It is telling that Dionne Brand, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet and novelist, opens An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading by reflecting on a photo of herself as a child, posing with her siblings and cousin for a family portrait that would be sent to her mother and aunt in England. “England,” Brand writes, “is as much the spectator; and for England, standing behind my mother and my aunt, we must make a good appearance.”
Brand returns to this photo often, paralleling the elusive and frequently shifting context of the photo in her life with the slippery presence of colonialism in the Western literary canon. By beginning in this vulnerable and personal register, Brand establishes the tone of Autobiography—part of the U of A Press’s CLC Kreisel lecture series—which, despite its academic branding and presumed audience, winds up feeling closer to memoir than lecture. Brand brings a poet’s emotional lucidity to her recollections of growing up a voracious reader, and of the creeping realization that the literature she consumed as a Black woman was not written for her. Throughout Autobiography, Brand close-reads some of the foundational texts that shaped her worldview—Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, Camus’s The Outsider—and renders visible the violence of empire within them. She combs through these works for racialized characters, with predictably unsatisfying results, finding them inanimate, the negative space that allows the colonial world to persist.
While she examines how elements of the colonial project—the slave trade, plantations in the West Indies, the genocide of Indigenous peoples—form the fabric of the worlds created in the novels she grew up reading and studying, Brand also examines her experience as a young racialized reader and picks apart how this literature informed her self concept. Her book serves as a powerful reminder that reading is not consequence-free; it can heal and empower, but it can also leave lasting scars. “There was an enormous production of this type of fiction/fantasy,” she writes of a historical novel by Thackeray, “all of it sent around the English-speaking world, producing not only the way to live but also the way to imagine and the way to write.”
Brand examines counternarratives Black writers have used to speak back to the literature of colonial fantasy—including examples from her own work—while being frank about the limits of such counternarratives. Most powerfully, Brand illuminates the power of the reader, whom she identifies in colonial literature as the “absent presence,” to craft their own narratives, a path by which the marginalized reader can begin the slow, painful reassembly of the self both on and off the page.
—Miranda Martini is the associate editor of The Sprawl.