Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For
By Djami Diallo The Afro Vancouver
It is essentially the same question we ask ourselves as the clock strikes midnight to announce a new year. What do we wish for? Each year we make resolutions to get fit, be better friends, have more fun, work harder, get better job satisfaction, make more time for the things and the people we love. And each year, well, somehow we come up short despite our best efforts and vow to try again next year. Dionne Brand’s latest novel, What We All Long For gets right at the heart of this very question. She creates a colorful cast of characters in Quy, Tuyen, Carla, Jackie and Oku, whose stories she tells in a cyclical turn. The book opens with a description of the city taken with the passing of the seasons: winter, spring and weekday mornings on a subway train. Mundane scenes abound in this novel, but it is Brand’s eye for the detail of the everyday which we often miss that makes these scenes so real. We first find Tuyen, Oku and Carla in the ever familiar setting of the subway on a quiet weekday morning. The spotlight is on them in this city, the noisy, laughing, defiant, random trio at the back of the subway. The manner in which we meet them speaks volumes about Brand’s characters. Firstly, it says that they and their stories are tied to the heart of a city that is too busy to stop and take notice of them, much less of its own self. In fact, the story that unfolds we are told, is going to be as much about the characters as it is about the city. I liked how Brand uses this as her opening then jumps into Quy’s heart wrenching story, as if she wants the ideas she raises in these first few pages to stew with us like hot tea seeping. Her clever shift introduces readers to “the boy Quy”, ‘the precious one’ who gets left behind somewhere, in the confusion of migration between Vietnam and Canada has a deep, sorrowful, artful and bitter voice that gripped me in just moments. We sense the bitterness in Quy, but he does not reveal the source of this bluntly; instead like a true storyteller, he peels away at the truth of the matter in layers. There was something I liked in each character and in Quy; it was this ability to reveal parts of himself through anecdotes, folklore and fragmented memories of the night he followed the wrong pair of legs, got on the wrong boat and trailed the wrong destiny. He establishes the facts for us. Hard facts for us to take in but simply, we find, matter of fact to him. He makes no excuses for the things he has done to survive the squalor of life at the camp in Pilau Bidong and demands that we lend no pity to the retelling of his story. And what is surprising about Quy’s character is his capacity to for a quick witted humor in a situation that is really just sorrowful. His is the quintessential immigrant experience and for this, Quy’s voice provides a gateway to all the other characters we will meet in this book, especially as he gets closer to reuniting with his family in the city of Toronto.
And in Toronto, his counterpart Tuyen, the one who unlike Quy was given every opportunity to fulfill her dreams, to encounter success by North American standards, instead rejects convention at every turn. Tuyen is an artist who sees her city in color, except when it comes to one thing: the desire that she has for Carla. This is the one constant I found that drove Tuyen; that determined her moods and ambitions from day to day. In fact, if there is one thing Tuyen does right is love Carla, and even here she falters when she is unable to vocalize her feelings in a way that Carla will not only understand, but receive. Tuyen’s character is indecision in its most literal sense for me. She jumps from one aspiration to the next, from one artistic creation to the next, and every day she thinks tomorrow will be a better day to burry the hatchet between herself and her brother Bin. She and Bin are locked in a sibling rivalry, a contest to be the golden child. Each will make their own attempts and neither can quite accept the fact that there is only room for one prized child: despite his absence, this is a spot for Quy to fill. If Tuyen sounds like the scattered-brained-creative genius friend you can’t bring yourself to get rid of, that’s because she is. She finds beauty in the quirkiest objects and can turn a diamond in the rough into a gem. But her precarious family situation-something that Brand’s characters all share-threatens this very talent, a talent that Tuyen’s existence is built on. The question of the brother she never met weighs on Tuyen and her entire family like a burden; as a result she sets out through her art to unearth the secrets and hidden desires of strangers. It is here that we really return to the question that drives the novel: what do we all long for? For Brand it seems the question is more than just reserved for New Year’s resolutions, it is what we need to ask ourselves constantly in order to reach our full potential and truly grasp the concept of humanity in its entirety. For Tuyen as well as for Brand, asking this question is and should be as natural as taking a breath of air. Brand’s ability to give each character something to ponder, which in turn provokes the reader, is what makes this book so awe-inspiring. In this, she makes her characters seem so beautifully human.
Then there is Carla who is unable to let go of the past: more appropriately speaking she lives in the shadow of her mother’s short and troubled life. For her mother’s absence she feels the need to compensate by mothering her brother Jamal. Carla may be emotionally stunted at times, her movements may seem robotic and she often comes across as being detached from her surroundings. In this, she is so unlike any of the other characters, who for the most part, relish living every moment of the present. However, readers will find her strangely in tune with her inner self. And Carla’s humaneness is as familiar as every other character, or so it should be: she is the epitome of our basic, all too common inability to step out in our own light. If you stick with her character certainly, as a reader you will find yourself cheering Carla on as she breaks out of her meekness and lets her voice literally bursts forth.
Out of all of Brand’s characters, Oku registered with me as the least afraid of the consequences that come too often with being outspoken. He expresses his love for Jackie and his views of the world in the brazen, unapologetic way we all wish we could possess sometimes. He, like his friend Tuyen is consumed with the love of someone who fails to return his affection, but Oku lays his love out on the table whereas Tuyen remains ambiguous, preferring to wait for Carla to catch on. What they both end up with is an unrequited love, a longing neither can quite fill. In addition, Oku’s infatuation with Jackie is compounded by the problems of race, by what he sees is the Black man’s cross to bear. In his eyes, their shared Blackness should bring them together and Oku cannot begin to wrap his brain around Jackie’s rejection. More than that, her choice of a German rocker for a boyfriend maddens him. As readers, we will find him wavering between the desire to win Jackie over and the need to remain true to his convictions. At times he caves in, completely loosing his footing around Jackie, but on the whole he remains steadfast in his beliefs. And in between it all, he deals with deep-seated flashes of anger at the price he feels he has to pay for his Blackness. It struck me that in this aspect, as well as in his affront to his father and in his inclination as a poet, Oku is the conscious voice in this novel: he never fails to remind us of our roots, of our history, of our need to keep a certain dignity about us.
Jackie, I understood as the Black beauty of the group. I found her the most difficult to figure out and often heard myself wondering how she fit in with the themes that Brand presents. I finally reconciled with the idea that she exists somewhere almost outside the parameter of the close-knit group. She rejects her Blackness in her choice of Reiner; in fact she rejects the idea of color almost entirely. And Oku, who is a walking portrait of every piece of personal history she wants to forget, must remain outside of her personal space unless she demands his closeness. It became clear to me that Jackie equates Oku with the shame of her Black heritage and with the embarrassment of parents who never quite make it out of the ghettoization of the early Black Nova Scotian community. Although her story is closely tied to the history of Canadian cities, Nova Scotia in particular, she must run from it in order to keep a sense of her own sanity and is unnerved by Oku’s presence because of what he represents. Finally it seems Jackie is happy remaining strictly as the object of Oku’s desire, as long as she gets to dictate the rules for their interaction.
In the end Brand returns to Quy, whose trajectory from Thailand’s underworld to Toronto is something she cleverly maps through Tuyen’s own story. The result of Quy’s return is nothing but chaos, chaos with six degrees of separation. Ultimately she leaves us asking again and again what we all long for, wondering if we would be courageous enough to deal with the aftermath. Brand brings history both private and public, art, diversity, humanity and the question of human longing together so beautifully which is why the novel had such a strong hold on me. One thing in Brand’s world is crystal clear: desire and drive are necessary and intrinsic parts of the human condition, but there is a high price to pay for this and no one escapes its throws.
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