An Interview with Dionne Brand

Interview by 
Nav Nagra
dionne brand

Dionne Brand’s literary credentials are legion. Her most recent book of poetry, Ossuaries, won the Griffin Poetry Prize; her nine others include winners of the Governor General's Literary Award, the Trillium Book Award, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her novel In Another Place, Not Here was selected as a NYT Book Review Notable Book and a Best Book by the Globe and MailAt the Full and Change of the Moon was selected a Best Book by the LA Times and What We All Long For won the Toronto Book Award. In 2006, Brand was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the world of books and writing and was Toronto's Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2012. In 2017, she was named to the Order of Canada. Brand is a Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto.

We were beyond thrilled to have an opportunity to chat with Dionne Brand about her latest novel Theory. Dionne Brand will be at this year’s Vancouver Writer’s Festival in a number of events including Fresh Fiction on Thursday, October 18th at Revue Stage.

Nav Nagra: In Theory, Theoria lives through what feels like multiple lives simultaneously. Through family, academia and love she tries to find a grounding. How was it working through these themes?

Dionne Brand: I wouldn't call love one of the major themes but rather investigation. She is investigating these social relations as they are overlaid by these themes of love, family, academia and what we see as bracketing our lives. These are theories of the social, she investigations them as a social phenomenon.

NN: Tell me more about Theoria’s investigation of these social phenomena.

DB: She understands she's involved in this investigation through not only the people but the conundrum, so the investigation is at arms length but also internal as she is also investigating herself and those relationships and what it means to be in them. It’s how she qualifies without any prior knowledge—an investigation of herself.

NN: Theoria refers to her father as once being “someone else” and we see her become someone else with each new partner. Would you say this movement of self is conscious?

DB: She apprehended her father as once a loving relationship, so she must determine what is the nature of that relationship. As she grows, she realizes that she recognizes her father's domestic tyranny and it isn't overly violent but it’s violent through the idea of possession. Her father is willing both her brother and herself on a certain ideal—in this case an economic ideal pushing them into these shapes. She recognizes her mother as barely anyone except what her father desires. This leads her think beyond these things including the violence and it's hold on us. She is very harsh with him and her declarations of him and at the end of the book with the footnote because she is trying to be an honest scholar and phrases it as “so this is what is what I know of my father.” It needs to be given and she moves into a declaration of perhaps the failure of her own scholarship. Hopefully by the time she gets to there we are convinced of his tyranny and she warns the reader against too firm a thesis. She doesn’t want to be that kind of an influence either but also doesn't want it to be definite.

NN: You weave academia throughout Theory as part of Theoria’s dissertation, but it also acts as a way for Theoria to translate events of her life. What can you tell me about academia in Theory?

DB: What you think is what you think. In the case of Theory and framing a novel in this way, I wanted the novel to begin where we are. Not to create a world that the potential reader will relate to as those are not my concerns. My concern is not that the reader builds a world. I just wanted to begin this novel where we are and where the character knows and the assumptions the character has. She doesn't see the world as if there is another one and this is the one she lives in. She invites the reader in the first-person narration and it can be whoever. She invites the listener into that world, she assumes the listener also lives in this world. It's a novel of ideas and doesn't tend to the reader in the familiarity of the world. The protagonist brings the ideas of the world but not the world. The narrator and the writer trusts that the elements that are in the novel are known and lived in. I'm not underestimating the reader.

NN: Your poetry in The Blue Clerk is presented in versos and though most versos are in a traditional order, some fall out of order and most notably Verso 33.1 is at the end of the book. Can you tell me about these versos and their ordering?

DB: Here's the thing, because of the quality of the argument in the text—if you think of the argument that says writing is the negotiation of what is written and what is withheld—and what is withheld is on the left-hand side and becomes the verso then someone known as the clerk collects those works. There's no order to what you leave out. What you write and what the author writes down is set in an order but what is missing what is withheld has no order eventually. So that was the principle of organizing it that way and very natural to the premise that there is a clerk someone collecting what the author discards and that the clerk might have a different orientation to what the author refuses to speak. 

NN: What would you tell a writer just starting out?

DB: Read a lot, think hard, and know your subject. And know that the whole world of writing, the whole world of novels and poetry are your library and you must know this library thoroughly because that is what you have to attend to and write inside of in order to break out of and it will stop you from repeating something that has always been done if you know this library. There is a great deal of comradeship and your library can't be small, it can't be just Anglo-American literature but the library of the world. Just know everything. Well, try to know everything anyway.

Nav Nagra is a member of Room's editorial collective.

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