Synopses & Reviews
“They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.”
What We All Long For follows the overlapping stories of a close circle of second-generation twenty-somethings living in downtown Toronto. There’s Tuyen, a lesbian avant-garde artist and the daughter of Vietnamese parents who’ve never recovered from losing one of their children in the crush to board a boat out of Vietnam in the 1970s. Tuyen defines herself in opposition to just about everything her family believes in and strives for. She’s in love with her best friend Carla, a biracial bicycle courier, who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother to suicide eighteen years earlier and who must now deal with her brother Jamal’s latest acts of delinquency. Oku is a jazz-loving poet who, unbeknownst to his Jamaican-born parents, has dropped out of university. He is in constant conflict with his narrow-minded and verbally abusive father and tormented by his unrequited love for Jackie, a gorgeous black woman who runs a hip clothing shop on Queen Street West and dates only white men. Like each of her friends, Jackie feels alienated from her parents, former hipsters from Nova Scotia who never made it out of subsidized housing after their lives became entangled with desire and disappointment.
The four characters try to make a life for themselves in the city, supporting one another through their family struggles.
There’s a fifth main character, Quy, the child who Tuyen’s parents lost in Vietnam. In his first-person narrative, Quy describes how he survived in various refugee camps, then in the Thai underworld. After years of being hardened, he has finally made his way to Toronto and will soon be reunited with his family – whether to love them or hurt them, it’s not clear. His story builds to a breathless crescendo in an ending that will both shock and satisfy readers.
What We All Long For is a gripping and, at times, heart-rending story about identity, longing and loss in a cosmopolitan city. No other writer has presented such a powerful and richly textured portrait of present-day Toronto. Rinaldo Walcott writes in The Globe and Mail: “… every great city has its literary moments, and contemporary Toronto has been longing for one. We can now say with certainty that we no longer have to long for a novel that speaks this city’s uniqueness: Dionne Brand has given us exactly that.” Donna Bailey Nurse writes in the National Post: “What We All Long For is a watershed novel. From now on, Canadian writers will be pressed to portray contemporary Toronto in all its multiracial colour and polyphonic sound.”
But What We All Long For is not only about a particular city. It’s about the universal experience of being human. As Walcott puts it, “Brand makes us see ourselves differently and anew. She translates our desires and experiences into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us.”
A breakout novel for Dionne Brand: a story of heart-stopping suspense from the acclaimed author of At the Full and Change of the Moon
, that is also a hymn to youth and life in the city.
What we all long for opens with an unforgettable scene: desperate Vietnamese families are fleeing the country in open boats. In the confusion and darkness, six-year-old Quy, carrying his family’s life-savings of diamonds sewn into his belt, loses his grip on his mother’s hand and, in the crush of people, follows the wrong pair of trousered legs into another boat. His family manages to get to Canada soon after, but Quy, trapped in the refugee camps in Thailand, is seemingly lost to them.
Some twenty years on in Toronto, in the summer of 2002, Quy’s mother still lives in hope of finding him. Her daughter Tuyen, an aspiring artist, and her friends are typical Canadian kids getting by in the city — afire with their desire for independence, they’re selling used clothes, bike couriering, sponging off their parents. At night they blast John Coltrane and drum ’n’ bass, get high and try to find the passion they believe will galvanize their lives. Meanwhile Quy, now a dangerous criminal, is finding his way to Canada and to a gripping, unexpected encounter with his lost family.
In this beautiful novel that is both a hymn to life in the city and to youth, the mounting tension of Quy’s journey is skilfully played out against the rhythms and excitements of Toronto from the seventies to the present.
Excerpt From What We All Long For
The muscles of highway and streets met down at the lake. All along the underpasses graffiti marred the concrete girders. She recognized the tags. The kids who lived across the alleyway from her apartment were graffiti artists. Kumaran’s grinning pig, Abel’s ‘narc’ initial, then Keeran’s desert and Jericho’s lightning bolt. She felt slightly comforted though she had asked them often enough to paint something else if they were going to paint the whole city over. Something more. They had practically filled all the walls of the city with these four signs, and she would have liked them to paint a flowering jungle or a seaside, the places where her mother Angie had always dreamed of going but never went. But she loved the city. She loved riding through the neck of it. . .She loved the feeling of weight and balance it gave her.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
As a young girl growing up in Trinidad, Dionne Brand submitted poems to the newspapers under the pseudonym Xavier Simone, an homage to Nina Simone, whom she would listen to late at night on the radio. Brand moved to Canada when she was 17 to attend the University of Toronto, where she earned a degree in Philosophy and English, a Masters in the Philosophy of Education and pursued PhD studies in Womens History but left the program to make time for creative writing.
Dionne Brand first came to prominence in Canada as a poet. Her books of poetry include No Language Is Neutral, a finalist for the Governor Generals Award, and Land to Light On, winner of the Governor Generals Award and the Trillium Award and thirsty, finalist for the Griffin Prize and winner of the Pat Lowther Award for poetry. Brand is also the author of the acclaimed novels In Another Place, Not Here, which was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award, and At the Full and Change of the Moon. Her works of non-fiction include Bread Out of Stone and A Map to the Door of No Return.
What We All Long For was published to great critical acclaim in 2005. While writing the novel, Brand would find herself gazing out the window of a restaurant in the very Toronto neighbourhood occupied by her characters. “Id be looking through the window and Id think this is like the frame of the book, the frame of reality: ‘There they are: a young Asian woman passing by with a young black woman passing by, with a young Italian man passing by,” she says in an interview with The Toronto Star. A recent Vanity Fair article quotes her as saying “Ive ‘read New York and London and Paris. And I thought this city needs to be written like that, too.”
In addition to her literary accomplishments, Brand is Professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do each of the main characters - Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, Oku and Quy - long for? Do their longings overlap in any respect? Do they evolve over the course of the novel?
2. If Tuyen approached you in the street and asked, “What do you long for?,” how would you answer? Can you narrow your longings down to just one for her lubaio?
3. Carla observes that the immigrants she sees passing in the streets are “trying to step across the borders of who they were. But they were not merely trying. They were, in fact, borderless.” Are the identities of the second-generation characters borderless as well?
4. The novel explores the tensions between immigrants and their second-generation progeny. In what way are these tensions typical of any child-parent relationship? In what ways are they complicated by the immigrant experience?
5. Tuyen, Jackie, Oku and Carla are essentially unilingual. And yet Tuyen acted as a translator for her parents throughout childhood. Jackie is fluent in “valley girl, baller, hip-hopper, Brit mod …” Discuss the role that language plays in terms of how the four friends navigate the city.
6. In the first chapter, Brand writes: “Anonymity is the big lie of a city. You arent anonymous at all. Youre common, really, common like so many pebbles, so many specks of dirt, so many atoms of materiality.” How does the novel address our commonality as opposed to our anonymity?
7. The novel is written in an omniscient voice with the exception of the chapters in which Quy tells his first-person narrative. What qualities does the omniscient voice bring to Brands story telling? Likewise, how does the first person voice enhance Quys story? How would you compare the writing styles of the omniscient and first person narrators?
8. “What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think theyre safe, but they know theyre not. Any minute you can crash into someone elses life, and if youre lucky, its good, its like walking on light.” The novel examines a range of different people living in the city, some of whom meet and connect, some of whom pass one another by. What role does chance play in the story?
9. In what ways is the novel built around the notion of absence - whether of people, objects, hopes, dreams?
10. Tuyens parents torture themselves in arguments about whether they had tempted fate by calling their first born Quy, which means “precious” in Vietnamese. What role does fate play in the novel?
11. In an interview in READ Magazine, Dionne Brand says, “Toronto has never happened before, and thats something incredible … [I]t hasnt 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.” How does this observation apply to Toronto as it is depicted in What We All Long For?
12. “Talking is always a miscalculation,” asserts Tuyens father. Is this true for any of the characters in terms of how they communicate with friends or family?
13. The concept of innocence recurs throughout the novel. For example, Oku observes that Jackies face has “no innocence whatsoever.” Jackie, in turn, criticizes Okus poems for the innocence they portray. She says. “I dont trust innocence … I know whats going to happen to me.” How do each of the characters perceive innocence?