Shazia Hafiz Ramji Reviews Dionne Brand's Theory

Dionne Brand.  Theory.  Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

Dionne Brand. Theory. Knopf Canada. $27.95. 240 pp., ISBN: 9780735274235

“Can we say that we know anything of another person’s interior?” asks the unnamed narrator in Dionne Brand’s latest novel, Theory. She continues, “What else is there but interpretation?”

Circumscribed in the setting of academia, bound by heteronormative and patriarchal structures, Theory is a novel which writes its own awakening as it interrogates false but rigid dichotomies such as those between aesthetics and politics or the creative and the critical. It insists on the difficult question of what it means to know another, in all their beauty, intelligence and sensuality, despite the doubting, uncompromising momentum of the mind’s reflexivity and questioning.

From beginning to end, we form a bond with the first-person narrator as the story unravels in four parts. The first three parts are named after her lovers: the stunning Selah, who takes pride in her beauty; the whimsical activist, Yara, who cares for troubled and battered women; and the spiritual and secretive Odalys. All three women hold views that trouble the forty-year-old narrator, who is writing her “life’s work,” her PhD thesis-in-progress, which is anything but modest in its ambition. She hopes to create change in the world through an interdisciplinary approach that infuses each philosophical critique with the intersectional experiences of race, class and gender. She says, “My aim at the time was to write the bomb of a thesis that would blow up the little buildings.” These buildings are the institutions of academia, which the narrator recognizes as a “a place for training up the ruling classes so they could continue ruling.”

Through honest and unsparing critiques — that are just as relevant now as they are in the world of the novel — coupled with the narrator’s uncompromising vision and dark sense of humour, we are able to negotiate the insular, solipsistic quandary in this novel of ideas.

Questioning the limits concerning the knowledge of another’s interior told through a self-aware first-person narrator is indeed a trope of meta-fictional writerly narratives, but the trope itself is a struggle that the novel works through — without pretention. It finds its way out literally: outside the text through the work of others, as seen in the last section titled, “Theory/Teoria,” which relies on italics and footnotes heavily, bringing in the language of theory as the narrator works towards finalizing her thesis. In addition to citing post-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, the narrator also cites practicing writers and scholars such as David Chariandy and Christina Sharpe. This revives the staid practice of citation by creating a dialogue with works in the world of the novel that is also a world we inhabit.

Theory is entirely surprising, not only because an award-winning and prolific writer like Brand has continued to reinvent herself while staying true to an uncompromising vision that gestures towards the potency of the novel in the real world. It is also surprising because of its ability to enchant, simply through its telling of scenes we could often take for granted, such as those inhabited by our lovers, our families and our cities. Though the last chapter offers a challenging tonal shift and may especially resonate with academics and writers, for those who love a challenge, Theory is a novel that will do something: it will guide us to resilience.

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Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s first book, Port of Being, received the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (Invisible Publishing, 2018). She recently appeared on CBC North by Northwest and will be a writer in residence with Open Book in March 2019. She lives on unceded Coast Salish land (Vancouver) where works as a publishing consultant and editor for various presses across Canada. She is at work on a novel.

Gary Barwin Reviews Shazia Hafiz Ramji's Port of Being

Shazia Hafiz Ramji.  Port of Being . Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Shazia Hafiz Ramji. Port of Being. Invisible Publishing, $16.95, 96 pp., ISBN: 9781988784120

Einstein used the phrase, “spooky action at a distance” to describe “entanglement,” one of the very strange concepts in quantum physics. Particles even light-years apart seem to be mysteriously connected. Observing one will cause the properties of the other to instantly change. The poems in Shazi Hafiz Ramji’s brilliant debut collection, Port of Being, explore the many ways in which the self is “entangled,” in the world and the world is entangled in the self by observation, and whereby both are changed. 

 In the information age, the individual is observed—surveilled—constantly. Sometimes this observation is threatening and controlling (e.g. the male gaze or state and commercial surveillance). Indeed the book originated when Ramji’s laptop and phone were stolen and the thief contacted and followed her for months based on information gleaned from the stolen items. From this experience, Ramji began exploring the relationship between the personal and the public particularly with regards to the observer and the observed, the inward and the outward gaze.

 The poems in the “Container” section “contain” phrases overheard in public or quoted from public sources (“Watch your step.” “Don’t let him get away”), and contextualize them in a network of phrases taken from contemporary culture and various registers of language:

                                                                                    to beat East Van rents

            make us swoon like Ivanka at Trudeau                  the roses infrared

for the future-proofed deep dream

 We are connected to the world by the sea of information—imagery and language—which surrounds us—beams at us—but we have to learn to navigate it. It creates what we think is the world, and also how we conceptualize ourself (“it filters through us, because we’re made of it,/the language, I mean” — “Astronaut Family.”) We can become icons of ourself:

                        Monroe was assembling

an RP-5A drone in LA

when a photographer

saw her and made her

      Marilyn.

                                    (“Watch your step.”)

Monroe becomes the sign “Marilyn” to herself and to us. Place (and our place in the world) is process, is a histogram, a map of continously arriving data, from which we infer who we are and what the world is.

In the “Flags of Convenience” section named for the foreign flags under which ships are registered to avoid financial charges, Ramji explores the duplicity of language and quotes from Claudia Rankine, “The fiction of the facts assumes innocence.” Facts (AKA information), as evidenced in these poems about global shipping represent (or overwrite) belief structures. “Columbus’s first landing/Guanahani.     baja mar.      San Salvador.” The “innocent” naming of something (like a ship’s place of origin) frames its reality for the viewer. It changes the viewer’s view of the world.

 In “Hollerith” (named after the inventor of the data punch card) in the “Surveiller” section, we see how information can empty out lived identities and turn them into mere data—erasures, lacks, holes in the data card:

Hole 3: Homosexual

Hole 8: Jew

Hole 9: Anti-social

Hole 4: Execution

So what are we to do, allow ourselves to be stalked, surveilled and changed by the flow of false flag information bombarding us like cosmic radiation, and, spookily, changing us? The arc of the book seems to argue that we must realize our own agency: the self, the spooky actor, also observes the world. A port (a port of being) is a window, an opening from which we can look out as well as look in. We become a poet of being, for these poems are surveillance: of the person, the poet consciousness, our place of being in the world. The poet has to constantly echolocute:  experience the world and their mind and then speak and wait for bounce-back. They receive signals and bounce them back—make poems—to understand and locate themself. We create the shape of the world by articulating it.

Indeed, the last two sections in Port of Being are increasingly focussed on the self. From the self mediated by others’ view (consider the jaw-dropping phrase, “Smile’s reverse panopticon” —“Gerrid”) to the self considering itself.  While the penultimate section, “Spooky Actors at a Distance,” is all “we,” the last eponymously named section of Port of Being explores for the first time, first person singular:

I want to remember

I’ve done this

for myself in the morning,

because I’ve been surprised

by my own innocence:

I cried silent and easy

when my amends were

refused.

                                    (“Poem of Failed Amends”)

As Ramji has stated in an interview, “the book has a clear arc (at least to me) that moves into the lyrical”[1]: “Let me be afraid/ of myself for a little while.” (“Cub.”)

The poet navigates in first person, sometimes claiming the duplicitous but alluring falsehood offered by society as a way of claiming agency: “I imagine you jerking off to parts/from The Society of the Spectacle”; or trying to take control of all of the data: “watch me make the mistake of thinking//I can out-think everything” (“Poem Beginning with a Falsehood,”); but ultimately taking agency through their own subjective experience: “It makes me/small, sad,/and comforted” (“Parents poem”) and “this is the construction of an act of love.” (“Astronaut Family”)

In the notes, Ramji writes of her experience with clinical depression and how these poems originated from—and, I’d argue, are ultimately—a therapeutic act of self-awareness and agency. What is the experience of depression if not a navigation between information coming from inside and outside, the self’s spooky entanglement?

In charting the navigation from being passively observed to becoming an empowered observer, with captivating rhythms and energized juxtapositions, through a process of triangulating our culture and self, formal invention, captivating images, and an intriguing and wide range of subjects and reference, Ramji has created an insightful, thoughtful, engaging and inspiring guide to being in the digital age.

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The author of twenty-two books of poetry, fiction and books for children, Gary Barwin is a writer, musician and multimedia artist from Hamilton, Ontario and the author of the nationally bestselling novel, Yiddish for Pirates (Random House) and No TV for Woodpeckers (poetry; Wolsak & Wynn, 2018). Publications next year include, A Cemetery for Holes, a poetry collaboration with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn, 2019.) Barwin will be the Edna Staebler writer-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Winter 2019.

 

[1] http://trainpoetryjournal.blogspot.com/2018/07/an-interview-with-shazia-hafiz-ramji.html