The Treachery of Images, the Violence of Narrative

• February 2022

 

Everyone says the little girl looks like me. I doubt it. I do not recognize myself. Already I am changed.1

Dionne Brand’s An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading explores what it means to write one’s self into being when one has been read into empire as abject and object. The essay, published in 2020 as part of the Canadian Literature Centre Kreisel Lecture Series, begins with a simple declarative statement—“There is a photograph of me taken when I was a child”—but then goes on to trouble the photograph as memory object and instrument of ontological certitude:

I do not recognize myself, though I seem to remember the day and the event. The little girl, reputed to be me, in the photograph is about three or four years old. It is the earliest and only photograph of this period. They say that I am one of the four children in this photograph; the three others are my sisters and my closest cousin. I recognize them. We are four girls. I am alleged to be second from the left, third from the right. We all have white ribbons in our hair. We are taking a photograph to send to England to my mother and her younger sister, who are in England becoming nurses. (3; emphasis mine)

This autobiographical gesture, at first glance, appears to authorize the narratorial I/eye in ways consonant with the history and precedence of the genre as a textual signifier of Western colonial and imperial subjectivity. As Lisa Lowe notes in The Intimacies of Four Continents, the genre of autobiography, with its emphasis on “individual achievement of liberty” through the civilizing forces of colonial pedagogies, “emerged alongside liberal economics and political philosophy.”2 But as Brand’s work with the ideological foundation of representation attests, appearances can and do deceive.

Brand’s “essay” is methodological. The title alone evokes and destabilizes genre. At the level of the line, Brand’s use of the indefinite article in the first prepositional phrase—“an autobiography”—extricates it from canonical specificity. This is not “an autobiography of the autobiography,” which would distill all life writing to the genre of autobiography. That is not the work this text does. Instead, readers are given an addendum, the prepositional phrase “of reading,” as a grammatical mechanism to emphasize process, to emphasize encounters and transformations. Brand’s text invokes and is a counternarrative of self-authorship that challenges the cultural place of autobiography as a genre, the primacy of Anglo-American ideological and cultural supremacy, and the discursive subjugation of Caribbean aesthetic and cultural production. Brand deploys a trope of photographic misrecognition, a memory object of her own creation, one that has appeared before in her fiction writing, in service of what is ultimately a wide-ranging critique of colonial, neocolonial, and imperial representational practices that have sought and failed to contain the Caribbean woman.

“Photograph,” a short story from Brand’s 1988 collection Sans Souci, and Other Stories, begins with a narrator claiming, “My grandmother has left no trace, no sign of her self. There is no photograph, except one which she took with much trouble for her identity card.” The story then recalls the day the narrator’s grandmother, “with fear in her eyes,” left home, an extraordinary event in and of itself, to have her picture taken for the purpose of voter registration.3 This only photograph in existence, a memory object, a hidden, protected, “wrinkled and chewed up” thing that signifies a defamiliarization of the familiar, is incapable of containing the woman the narrator knows and loves: “The photograph now does not look like her. It is gray and pained. In real life, she was round and comfortable. When we knew her she had a full lap and beautiful arms; her cocoa grown skin smelled of wood smoke and familiar.”4

The narrator in this short story is situated in relation to three photographic memory objects, the first of which is the image on her grandmother’s voter registration ID. In this instance, the photograph is an imposition of and for the “regulatory needs of the state” that rendered this woman, who had managed to care and nurture her grandchildren under conditions of deprivation, a spectacle of incapacity.5 “She had to wait,” the narrator recalls, “leaning on my sister and having people stare at her, she said. All that indignity, and the pain which always appeared in her back at these moments, had made her barely able to walk back to the house.”6 The ID photo is a metaphor of colonial representational discourses that incites recollection and repositioning of the narratorial I/eye in relation to intimate and national memory. The adult narrator, looking back on this moment when she and her sisters and cousins took advantage of the family matriarch’s absence to run amok, shares with the reader an evolved, more astute understanding of the symbolic weight of her grandmother’s trip in the context of evolving definitions of citizenship in postindependence times. The experience that the narrator (and the narrator’s subjects) has with the photograph taken for official purposes is a misrecognition comparable to that encountered by Frantz Fanon’s narratorial I/eye in Black Skin, White Masks when he sits in a darkened theater waiting for a cascade of cinematic misrepresentations of Blackness to populate the screen.7 The cognitive dissonance experienced by Fanon’s spectator and Brand’s protagonist is commensurate to that experienced by Caribbean subjects, interpolated into a British canonical literary and cultural education and confronted with misshapen metonymic representations of Black womanhood. Brand locates her critical I/eye in a genealogy of Caribbean scholars, writers, and intimacies in Caribbean life, and she does so through locating herself, a critical persona, and her own oeuvre in the archive of memory from which she pulls.

The second reference in the short story to photographic image-capture is a scene in which the narrator and her sisters and cousins sit, or are being wrangled to sit, for a photograph intended for their mothers and aunts who have traveled to work as nurses in England:

There’s a photograph of Genevieve and me and two of my sisters someplace. We took it to send to England. My grandmother dressed us up, put my big sister in charge of us, giving her 50 cents tied up in a handkerchief and pinned to the waistband of her dress, and warned us not to give her any trouble. We marched to Wong’s Studio on the Coffee, the main road in our town, and fidgeted as Mr. Wong fixed us in front of a promenade scene to take our picture. My little sister cried through it all and sucked her fingers. Nobody knows that it’s me in the photograph, but my sisters and Genevieve look like themselves.8

This textual memory object from “Photograph”—of which the “taking” is certain but the current physical location is not—is repurposed as a rhetorical leit motif in An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading. The repeated allusions to the photograph, and the incommensurabilities produced by image-capture, metaphorize the ways colonial pedagogies, like photographs, in their attempt to “fix” objects, tell incomplete stories, producing disjunctions and misrecognitions of the “self.” Brand’s interpolation of the anecdote at the opening of An Autobiography stresses misrecognition, the inability of Brand’s I/eye to recognize her “self” in the little girl “reputed” and “alleged” to be her in the photograph.

This trope of photographic (mis)recognition has many literary antecedents, the most familiar of which is probably Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which Janie, the central protagonist, experiences a crisis when she sees a photograph of herself at a young age: “Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me.” This inability to recognize her “black self” transforms Janie into an object of derision, for she had thought she was “just like the rest.”9 Brand redeploys this trope in her writings but to different ends. In An Autobiography it functions not as an anecdote of racial misrecognition but as a challenge to Anglo-colonial representations of Black ontology. This is a different I/eye. Just as Brand’s own colonial education could not contain her, so too the camera and the photograph, which have historically served as instruments to police and discipline Black subjects, “cannot hold the girls in” (6).

The third image referenced in “Photograph” is of the narrator’s mother, astride a bicycle. This photograph, sent home from England, functions as a signifier of the vexed relations of diasporic mothers to their children who, out of necessity, have been left behind. In this textual moment, the memory object is a source of speculation and tension. The narrator ventures as to how her mother “must have” moved through the hostile cultural and literal terrain of England, how she “must have hated” the cold and unforgiving weather that “must have hardened” a smile that the grandmother “said that she had” but that here was only “dimly recognizable.”10 This is an image of internalized winter. The power of the photograph is not so much what it shows but the narrative production it inspires.

Whether the narratives appearing in the short story “Photograph” are grounded in some kind of historically verifiable truth is immaterial. That Brand reframes the epistemological and ontological quandary of the Black diasporic subject through memory objects centered on Black women and girls (fictional or not) is the material point. It makes sense that Brand would link a critique of visual representation to canonical literary representations, given her own participation and directorial work in the documentary form.11 Brand has clearly signaled in her documentary work a need to address the ways gendered and raced subjects are hailed into violent national circuits of visual representation and the ways their voices are subjugated.12 An Autobiography is a contiguous work, conjoining multiple literary, ideological, and theoretical traditions and blurring genres of memoir, literary history, and criticism in response to cultural and textual hailings.

An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading contains several examples of counterreading and writing counternarrative. One is the revisiting of William Makepeace Thackeray by way of C. L. R. James. Beginning with James’s critique in Beyond a Boundary of Thackeray’s production of quintessential Britishness, Brand returns to her own initial reading of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and focuses on her (dis)placement and (dis)identifications with Thackeray’s racialized others. Specifically, she states that “calluses” were required to read over and into the servile Black and Indian figures of Sambo and Loll Jewab, respectively, but most especially the figure of Miss Swartz, Thackeray’s “horrific drawing of a Black woman seemingly uncomfortable in cosquelle Victorian wear” (15). Brand’s return and recalibration through James not only critiques quintessential Britishness and its need for abject racialized and objectified others as foils but provides a blueprint for further critical intervention to unsettle and subvert form.

At the level of form and inference, Brand counters colonial autobiography’s strategy of extracting, highlighting, and promoting individual voices out of a presumably homogenous collective. She does this specifically by establishing and occupying an anticolonial canon from which she enacts a complex Caribbean subjectivity outside of the ruins of romantic colonial narratives. Further, in crafting her autobiographical subject, Brand constructs an “architecture of consciousness,” which Sandra Pouchet Paquet notes in Caribbean Autobiography is necessarily multipronged.13 Mining her own fiction and interweaving it throughout her “autobiography of reading,” Brand executes a critical practice that places Caribbean anthropogenic works at center, and in doing so she engages a poetics of disputation.14 Through Brand’s aesthetic personae, as poet, novelist, critic, director/documentarian, she has made herself canon.

The I/eye Brand creates in the long-form essay An Autobiography is performative, self-reflexive, and “self” conscious. It is a subject capable of composition “for [an] audience” and critical positioning as a “reader [who] experiences herself as a floating signifier in the narrative, perpetually escaping from and being captured in unwanted and unrecognizable signification” (5, 29). This is not Thackeray’s “I,” the colonial subject dependent on foils of gendered, raced, and sexed others. Nor is this James’s “I/eye” that lingers in colonial romance. Brand’s “eye” explicitly calls attention to colonial discourses and their complementary violences undergirding literary, visual, and cultural representation, and demands something more, something beyond being hailed and contained: “It wasn’t inclusion that I wanted. I wanted to be addressed” (29).

Midway through An Autobiography Brand describes a self that, by the age of seventeen, had been hailed into British literary and cultural ideology through education, had spent years “consuming this literature, passing through its sentences; absorbing its form, its structure, and its aesthetic; coming to know its rules of character, landscape, dialogue, and so on” (27). She aligns this version of a reading self/subjectivity with the little girl she can no longer recognize, and possibly never was, in the photograph (32). Brand shifts to Sylvia Wynter’s 1971 essay “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation” to unpack the codification of the Caribbean and its people as exotic tropes and backdrops for literary and cultural imperialists (27). Yet Wynter is but one of the Caribbean theoretical touchstones for Brand. Connecting to this genealogy of Caribbean theorists are her descriptions of counterreading and producing counternarratives. The experience of being read into a particular form of colonial subjectivity is not represented as singular in her invocation of “someone like [her]” reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and being someone, also like her, who has “with time and self-awareness and analysis” broken free of colonial ideological fetters that would have her be hostile to Bertha Mason as an obstacle to the happiness of the novel’s central protagonist and by extension the reader (32). The evolved reading subject, like her, is incapable of missing the representation of Bertha Mason as signifier of “crime incarnate,” a supranatural threat to White supremacy and sovereignty and ultimately embodying Britain’s own colonial psychopathy. Brand then relays the stakes and processes of a “reader like [her],” in terms of praxis, reworking a canonical colonial monolith through counternarrative. In this case, she references her own revision of Albert Camus’s L’étranger in “At the Lisbon Plate,” a short story in the collection Sans Souci, and Other Stories. In Brand’s reimagining, not only does the Arab have a name, Ahmed, but we have a female narrator who is very explicit: “Pumping successive bullets into an Arab, is not and never has been an alienating experience for a European. It was not unusual. It need not symbolize any alienation from one’s being or anything like that.” The narrator further contextualizes Camus’ fetishizing of Arab death in the context French occupation of and war with Algeria: “It was customary in Algeria, so how come all this high shit about Camus.”15 The latter is not rendered in the interrogative but as a simple declarative sentence. This is not the same intervention as at the beginning of “Verso 45” from The Blue Clerk, in this exchange between “the clerk” and “the author”: “Who is this fucking Horace? Someone you once studied. Was forced to study you mean!”16 Yet the critical intervention of An Autobiography is absolutely informed by the logics of resistance at the foundation of Brand’s poetics.

The leit motif of a photograph that cannot capture or contain its would-be subjects takes a reader like me back to Brand’s misdirection at the beginning of “Photograph.” The grandmother has indeed left a trace of “her self” in a subject who understands the treachery of images and the violence of narrative and has taken to creating her own. The diegesis of An Autobiography cannot be contained, and the worlds Brand has created are at once “full and empty of her.”17 At the end of An Autobiography readers are left considering alternative modes of representation, reading, writing, and being and are given an implicit mandate to create anew:

The girl who is supposed to be me is insisting on a photograph, an autobiography of some kind. She does not yet understand (maybe she only glimpses) the full-on violence of narrative. She is trying to be, to centre the girls in the photograph, to find the new medium. (50)

 

Tzarina T. Prater is an associate professor of English in Bentley University's English and Media Studies Department. Her book “Labrish and Mooncakes: Afterlives of Chinese Indenture in Jamaican Literary and Cultural Production” is forthcoming from SUNY Press.

 


[1] Dionne Brand, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020), 5 (emphasis mine); hereafter cited in the text.

[2] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 47.

[3] Dionne Brand, “Photograph,” in Sans Souci, and Other Stories (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1989), 53. The collection was originally published in 1988 by Williams-Wallace; all citations here are to the 1989 Firebrand Books reprint.

[4] Ibid., 56, 60.

[5] Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 5.

[6] Brand, “Photograph,” 57.

[7] See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 140.

[8] Brand, “Photograph,” 59 (emphasis mine).

[9] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 1937), 9.

[10] Brand, “Photograph,” 70.

[11] Brand participated in the production of the documentary series Women at the Well Trilogy, which centers the voices of Black women. She was the associate director for the first film, Older, Stronger, Wiser (1989), directed by Claire Prieto; she co-directed, with Ginny Stikeman, the second film, Sisters in the Struggle (1991); and directed the final film, Long Time Comin’ (1991). Brand also directed Listening for Something: Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand in Conversation (1996), in which the two poets read from their respective oeuvres and discuss a wide range of topics, from global capital formations to the vagaries of gendered and raced citizenship to feminism and feminist poetics. She lent her voice, as narrator, to two films directed by Jennifer Kawaja: Beyond Borders: Arab Feminists Talk about Their Lives . . . East and West (1999) and Under One Sky: Arab Women in North America Talk about the Hijab (1999), the latter of which Brand also scripted. She also narrated Min Sook Lee’s Borderless: A Docu-drama about the Lives of Undocumented Workers (2006).

[12] The photograph as a trope also figures in Brand’s novel At the Full and Change of the Moon, and she has throughout her career taken up violent systems of representation and specularization and explored the power and impact of visual imagery/texts. See, for example, “Whose Gaze, and Who Speaks for Whom” and “Seeing,” in her essay collection Bread out of Stone, and the poem “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” in No Language Is Neutral. Dionne Brand, At the Full and Change of the Moon (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999); Bread out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics (Toronto: Coach House, 1994); No Language Is Neutral (Toronto: Coach House, 1990).

[13] Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 8.

[14] See ibid., 155.

[15] Dionne Brand, “At the Lisbon Plate,” in Sans Souci, and Other Stories, 111.

[16] Dionne Brand, “Verso 45,” in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018), 210. The Blue Clerk won the 2019 Trillium Book Award.

[17] After the grandmother’s death in “Photograph,” the narrator claims, “We were all full of my grandmother, she had left us full and empty of her” (76).

 

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