Does the World Need This Line?

A Conversation with Dionne Brand
By Dionne Brand and Chelene Knight
Dionne Brand. Photo credit: Jason Chow.

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Dionne Brand in conversation with Chelene Knight on October 19, 2018 in Vancouver.

Editor's note: thank you to Tom Cho for editorial assistance.

Matter Over Market

Chelene Knight (CK): When I have conversations with other writers and students, I'm usually asked who I am writing for, but I don't really like this question. I prefer to think about the reader experience and the reader engagement. How do I want someone—anyone—to feel after they read it. How are they changed? Are they changed? Did any part of what I wrote embed itself in their brain? What do you think about that?

Dionne Brand (DB): Well, I don't think of a reader when I write, in that direct relation, so I'm not writing for anyone. Maybe I'm writing to, but not for because "for" would seem to me too prescriptive or something. Or too …generous [laughs]. So I don't think of the reader or the audience. I think of the matter, yeah, the matter, the set of ideas that I'm trying to think about. And then work those ideas to their best qualities…. Otherwise, it's an unfair pressure, in a sense, to think about [who the reader is]. And also, that is about market. That is not about writing.

CK: I don't write to someone or even for someone. I think about, once it's out there, how folks will engage with it, and what pieces of what I wrote will stick.

DB: What I try to do is trust the material. To trust the idea that I am trying to do and trust that I have worked that idea up to a kind of pitch or up to its best thing that it can be. If you find it, the audience will find that. If you start to think about things like who the reader is, to appeal to the reader, you start to make some really bad decisions for the material that you're dealing with. You start to cut corners. You start to assume that you know such a reader that well. You start to be patronizing about the reader or your lines. So, really, it is the material that you have to work, not the audience. Or not the potential audience or not the assumed audience.

Writing to Answer Questions

CK: Writing to answer questions, writing to fill in the gaps. This is how I address that desire to write a specific story or piece. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to write in another way. Are you writing because you already have all of the answers? What can you say about this desire to answer questions with writing?

DB: Oh, I don't have the answers. Thank god.

CK: Yeah. That's what I say. If I had all the answers, I don't want anyone reading what I'm going to write.

[Both laugh.]

DB: I think writing is a kind of act of coming to; of constant interrogation, of constant thinking. I wish I did have the answers. I have some.

CK: That's all you need, right?

DB: Right. To have the questions is good, right? Ultimately, to have the questions, to continually probe, to probe the taken for granted, to probe the given. And also, I'm not alone in the world, so other people give me questions too that I have to address and other writers that I admire, past and present, give me those questions too. And I think through those questions. I think I'm sitting in a room with a set of people who are thinking about how to be in the world in an ethical way. Because there's so much of the unethical around us. So much of the horrible. And that doesn't make us any more precious. It just makes us—I don't know, open to possibility. So I don't know anything. [Laughs.]

CK: That's what I'm getting on a T-shirt: "I don't know anything but I'm going to write about it."

DB: "But I know a whole bunch," right? [Laughs.]

CK: Yeah, exactly. It's that idea of questions and how they exist and that's why I'm really drawn to that. [And] what questions am I not answering and why, and is that okay, and do I have to? I think about that in terms of privilege and just what I put on the page. Does it have to answer these questions? And is it okay that it doesn't answer these questions?

DB: And it doesn't have to answer everything at once and all the time. It can answer a small thing, right? The other thing about saying "I don't know anything"—I'm not innocent, however. I'm not innocent at all. I'm culpable. I'm here too and I'm living through now and here too. So I'm not the writer who's innocent and who comes at the world innocently. I know some things deeply, historically, politically, do you know what I mean? I know things and I'm trying to think my way through them. I'm trying to figure out how to live in the world given those things that I do know, right? So, I'm not starting from innocence. I'm starting from knowledge. And then I'm trying to work my way to innocence! [Laughs.]

"Because You Have No Power, Your Now is Never Represented"

CK: I recently read David Chariandy's Brother, which stole my heart. This is one of those books where I felt the city was just as much a character as the characters were. I've spoken to him about writing and shared bits of my novel with him. I have a novel where the city is a character as well…. What do you think about books that do this? When I read [your book] Thirsty I thought about the city doing many things; I pictured the city speaking up. What do you think about books that take the city or a place as character and kind of elevate that a bit more?

DB: Yeah. I think that's a way to go. I do that in the poetry in Thirsty, but maybe also in What We All Long For, [my] novel, where it is a sort of "becoming city." It is Toronto but it's a becoming city because the characters in the novel are young and unrepresented so far, as citizens of that city, but are living a life and actually creating the city. Not living a life on the margins of the city because they were in the center of their life.

CK: That's right.

DB: Right? And they come from various families and with various histories, but they were all born in that city. And how they voice the city or how they see it is one of the important things in that novel…. I mean, I think more people live in cities now than ever did and cities have become these incredibly—and I use this word tentatively—cosmopolitan places, right? I really mean that they are conflicted spaces with conflicting desires, with conflicting politics, with old regimes that still govern them [and] refuse to admit what is in front of their eyes and continue to kind of disenfranchise people. There's all that. People are very agile in that space and move around that space in really interesting ways. I am often interested in that movement, that agility, that futurity—like, what does that mean in, like, ten years and how do people imagine themselves in those cities. And people are always ahead of the conventional or administrative, or people are always ahead of how they are represented—like you're living ahead of that anyway.

CK: To me, that's exhausting. I kind of want to live in the now for just a bit, if that's possible.

DB: Well, because you have no power, your "now" is never represented, so it's up to writers like you and I to represent that "now," which may seem "future" to someone else who wants to hold that down, right?

The Marginalized Writer as Under Pressure to Offer Up Pain in Their Work

CK: Last year, I was on a panel with Vivek Shraya and she said something that had us all shouting "Yes!" She said, "I just want to write about a lawn mower"—so, that idea of just writing something simple without worrying that we as marginalized writers are expected to write a "Black experience," the "people of color experience," or offer up trauma and pain on a platter.

And I wondered, too, is that an emerging writer problem? Is it anything that you experienced when you first started out many, many, many years ago?

DB: Oh, don't say "many, many . . ." like that. How many "manys" do you want to add to that? [Laughs.] Hmm. I'm not writing from a place of pain. I don't think so. But I might write about pain.

CK: It's a different mindset for sure to feel that pressure to do that, so I wonder have you ever felt the pressure to explain the pain.

DB: I think the pressure is there. One has to make a choice about whether one attends to that pressure. I just did a talk in Toronto about the spectacularization of Black peoples in media, in narrative in particular, and so on—and whether one attends to that spectacularization. How one does that is really important…. It used to be a question in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, how does it free us? Whatever you're doing, whatever you're writing, how does it free you? The fact that it can is what you need to focus on, not the responses from the traditionally oppressive regimes. I don't really care about that, right. I care about putting together the life that I see and the life that I see being lived and how delicately I have to put that together, right? What I want that to be—like, I have to speak into my imagination, not into other people's deficit.

CK: I think that's a powerful thing to say and also a really tough thing to do. When I think about just sitting down to write, I think, why don't I just share my story the way I want to share it, and whether or not that's pain or pleasure or hopes and dreams or whatever it is, I think it's important to weave that into your story, into your narrative.

DB: The thing is, how do you represent fully what it is?

CK: And that's exactly the problem.

DB: I think it's only impossible if you allow those regimes, those oppressive regimes, to militate that, yeah? In a sense, you have to say, who are you speaking to?

CK: Yes, yes.

DB: Who are you speaking to—people like you or people unlike you whose plans are to kind of keep you in the situation—

CK: Or to keep you always in that mindset of worrying about it. I just want to step back from that and just do the work that needs to be done and say what has to be said.

DB: Yeah. And how do you come into being? Basically, it's like, it's something about coming into full being, right? If that is where you are, then you don't have to answer sociological questions, which remain sociological questions, which remain questions of classification, and so on. If you're speaking into how to come into full being, right? I know it's difficult but maybe not so, if you just leave certain questions aside?

CK: Yeah.

DB: It's—oh, God. Writing is so complicated. I mean, even when your question is extremely complicated. Give me the question again.

CK: She wanted to write about a lawn mower, so just that idea of—

DB: That may not be possible—

CK: For example, writing about the Canadian landscape. Can't you just have a poetry book about the mountains or something? But do you feel that pressure to—

DB: But all of that is complicated. The mountains are complicated by the oppressive regimes that took over the mountains and we named them …that's just the world we live in. We've got to talk about it, right? The colonization that took over these places and renamed those mountains. I can't walk into the mountain and not ask the real name of the mountain.

CK: I love that. I love that everyday things can be complex anyway.

DB: Yeah, but maybe we are complex. There's nothing wrong with complexity, you know. We've never lived an un-complex life. History is what we have, and we have to kind of think about it and contend with it.

Advice from Some Mentors

DB: I had an early mentor, a man named Roger McTair, who is a writer. He just published a book called My Trouble with Books. I was really close with him for many years. Well, I have several mentors. One of them was Harold Head. He had been banned in South Africa and he came via New York to Toronto and then he started a press called Khoisan Artists and he published my first book of poetry. So many histories there. I was so lucky to have that kind of richness because he had been banned in South Africa. He was anti-apartheid—he was a journalist and [it was] just rich already, right?

CK: Right.

DB: And he kind of walked me through my first book and at some point, we sat down. We talked about it and he said—and I knew then too—"You know what, maybe two of these poems will be any good in like twenty, thirty years, forty years." [Laughs.] But that's okay. I have to get through that and get over that, and then, like, write the poems after. But then there was this other friend of mine, Roger McTair, who took my third book of poems, which was a set of epigrams. And he would—he'd go through it as an editor and he [would say] to me, "Dionne, does the world need this line?"

CK: Wow. Oh.

DB: Yeah. That's a big question.

CK: That's a very big question.

DB: And that's a question I ask my students too. I give them that—I give them that story and I say, "That's the question you ask your work."

CK: Yeah. And it should be that big and that deep and that wide.

DB: Exactly, right? Now, even if you come up short, that's fine. But you've asked the question.

CK: You've asked the question, and you're addressing it, and you're thinking about it.

DB: Exactly. And for some people, to ask them that question, it stops them. But it didn't stop me and I don't think it should stop anyone. What it should do is alert you to the room that you are in and what's required, and then how big you must make your ambition. So that's what he [said] and at first I said, "[Tuts] Of course, Roger! What do you mean?"

CK: "Of course. I wrote this! The world needs that line!"

DB: [Laughs.] And then I looked. Right? And then I looked. And then: every line has to satisfy to some degree, even to the degree of failure, that prescription. That one, I remember forever. I will remember that forever.

Dionne Brand
Dionne Brand was Toronto’s Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2012. In 2017, she was inducted into the Order of Canada. In 2018 she published both a new novel, Theory, and a genre-bending poetry collection, The Blue Clerk.
Chelene Knight
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals.
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