Trinidadian by birth, but having spent most of her life in Canada, Dionne Brand is an uneasy member of the African-Caribbean Diaspora and a writer who grapples with the problems of identity-making for people who have fractured or confused connections to multiple places. Much of her work deals with the dependence of identity upon context: with the ways in which self-knowledge and well-being are inextricably tied to the relationships that people form with their human and nonhuman surroundings, and with the difficulties that arise when people are cut off from their homelands or come to know a new place. I would like to investigate Brand's approach to these issues in her first novel, In Another Place, Not Here (1996), by looking at how identity is depicted in the text as a function of relationships and by considering her characters' manipulation of language and naming as a response to the mutable nature of these relationships and the transformative potential of their own identities.
In Another Place, Not Here lends itself to readings informed by theoretical approaches, such as that of Charles Taylor: one of many theorists whose work has problematized the idea that identity can be understood as a pure, stable, or inwardly-generated quality by drawing attention to the ways in which identity is always negotiated, performed, or subject to transformation. Taylor describes what he calls the "fundamentally dialogical character" of human life (102)—the idea that we are able to understand and define ourselves only through our interactions with others. "My discovering my own identity," he says, "doesn't mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. [. . .] My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others" (111). Ecological theorist Neil Evernden draws a similar conclusion in his investigation of human and nonhuman identity, but goes one step further by suggesting that to understand identity "one might say that the relationships are the main event, and that we deceive ourselves in concentrating on the beings rather than on the relationship between them" (133). Whether or not we are prepared to follow Evernden in his belief that relationships are more fundamental a category of identity analysis than individuals, the need to consider context when attempting to understand an individual is clear. At the same time, Evernden's insistence on the importance of relationships for identity formation extends explicitly (and, for many students of the humanities, perhaps surprisingly) to relationships with the nonhuman: for Evernden, identity is not just a dialogue between oneself and other people, but a multiplicitous conversation involving all that is present in the perceptual field, whether human, floral, stone, or otherwise. The relevance of this approach to identity and relationships becomes clear early on in In Another Place, Not Here. [End Page 615]
Elizete, a manual laborer in the Caribbean who serves as the narrator for much of the novel, tells in episodic fragments the story of Adela, a woman who was taken from Africa against her will and transported to the Caribbean long before Elizete was born. To the best of Elizete's knowledge, she is a fifth-generation descendant of Adela by adoption, and while she knows of Adela only through stories that have been passed down within the family, Elizete feels a close spiritual bond with her and provides insight into the sense of loss that Adela experienced after being taken from her home. For Adela, we learn, the anguish of being cut off irremediably from the place in which she had grown up resulted in feelings of alienation and disconnection, the symptoms of which were intensely and, surprisingly, physical. After Adela was taken to the Caribbean, Elizete tells us, she
was grieving bad for where she come from. And when she done calculate the heart of this place, that it could not yield to her grief, she decide that this place was not nowhere and is so she call it. Nowhere. She say nothing here have no name. [. . .] Adela call this place Nowhere and with that none of the things she look at she take note of or remember or pass...