator also hears of a priest who murdered women and children in Angola (97). [back]
  30. Eventually the narrator defaces the statue of Columbus around which the Portuguese ex-colonials and ex-soldiers had sung their “old songs,
  31. “chains several of them to the statue, and douses them in “oceans of blood” that represent the suffering and death that they visited on their victims (114, and see Kathleen L. Renk’s analysis of this “fantastical retribution … [as] both a violent upturning of the colonizer’s institutions and a visionary violence that unleashes the anger and pain that postcolonial societies still experience” [104]). [back]
  32. The road numbers in these and subsequent lines locate the poems in central Ontario. See also At the Full and Change of the Moon 171, Thirsty 37, and A Map to the Door of No Return 143-49 for similar uses of highway numbers and names to establish locale. [back]
  33. By contrast, see the
  34. “Toronto“ section of Laurence Hutchman’s “The Highway” (1975), where Toronto is a “Metaphysical City” in which the subway stations have “Nice names” and saints’ names, Yonge Street is characterized by such innocuous sights as “young men gaz[ing] at female flesh” and “fugitive intellectuals scan[ning] book racks,” and the principal landmarks include the “University and red Parliament,” “sentimental landscapes in ... banks” and “skaters glid[ing] before the Archer” in Nathan Phillips Square, “the library of City Hall” and “the Hall of National Heroes” (Explorations 35-36). [back]
  35. “When I was still twenty or so it was all I could do to hold myself to the platform of a subway, not to leap,” recalls Eulalia in At the Full and Change of the Moon; “I walked close to the walls, tracing the names of them all, tracing the letterings with my fingers to distract myself from noticing the rails waiting. Y-O-N-G-E. C-A-S-T-L-E F-R-A-N-K. B-R-O-A-D-V-I-E-W. At any moment I might have leapt, yet I was drawn to the subway to watch when I noticed this involuntary greed of bodies. I would go every day to think of how I could leap, how I could leave all these people with no purpose, just lurching into living” (257). It is in the nature of liminal spaces that they are hospitable to self-extinction as well as self-transformation. See also In Another Place, Not Here 66-67 and Marlene Goldman’s “Mapping the Door of No Return: Deterritorialization and the Work of Dionne Brand,” where the concept of “‘drifting’” in the manner of a ship at sea is identified as evidence of “the continuing impact of the Black Diaspora” on Brand’s fiction, specifically At the Full and Change of the Moon and A Map to the Door of No Return (13). [back]
  36. Worth evoking in this context is Robert Venturi’s concept of the
  37. “residual spaces” of cities – the areas between buildings, under bridges, beside railway tracks, and so on, that are frequently turned into “parking lots or feeble patches of grass” and become “no-man’s lands between the scale of the region and the locality” (80). “Residual space,” he observes, “is always left over, inflected towards something more important than itself” (82). As Brand’s work repeatedly shows, “residual space” need not be either “no-man’s land” or “inflected towards something more important than itself” but, on the contrary, can be a vibrant component of urban space with its own importance. [back]
  38. In “‘Language seemed to split us in two’: National Ambivalence(s) and Dionne Brand’s ‘No Language Is Neutral’,” Jason Wiens observes of the volume as a whole that it “moves toward negotiating a space ‘between beauty and nowhere’ (34), a negotiation that appears to be gradually developed out of a dialogue between here and there” (96)
  39. – that is, Toronto and Trinidad-Tobago. He also argues perceptively that “in its contestational stance the text intervenes in the social discourses of … locality and that this intervention necessarily has a transformative effect” (96). Wiens suggests that in the final poem of the volume, a movement has been successfully negotiated “from an exiled, diasporic subjectivity to a restlessly hyphenated subjectivity” (97). This is largely accurate, but as the following lines of the final poem indicate, it is more an affirmation of the speaker’s black lesbian self than of a being at home in Canada as such: “I have become myself. A woman who looks / at a woman and says, here, I have found you, / in this, I am blackening in my way … my eyes followed me to myself, touched myself / as a place, another life, terra…. I was here before” (51). [back]
  40. See also A Map to the Door of No Return 123-24 and 140-42 for the negative effects of Hamilton and “small northern Ontario towns.” [back]
  41. Later in the sequence, Brand elaborates further on the incident, treating it more explicitly as, in Sophia Forster’s words, an example of “the colonial endeavour of reinscribing the landscape in order to erase all non-white presences” (167). Now the evocation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes the form of a quotation and the incident is referred to several other manifestations of white racism and resistance to it, including the Underground Railroad and the Canadian treatment of Native peoples. [back]
  42. Other immigrant communities / enclaves that Brand mentions, albeit sometimes only in passing, are Italian (Bread out of Stone and elsewhere), Greek, and Turkish (A Map to the Door of No Return). [back]
  43. Brand’s contribution to ‘We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History (1994) also warrants mention in this context because of the interest that it displays in the development of and responses to Toronto. “Bathurst Street … was just a cow pasture in those days,’” remembers one of the black women whom Brand quotes, and another: “‘Toronto was like a big city to me then, but near as big as now. You can’t compare: it wasn’t built up like it is now. The city was three
  44. –or four-storey houses – I thought that was high!’” (172, 174). [back]
  45. The novels to which Brand refers are The Electrical Field (1998) by Kerri Sakamoto (1959- ) and Traplines (1996) by Eden Robinson (1968- ). [back]
  46. Garvey astutely detects a resemblance between the diagram that connects the matriarch Bola to “many men and numerous offspring” in At the Full and Change of the Moon and Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of the flexile map that resembles the rhizome (494-95, and see A Thousand Plateaus 6-22 and elsewhere). [back]
  47. A somewhat notorious haunt of pimps and prostitutes, the Coq d’Or was in operation at 333 Yonge Street from 1946 to 1976. [back]
  48. See Brendan Wild 147-48 for a brief but useful discussion of this work in Brand’s oeuvre and what he aptly calls her “organic intellectual project.” [back]
  49. Until recently the pronunciation of the “i” in “Spadina” as if it were an “e” was a marker of coming from the “tonier” part of the city, but, clearly, this is not what is implied by Brand’s poem. In Toronto of Old (1873), Henry Scadding states that
  50. “Spadina” is “an Indian term tastefully modified, descriptive of a sudden rise of land” and observes that “Spadina Avenue was laid out ... on a scale that would have satisfied the designers of St. Petersburg or Washington” (33, 34). [back]
  51. Asserting categorically that “[n]ostalgia is dead,” Walcott claims that “Brand’s refusal In Another Place, Not Here to construct a narrative of the easy nostalgia that has come to mark much immigrant writing … puts an end to, or at least signals the demise of such cultural representations and (literary) politics” (38). [back]
  52. See Teresa Zackodnik 206-07 for a deployment of the Bakhtinian concept of “‘hybrid construction’”
  53. – “‘an utterance that belongs … to a single speaker, but … actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two ‘languages,’ two semantics and axiological systems’” – as a tool for understanding the emergence of a hybrid poetics and identity in Brand’s work. [back]
  54. The shooting of Johnson is one of the killings that lie behind the narrative of Thirsty (see 16, 21, 23, 38-39) and for the “cop sashaying from a courthouse after his exhoneration (48), others being the shootings of Raymond Lawrence and Michael Wade Lawson in and near Toronto and Rodney King in Los Angeles (see Bread out of Stone 156).
  55. [back]
  56. See also In Another Place, Not Here, where the absence of memorabilia and “memory” in Verlia’s room encourages her to think that “maybe she had to find out what herself was or change into her self” (156, 164). [back]
  57. The Zanzibar, a bar and strip club at 359 Yonge, is specifically mentioned in the poem. [back]
  58. Given the construction of Poem XXII from vivid images and a snatch of dialogue, it is scarcely surprising to find that the art of Tuyen in What We All Long For comprises installations based on the principle of bricolage: found and recorded items that she imaginatively combines (see 14-18, 21, 68, and especially 150-60). To the extent that the installation upon which Tuyen is working at the start of the novel is a
  59. lubaio” (an ancient Chinese sign post) (see 16-17), it is a further instance of the presencing of the cultures and identities of people from elsewhere in postcolonial Toronto. Like collage, bricolage can be construed as narrowing the gap between art and actuality through incorporation and, indeed, as opposing the (aristocratic, bourgeois) emphasis on the uniqueness and individuality of the work of art (see Roger Shattuck 329-30). [back]
  60. The position of Brand’s work in relation to Modernism and postmodernism is in some ways not unlike that of Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism,” which is committed to the “universal civilization” or “world culture” of Modernism but aims to “mediate … [its] impact with elements derived directly from the peculiarities of a particular place” (Frampton 82). By mediating between “universal civilization” or “world culture” and “the peculiarities of a particular place,” Frampton argues, “Critical Regionalism” is a “cultural strategy” that has “the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization” on traditional cultures and environments while avoiding nostalgia and isolationism and both maintaining the idealism of progressive Modernism and exposing “the user to manifold experiences” that are “potentially liberative” (82, 89, 86). An illuminating comparison could be made between the Toronto of Brand's work and that in the Collected Poems of Raymond Souster (1921- ), most of which, unfortunately, are pedestrian in both senses of the word. [back]
  61. “What is exposed by compearance is the following, and we must learn to read it in all its possible combinations: ‘you(are/and/is) (entirely) other than I ‘(‘toi[e(s)t] [tout autre que] moi’)” (29). Nancy
  62. ’s use of the word “partage” indicates the persistence of separateness within community. [back]
  63. In What We All Long For, Carla looks down detachedly at
  64. “street people” and “the regular homeless,” but nevertheless registers several highly individual members of the latter category (see 38-39). [back]
  65. Lingis’s subsequent discussion of face-to-face communication is pertinent to the “danc[e]” between “the Portuguese men” and “the old Jamaican women” in Poem XXII: “When someone coded with the common codes of civilization turns up and faces us, his or her face says, ‘Here I am!”.... The facing is an exclamatory act that interrupts the exchange of messages.... Something passes between one sensuality accomplice to another. Something was understood.... Something was said that made you the accomplice of the one that is one of his kind” (66-67). [back]


Works Cited