Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Pen and the Sword: One on One with Dionne Brand

Words matter. This is what CBC’s Adrian Harewood reminded the crowd as he opened the evening at Christ Church Cathedral. Considering the tragic events in Pittsburgh earlier that day, Harewood took a moment to reflect on the immense power of language, and the shared responsibility that comes with that power. His message resonated throughout the evening. As he welcomed renowned poet, novelist, and activist Dionne Brand, he admitted he found distance between friends and colleagues difficult. Harewood and Brand have a long history of working together on the literary scene in Canada, and it was this history that shaped the evening, not as an interview, but rather as a moment of reflection between two old friends.


Brand began by giving a reading from her latest work of poetry The Blue Clerk. It was evident that Brand’s words resonated heavily with the literary crowd listening on as she declared “I have withheld more than I have written.” This is quite a statement for Brand, who has produced numerous volumes of poetry, several novels, anthologies, and documentaries over in the last forty years. Throughout her career, Brand has used her voice to speak up on matters of political justice, and especially on topics pertaining to gender and race. Brand was awarded the Governor General’s Poetry Award in 1997, and just last year was appointed to the Order of Canada. How can she have left anything unsaid? Her reading questioned this as well: “What is withheld?” As Harewood inquired into the origins of Brand’s latest work, she expanded on this idea, which forms the backbone of her latest volume. Brand explained that “writing is a negotiation between what is written and what is withheld” because it is “too precious, too raw, too embarrassing, too rough, or perhaps unfinished.” Her most recent work imagines these unsaid things as an entity, the blue clerk, who manages the ever-growing inventory of unshared pages and is in constant battle against the author who chooses, from amongst the unsaid things, what is acceptable to share. Brand identifies herself as both characters, a metaphor for the struggle between things said and unsaid. We all have a clerk, Brand explained, who holds things back for any number of reasons. Writing the work, she said, was an exercise in coming closer to truth. This is a thought-invoking confession from an author who once wrote that “no language is neutral” and who has devoted her entire life to speaking up and out about her truth. Even for her, she admitted, the clerk filters, withholds, and worries.


The conversation delved deeper into Brand’s relationship with language as she reflected upon the stories her grandmother used to tell her on the veranda after dark. During these conversations, Brand began to recognize words as a powerful tool against ignorance. She described writing as “an act in the world,” after which there will still be ripples and reverberations. In light of how Brand has used her voice over the years to speak for the marginalized, it was moving to hear her explain that at 25, a friend of hers asked her if she believed there would be freedom in their lifetime, and she didn’t even question another answer except for “of course.” Now, some forty years later, Brand confessed that she is not as sure of her answer, but that this makes her all the more vigorous and insistent. When an audience member brought up the notion of black excellence, Brand emphatically asked: “the exercise of exemplary is to prove to whom that we are human? We are simply human.” She argued that in an ordinary society it is important to raise good people, not excellent ones. It is such a simple, yet empowering notion, during such a turbulent time: ordinary people raised to be good and working every day to get closer to their truth. As people collected their things and began to line up to get their books signed, undoubtedly inspired by Brand and Harewood, they must each in turn have heard their "blue clerk" whisper to their “author”: these words are yours - what shall you do with them?