Dionne Brand, CM, FRSC, poet, writer, filmmaker, educator, activist (born 7 January 1953 in Guayaguayare, Trinidad). Dionne Brand is one of Canada’s most accomplished poets. She is known for her experimental poetry, which challenges assumptions of gender identity, sexuality and race. She has published books, contributed to anthologies, and directed and edited several documentaries for the National Film Board. She has also held various positions teaching literature, creative writing and women’s studies at universities across Canada and the United States. Winner of the Governor General’s Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a former poet laureate of Toronto, Brand was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017 for her contributions to Canadian literature.
Education and Early Career
After graduating from Naparima Girls’ High School in Trinidad, Brand moved to Toronto in 1970. She earned a BA in English and Philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1975 and an MA in Philosophy of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in 1989. Her first book, Fore Day Morning: Poems, was published in 1978.
Brand is best known for her poetry, of which she has published several volumes. Land to Light On (1997) won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. thirsty (2002) won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and Ossuaries (2010) won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Brand’s poetry is characterized by formal and linguistic experimentation. It articulates with honesty and passion the experience of an immigrant woman of colour in Canada. Her famous volume of poetry, No Language Is Neutral (1990), sold over 6,000 copies. In it, Brand meditates on her “escape” from Trinidad to Canada, where language can be just as enslaving, and where her history is obscured by the typically white, male, heteronormative master narratives of others. “History will only hear you if you give birth to a / woman who smoothes starched linen in the wardrobe / drawer,” she writes, “and who gives birth to a woman who is a / poet, and, even then.” Accordingly, Brand’s work challenges attempts by others to marginalize certain types of identity, whether personal or national.
Brand’s fiction includes the short story collection Sans Souci and Other Stories (1989) and the novels In Another Place, Not Here (1996), At the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), What We All Long For (2005) and Love Enough (2014). Like her poetry, much of Brand’s fiction is lyrical and rhetorically innovative, full of sumptuous imagery and vivid evocations of her protagonists’ wide range of experiences and emotional states.
Her first novel, In Another Place, Not Here, made the New York Times Notable Book list in 1998. It tells the story of two Caribbean women, one who wishes to escape from the islands to the city to attain a life of independence, and the other who returns to the islands from Toronto to affect political change. Both women long to be “in another place, not here.” Their mutual feelings of cultural displacement bring them together, for a time, as lovers. What We All Long For won the Toronto Book Award for its charged, challenging and lyrical examination of belonging in a multicultural city.
Brand is also a prolific writer of non-fiction. Her works include No Burden to Carry (1991), a book of oral histories of Black women in Ontario; Bread Out of Stone (1994), a book of critical essays on gender and race issues in Canada; and A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), a self-reflexive meditation on memory, identity and the history of the African diaspora. For Brand, “the door of no return” is a “fissure between the past and the present,” a place where her ancestors departed “the Old World for the New.” The book is her attempt to draw a map of that unchartered territory, to explore her ancestry as a woman of colour in Canada.
Films and Other Works
In addition to her contributions to dozens of anthologies and journals, Brand has edited two anthologies: The Journey Prize Stories: The Best of Canada's New Stories (2007) and The Unpublished City (2017).
Brand has also written or co-directed films for the National Film Board, including Older, Stronger, Wiser (1989) and Sisters in the Struggle (1991), portraits of influential Canadian women of colour.
Brand has taught literature and creative writing in Ontario and British Columbia. She has also been a Distinguished Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University in New York and has held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Chair in Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. She currently holds a University Research Chair in English and Creative Writing at the University of Guelph.
Brand is a committed social activist, critiquing economic and political power structures and speaking out against racism, discrimination against women, and discrimination against gay and lesbian communities ( see Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Canada). Much of her written works convey her politics. In addition, she has chaired the Women’s Issues Committee of the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, served on the board of the Shirley Samaroo House (a Toronto shelter for immigrant women) and worked as a counsellor for the Toronto Immigrant Women’s Centre. She is also a founding member of Our Lives, Canada's first newspaper devoted to Black women.
One of Canada’s most acclaimed poets, Brand was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2006 and was named poet laureate of Toronto in 2009. She received an honorary doctorate from Thorneloe University in 2015, an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Windsor in 2017, and an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Toronto in 2018. In 2017, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada. Shortly after, McClelland & Stewart announced that Brand had been hired for the newly-created position of poetry editor. In a press release, Brand said that she was grateful for the opportunity and that “the best poetry jolts and shocks, it mines language for what we have not seen, have not heard.”
- Governor General’s Award for Poetry (Land to Light On) (1997)
- Trillium Book Award (Land to Light On) (1997)
- Pat Lowther Memorial Award (thirsty) (2003)
- City of Toronto Book Award (What We All Long For) (2006)
- Harbourfront Festival Prize (2006)
- Poet Laureate, City of Toronto (2009)
- Griffin Poetry Prize (Ossuaries) (2011)
- Honorary Doctorate, Thorneloe University (2015)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Windsor (2017)
- Member, Order of Canada (2017)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Toronto (2018)