OPENING THE DOOR
: an interview with Dionne Brand by Maya Mavjee
Dionne Brand won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award in 1997 for Land to Light On. Her novel, In Another Place, Not Here, was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award, and was published in the US and the UK to great acclaim. Her latest novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon received rave reviews internationally as well.
Q. What is the Door of No Return?
A. The Door of No Return is a collective phrase for the places, the ports, where slaves were taken to be brought to the Americas. I’m fascinated by the idea of the Door of No Return. It’s beautifully apt for the things I’m describing in the book. It is a lovely metaphor. The language of the phrase begins from simple description but it collects multiple meanings as we enter it. It allowed me to begin a journey to create a map to a place where a search for identity or the nature and quality of existence would begin. Because time and history separate us from that place it is therefore a space in the imagination. I felt I was connected to this door, this space. This journey would be to create a map to that place, which is both a map to a place in history and a map to a place in the imagination.
Q. I thought that the argument you present in the book, where you compare Toni Morrison’s and J.M. Coetzee’s visions of Africa, was a wonderful illustration of how we build identity through a relationship with place. Morrison’s Africa is a very spiritual place. Her characters often seek comfort in the idea of returning to Africa and being free. Whereas Coetzee’s Africa as revealed in Disgrace is a very hard and immediate experience.
A. Morrison’s issue is with America — the black presence and the nature of freedom in America. I think that space is the space I’m actually talking about. The journey to Africa is not a temporal journey to a physical homeland but a journey to a spiritual one which has elements of a past that was broken and tragic.
The age of map-making coincides with this tragedy too. To make a map is to create a definition of a place. Some maps are made to places you don’t know even exist — to a new place. I wanted to lift that idea of map-making. I want to live in another kind of world. In a sense, that is the map I am writing.
The book is a map. The form, the sketches and ruminations, as early maps were, allowed me the freedom to pick up an idea and examine it in many different ways. The way it travelled was in some ways the way a poem travels. I could reach out and follow an idea. I could drop one thread and then pick up another one. The form allowed the book itself to become a map to my journey for a new kind of identity and existence. Whether it’s a poem, a newspaper article, a piece of music, a novel, a piece of my own writing, a childhood memory — all these signposts come together to drive the journey.
Q. Did you find that place?
A. I think I do live in a different place, I just haven’t fully come to understand it yet. I sat down the other night for a coffee with a friend, and it occurred to me that this city we live in has never happened before. Toronto has not happened before, and that’s something incredible. And it 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. So now, who am I? 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. I’m trying to be very careful how I say it. I don’t want to say that we don’t have a history, but what we hold onto has to be part of a much larger terrain.
Q. What is the meaning of this book for you?
A. Beyond the meaning of existence in the black Diaspora, it’s how one defines one’s own existence within history, within a specific place. I wanted to challenge the idea of constantly having to fix oneself as a way of finding identity. How do you or I collect ourselves each morning? How do we disturb the deeply troublesome labels that admit no complexity, no range but which come to represent us in the world? I think that’s the argument at the centre of the book.
Q. Do you think the book accomplishes this?
A. If I am successful, probably not. It’s still a meditation to me.
In the end, what it did — if I think of who might read it — I think there’s a citizen of a city like this one, who it will make a great deal of sense to. It essentially asks, how do you figure yourself out against the backdrop of history? What do you notice, what are the things that come together to make you up at a particular moment? I think it asks a fundamental question, which is not just a question for me or for Africans in the Diaspora, but the question of being. How existence is constructed for you. I talk about all these interpretations that you walk into unknowingly, almost from birth. If you’re lucky you spend the rest of your life fighting them, if you’re not, you spend your life unquestioningly absorbing.