Controlling the Narrative in Dionne Brand’s “What We All Long For”

As part of our English Public Texts reading course entitled “Marginal Notations: Writing the Margins of the 21st Century” each of us will be writing a short blog post about one of the readings we cover in the course. I (Ross Chiasson) will focus on Dionne Brand’s 2005 novel What We All Long For.

One of the ideas that has come out of our discussion of the novel is the question of who – or what – the characters are struggling with or against in the novel. All of the 20-something characters occupy precarious positions in terms of their family lives, their love lives, and their financial lives. Tuyen never quite manages to make sense of people through her art, Carla never stops moving long enough to face what she’s running from, Oku is a poet who never seems to say the right thing, and Jackie is never able to make it past the fears that she tries to control. Similarly, Quy, Tuyen’s lost brother from when her family fled Vietnam, refuses to let his story be that of a victim.

But what all of these characters have in common is a struggle against “narrative.” This idea that there are existing narratives which become imposed on their lives because of who and where they are. This idea that someone or something else is writing their stories. Tuyen, like her brother, is her family’s translator so she becomes trapped between expectations of being the perfect Vietnamese daughter but also the perfect Western daughter. She feels she can never become one because of the other so she tries repeatedly through her life to reject the Vietnamese side. But her family’s narrative of trauma and loss exerts a pull she cannot fully escape. Be it her financial dependence on her parents, her father’s repetition that she must return to living at home, or her mother’s endless letters mailed to south-east Asia in search of Tuyen’s lost brother, Tuyen cannot dislodge her narrative from that of her families.

Likewise, Carla is trapped in the repeating patterns of her own family’s narrative. The novel constantly compares her to light and in one poignant moment she stares at the buildings from her Toronto flat and sees the light of the sunset imprisoned by the buildings so that you can’t see it directly but its reflection off the glass. Just like the light of the sunset, Carla is imprisoned metaphorically even as her brother becomes imprisoned literally. By biking around the city, Carla seeks some way of liberating herself from her obligation to her brother, her rage against her father, and her love for her mother. But the city never seems to offer a solution, only the conditions for the repeating patterns of her family drama. Narrative controls Carla’s life. There is the narrative of her brother constantly getting in to trouble, the narrative of her father’s refusal to accept responsibility for his children, and the narrative of her mother’s suicide. These narratives are slowly breaking Carla down, represented by her dwindling supply of personal items and her almost antiseptic attention to cleanliness.

You see this pattern of narrative struggle reflected with the other characters as well. There’s Jackie fighting against what she sees as an inevitability of repeating the narrative of racism, poverty, and violence that her parents experienced in Toronto. And Oku as the poet who can’t find the right words to make the narrative proceed the way he so desperately wants: into a romantic relationship with Jackie. Finally, there is Quy, who is the only character whose chapters are distinctive from the rest of the novel; they are titled with his name rather than a chapter number and told in a first-person perspective. Quy uses his chapters as a means to reconstruct his narrative, casting himself not as a victim or a hero but as a product of circumstances he took control of or a villain if necessary. Anything to not be the victim. He rejects a narrative of victimhood and lack of control over his life, desperate to take command of his story, right down to being the only character to speak from the first person.

*SPOILERS BEGIN* The end of What We All Long For suggests either that the characters have all failed to take control of their narratives or that their struggle is ongoing. But, seeing as they are fictional and there is no continuation of their stories in future novels by Brand, the inclination is towards failure. The ending is bittersweet as Tuyen fails to translate what is happening to her family, Carla believes her family’s narrative cycle has finally ended even as Jamal performs another car jacking, Jackie’s desperation to not repeat her parents’ mistakes sets up the possibility of future acts of violence in her life, Oku still cannot make the world the way he wants it with words, and Quy reverts back to the narrative he so strongly denies of being a victim in need of rescuing. If what the characters long for the most is to control their narratives then at the end it remains a longing, not actualized.

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DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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