“They were born in the city from people born elsewhere.”
What We All Long For follows the overlapping stories of a close circle of second-generation twenty-somethings living in downtown Toronto. There’s Tuyen, a lesbian avant-garde artist and the daughter of Vietnamese parents who’ve never recovered from losing one of their children in the crush to board a boat out of Vietnam in the 1970s. Tuyen defines herself in opposition to just about everything her family believes in and strives for. She’s in love with her best friend Carla, a biracial bicycle courier, who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother to suicide eighteen years earlier and who must now deal with her brother Jamal’s latest acts of delinquency. Oku is a jazz-loving poet who, unbeknownst to his Jamaican-born parents, has dropped out of university. He is in constant conflict with his narrow-minded and verbally abusive father and tormented by his unrequited love for Jackie, a gorgeous black woman who runs a hip clothing shop on Queen Street West and dates only white men. Like each of her friends, Jackie feels alienated from her parents, former hipsters from Nova Scotia who never made it out of subsidized housing after their lives became entangled with desire and disappointment.
The four characters try to make a life for themselves in the city, supporting one another through their family struggles.
There’s a fifth main character, Quy, the child who Tuyen’s parents lost in Vietnam. In his first-person narrative, Quy describes how he survived in various refugee camps, then in the Thai underworld. After years of being hardened, he has finally made his way to Toronto and will soon be reunited with his family – whether to love them or hurt them, it’s not clear. His story builds to a breathless crescendo in an ending that will both shock and satisfy readers.
What We All Long For is a gripping and, at times, heart-rending story about identity, longing and loss in a cosmopolitan city. No other writer has presented such a powerful and richly textured portrait of present-day Toronto. Rinaldo Walcott writes in The Globe and Mail: “… every great city has its literary moments, and contemporary Toronto has been longing for one. We can now say with certainty that we no longer have to long for a novel that speaks this city’s uniqueness: Dionne Brand has given us exactly that.” Donna Bailey Nurse writes in the National Post: “What We All Long For is a watershed novel. From now on, Canadian writers will be pressed to portray contemporary Toronto in all its multiracial colour and polyphonic sound.”
But What We All Long For is not only about a particular city. It’s about the universal experience of being human. As Walcott puts it, “Brand makes us see ourselves differently and anew. She translates our desires and experiences into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us.”
As a young girl growing up in Trinidad, Dionne Brand submitted poems to the newspapers under the pseudonym Xavier Simone, an homage to Nina Simone, whom she would listen to late at night on the radio. Brand moved to Canada when she was 17 to attend the University of Toronto, where she earned a degree in Philosophy and English, a Masters in the Philosophy of Education and pursued PhD studies in Women’s History but left the program to make time for creative writing.
Dionne Brand first came to prominence in Canada as a poet. Her books of poetry include No Language Is Neutral, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, and Land to Light On, winner of the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Award and thirsty, finalist for the Griffin Prize and winner of the Pat Lowther Award for poetry. Brand is also the author of the acclaimed novels In Another Place, Not Here, which was shortlisted for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award, and At the Full and Change of the Moon. Her works of non-fiction include Bread Out of Stone and A Map to the Door of No Return.
What We All Long For was published to great critical acclaim in 2005. While writing the novel, Brand would find herself gazing out the window of a restaurant in the very Toronto neighbourhood occupied by her characters. “I’d be looking through the window and I’d think this is like the frame of the book, the frame of reality: ‘There they are: a young Asian woman passing by with a young black woman passing by, with a young Italian man passing by,” she says in an interview with The Toronto Star. A recent Vanity Fair article quotes her as saying “I’ve ‘read’ New York and London and Paris. And I thought this city needs to be written like that, too.”
In addition to her literary accomplishments, Brand is Professor of English in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.
"There are many layers to this tale of four bright and fun-loving but sad and cynical young people set in Toronto, where the city itself comes across as both gritty and vibrant, a mass of humanity where cultures collide, mingle and intersect…. This brand (pardon the pun) of fiction heralds the arrival of truly 21st-century CanLit, with a blend of races and cultures that reflects the urban realities of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across the country."
"Dionne Brand's What We All Long For is her third and most accomplished novel…. And it is not too much to say that Brand writes Toronto in this new novel as it has never been written before. . . . The craft of What We All Long For solidly establishes Brand as a literary contender. . . . She translates our desires and experience into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us. Yes, I am crediting Brand's art with tremendous power."
—The Globe and Mail
"Brand particularly lingers with her young characters, making them lovable in their beauty, loyalty, bravado, and vulnerability. Filmmaker, novelist, and poet, Brand draws on her multiple gifts in What We All Long For. . . . Brand’s most accomplished novel yet."
—Quill & Quire
"Wanna bliss out? Read Dionne Brand writing about Toronto. The opening of What We All Long For . . . is so vivid, so convincing, you wish it would go on for pages. . . . [The characters are] diverse, talented, bristling with rage, regret and guilt. . . . This is a straight-ahead narrative, craftily conceived so that the relationships morph and the tensions build. . . . It's some of the best writing you'll see this year."
—Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine
"What We All Long For [is] a complicated, curious, heartbreaking book about being on the margins and finding one’s own place, rather than trying to fit like a square peg into a round hole.... The scope of the story is broad, generous and ambitious, and Brand . . . speaks the lingo of her characters, their jive, their patois and their broken English, as if they were her own."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"What We All Long For is an eminently satisfying novel, not only for its complexity and honesty but for the lyrical nature of its prose."
—Winnipeg Free Press
Praise for Dionne Brand:
“Brand has two gifts that are incendiary in combination: a concise and intelligent grasp of the subtleties of emotion and an apparently effortless facility with language. The result is an extraordinary ability to capture the flicker of experience.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A writer of the first rank. . . She combines folklore with poetry in a manner that recalls Michael Ondaatje, and she writes reportage like Mavis Gallant.”
—The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax)
“Brand’s style intoxicates. . . . [She] is one of the freshest, fiercest voices in Canadian letters.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“Brand’s is a voice both brave and beautiful.”
“You have to read the power of Dionne Brand’s language to appreciate just how much life poetry it expresses.”
—Morning Star (UK)