A smart, sensual and witty novel about what happens when love and intellect are set on a collision course. This compact tour de force affirms Dionne Brand's place as one of Canada's most dazzling and influential artists.
Theory begins as its narrator sets out, like many a graduate student, to write a wildly ambitious thesis on the past, present, and future of art, culture, race, gender, class, and politics--a revolutionary work that its author believes will synthesize and thereby transform the world.
While our narrator tries to complete this magnum opus, three lovers enter the story, one after the other, each transforming the endeavour: first, there is beautiful and sensual Selah, who scoffs at the narrator's constant tinkering with academic abstractions; then altruistic and passionate Yara, who rescues every lost soul who crosses her path; and finally, spiritual occultist Odalys, who values magic and superstition over the heady intellectual and cultural circles the narrator aspires to inhabit. Each galvanizing love affair (representing, in turn, the heart, the head and the spirit) upends and reorients the narrator's life and, inevitably, requires an overhaul of the ever larger and more unwieldy dissertation, with results both humorous and poignant.
By effortlessly telling this short, intense tale in the voice of an unnamed, ungendered (and brilliantly unreliable) narrator, Dionne Brand makes a bold statement not only about love and personhood, but about race and gender--and what can and cannot be articulated in prose when the forces that inhabit the space between words are greater than words themselves.
A gorgeous, profoundly moving, word- and note-perfect novel of ideas that only a great artist at the height of her powers could write.
About the author
Dionne Brand is internationally known for her poetry, fiction, and essays. She has received many awards, notably the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Award (Land to Light On), 1997), the Pat Lowther Award (Thirsty, 2005), the City of Toronto Book Award (What We All Long For, 2006), and the Harbourfront Festival Award (2006), given in recognition of her substantial contribution to literature. She is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.
Leslie C. Sanders is a professor at York University, where she teaches African American and Black Canadian literature. She is the author of The Development of Black Theatre in America, the editor of two volumes of Langston Hughes’s performance works, and a general editor of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes. She has written essays on African American and Black Canadian literature.
- Short-listed, OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature
- Short-listed, Toronto Book Award
Excerpt: Theory (by (author) Dionne Brand)
In retrospect, I loved Selah for reasons anyone can understand. First, she loved herself more than she loved me. And this led me to think that I would get some respite from the world, and at the same time receive the little affections I required to complete my life’s work: my dissertation.
I wanted Selah to spare me only a few glances and gestures while she took care of her most singular concern—her body. I imagined her thoughts passing over me briefly while she did her eyes or painted her nails red. I believed this oblique affection, like the affection one has for landscapes or animals, would be sufficient for my needs.
I don’t require much in the way of attention, you see. All my life I’ve sat at an angle, observing the back and forth of other people’s lives. Even as a child I found myself on the diagonal to events in the living room and the kitchen. I used to sit crouched with my arms around my knees, trying to watch and listen and not be noticed. I used to summon all my stillness to do this because if I were observed, all events would cease and I would become the object of commands to do some job like cleaning a shoe or finding a book to read. Or worse, I would be upbraided for listening in on conversations beyond my years, which it seemed was a sign of immorality. My childhood was spent inhabiting this angle nevertheless, at the risk of beatings and other sanctions. I enjoyed this vantage point because it provided me with a view of the tumult of people’s lives without the involvement. And so I perfected this geometry, I excelled at finding just the right distance from actions and conversations. From there, I learned a great deal about human beings, first at home and then in the world where, I discovered, it was much easier to conceal oneself.
Anyone would be forgiven, I think, for loving Selah. After all, in this world there is a shared aesthetic, however oppressive, however repetitive, of loving a certain manifestation of a woman, and Selah inhabited that manifestation. One finds oneself compelled to take part in the aesthetic, no matter the tedium of its repetitions. It is so anaesthetic—well, actually, it is like a hammer and a crowbar, opening your skull and your heart. You can see its manifestation all over the world on billboards—interpretations of a certain symmetry, or to be exact, an asymmetry. Although Selah, I must admit, was not an interpretation; she was the object, the object of interpretation. She was voluptuous, truly. That word—Selah was its owner. A smooth, sumptuous human being. Even-fleshed, tall, athletic, bracing, supple. Her skin, a burnt almond, yet smelled of cinnamon. I do not mean here to invoke the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove, et cetera. And I don’t mean to dissociate Selah, the body, from Selah, the intelligence, in the way that most people do. We are mainly body after all, and the body is intelligence. We turn it into this petty pantomime of gender, so its beauty is lost on us. I try every day to break out of the pantomime. Nevertheless, I spent hours smelling Selah’s right shoulder. Her skin is so smooth there. She didn’t appreciate my dog’s nose sniffing her, but the cinnamon is most noticeable there, warmed in the bowl of her clavicle. I asked Selah if she rubbed herself in cinnamon. Did she roll around in cinnamon powder each morning, or did she walk through burning branches of cinnamon trees at night? She looked disgusted with me. Of course not, she said.
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. The mind’s interpretation of the body is irrelevant. The body pursues its own needs and its own desires with fibre optic precision not even yet detailed by scientists. Selah’s body, for example, has decided on cinnamon and it has, to my way of thinking, synthesized all of the atmosphere around it to the smell of cinnamon. Or let me withdraw that previous statement. Perhaps it is my body, my olfactory nerve, that decided on cinnamon at the appearance of Selah, and so it collected the smell of cinnamon around the presence of Selah. On the other hand, there might be a third theory unknown to both Selah and me that accounts for the cinnamon. Whatever the truth of this, Selah smelled of cinnamon.
Let me say at the beginning that I do not know anything about Selah. I do not know where she was born, I do not know about her upbringing or her schooling. Nor do I know any detail about her father or mother. Selah kept all this a secret from me—or not so much a secret as she thought it was none of my affair. I would pry and poke around, asking her about her life before me—to which she would give elliptical answers, not filling in the true details. When I inquired further, in that way I have of forecasting that I am trying to dig out a secret, Selah immediately grew suspicious and stared at me like a star from a distant constellation. It was as if she already saw my plan for superficial analysis and found it boring. Selah also did not care that I analyzed her silence in this same pathetic way. At least, she said, there was nothing in the silence except my imagination, so I could speculate all I wanted.
Back again to the idea of the body itself as intelligence: when I made love to Selah—for that is what she said I did—Selah’s body was discerning in every (for want of a better word) touch. In those moments she could tell if I was sincere or not in my life and in my intentions. In those moments life is truthful, it has a core, an honesty; it is a plain act and there is no deception. The body then is like a surveillance machine with nerve endings and light scanners, sound detectors and particle analysis. Whatever is transmitted cannot be reinterpreted or taken back. Selah pointed out to me that it was on her body that these acts took place, not on mine. That is, I made love to her, she did not make love to me. This euphemism, make love, is not how she put it. She said, “It is my body that is at work.” This statement was at once stunning for its clarity; somewhat embarrassing for me, as it pointed out an unobserved tendency on my part; and truthful. My embarrassment at these words is still present even a decade later. Selah’s body was the body at work. I preyed upon Selah’s body. Her body was the central terrain and I, like some bird with taloned feet and beak, attacked her flesh and bones. Or I was like a forensic scientist, but a scientist of love, or an undertaker or a surgeon of love—whatever I may call it, I was dissecting her muscle from her blood vessels in my experiment of love.
I thought Selah liked my lovemaking, my attentions to the most minute areas of her skin. It had seemed this way to me until her declaration. I said as much to Selah, in an unavoidably wounded tone. I did not catch myself before that tone emerged and so I foreclosed whatever else Selah had to say. I regret this, but her declaration had confirmed a doubt I always had, namely, What did Selah see in me? Why had she acquiesced to being with me at all? Still to this day I cannot fathom why Selah took me on as a lover.
I am not avoiding the question of why Selah rarely made love to me, but there is so much more to say about her and about our life together that it would be unworthy to dwell on that or to suggest that it was in any way pivotal to the outcome. Selah always told the truth. That is certain. I, however, never truly listened to her until I was faced with my self-delusion. And meanwhile, I always lied to Selah. I thought I was saving her from the harshness of situations. She, to her credit, never believed me. She went on in her own reality. Selah was much better at being in the world than I was. She knew and assumed the conventions of normalcy that I only paid lip service to, which brings me once again to the question of why I was in love with Selah. I cannot confirm that Selah was in love with me; I could never tell. Sometimes she displayed a great warmth for me. She would leave off her preening and embrace me, especially when I brought her a gift of some kind, or when I suggested, desperately, we go on a trip to a warm place.
Once we went to Seville in August. Selah fought me the whole month, but she also picked figs in the mornings and walked through the Sierpes in the late afternoons looking gorgeous. In Seville, we house-sat for a professor of mine, a professor of philology with whom I had taken a graduate course and had become quite close. Selah and I would emerge each day from our house-sit at the wrong hour—the hour when the sun was strongest and all of Seville was asleep. We drifted through the orange-hot streets trying to find a café, the sun baked us, we felt glorious and invincible. Then, finding a shaded resto, we would eat pescado a la plancha and I would drink a beer while Selah examined her skin. I would try to engage Selah in some talk about Spanish colonialism, or the obvious Arab qualities of Seville, and she would barely respond, as if to say, What does that have to do with my holiday? Selah, of course, was right: it had nothing to do with it. My overbearing teaching often leeched the pleasures of the moment. Selah merely wanted to “be.” And how could I blame her? I wanted to “be” also.
Selah had a beauty that was unanswerable, unlearnable. After all, what is the response to beauty? I had nothing to offer in response to this beauty. How do you answer the smell of cinnamon? How can smoothness have a reply? What do you do when you glimpse Selah in a far-off store window crossing a cobbled square with a gnome beside her? You see Selah, she is wearing black, she has dark glasses, she is carrying a bag, she is like a sharp dagger or a bolt of lightning striking the air and you are struck in the forehead, you lose sight in one eye. And then you observe the gnome beside her, the gnome who is you, and the gnome is arguing with Selah. “One month,” the gnome is saying, and the sight makes you shut up. But the gnome goes on nevertheless, “One month, you cannot give me one month of peace!” The gnome is haranguing Selah and Selah is indifferent, so the gnome shuts up and creeps along beside Selah. Why is Selah walking with that gnome, you remark out loud to no one. Our days in Seville invariably contained a moment like this. Selah had the dissatisfaction of beauty, because of course beauty can never be satisfied and can never be satisfactory to the beautiful. The imperfect is always more rewarding, more active, since it is striving for perfection. So Selah always seemed dissatisfied to me. Though I could be wrong and perhaps it is my probing personality that casts a doubt on beauty. Yes, my own dissatisfaction infected Selah’s contentment.
Selah was content, I realize now. I came home sometimes to find her singing along with the radio, the sound of some inane popular song booming against the walls. Ashanti, Mary J. Blige and Nelly. Selah would be cooking one of her specialities—the pots bubbling on the stove, the smell of smoked corn, fried grouper, all the aromas I loved—yet I could not help myself, the stupid songs dominated my attention. They annoyed me immediately and I could not resist asking Selah how old she was, and when would she let go of that teenage stuff? Clearly I loved Selah much more than I loved her ways. Though, to take that back, I loved Selah’s ways, despite my objections to them. I loved how Selah remained attentive to popular things while I made up theories for them. Selah ignored me. She said how old-fashioned I was, how out of time, how queer. She was right. I know I am out of time. Everything about our different tastes made me question why we were together, but I still ignored this question.
WINNER IN THE FICTION CATEGORY: 2019 OCM BOCAS PRIZE FOR CARIBBEAN LITERATURE
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 OCM BOCAS PRIZE FOR CARIBBEAN LITERATURE (all genres)
SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 TORONTO BOOK AWARDS
“After reading this book I realized that a novel can trace and map the inner markings inside one’s mind. A beautiful book that forever changed the way I approach writing, reading, and teaching.” —Chelene Knight, author of Dear Current Occupant, CBC Books
“Dionne Brand’s ingenious meditation on academic angst is a heady, pleasure-filled ride.” —Susan G. Cole, NOW
“Full of wry humour and biting critique, Theory is a masterful work from a writer who still knows how to have fun.” —The Globe and Mail
"What Brand does so adeptly in this book is reveal how the many layers of power and personality destroy romantic partnerships, stress familial bonds and muzzle intellectual potential. . . . Theory is a book for those who are intrigued by how a brilliant thinker approaches lost love, unmet potential and unreliable narration. But if none of that appeals to you, Brand’s gorgeous prose and sly humour will definitely win you over.” —Toronto Star
“Theory is a novel for the ages, a pirouetting inquiry into how we struggle, weep, deny, and love our way towards each other and into the arms of knowledge. Full of wit and unsettling acuity, driven by intellectual and physical passions, Dionne Brand’s new novel is a masterpiece.” —Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize
"Theory marks Dionne Brand’s latest accomplishment in exquisitely attuning both thought and language to the sublime of everyday life. ‘There’s no reference for what I want to do,’ the narrator states; and herein begins a bold new story . . . By turns wry, passionate, and sensuously intellectual, Theory is a book of singular power from one of our greatest living writers.” —David Chariandy, author of Brother and I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You
Other titles by Dionne Brand
Laurier Poetry Pack #5
An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading
What We All Long For / Love Enough
Two Toronto Novels
Laurier Poetry Pack #4
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Bread Out of Stone
Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics
The Blue Clerk
Ars Poetica in 59 Versos
Writers on Writing in Canada
The Unpublished City