World of a Reading Self

Reviewed by Andrea Davis

In her 2019 Canadian Literature Centre Kreisel Lecture, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading, Dionne Brand offers both a particular autobiography of a Caribbean colony’s relationship to empire in the mid-twentieth century and a wider reflection of Black diasporic self-construction in the shadow of colonial and neo-colonial imperialism.


Brand begins with the contemplation of an old family photograph, inviting us into the intimate past of her childhood to think with her about what that past has produced. The photograph, taken in Trinidad in the 1950s before the country’s independence from Britain, captures Brand with her two sisters and female cousin. The intent of the photographer was to arrange, organize, and present the young girls to their migrant mothers in England (and by extension the colonial mother, England) as evidence of their well-being, fealty, and love, with no trace of their autonomy or self-individuation. Presumptions of proper childlike behaviour produced this negation of self-will as an expression of the unquestioned belief that adults always know what is best, and of gratitude for their sacrifices. In the same way, the power and pervasiveness of the rule, law, and educational apparatus of the colonial managers inculcated racialized subjects of British colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere into a universalizing British cultural norm. Generations of managed peoples of the world have been taught not only to accept their role and place within the terms of empire and imperialism (whether in the Caribbean, Europe, Canada, or the US), but also to see their participation in the project of empire as being in their own best interest—as a requirement for being “accepted and acceptable” (4). Looking at the photograph, Brand admits a kind of misrecognition: “I now recognize myself as authored, altered. As selected, sorted, from a series of selves for appearance and presentation” (5).


Brand’s family photograph attempts precisely the careful authorship of Black Caribbean family life, with its overrepresentation of women and girls, to make this life acceptable and allowable—its presence quiet, safe, and unremarkable. Yet there are also registers in the photograph of the children’s panicked refusal of this authority and discipline, a movement in excess of the scripted and authored self that disrupts the meaning or studium the photograph intends: “Ultimately, the photograph can’t do all the work it is required to do—the photograph does produce them—but they are in the middle of being something—still pliable, permeable . . . they are/we are not properly composed” (6). “This porous portrait” (7) is framed by multiple cultural and historical relationships that make up “the social life of the photo” (Campt 6; emphasis original). Indeed, multiple histories and relations of conquest (Indigenous genocide, African enslavement, and Indian and Chinese indentureship) enter and interrupt the seemingly settled moment of the photograph. Brand explains that she uses the indefinite article in the first phrase of the book’s title to make space for these multiple autobiographies, to signal “the complicated ways of reading and interpretation that are necessary under the conditions of coloniality” (8). The definite article in the second half of the title “identifies the subject who is supposed to be made, through colonial pedagogies in the form of texts—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photographs, and government and bureaucratic structures” (8). The ways in which this subject is both mastered and “elide[s] to mastery as something other than violence, erasure, and absence” is the focus of Brand’s inquiry (8).


Brand demonstrates that literature, like the authorial power of the photograph, wields a powerful capacity to author colonial subjectivity: “Narrative is not just the simple transportation of language but of ideas of the self, and ideas of the self that contain negations of other people” (28). Sylvia Wynter argues similarly that human behaviour does not exist before culture, but “comes into being simultaneously with it” (242). The rules of aesthetics produce “culture-specific, altruism-inducing, and cohering systems of meanings” (244) while positioning western European experience “as the experience of the generic human subject” (249). Ideas about race and colony are so deeply embedded in narrative that they are difficult to discern and dislodge: “the aesthetic can never be sutured against or cauterized from the ‘colonial event’ . . . the colonial event is the aesthetic. . . . What is pleasing, what is in beautiful form, is the violence” (Brand 24).


To disrupt narrative’s normalization of relations of power, Brand employs Wynter’s “practice of decipherment” (238) in a brilliant rereading of the literary canon from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., to Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Brand methodically excavates forgotten and unruly Black, brown, and creole characters, revealing with sudden clarity the racism and discourse of white supremacy that operate so seamlessly in narrative form, invisible and inaudible in their quotidian regularity. The unexpected, unruly, and agentic glimpses of these characters also lead Brand to the “counter-writing” and “counter-politics of ‘feeling’” (Wynter 268) resonant in the works of Caribbean and Black writers such as C. L. R. James, Samuel Selvon, Jean Rhys, and John Keene. These works “take linear mapping as a strategy—of unearthing, unlayering, and revealing” (37). Concerned, however, that this might not be enough to decentre colonial logic, Brand offers a second strategy: a form of narrative that refuses “state writing” altogether and attends instead to Black people’s “own expression” (41). Thinking with Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and Wilson Harris’ Palace of the Peacock, she concludes that “structures of sociality derived from the colonial moment . . . are anathema to our living” and must be rethought (45).


An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading is ultimately a stunning and beautiful reflection of porous and uncontainable Black life even in the face of conquest. Like the image in the photograph, Black life is still being made—autobiographies are still being written. In lyrical prose and unequivocal analysis, Brand offers a glimpse into a shared history, as well as the possibilities by which we might begin to live and imagine otherwise.


Works Cited

Campt, Tina. Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe. Duke UP, 2012.

Wynter, Sylvia. “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes towards a Deciphering Practice.” Ex-Iles: Essays on Caribbean Cinema, edited by Mbye Cham, Africa World, 1992, pp. 237-79.

This review “World of a Reading Self” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 21 Jan. 2022. Web.

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