Books that change us challenge us and console us. They break our hearts, they make us think, but most of all, they make us see people as people. Aside from being a generalized and sentimental statement about our humanity, what does seeing people as “people” mean? It means we begin to understand that there’s a constant stream of what passes for “thought” inside our heads, and it shapes our reality. We begin to understand that we can never “know” another person, despite how much we think we know them.
Dionne Brand’s Theory is a stunning example of this unknowability. “Can we know anything of another person’s interior?” asks the unnamed narrator of the novel. She continues: “What else is there but interpretation?”
If I understood that while reading Brand’s latest, I certainly forgot it. I was reminded of this unknowability when I began watching Black Earth Rising, a Netflix show about a woman, Kate Ashby, who was rescued from the Rwandan genocide by her international lawyer mother, a white British woman, who adopted her. In the first episode alone, here is a glimpse of the somersault that happens:
1) Kate’s mother, Eve Ashby, gives a lecture about an impending war crimes tribunal, where a Rwandan politician will go on trial. She speaks proudly of her work incriminating war criminals. During the Q&A session, a young black man speaks up and says that all the criminals pending trial are black people. He tells her she is regurgitating the same “neo-colonialist bullshit [that] would not have happened if [her] world had not happened in the first place.”
2) We learn that Kate Ashby, a black woman, is her adopted daughter.
I’m not going to lie: I didn’t expect that a woman who could say such things on stage (a white woman who met my expectations of having the colonial mentality that is imbued with moral righteousness) would adopt a black girl as her daughter, but she did. And it doesn’t mean that her daughter hates her or loves her either. It’s somewhere in between. The show only continues with this nuance. It is sheer intersectionality, but it doesn’t feel performed (even though I’m aware I’m watching a TV show), because it’s enacted on the level of relationships and conversations. It is uncomfortable and feels far too “real” for TV. It is the reason I’m on episode five even though I have no idea what much of the show’s legal jargon means.
I wanted to bring these thoughts about Black Earth Rising to the “Writer at Work” series because I know we’re all thinking through difficult questions of identity, representation, and writing the “other,” whether it’s in fiction, poetry, or elsewhere. Black Earth Rising gives us an answer to Brand’s question: “Can we know anything of another person’s interior?” The answer isn’t “yes” or “no,” but we often think it is.
What does it mean to know someone? I don’t mean in the sense of whether they listen to Aphex Twin or Alice Coltrane, or whether they prefer lemons or olives. I mean to “know” in the etymological sense of the word that simultaneously means “to be able to distinguish” and “to perceive a thing to be identical with another.” This may sound like a contradiction, but this is the meaning I want to draw from. When we love someone, we are able to accept their differences and views; we “love” them nonetheless. We disagree but remain together, despite disagreement. This is what happens at every turn in Black Earth Rising. This is what I hope to do for my characters, whom I love. I want to do this because it is truer to the texture of my life and so, to the lives of my characters. I want to write with “love.”
To be clear, this is not the “love” and “empathy” that blankets over any disagreement with tolerance, compassion, and pleas for “universality” to emphasize we’re all the same. This is the kind of “love” that welcomes difference — it is what it means to “know” someone (in the etymological sense of the word that holds the contradiction of simultaneously distinguishing and finding commonality). It tells us that we do not need to be the same to know each other, that we can sit beside each other and not hold the same views. To know someone in this way means that you know where you’re coming from.
At the beginning of Theory, Brand’s unnamed narrator is “taking stock” of her life, doing the “inventory” of the everyday; she knows where she’s writing from. If I think minutely enough and deeply enough, the complexity of all my relations is unavoidable; I will know where I’m writing from. I’m writing from a place that does not have words, but I am trying to give it language. This wordless place is an entire history, felt in the body and in memory, sometimes not even consciously. It’s not easy to give it words. To do so would mean to make it complicated and nuanced and contradictory.
Perhaps this is what Brand means when her unnamed narrator says, “Back to the body as intelligence: the body is, after all, a living organism — with its own intention, separate from the parsed out, pored over intentions that one can say come from the mind.”
Rilke sees it beyond the mind and body: “Things are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist in a world where a word has never intruded.”
If I try to articulate what I’m talking about any further, I’d have to call it something, and I could settle to call it “love” or circle back to the beginning to call it “knowing,” but if I did, I’d be lying, not just to you, but to myself too. I only want to hold my writing to the standard of my life: to its inexpressible nuance, its history, and those moments where knowing someone is inseparable from disagreeing with them and loving them regardless.
Photo of Dionne Brand by Clea Christakos-Gee for The Globe & Mail
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji's first book of poems, Port of Being, was a finalist for the 2019 BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize). It was named by CBC as a best Canadian poetry book of 2018 and received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her fiction and criticism have recently appeared in Humber Literary Review and Quill and Quire, respectively. She is at work on a novel about addiction, saints, and family secrets.