“That Body Always Just a Skin Away”

Brotherly Love and the Intimacies of Men in David Chariandy’s Brother

• February 2019

Because I have been thinking about intimacies for some time,1 David Chariandy’s Brother gives me pause for further reflection. In this second novel, Chariandy continues his creative engagement with the intimacies between sons and their mothers but moves beyond the familial to give focus more pointedly to how black men in particular negotiate intimacies with other black men.2 There is an early scene in the novel in which Chariandy features a moment of male bonding. It appears as a typical episode in which an older brother, in spending time with a younger brother, shares his special place: “Once he showed me his place in the sky.”3 Not only is Francis, the older sibling, sharing with Michael, the younger one, a place of retreat, comfort, and belonging, he is also providing instructions about a way of navigating the world. Francis’s special place is a “hydro pole . . . going way into the sky,” which he climbs to have a “great look out” unto the world. Via this special place, the street smart Francis, who is also book smart, teaches Michael not only how to decipher the codes of the street but also how to read the cartography of the body. Michael is taught how to climb the pole with nerve-steeling care: “You had to watch your older brother and follow close his move” (2).

This kind of navigation requires the novice to pay close attention. In this process of initiation, the two brothers bond, sharing secret indulgences, specialized knowledge, and skilled navigation of the world. Yet this intimate start of the novel establishes also the metaphoric value of the “dangers of the climb” for black male intimacies. While the metaphor of the “dangerous climb” is more broadly representative of the uneasy negotiation of place in Canada for peoples of color (especially black men), it also signals, very specifically, the risks of black male-male (erotic) intimacy: “Touch your hand to the wrong metal part while you are brushing up against another and you will burn” (2). The incendiary image can be read in multiple ways (burn as in passionate conflagration, burn as in hell fire burn, burn as in death by electrocution), but all signal danger and risk. This one-page introduction, which works like an intratextual epigraph to the entire novel, is very instructive for reflecting on brotherly love: fraternal, homosocial, and romantic.

The story, narrated by Michael, is described by Marlon James as “a brilliant, powerful elegy from a living brother to a lost one” (book jacket blurb); yet beyond memorializing the brother, it is also a meditation on both the beauty, and the risk, of black bro-bro intimacy. Although the brothers are only a year apart in age, Michael, in his reminiscing tale, figures Francis as “big brother,” the one who is usually the nonplussed leader, the one who has his “street cred” intact, and the one on whom he relies for guidance in most situations. Also, given the absence of a father in this Caribbean diasporic family, Francis’s sense of his role as big brother includes acting as surrogate father and “man of the house.” Moreover, Chariandy presents the single-parent-family’s economic limit and their immigrant status as factors that contour the kinds of intimacies that develop between the brothers. We note, for example, that the brothers share a small bedroom; their sleeping in bunk beds symbolizes their inventive use of limited space, even as it keeps them physically close to each other. Consequently, Chariandy uses physical closeness or body proximity as a way of indexing the brother’s intimacy. Michael describes his closeness to his brother this way: “He was the shoulder pressed against me bare and warm, that body always just a skin away” (8). They were so close that, like twins, when one brother had a nightmare, they both screamed together: “He’d be on the edge of sleep when some terror would visit him. He’d wake screaming a deep body scream, all cracked throat and emptied stomach, and it would take me a while to realize that I’d been screaming too” (16). This almost instinctive sharing of a moment of vulnerability is also a way their fraternal intimacy is concretized, if not consecrated.

Their dream world of terrors, perhaps reflecting their deep-seated fear as vulnerable subjects in a world not necessarily ready to accommodate their racial and cultural difference, is also reflected in their expectations of tyranny from public discourse and representation. Their bodies in “proximate intimacy”4 with each other map their shared vulnerability before a skewed media, in which black Canadian masculinity is associated with the threat of violence and criminality: “I peered with Francis into a newspaper box to read a headline about the latest terror and caught in the glass the reflection of our own faces” (16). They have also shared what Michael describes as “disheartening intimacies,” when he is discovered “masturbating with Mazola corn oil to the women’s underwear section of the Eaton catalogue” or when he is caught unawares mock dancing to a popular Lionel Ritchie song (21). Both brothers begin their sexual initiation by watching “late night Italian comedies,” “suffering patiently through intricate plots in a foreign language for the promise of a couple of seconds of boob” (12). Later they learn about an orgasm, “one of the most haunting mysteries of childhood” (55); they join other boys in a porn-watching initiation induced by an older man in a nearby community (55–56); and they share information about the use of condoms (57). The boys share deeply during their childhood: moments when, enticed by the forbidden, they help themselves to sweet things from the kitchen cupboards (12); times when they bond through play and the creation of their own fantasy world (19); an occasion when they sit quietly together drinking beer and listening to the sounds of nature (21). Then there is the eventual encounter with the police, when one of their peers is shot; it is a moment in which their utter vulnerability becomes viral along their adrenalin-driven bodily circuits, registering an intimacy based on shared suffering: “I sensed Francis was near to me, and I had to crane my neck to see him, also sitting upright with cuffed hands behind him” (30). After years of closeness, however, Francis asks for space: at eighteen he begins to move in different circles, and he eventually moves out of the house.

From the affection of two blood brothers in a family to the “brotherly love” of a group of men of color in the community of Scarborough—or “Scar-bro (13)—Chariandy deepens his examination of homosociality and black masculinity. Austin Clarke, to whom Brother has been dedicated, is an older brother-writer of Chariandy’s, and Clarke’s work has been read in terms of homosociality and spatiality by Cornel Bogle, following in the critical print-steps of Phanuel Antwi. In “The Spatial Politics of Homosociality in Austin Clarke’s In This City,” Bogle examines the “various performances of ‘masculinity’” in Canadian urban spaces. Building on the work of scholars such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Henri Lefebvre, Bogle found that “masculinities and spatial theory can be employed to explore issues of homosociality and belonging.” Consequently, Bogle argues that Clarke shows “how homosocial communal gatherings are manufactured responses by black male subjects in order to escape . . . the often essentializing raced, gendered, and sexualized politics of external hegemonic white spaces.”5 Chariandy defines Scar-bro as “a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life” (13). By this definition, he not only acknowledges the way peoples of color transform the Canadian landscape but also suggests the way the Canadian space convenes a brotherhood of black subjects.

The duality in the relationship between black homosocial subjectivities and the Canadian nation is perhaps best articulated through Ronald Cummings’s notion of maroon spaces, which he uses as a way to understand how queer subjects in the Caribbean navigate the dominance of heteronormativity in that region.6 Cummings’s concept of maroon intimacy is also applicable to Chariandy’s black characters of Scar-bro, whose homosocial world is both an escape from and a fortress against dominant culture. As I have argued elsewhere, queer marronage in the work of Cummings is the formation of a “private (even secret) society of alliance and rebellion.”7 In Austin Clarke’s work, this intimate homosocial grouping, Bogle argues, is mostly a product of the racist, largely heteronormative character of the Canadian cityscape, where black men are “often subject to heightened vigilance and policing.”8 In Clarke criticism, the examination of black male subjects in terms of the intricate complex of policing, homosociality, and queerness really begins with the work of Phanuel Antwi in the critical ur-text “Rough Play: Reading Black Masculinity in Austin Clarke’s ‘Sometimes, a Motherless Child’ and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For,” which informs Bogle’s work.9 Writing from his own experience of growing up black in Toronto, Antwi produces a critical tour de force that initiates a conversation between two generations of Caribbean Canadian writers: Clarke and Brand. Both the critical work of Antwi and the creative labors of Clarke and Brand are antecedents of Chariandy’s novel.10

In Brother, Chariandy continues his own critical engagement, while extending the work of his creative predecessors (Clarke and Brand) by focusing on a band of black brothers whose homosocial bonding is their response to an oppressive environment. Michael, as a younger brother having shared so intimately with his older brother all his life,11 feels a sense of abandonment when Francis joins the black brotherhood of Scar-bro: “By the time Francis was eighteen, he spent almost all his time away from me and with boys I didn’t know very well at all.” In this group of black youngsters, their intimate connection to each other is expressed in their dress, their hair styles, their speech, and the way they greeted each other; their bond sealed and sanctified by touch: “I watched very carefully when they greeted Francis by touching hands and sharing a private joke” (23). They also “maroon” themselves in a barber shop, but even here they are being surveilled: “Mother had been taken aside by a neighbour and informed that Francis was spending all his spare time at Desirea’s, a barbershop filled with boys apparently possessing records” (24; emphasis mine). As Antwi observes about the stories of Brand and Clarke, “The surveillance and racial profiling of blackness and black men becomes a work for all—citizens, courts, and laws all contribute.”12 It is a surveillance Francis has had to contend with for most of his second-generation Canadian( Caribbean) life. Years earlier, from the newspaper and the TV reports of a “botched robbery” at a convenience store (148), Francis, age seven and barely knowing how to read, had been “just beginning to understand . . . the words surrounding the black faces” that developed a “growing fear in him” (150). In his neighborhood now, the police stop, search, detain, and question: “After Anton was killed, you could feel it more than ever. You caught in the eyes of strangers the suspicion or outright fear. . . . We were being watched by everyone, shopkeepers, neighbours, passersby” (98). At this scene in which Francis discovers Anton’s dead body just after the shooting, Chariandy returns to the incendiary image of burning through touch, thereby indicating the risk and vulnerability of black male-male homosocial association: “He reached to touch Anton’s face and then pulled his hand back as if burned” (28).

If a lone black man is a source of threat to the respectability and (barely polite) exclusionary culture of Canada, then when black men band together, they are considered even more dangerous. Desirea’s becomes their haven, a barbershop cum club cum hang-out spot. It is a place for the performance of what Antwi calls “hard and soft” masculinities.13 It is a place for dreams, creativity, dandyism, liming, fellowship, brotherhood, and bromance. Francis had earned his street credentials through a variety of performances, not least of which was closing his hand over an open knife blade when his brother was threatened (123). This “rudeboy” performance of masculinity also has other iterations that disrupt dominant expectations of black masculinity. According to Antwi, performances of male-male intimacies “rupture the overdeveloped images of black men as aggressive, hyper-sexualized ‘thugs’ or ‘hoodlums’ by exposing the faulty assumptions within the images.”14 It is here in the maroon intimate space of Desirea’s that Michael observes the tender bromance, if not full-scale romance, between Francis and their friend Jelly: “In Desirea’s, different styles and kinships were possible. You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin” (101). If body proximity and the tenderness of touch is how Chariandy alerts us to read for black men’s intimacy (fraternal, homosocial, or romantic), then this is the way Michael learns of his brother’s developing closeness to another: “They were whispering, their heads bent into each other. Jelly passed my brother a set of keys, and they slipped palms and joined fingers and hugged and stayed, and when they pulled apart there were sweat marks where their bodies had touched” (78). The accretion of body contact and the lingering close body touching mark an intimacy that announces the queer potential of their bromance.

Chariandy uses both body proximity and touching to express a “queer possibility” in black male-male relationships. He situates this queer bromance within the private/public space of the maroon community of Desirea’s and within the black rudeboy culture. Yet Chariandy draws to our attention the ways such romantic and erotic intimacy remains an unexplained, unnamed, even unspeakable phenomenon within the black homosocial world: “There is a thing that sometimes happens between certain neighbourhood boys. It shows itself, this thing, in touched hands, in certain glances and embraces, its truth deep, undeniable, but rarely spoken or explained” (104; emphasis mine). Whatever name is applied to this kind of intimacy, Chariandy suggests it is worth defending by Francis, who becomes a kind of queer black knight in shining armor, giving up his life to protect his bro, if not boo. Michael reports the shooting this way: “I’d seen a cop grab Jelly’s arm. ‘Don’t touch him,’ Francis said, and it was over. I don’t remember hearing the shot. My brother just fell” (159; italics in original). This bromance does not have a fairytale ending. It is a love relationship that is defended publicly and death is the consequence of a black man challenging the system.

Francis’s fate reminds us that any challenge to the dominant racist, heteronormative, classist status quo remains a deathly endeavor. The invocation of “danger and risk” to black masculinities on the first page of the novel remains the lingering image with Francis’s death; the oppressive context that does not support the idea that “black lives matter,” according to Antwi, “often provokes many men to risk their lives in order to live their lives.”15 Chariandy’s Brother can be rewardingly read as renewing a black Canadian literary tradition in excavating the relationship between black masculinities and the Canadian nation. Simultaneously, from a Jamaican critic’s perception, his rudeboy-romantic hero Francis can also be refreshingly read as 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).16 The black male-male relationship as well as black male existence in Canada is represented by David Chariandy’s Brother as a journey much like on a high tension wire, charged with danger and risk.

 

Michael A. Bucknor is an associate professor and public orator at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He serves on the editorial boards of Caribbean Quarterly, Issues in Critical Investigation, and Lucayos, and is the senior editor of the Journal of West Indian Literature. He is coeditor, with Alison Donnell, of The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (2011) and carries out research on Austin Clarke, Caribbean Canadian writing, postcolonial literatures and theory, diaspora studies, masculinities, and popular culture. He is currently completing two book manuscripts, “Performing Masculinities in Jamaican Popular Culture” and “Transnational Circuits of Cultural Production: Austin Clarke, Caribbean/Canadian Writing, and the African Diaspora.”

 

1 See Michael A. Bucknor and Conrad James, “‘Cock Mouth Kill Cock’: Language, Power, and Sexual Intimacy in Constructions of Caribbean Masculinities,” Caribbean Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2014): 1–7: and “Canada in Black Transnational Studies: Austin Clarke, Affective Affiliations, and the Cross-Border Poetics of Caribbean Canadian Writing,” in Melissa Tanti, Jeremy Haynes, Daniel Coleman, and Lorraine York, eds., Beyond “Understanding Canada”: Transnational Perspectives on Canadian Literature (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2017), 51–77.

2 See his first novel, Soucouyant (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2007), in which one of the central relationships explored is between a son and his mother who is experiencing dementia. I use “black men” to refer not only to men of African descent but also men of color.

3 David Chariandy, Brother (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2017), 2; hereafter cited in the text.

4 Lisa Lowe, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 203.

5 Cornel Bogle, “The Spatial Politics of Homosociality in Austin Clarke’s In This City,” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne 43, no. 1 (2018): 168, 169, 183.

6 See Ronald Cummings, “Queer Theory and Caribbean Writing,” in Michael A. Bucknor and Alison Donnell, eds., The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature (London: Routledge, 2011), 323–31.

7 Bucknor, “Canada in Black Transnational Studies,” 64.

8 Bogle, “Spatial Politics,” 173.

9 Phanuel Antwi, “Rough Play: Reading Black Masculinity in Austin Clarke’s ‘Sometimes, a Motherless Child’ and Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For,” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne 34, no. 2 (2006): 194–222.

10 Chariandy, as literary critic, has done work on Clarke and Brand, and he has also examined the relationship between blackness and Canadianness.

11 Michael describes their bond this way: “Francis and I had lived together in the same room all our lives” (21).

12 Antwi, “Rough Play,” 208.

13 Ibid., 203.

14 Ibid., 198.

15 Ibid., 200.

16 See Kei Miller, “Maybe Bellywoman was on ‘Di Tape,’” in 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).

 

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