Memory and Nostalgia in Brother
Memory and Nostalgia in Brother
In a recent interview on a Canadian news and political program, Scarborough writer Catherine Hernandez stated, “There are no monuments in Scarborough, really well-known monuments. But what exists between us, the space between us, serve as our monuments.”1 David Chariandy was a copanelist on the same program, and he certainly can be credited for monumentalizing the much-derided Scarborough, a suburb east of Toronto. Both his novels have been set there, and his fiction often shows active memory at work: he rewrites the way Scarborough functions in the Canadian imaginary.2 It is not merely the site of increased criminal activity, poverty, poor transit, sketchy neighborhoods. Instead, his writing highlights a place where families, however constituted, support one another. Community develops among a mishmash of immigrants from all over, their very migration, and the concomitant marginalization, sometimes being their main source of commonality. There is pride in survival. There are natural wonders hidden below the surface, such as what so many Torontonians refer to as “the valley,” in this case, the Rouge Valley. When the schools, hospitals, and transit systems neglect, the valley offers an oasis, if you know how to find it. There is loyalty and righteous anger and caring provided in a casserole dish placed silently outside a door.
But such much-needed active rewriting of history is at risk of sentimentalizing as the past is remembered fondly. In contemporary culture, one does not want to be accused of being overly nostalgic, which has been labeled everything from a “social disease” to a “form of amnesia,” and has been linked to master narratives, as a kind of “imperialist nostalgia,” in which mainstream versions of history are legitimized and minority populations and their worldviews are ignored.3 While, for the most part, Chariandy does not engage in this kind of master nostalgia, his memorializing of a bygone time is made complicated by the inclusion of the very many products that were representative of that time. When Brother is made into a film, the product placement budget will be considerable.4 But it raises questions of whether products such as Jell-O or Jordans hold memory and whether Chariandy is monumentalizing the mundane, in addition to reviving the history of Scarborough. In the opening paragraphs of the novel, elder brother Francis tells younger brother Michael that, “if you don’t memory right, you lose.”5 Memory as verb speaks to what Chariandy wants to do with this novel; there are instances, however, in which he veers into the more traditional usage, and perhaps outdated notion, of memory as noun, a kind of static nostalgia, which has the potential to weigh down the text.6
One of the strongest aspects of Brother is in demonstrating that marginalized people and overlooked places can function as monuments. Chariandy shows that the “history” of Canada is open to interpretation, engages neglected populations, and occurs in perhaps unexpected places. “Memory’s got nothing to do with the old and grey and faraway gone,” Francis tells Michael. “Memory’s the muscle sting of now” (1). And so in the novel we see history being rewritten to include those previously excluded, which is itself an act of monumentalization. The founding fathers have been replaced with a coalition of brown children: “Our school was named after Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation. But we the students of his school had our own confederations, our own schoolyard territories and alliances, our own trade agreements and anthems” (14). In so doing, Chariandy not only makes Canada’s history more inclusive but queries the very notion of historical eras, the rather arbitrary breakdown of the global lifespan into manageable historical time periods.7 This is best illustrated through the Rouge Valley, where the boys find refuge and which was first introduced to them by their mother, one of the few things she could give them, minimally touched by colonialism: “It was a wound in the earth. A scar of green running through our neighbourhood, hundreds of feet deep in some places, a glacial valley that existed long before anything called Scarborough” (18–19). A scar is, of course, a physical reminder of past injury or illness, a marker of a past event. The Rouge Valley, although “colonized” into the official public park system, exists before and outside official classification. Label it as you will, the river and the trees and the wildlife are oblivious to categorization. And as such, it is a place where the community feels free and can use the park as their own kind of natural monument.
This idea of alternate monumentalization is a theme Chariandy explored in his first novel. Soucouyant traces the life of the Trinidadian Canadian Adele as she slips into early-onset dementia and her son’s sometimes inadequate attempts to care for her. Adele’s dementia means that she does not always remember her traumatic past. She wears a wig to hide her bald head, scarred from a fire she caused as a child, which also disfigured her mother. Adele embodies a memory she no longer actively holds, and, in many ways, she functions as a migrating memorial to her own history, her body carrying the memory through the scars on her head. Similarly, she does not always remember her youngest son’s name, but in touching his body and feeling his various idiosyncrasies, she is able to recall who he is: “Mother may not always be able to remember me. Not always. But she instantly remembers physical quirks like my trick knee. She’s also able to read something on the bumps of my spine and in my hair, a texture somewhere between the soft and tight curls of her own and the spiny quills of my father’s.”8 Here both Adele and her son carry memory on and through the body, transporting their monumental histories with them.9
Whereas in Soucouyant Chariandy explores these embodied memories, in Brother he engages with ideas of product memory. Can products be considered a kind of consumable monument to a particular era, in this case, 1970s and 1980s Scarborough? The sheer number of products and titles mentioned in this novel is astonishing. Here is just a sample: The A-Team, Jell-O, Three’s Company, “Planet Rock,” The Dukes of Hazzard, Adidas, Double Bubble, Fun Dip, Klondike Bars, Eskimo Pies, Walkman, and Jordans. There are also some very specific Canadian examples, which perhaps speaks to bringing a Canadian aesthetic of iconography to the forefront: Eaton’s catalogue, the game show Definition, Molson Canadian beer, the band Rush, and Steak Queen restaurant, this last one perhaps only a Scarberian would recognize. If we are taking the power out of traditional monuments, the obelisks and generals on horses that line many historical squares, and empowering those not traditionally memorialized, then Chariandy’s emphasis on product memory could speak to the common person and the events, people, food, and spaces that are significant to them. Referring to so many easily accessible products allows readers to immediately tap into the memories associated with the items.
But these “retro” items also rely heavily on nostalgia. And if there is a flaw in this work, it is that the emphasis on nostalgia is contrary to the very active memory work that is at the heart of this novel. John Su has argued that there is a “conventional opposition between memory and nostalgia,” in part because nostalgia can at times be exploitative, capitalizing on feelings of loss.10 The sheer number of retro festivals, events, or spaces currently occurring (everything from SneakerCon to RetroTV to vintage clothing) speaks to a population both mourning the past and trying to bring a part of that aesthetic into the present, even if in an altered form. There is an awareness, if only on a subconscious level, that these products could be the keepers of the memory of another era. But in tapping into the memory that these products are thought to contain, Brother risks the stasis also contained in these products that come with their own particular, at times problematic, history. The “counter-monument” movement arose in part because history changes, as well it should.11 We see this today in cities and municipalities grappling with what to do with old statues. Do we tear them down when the controversial personal history of the represented person is brought to light, despite his or her historical significance?
In this vein, Brother taps into the infamous Jordans, the running shoe that perhaps first and best sparked the ongoing sneaker craze. Retro Air Jordans are still one of the most sought-after sneakers, and Chariandy’s inclusion of the iconic running shoe immediately brings to mind a certain era. When Francis and his crew enter a DJ competition at the Canadian National Exhibition, the scene is immediately drawn by the description of the judges: “One, probably a promoter, was dressed in a white shirt, but the other was the Conductor, dressed in chains and a black blazer, loud white Jordans on his feet” (126). That the sneakers are screaming speaks to them as items denoting status. They are also described as “gear hardly anybody could afford” (125). Michael Jordan as monument to basketball genius is well understood (as demonstrated by the physical monument to his greatness at the United Center where he played), but his role in capitalizing on this desire to “be like Mike” has raised some controversy. Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently criticized Jordan for choosing “commerce over conscience,” in reference to Jordan’s alleged 1990 statement that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”12 In refusing to endorse a black Democratic candidate, Jordan was seen to be abandoning the black community in order to maximize sneaker sales. There have also been several killings by kids over the desire to own a variety of must-have running shoes. Chariandy’s depiction of the monumentalization of Jordans, without referencing Jordan’s complicated basketball history, veers into nostalgia and not active memory. The symbol of Jordan’s greatness is the man and not the shoes. Unfortunately, the two have become conflated (in part because the shoes carry his name), so that the shoes have come to represent the man, and by donning them, one can “be like Mike.” The problem with monumentalizing these consumable products is that they are easily ingested and expelled, readily replaced by the next generation of iconic items. In monumentalizing the shoes and not the man, power is vested in the item of consumption rather than the man himself and his fascinating basketball story. It is doubtful that these products are really the keepers of memory for this generation or the representative stories we want to pass down. What makes Scarborough a worthy subject of monumentalization is its people, not the products to which they had access. It is their stories that are the counter-monument movement to traditional markers of monumentalization.
While Chariandy’s aim is obviously to rewrite Scarborough’s history, the novel’s reliance on product memory is both active and passive. In memorializing Scarborough through the return to nostalgic items, Chariandy is in danger of amnesia, of forgetting or neglecting contentious histories and obscuring the stories that do need to be heard—such as Francis’s. There is also a sense, however, that in addition to memorializing Scarborough, Chariandy is also mourning it—perhaps mourning the time period that shaped him, the loss of which is a kind of haunting. But how does one mourn right? There is a desire to make permanent the feelings of loss or the reminders of the person, place, or thing that exists no longer. However, this desire to make permanent has led to the many monuments being removed today. Memorializing and monumentalizing appear to be two very different things, what Chariandy calls “complicated mourning”: “There are losses that mire a person in mourning, that prevent them from moving forward by making sense of the past. You become disoriented, assailed by loops of memory, by waking dreams and hallucinations” (66). The key is to keep the memory alive, while simultaneously not setting it in stone. Unfortunately, this is not what Francis’s mother, Ruth, does after Francis is shot by the police. Childhood girlfriend Aisha tells Michael, “Your mother’s like this because she’s still mourning. Or else she’s unable to mourn. It’s been ten years and she still can’t accept. She’s stuck” (65). Chariandy’s mourning for the lost Scarborough, then, appears complicated. In monumentalizing Scarborough, the space may also have become stuck. Brother is a wonderful elegy to a past Scarborough, and Chariandy himself has said that newer writers, such as Catherine Hernandez, will continue to write the current and future Scarborough.13 But the active memory work depicted in the novel is somewhat complicated through the inclusion of more traditional nostalgic monuments, shown through product memory. Scarborough’s true monuments are the untold stories of its people, which Chariandy does give voice to through his characters.
Camille Isaacs is an assistant professor of English at OCAD University in Toronto, specializing in postcolonial and black Atlantic literature. She has written on computer-mediated communication in the African diaspora through the work of Chimamanda Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo, and has edited a volume on Austin Clarke’s work. She is particularly interested in aging and memory in Caribbean literature.
1 Catherine Hernandez, “Scarborough Stories: Bringing a Community to Life (with David Chariandy and Catherine Hernandez),” interview by Steve Paikin, The Agenda, TVO, Toronto, 1 November 2017.
2 David Chariandy, Soucouyant (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2007), and Brother (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2017).
3 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), ix; John J. Su, Ethics and Nostalgia in the Contemporary Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2; Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 70.
4 Film and television rights were picked up in fall 2018, with Canadian Clement Virgo slated to adapt the novel to a screenplay and direct.
5 Chariandy, Brother, 1; hereafter cited in the text.
6 For the purposes of this essay, monumentalize will be used to mean to “record or commemorate by or as by a monument,” which is one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Whereas the many definitions of monument are also relevant, the one that is particularly useful here and is, I believe, Chariandy’s intended meaning, is the less tangible concept of monument as “anything enduring that serves to commemorate or make celebrated,” so that monument need not refer only to a physical structure (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 9th ed. , s.v. “monument”).
7 Canada’s education system is still woefully inadequate in terms of acknowledging its settler past. Just recently the Ontario government delayed the implementation of a more robust curricula that would have better included indigenous histories and knowledge.
8 Chariandy, Soucouyant, 41.
9 Here, monumental encompasses both “extremely great” and “of or serving as a monument” (Concise Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “monumental”).
10 Su, Ethics and Nostalgia, 5.
11 One of the proponents of the counter-monument movement is James Young, who argues that a new conception of monuments and memory making in our public spaces would “disperse, not gather, memory.” So rather than imbue traditional, static monuments with historical significance, memory should be disseminated through people and in nontraditional locations. James Young, “Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1991): 267–96.
12 Kareem Abdul Jabbar, “If It’s Time to Speak Up, You Have to Speak Up,” interview by Michel Martin, All Things Considered, NPR, Washington DC, 1 November 2015.
13 David Chariandy, “Scarborough Stories.”