Dionne Brand is brilliant with words. She is the only poet I enjoyed during my English literature BA; and since then, I am drawn to anything that she has authored or written the foreword to. “What We All Long For” is my most recent purchase at a used bookstore in Toronto. Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, and Oku are the protagonists, and the struggle with their parents and the search their own identity is what binds these four friends together. This book is an ode to the new generation of Canadians, the children of immigrants and Atlantic coast migrants, especially prevalent in Toronto. Brand delves into the balancing act each protagonist navigates between the Canadian culture around them and the foreign culture experienced at home. She dissects the strange relationship these adults have with their parents feeling the need to protect them in a world where they still struggle with Canadian language and rituals, while doing all they can to separate themselves from their parents and find their own independent way in Toronto.
Brand narrates this struggle with sentences that left me breathless with their beauty. “They all, Tuyen, Carla, Oku, and Jackie, felt as if they inhabited two countries—their parents’ and their own…Each left home in the morning as if making a long journey, untangling themselves from the seaweed of other shores wrapped around their parents. Breaking their doorways, they left the sleepwalk of their mothers and fathers and ran across the unobserved borders of the city, sliding across ice to arrive at their own birthplace—the city.” (p.20) I love words!
Longing is another theme woven throughout the book. Tuyen begins a project where she asks strangers “What do you long for?” and writes their answers on a large piece of cloth for an art installation. Tuyen has grown up in a house of longing and so her life is filled with a desire for something more. Her parents’ consuming longing is for the young son they lost in the chaos of leaving Vietnam. Brand centres short chapters on this lost son’s journey in Vietnam, which is unique from the other characters in its absent of longing. What prevails is his fight to survive and grab onto whatever chance is offered to him.
The only thing I did not like about this book was the crudeness of some of the language and a particular sexual encounter was a little too graphic for me. However, the language used did fit the world these characters lived in so I understand why Brand felt it useful to keep the terminology real.
Another excellent book by Brand and I am excited to read her new book “Love Enough” coming out this fall!
4.5/5 bacon strips