A Theory of The Self

A review of Dionne Brand’s Theory (Knopf, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Dionne Brand’s Theory is theory given life, a speculation about the nature of beauty, thought, and social interaction. Focussing on a graduate student nearing the end of their dissertation, Theory takes us into the conflicted world of emotion and intellect, exploring the way that passion and dispassionate investigation collide.

Brand’s unnamed narrator, only referred to as Teoria (Theory) by one of her girlfriends, finds herself at odds with the social world, always observing it from a distance and finding herself flabbergasted at the complexities of human interaction. It is through her relationships rather than her analyses of texts that she engages in social consciousness and stretches herself beyond the conventional world she was born into. The narrator positions herself in conflict with conventions and norms, but constantly finds herself drawn into them, facing her own ordinariness no matter how much she tries to push away from it. She is a haunted character, constantly dragging along the baggage of having no baggage and wishing she had a more complex life.

Brand’s narrator is chimerical, constantly changing to reflect her environment and her partners. Yet this changeable, uncertain quality allows the reader to reflect on the fluidity of our experiences and the permeability of identity. We are creatures of change and perhaps it is our changeability that defines us more than any presumed identity or selfhood.

Although the narrator fancies herself a creature of the mind and intellect and reason, someone who eschews the occult, she is haunted by the spectre of her last partner, Odalys, who is an occult priestess. Odalys defies the start realism of the narrator, never appearing by accident even when she appears in dreams. She offers insights that the narrator isn’t ready for and that she rejects primarily because they offer too much insight, too much knowledge. Part of Odalys’ ritual practice involves the presence of Nkisi, dolls made to include nails and blades, and this figure takes on a revelatory light for the narrator, making her face her own erasure of Odalys’ world even while the narrator writes her dissertation that focussed on social erasures, absences, and voices repressed. Odalys and her Nkisi take on the function of everything that the narrator is repressing, knowledges that she rejects even as she writes about the need to include silenced perspectives of marginalized people.

Brand’s Theory is an exploration of absences, of communities lost, and of a narrator who seeks insights into the world even as she ignores insights into herself that are offered by the women she dates. Though obsessed with figuring herself out, she rejects knowledges and perspectives that confront her own.

To find out more about Dionne Brand, visit https://www.uoguelph.ca/arts/sets/people/dionne-brand

To discover more about Theory, visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/564847/theory-by-dionne-brand/9780735274259


Review by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD

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