Updated: May 13
“What is pleasing, what is in beautiful form, is the violence. It is a possession; not unpleasant or ugly, it is a desired and valued commodity of an elevated mind, a good character.”
Less than halfway into this slim book, under 100 pages, I leaned back to face a troubling question. How could I write about this book for a general audience in such a way that I could persuade one person, unfamiliar with Brand, disinclined to seek out lectures in whatever form, to read it? Conversations around the perils embedded in passive acceptance and uncritical propagation of the traditional British and US canon can seem passé. Yes, yes, we know classrooms should have “diverse literature,” we should mix in some colour into our book buys and loans, and at the very least follow Well-Read Black Girl online. It may have been difficult at first but then it became easy this creation of a multicultural reading world. We found a happy compromise in which the love for Charlotte Brontë with Jean Rhys or whichever fun new young adult retelling of a classic co-exist peacefully. Even if one hasn’t read any pre- or early 20th century fiction since one left high school one is confident that Toni Morrison, or whichever other critically lauded non-white author’s addition to the curriculum, was the revolution. Others can be included but the old guard remains sacrosanct, its status untouchable, its reputation, for all the critiques given, unassailable. If a universal value can be assigned to quality, they have it.
In her 2019 Canadian Literature Centre Kreisel Lecture, Dionne Brand did not call for that canon’s demolition. I do not call for it here. But my reading of her autobiography compels me to trouble complacencies and comfortable certainties.
Brand grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, a country in the Caribbean, a region Jamaican economist George Beckford described as “the locus of the plantation system” in the Americas. This is so because colonial powers “planted” the different peoples here “not in order to form societies but to carry on plantations whose aim was to produce single crops for the market.” (from "Novel and History, Plot and Plantation." Savacou 5 (1971): 95-102) Born in 1953, nine years before Trinidad & Tobago gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, she is uniquely poised to critique empire, the literary canon being an imperial project. Even with the United States’ dubious efforts to refashion imperial violence and oppression in its own image, pedagogy there still looks to Europe, the United Kingdom in particular, as to what is the classical (and therefore best) intellectual foundation for humanity. In this lecture, given on Canada’s election night, Brand mapped its limits and questioned its capacity to contain us, when these books are so often hailed to effortlessly do just that.
She began with a childhood photograph. In it she was three or four years old, there with her two sisters and a cousin at a Mr. Wong’s photo studio to have their image captured and printed to send to her mother and aunt in England. Her mother and aunt left in a Cunard ship to arrive at the Southampton Port in 1956, and took the boat-train to be “gathered by” the hospital they had been assigned to: Wandle Valley Hospital, Mitcham Junction, Surrey.
When one collects the meta-data there is England. With colonialism they bought African peoples and enslaved them in the Americas. Through the indentured worker system Mr Wong’s family came to Trinidad. The town his photo studio was in had a strong Indian connection, a group who arrived in the country through that same system. This one photo contains multiple biographies.
“When we take the photograph, we are taking it to send to my mother and my aunt but also to send to England. England is in the air at home. It is referred to with reverence as “away” or “abroad”. England is as much the spectator; and for England, standing behind my mother and my aunt, we must make a good appearance.”
How overwhelming that may be to read: England as architect, cartographer, and audience. Brand took the family photograph out of wistful nostalgia to discern who or what generated its reality, for everything about it is composed to fit into a certain schema. Why was I shocked, but I was, to recognise intimately how Brand lived her childhood, with 30+ years difference between us. There was the list of religiously affiliated all girls schools, as in Jamaica, the churches founded and still retain some level of control over most schools; the oldest and often the most elite founded by missionaries or gifted by rich plantation owners loyal to a particular denomination. She learnt madrigals like “Oh Mary go and call the cattle home” and I, “Oh where are you going my Anna Marie? Going to London the soldiers to see,” an English version of an old Dutch song, although I am relieved to note that that was more particular to my vocal exams for the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) rather than the general school experience. (That was more local folk songs and USian broadway/musical tunes.) But if you were in Brownies, as so many of us were, we continued to pledge to “serve the queen and my country”.
How oppressive. Yet the children, she, her siblings and cousin, are not entirely compliant.
“We must look out into the camera, Mr. Wong says, “Little girls, smile!” Don’t cry.” I recall trying to follow his instruction; my little sister is crying, and my cousin is trembling in sympathy. My older sister is aloof with her own self-arrangement.”
Although an order is trying to be imposed there are different at-wills in the studio, subjects vulnerable to influence but also possessing their own ideas of how they wish to be presented (and those unaware and indifferent to the occasion).
Literature holds an equally powerful authorship in our sense of self, a means by which we construct our past, understand our present, and think of the future. It helps us to understand the world and works in its continuous creation and evolution. All of the powerful forces that came together to create that photograph create what we read from the lightest to the most serious books. CLR James, the Trinibagonian writer who's The Black Jacobins Brand also read as a child, is referenced for Beyond a Boundary, in which he details how influential Thackeray was to his make up and how those “codes of coloniality lay contradictorily and harshly” in him. Brand grew up on novels like Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Others have written on how such texts merely referred or alluded to the contemporaneous horrors but Brand posits that those horrors are a part of the novels’ codes, the contrast an elemental part of the aesthetic, and the system embedded in their production, in the same way we understand the cruelties designed into our cell phones and fast fashion. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as well as Brand’s own short story “At the Lisbon Plate” from her Sans Souci collection are presented as examples of retellings which seek to decentre the dehumanisation and erasure in Jane Eyre and Albert Camus’ The Outsider, with the question of whether they do enough to break the pattern. And Brand describes Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and Wilson Harris’ The Palace of the Peacock as novels that attend to their own expression and consciousness, rather than position themselves as ancillary to others’ meta-stories.
The book’s third section in which she analysed Jane Eyre is where the lecture crescendoed for me. Brand re-routes its famous gothic atmosphere as realised in Thornfield Hall back to the plantation violence which created it. All the excitement brought on with the house party, the women tittering with their ladies’ maids, the men giving directions, all is recast as a “macabre space”. Jane watches from the periphery but is eventually enveloped into the violent fold when her independence is partly achieved through an inheritance from an uncle in Madeira, a country also involved in the slave trade. Brand’s read of Brontë's Bertha Mason’s snarls and groans as “the unconscious speaking” will prompt readers of Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton to think more of Frannie’s determined claim of a conscience when others sought to deny her one.
In re-reading Thackeray, Brand wondered how she could have forgotten the Black characters, why was it always a surprise to see them on the page? I felt a similar wonder with Jane Eyre. I studied that book for school and yet I felt no connection to the Jamaican Bertha Mason, her family, or the country as it was presented there. I was not even aware of how I had disassociated myself from them, entirely. Although we covered the revolting ideas the English had about White Caribbean Creoles and how the climate and suspected miscegenation produced dubious results including insanity, I don’t remember doing more than scoffing at such silliness, passing it over for Jane’s trials and triumphs. When a history high school teacher mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea, I was offended on Brontë’s behalf. How dare she! Nearly four decades after CLR James I was still, like him, “an actor on a stage in which the parts were set in advance. I not only took it to an extreme, I seemed to have been made by nature for nothing else. There were others around me who did not go as far and as completely as I did.”
We readers are proud to declaim on how reading invites us to walk in another person’s shoes, to inhabit their life, to sympathize, to empathize, to embody. But for too many, this is a damaging experience. In our own reading autobiographies we have to hide, to bury us from ourselves. Brand described readers like her and me as having “a mindbox inside of a mindbox inside of a mindbox and so on”. (Italics mine.) It does not end! And our fingers are calloused. Perhaps the only way forward is to look to writers who break new ground. Yet in these times where many call for a radical rethinking of our societies as a pandemic forces us to re-examine and re-consider what our community values are, can we afford to ignore the role these texts play in shaping and informing identity? We must ask how possible that is in societies that wish to define certain texts as the foundation of who we are, not with a critical eye, but hailed with unfettered praise, presented reverentially in schools across the globe, these books where “what is pleasing, what is in beautiful form, is the violence.”