Learning to Memory Right

Reviewed by Paul Barrett

In the year before his death, Austin Clarke gave a commencement speech at York University where he reminded his young audience that “summer time,” for Black people in Canada, “used to be called . . . killing time.” Clarke’s phrase evokes the summer police killings of men like Lester Donaldson, Wade Lawson, Albert Johnson, and others whose names have largely been stricken from the Canadian historical record. In the rare instances where these boys and men are present in Canadian consciousness, it is too often in stereotypical newspaper depictions of Black male criminality and deviance. David Chariandy’s Brother (dedicated to Clarke) cuts through such stereotypes and delves into the story behind one such kill-ing season by narrating the lives of young Black men in the Toronto suburb of Rouge Valley. The book follows two brothers, Francis and Michael, alternating between their childhood and teenage years and the present day as Michael struggles to put his life back together in the wake of Francis’ killing by the Toronto police.

Brother opens with a striking image of the two brothers climbing a hydro pole to access, even fleetingly, “[a]ll that free air and seeing. The streets below suddenly patterns you could read.” Older brother Francis explains the danger of such a climb and the necessary trick of remembering your footing on the way down: “‘if you can’t memory right . . . you lose.’” The novel asks, therefore, how does one “memory right” after personal disaster, and how can memory enable diasporic people to make sense of their experience? Will Michael continue to live in the shadow of his brother’s death or can he come through that disaster and learn to breathe that “free air” again?

The narrative rarely returns to the free space of its opening but instead depicts the brothers and their mother in the fray of everyday existence. While Mother works long hours to provide for her children, the boys are left to explore their community. A dual sense of danger and possibility pervades the novel and Chariandy beautifully captures the violence, fear, and thrill of Black teenage masculinity. Michael has a “nervous smile,” hair “forever caught in that no man’s zone between Afro and hockey mullet” (emphasis on “no man”), and a nerdy predilection for Rush and Dungeons & Dragons. Francis, meanwhile, is the cooler older brother who understands the expected masculine performance of Scarborough streets, and who aligns himself with a crew that “spoke and gestured in ways that asserted connections . . . to scenes in New York and L.A. and Kingston.”

In the shifts between the narrative present, in which Michael and his mother contend with their “complicated grief,” and Michael’s recollection of the past, Michael’s reliability as a narrator comes into question. It soon becomes clear that he depends on his mother and her grief in order to avoid contending with his own difficult mourning. This dynamic is altered, however, by the return of Michael’s childhood friend, Aisha, who forces him to confront the trauma of the past.

Brother depicts the forms of cultural transformation and creolization that occur in suburban locations but are often ignored in Canadian literature. Dionne Brand, for instance, has long depicted the suburbs as the places immigrants go to isolate themselves from other immigrants and forget their past. Chariandy debunks this naive portrayal, demonstrating the exciting forms of mixing that happen in these spaces. At the barbershop where Francis and his crew hang out, “different styles and kinships were possible. You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin.” Chariandy knows his territory and he comfortably depicts the brutality of such places—being threatened by other young men, huddling for warmth at bus stops on the edge of highways, and the constant threat of police violence—alongside the sustaining joy of community.

Music provides one of the novel’s sustaining tropes of joy, intergenerational connection, and the dual experience of corroding racial violence and the necessity of hope in bleak times. Francis clings to music as his one possibility for a break; a failed musical audition eventually leads to his death. Music also transforms Francis’ best friend, Jelly, into DJ Djeli: “Djeli . . . As in a griot. A storyteller with memory.” Chariandy delights in depicting the arrival of hip hop in 1980s Toronto and its capacity to provide a vocabulary of Black selfhood and style.

Yet for a novel interested in the power of creolization and remix, Brother is a decidedly monological and traditional narrative. Hip hop’s combinatory aesthetics of electrifying disco break, obscure sample, and contemporary vocal finds no formal analogue here. Rather, the temporalities of past and present, and geographies of Canada and diaspora, remain isolated. Indeed, the forms of cultural creolization and blending that the novel describes always feel at a remove from the narrative itself. Where works such as Tessa McWatt’s Out of My Skin or Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag employ a palimpsestic form that overlays the “here” and “there” of diasporic experience, Brother keeps the components of diasporic experience carefully separate.

Brother is a short, elliptical novel in which slight gestures towards affects, sensations, and postures hint at unknown histories and embodied memories. Michael’s discovery of his mother’s Standard A classroom notebook and Aisha’s learning about a Spiritual Baptist church in Trinidad suggest the repressed histories and complexities of their immigrant parents’ lives. Michael explains, “Our mother, like others, wasn’t just bare endurance and sacrifice. There was always more to her, pleasures and thoughts we could only glimpse.” He observes his mother clutching “a small bunch of the blue flowers in her hand, a bright blue, an unnameable pretty colour. Singular.” Against the logic of “moving past” or “getting over” trauma and grief, Brother instead offers such moments of transcendence and grace in the form of music, style, and community as instances of how one might live with grief without forever living in its shadow.

This review “Learning to Memory Right” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 134-135.

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