Brother was dedicated to the author Austin Clarke, who urged me for a decade to complete this novel but who died before its publication.1 And I suppose this says something about the lateness, at times, of art and of its frequent connections with loss. But I also name the living in the section of my novel called “the acknowledgements.” I name Rinaldo Walcott, for instance, who introduced me to Clarke. I name Dionne Brand, whom I consider one of the most important writers of our time. I name Michael A. Bucknor, who contributes an essay here, and also Kelly Baker Josephs, who convened this very forum and can be credited for the discussions it has hosted over the years. I suppose I could be perceived as bragging now about the company I have somehow managed to keep—although this is not my intention. I am just trying to say something about the importance, as a writer, of lasting friendships and intellectual closeness.
James Baldwin has written compellingly (for me) about the essential aloneness of the writer. But of course books are never truly created independently or “alone.” Literature comes from other literature, from past achievements in language and narrative, which is partly why the acknowledgements of Brother begin with lines by Sophocles and Brand. And of course literature does not exist outside community, outside cultural legacies and specific bodies of conversation, however fractured and contested these may and ought to be. Books do occasionally end up circulating more broadly than their authors ever imagined they would. This happens for various reasons, including (we need to remember) the deliberate work of mentors and fellow writers, of critics working in both academic and public contexts, and of thoughtfully vested readerships. Yet for an author, the very highest honor a book can receive is a discussion—such as the one conducted here by Bucknor, Mark V. Campbell, and Camille Isaacs—that affirms its aesthetic and cultural kinships.
Michael A. Bucknor’s “‘That Body Always Just a Skin Away’: Brotherly Love and the Intimacies of Men” both thematizes and practices such kinship. For me, the essay is striking not only for its exploration of different forms of love (fraternal, homosocial, and romantic), as part of Bucknor’s robust and overarching work on intimacies, but also for the essay’s identifying of various textual “antecedents” to Brother: literature by Clarke and Brand and critical work by Phanuel Antwi. It is not surprising that Bucknor articulates in typically lucid and generous ways the issues I have struggled to confront: masculinity beyond the constraints of respectability; the sociospatial terms “for dreams, creativity, dandyism, liming, fellowship, brotherhood, and bromance”; and the semiotics of “body proximity and the tenderness of touch,” especially in circumstances when the grammars of official language and representation prove insufficient or outright intolerable. Bucknor also offers in his essay a remarkable typology: Francis (older brother of the protagonist, Michael), as “rudeboy-romantic hero,” being “a variation on the queer machismo of the transnational Jamaican icon: the bandit-in-drag (Kei Miller), the sartorially stylish ruud bwai (David Scott), the ‘out and bad’ dancehall-dandy (Nadia Ellis), or the don-battyman (Marlon James).”2
At the same time, a very complicated question for me is what Bucknor calls the “‘queer possibility’ in black male-male relationships . . . [that] remains an unexplained, unnamed, even unspeakable phenomenon within the black homosocial world.” My ambition with the novel was to be authentic to the narrator’s perspective and aware of the political complexities and limitations of this representation of “queer possibility.” Michael is the narrator of Brother; he is a boy, and later a young man, who exhibits gender fluidity and a certain “unmanliness” that carries personal consequences and at times outright imperils him. Michael also possesses heightened sensitivity to the scripts and artifice of masculinity, and he cannot but observe the “thing” going on between his brother Francis and their friend Jelly, cannot but glimpse the beauty and heightened vulnerability of black queer life. And yet Michael, for now, does not possess either the direct experience or the nonpejorative language to enunciate what he sees. For me, what the novel can represent of this crucial question is duly limited by the experience and consciousness of the speaker and by what an older brother will and will not reveal to a younger sibling.
“Harden,” by Mark V. Campbell, takes up the question of black musics in the novel, through the unique insights of both a major critic and practitioner of the form. I am deeply struck not only by the genealogy and cross-references Campbell provides but also by the connections implied between a history of black innovations in sound and the form of the novel itself. Brother is in the first-person voice; and yet I believe it exhibits its own “refusal of linearity and embrace of an intergenerational remix,” as Campbell here writes of hip-hop and turntabalism. I also feel that the novel’s techniques of ellipsis, repetition, code-switching, cultural “shout outs,” and name dropping connects with the work of the DJ/Jelly/djeli in “splicing genres, eras, and soundscapes . . . remix[ing] the rupture of the diaspora, counteracting the loss of elders and refusing the market logics that encourage the commercial consumption of ‘new music.’” As other authors, I would like to write in ways that perform what Black music has done, and echo, in Campbell’s words, how they “encase[,] they protect, they house, they incubate, they remember, they remix, they resignify.” I want to offer literature that, unashamedly, allows “someone to be ‘in their feelings’” and provides “more life beyond our hardened armor.”
I am also struck by what I would consider dialectical thought in “Harden,” and very specifically by Campbell’s suggestion that “remixes are intergenerational, genre-defying sonic innovations that disrupt copyright regimes and put nostalgia and familiarity to work in the excavation and reimagining of buried sonic subjectivities.” I am interested here in the use of “nostalgia” in this sentence, a term that is often, very rightly, understood as a pejorative, especially in diasporic thought, but might here help me identify a specific ambition and risk in Brother regarding the evocation of black childhood and youth. My sense is that, too often, in multiple ways, black people are denied childhoods. They are expected to “toughen up”—harden—quickly, are erroneously but also notably “prematurely” read as threats and thugs and sexually active. They are oftentimes hastily treated as adults in the everyday and also, devastatingly, in the criminal justice system. For me, the concerted recollection and representation of the everyday joys specific to black childhood and youth—while vulnerable to the charge of being “nostalgic” and definitely never a purely innocent endeavor—nevertheless works to contest a dangerous social myth of maturation.
Camille Isaacs’s “Complicated Memory: Memory and Nostalgia in Brother” also addresses nostalgia but focuses on on the dangers of “‘retro’ items” in art and literature, understood as “consumable monument[s] to a particular era.” These items, Isaacs argues, create a superficial form of “product memory” that threatens to supplant or displace the proper remembrance of community and lost kin. Isaacs’s work here indicates a deep knowledge of critical debates on the figuring of products in literature and visual art; and I feel again compelled to respond humbly and specifically as a writer. I do, self-consciously, drop the names of a number of products and shows. (Isaacs sharply identifies The A-Team, Jell-O, Three’s Company, “Planet Rock,” The Dukes of Hazzard, Adidas, Double Bubble, Fun Dip, Klondike Bars, Eskimo Pies, Walkman, and Jordans.) I did this not only in an effort to both abide by, and pressure, certain conventions of novelistic verisimilitude, requiring topical specificity and concrete names over abstractions; I also did this for what could be seen as a political reason: to indicate that characters in my book, however much unaided and outright damaged by the ideologies of consumerism, are nevertheless affectively invested in, and shaped by, campaigns around consumer products. I nevertheless hold out the hope that the mention of certain “retro” products may serve to trigger other, more significant, memories and processes—a childhood desire for a pricey frozen treat, for instance, illuminating both a condition of economic vulnerability and experiences of brotherly intimacy.
Issacs suggests that Brother might have improved had it, particularly upon the mention of Jordans, provided more contextual information about the objects invoked, including their attendant ideologically saturated ad campaigns and complicit spokespersons. I passionately agree that it is crucial, especially considering the story of Brother, to call out the false promises of consumerism and capitalism. I do attempt this in the novel, though not necessarily in critical language or plainly explanatory terms. In a comparable vein, I do not explicitly describe, early in the novel, how both the The Dukes of Hazard and Eskimo Pies are cynical commercial repackagings of profoundly violent racist histories; yet I invoke the television show and the product when very consciously evoking how legacies of racial terror are omnipresent in the everyday lives of Michael and Francis. Michael and Francis “feel” and “get” this, even though they do not then have the critical vocabulary to describe it. My hope is that readers get this too. Likewise, right after the single moment in which Michael observes the pricey and inaccessible Jordans on the feet of a performer who has “made it,” Michael, Jelly, and Francis are violently beaten and criminalized by the very people peripherally employed by this Jordans-wearing performer. In the end, I would like to believe that Issacs and I are performing complementary work, she through sophisticated critical discourse and me through narrative form and scenic proximities.
Isaacs joins other critics and reviewers who have elsewhere, and in different critical terms, suggested that Brother offers a more complex representation of “the much-derided Scarborough,” a notably “ethnic” and mostly working-class suburb. I am grateful to be seen as contributing to the work of honoring the lives of people often unacknowledged or outright misrepresented; and I would like to feel I am performing this work alongside critically conscious writers of Scarborough, such as Catherine Hernandez and Carrianne Leung, and in the context of what some have imagined to be a broader “renaissance” of art about the suburb. Here again, various broader forms of both kinship and respectful allyship as cultural workers come to mind, including my own efforts to evoke the lives of the involuntarily displaced and catastrophically disenfranchised on stolen indigenous land and in this present moment of indigenous resurgence. My goal in Brother was to do no more than center a very particular black Canadian family—a goal that I feel is both just and sufficient, considering my specific insights and limitations. Yet in attempting to center these lives, I was also very consciously seeking language and awareness that would affirm black dwelling in ways distinct from the language and logics of colonial settlement.
I am thinking especially of how I attempted to evoke the family’s relationship with the Rouge Valley, that relatively underdeveloped or heterotopic setting that represents, at times, momentary relief from the city’s often negative gaze. For two centuries, Canada has nurtured the myth of being a haven from antiblack violence; and my hope, of course, is that Brother squarely challenges this myth. Yet the boys, when very young, nevertheless succumb to imagining the Rouge Valley as a place of escape, a landscape they can draw protectively over themselves like a blanket: “Our hair camouflaged with mashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces already the colour of earth” (19). Yet even with such naïveté—and also unknowing, as yet, that they are on ancestral indigenous territories—they very pointedly cannot delude themselves in imagining the land as others historically have: “empty” and for the taking. As Michael puts it: “The Rouge was not ‘Nature,’ not that untouched land you could watch on wildlife shows or read about in history books. The Rouge wasn’t the sort of place you could pretend to have discovered, nor imagine empty and now your own” (20). Later in their lives, the boys, now youths, again visit the Rouge. On Francis’s direction, they attempt to have a “coming-of-age” moment while drinking a six-pack of beer, but they end up sharing their heightening realization of the violence shadowing their lives. Pointedly, they sip Molson Canadian; and in their imbibing of corporate/national branding “as men,” Michael tries not to make a face at the bitterness.
For me, the most vivid, if by no means the final or authoritative effort to evoke a particular condition of black dwelling belongs to Ruth, Francis and Michael’s mother, who introduces the boys to the Rouge Valley in the first place. Ruth demonstrates to her sons a mode of attentiveness toward their surroundings that seems to me decidedly not about erecting monuments or enacting claims, not about speculation or assessments through the sureties of colonial or even scientific taxonomies. Notably, Ruth was born and raised in the Caribbean, that specific and original crucible of contact, terror, and survival and of markedly unresolved indigenous, European, black, and Asian relations. And lying together with her young children one night in Scarborough, when both she and her sons have been traumatized by a particular moment of violence echoing the deep historic violence of the Americas, she closes her eyes and speaks to them of what they might have overlooked when visiting the Rouge Valley:
[The] little moths that flocked and hovered around the ugly tufts of a plant at the creek’s edge. And maybe, if you weren’t watching the right way, you wouldn’t even think they were moths when you saw them. You’d think they were just little bits of paper tossing and turning in the wind. As though someone took an old book and ripped it to bits and threw them up in the wind. Letters gone missing from each other. A scattered and wasted alphabet. Without any meaning at all . . .
“But look closer,” she said, eyes still closed. “Cup your hand and feel the proof of them against you. They’re not trash. They’re living things. And they’re flying.” (149)
My greatest hope in Brother is to acknowledge life—life in its complexity and thickness and granularity, life in its intimate diasporic reach, life in its full sensory range, and manifest in the guerilla work of covert touch and gesture, but also in the demands achieved only through volume. For me, the representation of this life was an exquisitely difficult formal project. For as Ruth carefully intimates to her children, there is the violence, both historic and ongoing, that transform the feeling human body into “mere” wasted object. There are the regimes of representation that simultaneously echo and renew this violence. There is the deadening of senses among those traumatized by catastrophic loss but also among those confronting the accumulating tolls of the everyday. Yet the wager of Brother was to affirm and recover this life as intimacy and “interiority” beyond the superficial spectacle. Brother does this through the conscious delimitation of a single voice, which can only hold meaning when it is joined with others.
David Chariandy is a professor of English at Simon Fraser University. His debut novel, Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp, 2007), was nominated for eleven literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award. His second novel, Brother (McClelland and Stewart, 2017), has been nominated for ten prizes, winning the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Toronto Book Prize, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. His most recent book is I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter (McClelland and Stewart, 2018). He is a 2019 winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize in Fiction, and his books have been translated into ten languages.
1 David Chariandy, Brother (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2017). Citations here are to the 2018 paperback edition.
2 Bucknor cites Kei Miller, “Maybe Bellywoman was on ‘Di Tape,’” Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophesies (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013), 106; David Scott, “Fanonian Futures,” Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 190–220; Nadia Ellis, “Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall,” Small Axe, no. 2 (July 2011): 7–23; and Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (London: One World, 2015).