A Review of Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return

Review by Said Shaiye

In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand quotes from Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration:

The money that financed Columbus’s voyage to the Americas came from a tax which Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille obtained from the church for waging a “just and holy war” against the Moorish kingdom of Granada and Islam as a whole. Granada surrendered on January 2, 1492. Columbus set sail in April 1492.

All I can think is: we been down bad for 500 years, bro. Imagine a Muslim-ruled world. Imagine.

No destruction of Africa. No destruction of Native America. No chattel slavery. No broken African countries, no puppet despots. No CIA coups. No Black Hawk Down. No childhood trauma for me cuz I wouldn’t have had to grow up on the run and in refugee camps…Cuz my country would be intact and whole. And so would I and all my people. There would be so much less pain in this world if we just had a Muslim superpower running things. Damn.

They’ll probably call me a terrorist for writing that passage. How dare he call for a united Muslim superpower. How dare he dream of unity. How dare he, that Blackity Black Black Autist.

Anyway, you came here for a book review. Here it go.

Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return is just that: a map.

The central questions of this book are of the juxtaposition between belonging and not belonging. Who exactly belongs in this New World, and what is an origin story?

The Door of No Return is the metaphorical name for an actual place inside Elmina Castle, the first European slave-trading post in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The Door of No Return last point in West Africa that enslaved Black people walked through before boarding ships for the western hemisphere.

At the seaboard side of the castle was the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage. By the 18th century, 30,000 slaves on their way to North and South America passed through Elmina’s Door of No Return each year. The floor of the dungeon, where up to 200 people were held in each cell, is now several inches higher than it was when it was built as result of centuries of impacted filth and human excrement.

PBS, Wonders of the African World – Slave Kingdoms – Elmina

This door signifies not only a break with the past for individuals, but a break with a cultural grounding for entire groups of people. Thus, many generations after, an African descendant looks back across that boundless Atlantic and wonders what it must have been like for their ancestors to stand at that door.

The maps that colonizers made to demarcate boundaries, both physical and intellectual, still serve to reinforce notions of superiority which were (are) used to justify the dehumanization of Black people. But this book is far more than a tale of Black Diasporans longing for a place they no longer recognize but inherently know.

Brand also mentions people like V.S. Naipaul, whose ancestors came to (were brought to?) the Caribbean several generations before his birth. He takes a trip to his ancestral homeland in India and feels fear, contempt, un-belonging. He writes of the people he finds there in unsavory terms, perhaps because he sees so little of himself in them. I guess that’s a feeling commonly felt by people of the global diaspora returning to their ancestral homelands. To feel out of place in a place that should be home–just as you felt out of place in the place you grew up in.

We are often brought back to shores in this book, are shown someone standing there, wondering if there is a better place, a more familiar place, on the other side. Brand uses this to highlight what being forced to leave a place does to sever generational ties with ourselves.

There is a concerted focus on irony painted on the maps in this book. One particular passage is striking, the quote:

“This irony in The New York Times, Friday, December 11, 1998, the parts in italics are Brand’s words:

American and Canadian authorities announced today that they had broken up a sophisticated ring that smuggled Chinese immigrants into the united states and ultimately to New York City, through a Mohawk reservation along the border. The authorities said the ring, made up primarily of Chinese citizens and members of the Mohawk tribe, transported more than 3600 Chinese immigrants across the lightly patrolled border along the St Lawrence River and into upstate New York during the last two years. “this is the first large-scale alien smuggling operation we have encountered on the northern border,” Doris Meissner, the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said in announcing the indictments. One wants to ask who better able or authorized to give safe passage to anyone across North America than the Mohawk or any of the people who inhabited this continent before its New World settlers. Nevertheless, the language of the piece asserts the identities “American” and “Canadian” as dominant over “Mohawk” and “Chinese.”

The piece continues:

Today’s announcement highlighted the extent to which the 28-square-mile Indian reservation that straddles two Canadian provinces and one AMERICAN state has become a haven for smugglers. The foggy creeks and wooded islands of the Indian territory which is known as the St. Regis Mohawk reservation on the American side and the Akwesasne Indian territory in Canada, have long been used to spirit gasoline, cigarettes, tobacco and drugs between the two countries. In recent years more and more of the contraband has been human… A look at a map shows you how easy it is to use the place as a vehicle for smuggling. It isn’t just aliens, though…Notice how this territory is wrapped in the crypto-fascist romances of both dominant nations–the “foggy creeks,” the “wooded islands,” and foundational to this romance, the “human contraband.” Hundreds of years after the making of its neo origins these Canadians and Americans who police these fresh borders, materially as well as intellectually, play and dwell in the same language of their conquest. A language which summons mystery and wilderness. The passage could have been written two hundred years ago.

It is one thing for us Diasporans to long for a home we don’t know–but what of the Native peoples we now live with, who have that same longing, who are estranged foreigners trapped on lands that actually belong to them? To be an outsider in your own home is a feeling that can’t be easily described or felt. All this writer can say is that he empathizes, to as great an extent as he can, though I recognize that I’m an outsider living on land that does not belong to me. So many of us in this world are without home because of whiteness and all its violence.

My immediate family came to this country willingly. My African American, Afro Caribbean and Afro South American cousins did not. All of us, at some point, wonder if there’s a better life for us across the sea. Another Africa, in another time. I know that my native Somalia has been a disaster for decades, despite the best-intentioned efforts to rehabilitate it. I personally don’t think things will ever get better–too many white people keeping it destabilized. Too many of my people deluded by an easy payday, corruption, selling pieces of our land to the first white man in a suit they come across.

If there is a map to the door of no return, perhaps it exists in our ability to visualize passage to a more sacred place, a safer place, than we find ourselves today. Whether that place is here on earth or not is for every person to find, and often, we find that the search for that place becomes the place itself.

Perhaps there is no physical door at the end of this map, but Brand sums it up best:

The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed. It is a door which makes the word door impossible and dangerous, cunning and disagreeable.

There is a passage about time, and how to escape it. Brand writes of the high cheekboned, almond eye’d, tight Ethiopian curl’d slender man. I see myself in her description. He says, “Look… look, I come from one of the oldest cities in the world, the oldest civilization. I come here and they build a parking lot and think that it is a civilization.”

And they laugh and laugh and she says “true, true.”

The oldest civilization in the world… and now? We find ourselves in this place, these countries. We Black Diasporans are all descendants of Africa, by different means, by different journeys, separated by time. Now we stand in these cold parking lots, somewhere in Canada, in Minnesota, and these people have the nerve to call it civilization.

I know that I come from something greater than anything they could imagine, but because of their meddling in the world, I’m here in their country–“their country.” I am here guarding this patch of concrete called civilization, and I’m talking to you in a language that we share, that we don’t share. We speak to each other, we see one another. You call me bro and I call you sis but we’re not saying the same thing. Time has separated us from our understanding of the language which beats deep within our hearts.

He is high cheekboned, all almond-shaped eyes, all tight Ethiopian black curls, slender.

He says calmly, “Look,” gesturing with his languid hand, “Look, I come from one of the oldest cities in the world. The oldest civilization. They build a parking lot and think that it is a civilization.”

We laugh and laugh and I reply, “True, true.”

“The oldest civilization,” he says again.

“True,” I repeat.

The oldest civilization.

True, true.

I see myself negotiating this fraught relationship with time as it wraps around my skin. Sometimes I try to strip myself of time’s embrace, but always, I lose.

I am someone who was born in Africa. I am someone who grew up in America. I am someone who considers himself neither African nor African American. I definitely don’t think of myself as an American. I don’t think of myself as Somali, either. My understanding of all these things is complicated by time. How I feel about them changes daily. The only identities that will forever be etched to my soul are Muslim and Autistic. Everything else is in a state of constant flux.

When I was struggling to learn English my parents would tell me, “make sure you learn to speak this language without an African accent so you can succeed in America.” My parents didn’t understand that this country’s relationship with our skin color is…well, you know.

I could never have those opportunities for nice jobs, no matter how “perfectly” I spoke, ‘cuz they weren’t meant for me. Not in this parking lot.

We come from the oldest civilizations. The cradles of civilization. We come from Mesopotamia, the Horn of Africa, Argentina and Angola, Chile and Cape Verde. We come here and these people have the nerve to pay us $12/ hour to watch over their parking lot civilizations. It blows my mind how we can’t escape it.

I’m trying to escape time while I’m trapped by it.

As Brand said, “She and I live in the living of it.”

A life outside of time, can you imagine it? Aakhira, Insha Allah. True, True.

At a poetry reading, I once heard Brand say, “The word heart means nothing to the heart.” Similarly, the word time means nothing to the body. We are living in it, and we will be buried without it. All that remains, a soul, trapped in the grave as it was once trapped in the body. And then, Judgement Day. Resurrection. Justice. True Justice.

True, True.

Brand writes:

We, she and I, move in this normal world of jail and babies and wants, thinking nothing of cumbersome baby strollers and teenage mothers in high school. Our families are full of rap musicians and basketball dunking champions, runners and comedians who father children, give up chances, make babies instead, live in leaky Ontario housing projects, hang themselves or take pills and leave their bodies for even more tragic aunts, uncles, and sisters, to find floating in bathtubs. She and I live in the living of it.

True, True.

We are stuck in the living of it, outside of time. We are stuck in the living of it, our respective distances smashed together. And through it all, we feel lost, “…as if belonging and not belonging, where someone may disappear also into nothing or everything.”

I am drifting. Brand provides the beat, she calls out with her words and I respond back. Call and response. I talk back tar black raps blown through teeth. She is the conductor; I am the steam.

Brand’s power in this book lies in repetition with subtle variation. If she were a rapper, she’d be Freddie Gibbs. He has that same power. It’s a braided power, instant magic when you see a call-back to an earlier passage. Remember the high-cheekboned, almond eyed Ethiopian parking lot attendant from earlier? He comes back seven pages later, only mentioned as an intro to another section that seems unrelated but, as we learn, everything is related in this book–just as everything is related in life.

“In this parking lot of a civilization” starts a paragraph pages removed from the original passage we heard this phrase. Things keep looping over and over in this book, reminding us that we’re all trapped in generational cycles beyond our control or ability to reckon with.

Weaving in and out like a boxer, Brand is masterful at fluid transitions and slick call-backs. You can never tell where her work will repeat, but you know it will, with intention, so you pay close attention. She is teaching you to how to read her mind, not her words, and training you to hear her voice–despite the time and distance that separates us all. Sometimes I feel like a medical person reading someone’s brain waves on a chart as I sit with this book. If that’s not skill, talent, and care for the reader’s experience, I don’t know what is. It’s beautiful, that’s for damn sure.

So much of this book centers around Africa. What does it mean for someone who’s never seen a continent to feel homesick for it? How deep of a longing is that, and how can we possibly know what that feels like if we’ve never felt it?

Layli Long Soldier, in her book Whereas, says, “what is it to wish for the absence of nothing?” Passages like that resonate with me because they so clearly define the all-consuming nothingness I’ve felt my entire life. And the wish for that feeling to cease. A buzzing nothingness within like a flickering fluorescent blacklight.

Do you know what it means to realize at age 7 that everything you ever knew must now be erased to make room for your new identity as a Black immigrant in America? That your native tongue no longer has a purpose here. Your culture, your faith, every memory of the sun on your skin–no longer have purpose here. This is the real American dream–come here and erase yourself, or else.

This is no dream. This place strips souls naked and makes them give thanks for the opportunity. This place drops bombs on my cousins in Africa, on my brothers in Islam, day and night. This is a nightmare. One that we are awake to witness, but like a dream, powerless to move.

This is a war zone, not a safe space. This is not home, it could never be. And yet, this is my only home. Nowhere else could ever be. I’ve tried to go back “home,” to Africa, and it just didn’t fit.

America, drenched in blood and deep-fried death sentences, is my Door of No Return. This is hell, but it’s all I have until the good Lord calls me to my true home, Aakhira, Insha Allah.

True, true.

The hope of heaven and the words of writers, that’s all we have. As Brand said, “it is not the job of writers to lift our spirits. Books simply do what they do.” The irony lies in the fact that writers, and the words they produce, save lives. They lift the spirits of people who sometimes feel like life isn’t bearable. And even if we don’t truly desire death, we do want the pain to stop. Besides prayer, nothing helps ease existential soul pain like the words of a writer who cares deeply about their readership. Brand is one such writer, and I’m blessed to have run into her work when I needed it most. These Minnesota winters aren’t getting any easier to handle. These parking lots are starting to look like civilizations.

A Map to the Door of No Return

Notes to Belonging

Published by Vintage Canada
Sep 17, 2002 | 240 Pages
Find here

Said Shaiye is an Austic Somali writer and photographer from Seattle who now lives in Minneapolis. He has published in Pithead Chapel, 580 Split, Entropy, Diagram, Rigorous, and elsewhere. His debut book, Are You Borg Now?, was published by Really Serious Literature. It’s an experimental memoir with elements of self-interview, docu-poetics, photography and more. He can be reached at saidshaiye.com

Dionne Brand’s literary credentials are legion. Her latest novel, Theory, won the 2019 OCM BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Literature, and was a Globe and Mail Best Book. Her latest poetry collection, The Blue Clerk, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won the Trillium Book Prize. Her collection Ossuaries won the Griffin Poetry Prize, and other collections have won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Trillium Book Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Among her novels, In Another Place, Not Here was selected as a NYT Book Review Notable Book and a Best Book by the Globe and MailAt the Full and Change of the Moon was selected a Best Book by the LA Times; and What We All Long For won the Toronto Book Award. In 2006, Brand was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the world of books and writing, and from 2009 to 2012 she served as Toronto’s Poet Laureate. In 2017, she was named to the Order of Canada. Brand is a Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto.