For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Here—like me—there’s a bit of an initial hurdle to leap over to sink into this book. But trust me, it’s worth it; and sink in you truly do. Brand is an exhilarating poet and although this is a novel, it’s definitely a poet’s novel. There is something—many things, in fact—deliciously seductive about the language, which rolls, rises, falls, and flows its way throughout the narrative like a river. The rhythm and feel of the words are seductive to the point that their meaning at times seems secondary and, in fact, purposely elusive—a quality that might be frustrating for some readers. If you can give yourself over to the novel, though, make yourself vulnerable in a way that one of the main characters Verlia struggles to throughout the book, In Another Place, Not Here is a really rewarding read. Devoting half of the novel to one of the two women around whom the novel centres, Elizete and Verlia, Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of both women’s intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.
Elizete, whose voice begins the novel, is an exploited sugar cane field labourer living in Trinidad—Brand’s mother country, though she is now a long-time Torontonian—who meets the revolutionary Verlia, also a native of Trinidad but recently returned after an immigration to and residence in Canada. Elizete is trapped in a life fraught with abuse, where she works in the fields during the day and is forced to give her body to her husband at night. Verlia, in contrast, is a radical Black and anti-capitalist activist trying to educate and unionize the sugar cane workers. There is an immediate attraction between the two women and a following relationship; Elizete describes her feelings for Verlia breathtakingly:
I sink into Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning. Limp, limp and rain light, soft to the marrow.
Erotic passages such as this are stunning, almost as if you had stumbled upon a scene truly not meant for anyone except the lovers’ eyes. The novel, in fact, almost begins with such a love-making scene, shocking even to the most well-read lesbrarian such as myself. To be startled by something as beautiful and sensory as Brand writing queer sex is luckily the kind of surprise I wouldn’t mind repeating.
Elizete and Verlia’s intensity of feeling, however, collides with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before them: racism, the legacy of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation. Verlia has committed herself to political activism, having been part of the 1970s Black power movement in Toronto, but even her increasing radicalism cannot sustain her in the face of the placelessness and lack of belonging that plague her. Elizete too, feels this diasporic suffering: in search of meaning behind her loss of Verlia she journeys to Toronto from Trinidad, looking for answers. While she is there though, Verlia’s ex-lover Abena tells her to “Go home, this is not a place for us.” “Us” here has multiple meanings: those of African descent in a racist Canada, women in a patriarchal society, and queers caught between different homophobic and/or heterosexist cultures.
Brand is not lenient in her criticism of Canada, and particularly Toronto, in their hollow attempts to paint themselves as multicultural, progressive, and a wonderful haven for the oppressed, although the novel is never polemical or preachy. See the Toronto chapter of No One is Illegal if you’re skeptical about Brand’s difficult but necessary messages. Elizete is someone, so-called illegal in Canada–how can a human being on earth be illegal?–trapped by all the aspects of her person that designate that she is less of a human being than others. This fight for human status at its most basic is what Verlia has been killing herself for—literally and figuratively—while she has been in Canada, and the reason she returned to Trinidad and met Elizete, only to inspire and then leave her. There are no answers, let alone easy ones, to both Verlia and Elizete’s search for another place, not here, but their stumblings along the path looking for such a place are gorgeous, both in their sensuous highs and their devastating lows. Such a stumbling, difficult journey makes, in the end, a more worthwhile, truthful novel than a straightforward, but simplified, one would.