Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Review: A Map to the Door of No Return

[Dionne Brand. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.]

I'm not really used to reviewing books that are not straight-up nonfiction. These days it's mostly history and/or theory. And it's not because I don't like anything else, just because of circumstance. Brand, one of Canada's foremost authors, writes novels (I've read and very much enjoyed At the Full and Change of the Moon), political essays (I would recommend Bread Out of Stone, especially the essay on cultural appropriation), history (an important work of oral history of Black women who worked in Ontario between 1920 and 1950), and poetry (haven't read any myself but it is also widely acclaimed), and she has a long history of grassroots involvement in community/social movement organizing. A Map to the Door of No Return is a wonderful, political, nonlinear, and very literary memoir, and I'm not exactly sure what I can say about it.

I could talk about its relevance to my work. I figured this book would be one useful source for learning about that sizeable segment of the African-Canadian community that came to this country from various islands in the Caribbean, and it was -- not so much facts and details as a more general, qualitative sense, obviously through the very personal filter of one woman's experience and analysis. It provided me with a few quotes (beyond just the one I posted) that I may be able to use. As well, it grounds itself as coming from the African diaspora in the Americas more generally, as the title refers to a search for identity and history by those whose ancestors were forcibly ripped away from Africa and brought to the so-called New World, i.e. who passed through the "door of no return."

I could easily gush about the writing, of course. One of the down sides of my current reading agenda is that most of what I take in is by people who write books but not necessarily people who think of themselves primarily as writers, if you see what I mean, and it was lovely to spend a little time with the work of someone so passionate about words. As well, one of the interesting effects of putting large parts of yourself into writing is that you end up reading things differently. It has something to do with seeing the texts that you are reading and/or writing in different ways, holding their shape in your mind differently -- not necessarily better in any meaningful sense, since enjoying the reading should always be the point, but differently. And I can confidently say that whatever clumsy adaptation my own reading may have undergone in the last decade of endless wrestling with words is sufficient for me to be able to appreciate (and perhaps quietly envy) how exquisitely developed that sense must be in she who wrote this book.

But, as is fitting for this site, I think I really have more to say about the politics of the book. An important part of my political reading of this text came about because it entered in ways that I did not expect into recent conversations I have had, both literal conversations with other people and metaphorical conversations I have had with other texts.

I'm referring to this: In my review of John Holloway's Change The World Without Taking Power -- not one of my better reviews, but still an excellent book, both for its politics and its writing -- I focused quite a bit on the metaphor of "the scream", which Holloway uses as a starting point and a grounding for his book. On the one hand, I find it a powerful device to ensure that human experience and the very real destruction of human lives that is at the centre of how capital functions, are never lost from visibility, an outcome all too common in some parts of the Marxist tradition of which Holloway's work is a (non-traditional) part. At the same time, precisely because of its very visible utility in declaring and ensuring that attention to human experience would not be lost, I also read the explicit use of the scream as an indicator of where Holloway was coming from in terms of subject position, and where the text was intended to go. This is not necessarily problematic in and of itself, but should perhaps be taken as a marker to be aware of other ways in which where this book came from and where it intends to go might be shaping its politics, and therefore as a prompt to do what one should do anyway and keep one's eyes open.

In discussing this with a friend who asked me to clarify exactly what I was getting at, I drew the comparison to the writings of a number of radical women of colour writers/activists/theorists that I have encountered. Though this discussion happened before I read A Map to the Door of No Return, Brand was one of the examples I gave. Saying it like this runs the risk of presenting it in a more simplistic and essentialist way than I mean it, but the point that I was making with my contrast was that in the work of such writers, what might be called the sensibility of "the scream" is almost always present, yet without it being made such a big deal as in Holloway. This is often accompanied by a more natural feeling of balance and connection between moments of overt militancy and the everyday, and less of a shying away from moments of joy amidst horror as well.

As I said, pointing out this contrast was part of a larger discussion about why the device of "the scream" in Holloway made me slightly wary despite the fact that I found it compelling and useful. I raise it in this review because this contrast was on my mind as I was reading this book. For one thing, Map confirmed for me the contrast that I employed. Perhaps more important was the way that it focused my attention in a way different from usual on how different audiences would read this book.

In particular, I felt very aware of the fact that quite a lot of people, and in particular quite a lot of white Canadians, would read this book and somehow manage to blank out its politics, or at least keep the politics disconnected from themselves and at arms length and therefore functioning more as aesthetics than politics. This is not because Brand is particularly subtle about her politics. The grounding metaphor for the book, after all, (though not deployed with the functional intent of hounding theory along a path that avoids irrelevance, as Holloway's scream is used) is starkly political: that whoever or whatever or wherever the author's life so far has been, it cannot escape the shadow cast over it by the fact of ancestors stolen from Africa and enslaved. The book's politics are elegantly woven into the everydayness of the narrative even when they are at their most explicit, but Brand obviously has no time for the coy decorum, the willful segregation of self, with which the dominant culture in Canada teaches many of us socialized into privilege to bleach and avoid our politics under the banner of the appropriate. The realities of North America's ongoing white supremacy are everywhere in this book. Yet given the (artful) front-and-centreness of the book's politics, it has made me wonder about my sense (from my own years of honing my instincts about how audience X or audience Y will react to a given piece of writing) that many people I know would read the book primarily as a literary artifact rather than an indictment of five centuries of colonialism and white supremacy from which we derive unearned benefit.

I'm not quite sure what to conclude from this. I definitely do not mean to imply that Brand should have somehow written it differently so that white folk would find it harder to avoid reading it in relation to our own complicity. It is ridiculous to suggest that every writer who experiences a particular oppression should have to include the "101" level explanation of that reality in everything that they write. On the other hand, there have been several recent blow-ups in the progressive blogosphere in which mostly-white bloggers have engaged with the words of bloggers of colour in ways that demonstrate that they have no idea what is actually being said, and then most have shown resentment and an unwillingness to listen when this has been pointed out, so such basic differences in readings are very politically relevant. Perhaps the lesson here is that not only is there a political obligation for those of us on the oppressor end of relations of domination and subordination to read the words of those who oppression benefits us, but there is also a political obligation to invest energy in learning how to read those words.

The final way that it has occurred to me to respond to this book is to think a bit about my own history and the history of my ancestors. Particularly in some writings from the African diaspora and from indigenous nations in North America, an understandably crucial moment is the point of initial, irrevocable rupture from pre-contact indigeneity. I think there are all sorts of things to be said about that moment, including discussions of how it has happened in different ways for different people, and admonitions to avoid the colonial habit of dismissing as "savagery" or the liberal Othering of excessively romanticizing what existed before this moment. But it got me thinking about that moment in European history. I would need to learn a lot more to say anything even vaguely confident on the subject, but I have a few impressions. For example, I have the impression that in European history, the disruption of indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing was a much more gradual process than the instant of disruption that is the grounding for Brand's book or the somwhat more extended disruption faced by the indigenous nations of the Americas. How exactly did the indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing of the Picts and Celts that at one time inhabited the lands that I trace my ancestry to get disrupted? How has this affected the more recent (imperial) European and Euro-American ways of knowing and being and doing? There may be no convincing ways to answer these questions, rendering them more metaphysical than historical, and therefore potentially dangerous. But I can't help but think that the process was a gradual one stretching from the initial Roman conquest, on through the imposition of hierarchical Chistrianities (and I should emphasize that not all Christianities have had that characteristic), and up to the enclosure movements that marked the beginning of capitalism. But even as I describe it that way, it is hard to identify these transitions as ruptures in quite the same sense, because they mark changes within the context of conventionally understood Eurocentric history rather than forcible induction into those processes and narratives. Or something.

Anyway. In my concern that I might not have anything to say about this book, I think I have rambled on longer than I should have. Perhaps all I really needed to say was this: It's a good book. It's well written. It says interesting and challenging things about Canada and about the world. Read it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Guy Barry said...

I really wouldn't want to read about a map to no return.Give me hope.

Scott said...

:) I can see what you mean, but that's not exactly how the metaphor plays out in the book...what she's getting at is that the point of enslavement was a "door of no return" and it does not allow the descendents of those who went through it to trace self back through it in any complete or simple way. She does not go on from that into hopelessness, however, but rather to other, more complex ways of understanding belonging and hope.