Doors to experience

By Rebecca Szulhan

Do not expect a fast read when you sit down to Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return. Instead, readers will find an intelligent, and at times controversial, novel. Although sometimes quite humorous, Brand shirks light-hearted humor in favor of a sharp-edged wit poking fun at the conventions, perceptions and the people of society.

Well known for her poetry, Brand has won both the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award. Consequently, her prose is influenced by poetry and takes some adjusting to. It isn’t straightforward. Rather, it is meandering prose readers will either love or hate. At times, Brand over- complicates her sentences, making their meanings somewhat vague. Fortunately, this seems to fade as the novel progresses.

As the story opens, the narrator recalls the moment when, as a child speaking to her grandfather, she realizes how little she knows about her roots. This leads her to embark upon a search for her identity and, subsequently, the discovery of the door of no return.

This novel focuses primarily on finding one’s identity, and often forays into the touchy subject of racism–which, according to Brand, is still present today in what she refers to as the commercialization and stereotyping of the black culture. While some of her comments, such as the question of whether or not whites are "irredeemable," may raise a few hackles, one must avoid defensiveness in order to fully appreciate the merits of Brand’s observations, which are thought-provoking at the very least.

Under headings such as "Maps" and "Forgetting," Brand includes outside essays and historical documents to illustrate her points, a technique comparable to Our Lady of the Lost and Found. Though interesting, Brand ultimately fails to incorporate these items into the story as smoothly as Diane Schoemperlen did.

The Door of No Return is not a physical entity one opens and walks through. It is instead a metaphor for experience. More particularly, Brand applies The Door of No Return to the experiences of those who were taken from Africa to enter a life of slavery. She explores the effect their passage had on not only herself, but also on their descendants.

As Brand illustrates, people are not shaped merely by their own experience, but also by the experiences of their ancestors. Before we were even born, our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents all stepped through a door of no return, creating a chain of experiences leading us to today.

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