Dionne Brand on challenging power dynamics, racial stereotypes & gender norms
The Toronto-based writer's latest book is the poetry collection Nomenclature
Dionne Brand is one of Canada's most decorated and celebrated writers. As a queer black novelist, poet and filmmaker, she has been creating in various mediums for over 40 years. She is a member of the Order of Canada and has won numerous awards, including the 1997 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry for the collection Land to Light On and the 2006 Toronto Book Award for the novel What We All Long For.
Her latest book, Nomenclature collects eight volumes of the celebrated poet and author's work that were originally published between 1982 and 2010. With a critical introduction by the literary scholar and theorist Christina Sharpe, the book features a new long poem, the titular Nomenclature for the Time Being, which is a thoughtful and wide-ranging reflection on location, consciousness, time and the current state of the world.
In May of 2019, Brand was awarded the Blue Metropolis Violet Literary Prize, presented to an LGBTQ writer for their body of work.
Upon receiving the award, Brand spoke to CBC's Nantali Indongo and reflected on her career of challenging traditional power structures and pushing back against racial and gender stereotypes.
"I had a colonial education where I read all those 19th-century English novels and Elizabethan poetry. I was curious about what literature might do to describe my own life and the lives of people who were like me. I understood its power because literature is such a seductive enterprise. Narrative is so seductive. I found poetry to be doubly so, and doubly effective in undoing that heteronormative, European imperialist narrative.
I was curious about what literature might do to describe my own life and the lives of people who were like me.
"My grandfather was a very learned man and we read a lot. He was politically conscious of the independence movements of that period in the Caribbean. We were attuned to the anti-imperialist or anti-colonial politics at the time. We were a highly politicized family and a household of readers."
Not queer writing, just writing
"How do you define heterosexual writing? It's as if queer writing is something quite different or something extra. As if heteronormative occupies the general space in some way, and this is the add-on. Well it isn't. I think it is part of people's existence, people's daily life, people's interpretations of the world, who they love, what they find beautiful, what they find necessary. It's simply an expression of that.
There has been a lot of work created around that existence, such a lot of fine and beautiful work that queerness is part of everyone's artistic practice.
"We exist. There has been a lot of work created around that existence, such a lot of fine and beautiful work that queerness is part of everyone's artistic practice, actually. It's not a surprise, but a corrective. That's the organization of people into oppressive structures. In the same ways that black writing or South Asian writing or any kind of writing is squeezed out of what is called 'the mainstream,' but yet feeds the mainstream. It's just about oppression. Regular everyday oppression."
Continuing the work
"I don't want to be pessimistic about what has and hasn't changed. I think people live brilliantly, innovatively and improvisationally. People improvise all the time. It's not like you can keep people down. People sing, they dance, they make music, they make literature — they ignore the BS and they continue to live brilliant lives in all these movements that press into the constricted world.
"There are so many poets — not just me — talking about queer life, talking about black life, talking about women's lives. There are tons of of writers, musicians, dramatists, artists of all kinds bringing their incredible resources, their talent, their imagination of another world to bear on that. That's where beautiful things are happening in the art world, truthfully."
Poetry is alive
"There is so much new and beautiful work out there. They are producing, in a sense, the imaginary that we want to walk into. They have such various and vast experiences. What it reflects is this wide experience, the wide imaginaries that consist this space that is called Canada. That's what I'm hoping to be part of making.
Poetry gives one the possibility of thinking newly all the time.
"But it's really exciting out there. People always say that poetry is dead. I don't know what they're talking about; I've worked in it for 40 years! There are so many young poets out there, and so I'm happy about that. Poetry gives one the possibility of thinking newly all the time. A metaphor is a beautiful object that doubles up meaning and that also changes meaning, that breaks meaning. I'm excited about what those texts do in the world and what the effects they have on the people who read them and think them and think with them."
Dionne Brand's comments have been edited for length and clarity.