I’ve read a lot of books by Dionne Brand, poetry and fiction, but Bread Out of Stone is the first non-fiction I’ve read by this Black lesbian literary powerhouse. While it’s not my favourite work by her—I prefer her poetry—I’m glad I read this essay collection and would certainly recommend it as a sharp, personal account of, among other things: racism in Canada, education and academia, political activism, memory, capitalism, immigration, and writing.
Most of the essays in Bread Out of Stone are written in what is for Brand a fairly prosaic style—that is, still pretty poetic because Brand is such a natural poet she just can’t help it. The first essay, “Just Rain, Bacolet,” which is more personal and narrative than the others in this collection, is especially like a poem. When I say poetic, I mean this:
Then I heard her sigh, a sound like an old woman working a field, a sound more human than human, and old, like so much life or so much trouble and needing so much rest. This is how old I’d like to be, so old I’ll cry silver, sigh human.
Many of the essays in this book could be called odes to Black Toronto. One such essay is “Bathhurst,” which examines Black activism in the city, both past and present. “Brownman, Tiger…” is a searing criticism of racism, particularly the treatment of young Black people. Brand calls Toronto “this city which treats its white rapists and murderers like the boy next door gone unaccountably and sadly wrong.”
Other essays are less descriptive and more like political theory. I was especially interested in her theory about equality versus justice in the context of anti-racist activism:
I realized that at some point the idea of upliftment had replaced the idea of justice and that equality rather than justice had become what we were fighting for. The distinction may be slippery, but it is a major one. Did we want only to be equal to white people, or did we want to end exploitation and oppression? Because to be equal to the white power structure twenty-five years ago and still today is to have the right to impose inequality.
One of the most powerful essays is, I think, “This Body for Itself,” in which Brand attempts to take back Black women’s sexualities for themselves, especially in the context of writing. She isolates this problem for Black women writers: “In a world where Black women’s bodies are so sexualized, avoiding the body as sexual is a strategy.” She writes:
Often when we talk about the wonderful Black women in our lives their valour, their emotional strength, their psychic endurance overwhelm our texts so much so that we forget apart from learning the elegant art of survival from them, we also learn in their gestures the fine art of sensuality, the fleshy art of pleasure and desire… Didn’t we take in their sweetness, their skinniness, their voluptuousness, their ample arms, their bone-sharp adroitness, their incandescent darkness, the texture of their skin, its plumminess, its pliancy; their angularity, their style when dancing, their stride across a piece of yard that sets the yard off, their shake as they sense the earth under their feet, their rock, the way they take music in their shoulders, the way they pause and then shimmy and let it roll? Didn’t we take in their meaning?
Isn’t that the most gorgeous tribute?
Another important topic Brand picks up in a few essays is cultural appropriation, in terms of music (jazz in particular) and literature. I think she gives a great, straight-forward definition, and why it’s important to talk about it:
Cultural appropriation is not an accusation, it is a critical category. It looks at the location of the text, and its author, in the world at specific historical moments: moments that give rise to gender, race-, class-making, ‘othering’; moments rooted in colonial conquest, in slavery, and in economic expansion. It investigates the positioning of the author within and apart from the text…It challenges the author’s anonymity…This critique goes beyond the mere notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ representation; it is more concerned with how we see, enact and re-enact, make, define and redefine, vision how we lived and how we are going to live.
Every Canadian should read “Imagination, Representation, and Culture.” It’s an intense, passionate critique of Canadianness, how it “excludes and evades immigrants” and forces them to forget their so-called past (i.e., culture), resulting in an “emptying out” of people’s history which “renders the society we enter also empty of the creativity, knowledges, imaginings, dreaming, life experiences that enhance human beings.” In other words, we are destroying the richness of Canada and the people who live here by insisting on a certain kind of (read: white) Canadianness. Brand, in contrast, believes in “many stories and not one dominating one.”
As poetically as she begins, Brand ends this collection, with a brief note on poetry, and why it’s important in her life, even if at times other work is more pressing. I think I’ll end this review with a gorgeous, life-affirming quotation from that last essay:
But if I can just give myself a moment, I would say that it’s been a relief to write poetry, it’s been just room to live. I’ve had moments when the life of my people has been so overwhelming to bear that poetry seemed useless, and I cannot say that there is any moment that I do not think that now…If I can take a second. Shaking the gravel from my shoes. Poetry is here, is here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest.