Race-conscious and class-conscious but with a young, street-smart cast of characters, What We All Long For should have been amazing. It should have deserved every bit that “Globe and Mail Best Book” seal on its cover. Dionne Brand should have wowed me with her portrayal of first-generation Vietnamese Canadian Tuyen versus Tuyen’s immigrant parents and sisters. The troubled relationship between Carla and her kid brother, Jamal, should have opened my eyes to the subtle difficulties of living in a city where the colour of one’s skin still creates certain expectations and raises certain obstacles. Nature versus nurture, class versus conscience, youthful rebellion versus the wisdom of one’s elders … these are all motifs in What We All Long For, and Brand squanders each and every one of them.
As one might expect from a notable poet, Brand’s prose is beautiful. Although, in the end, I did not enjoy the story itself, the act of reading this novel was still pleasant. Brand has a very good grasp on the conceptualization of space in a way that makes it easy for me, as a non-visual reader, to appreciate. Not only does she conjure images and sounds, but she pays close attention to textures and smells. Environments are an important component to her scenes, from the artistic chaos of Tuyen’s apartment to the contrasting refuge from the world of Carla’s next door. There’s a great deal of pathetic fallacy and other literary devices that authors less devoted to the craft of writing occasionally omit from their novels. What We All Long For is disappointing, but it is beautifully disappointing.
I’m going to be hard on this book because it starts out with promise. I picked it up for free on a whim from a table at the university where such free books occasionally manifest. I had not heard of Dionne Brand before, and to be honest, the back cover copy makes this book sound like what it turned out to be: an unremarkable and somewhat mediocre story centred around identity, family, and Toronto. It’s the same sort of bland fare that gives CanLit a bland name. But I decided to give it a chance, because I like to keep an open-mind about books and authors I haven’t encountered before. And What We All Long For starts off strong, with a child lost while emigrating from Vietnam, and another child lost after she grows up and decides she should move out.
Vu Tuan and Vu Cam lost their son Quy as they fled Vietnam. In the decades to follow he would grow up in Thailand and Malaysia, becoming a criminal out of necessity and then because he knew nothing better. This part of the book is a fascinating look at the effects of environment on a child’s upbringing. Quy’s chapters are in his own voice, and they communicate the careful pragmatism that a child in his situation has to adopt. Unsavoury people use him for their own ends, so he learns to use them in return. For him, crime is not a question of morality or ethics; it’s business and survival. The fact that he once had a family, and that his parents might still be looking for him after all these years, is largely immaterial—an afterthought against the overriding need to keep moving and keep innovating before someone else does.
Most of the novel, however, follows Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, and Oku. Four twenty-somethings living in Toronto, they all have their twenty-something problems and their conflicts with their parents. Also, their racial heritages—Tuyen is Vietnamese, the others are from various Black communities, and Carla’s mother was White—play an important role in the story and these characters’ conflicts. Tuyen has embraced the life of an artist free from obligations; against her parents’ wishes, she moved out from the family home and in so doing feels that she has escaped from beneath their thumbs. Their persistence in trying to find Quy seems like her to be grasping at straws from the past. Meanwhile, Tuyen struggles with her relationship with Carla, her best friend—except that Tuyen would like it to be more.
Tuyen’s obsession with Carla borders on creepy:
Carla had made it clear to Tuyen that she was straight, but Tuyen could not quite believe her. If she made herself useful enough, if she listened and coaxed enough, maybe Carla would come around. Straight women were never as straight as the put out, Tuyen figured. She had, after all, slept with numerous straight women. They merely had to be convinced.
Straight ladies, is this true? (I somehow doubt it.) I realize I shouldn’t identify everything Tuyen says with what Brand believes, but this did nothing to help me sympathize with Tuyen as a character. For someone who likes to think of herself as artistic, creative, and open-minded, she is awfully self-centred. Yet I suppose there is a small element of the romantic idea of unrequited love here: Tuyen loves her best friend, who does not by a quirk of her biology return that affection on the same level. But the creepiness goes deeper than that:
And there had been a few times, after one of their parties, when she had found herself in Carla’s bed, cuddling on the pretext that they were both high and drunk. Which was pretext enough for Carla to pretend that nothing had happened and to pull herself away from Tuyen’s sleeping body quickly in the morning.
… so far her entreaties had been rebuffed and she’d had to settle for near-unconscious probings and feels when Carla could claim drunkenness or drug-induced forgetfulness.
Consider that for a moment. Tuyen is so wrapped up in this idea of Carla’s hidden sexuality that she pushes Carla when she is under the influence. If that doesn’t seem creepy, imagine if this were the same scene, but with a man in Tuyen’s place. Yeah.
Oh, but What We All Long For does have a man experiencing unrequited love. Oku has feelings for Jackie, and while Jackie has been good enough to have sex with him once or twice, she doesn’t feel the same way for him. To be fair to Oku, he doesn’t approach this the same way Tuyen does with Carla. But his approach is also clingy, and if not creepy, it walks that fine line between sweet and stalking. Oku strikes me as a nice guy genuinely trying to find out what he wants to do with his life: he dropped out of graduate school in literature but wants to avoid the life of manual labour that his father believes is the only acceptable career path. As with Tuyen’s unrequited love, though, I’m not so comfortable with how Oku pursues Jackie.
Carla’s plot is probably my favourite after Quy’s. Her childhood was troubled: her father was living with another woman, Nadine, when he met her mother. And he continued to live with Nadine after Carla and Jamal were born. Eventually, this took its toll, leading Carla’s mother to commit suicide. So Carla and Jamal moved in with Derek and Nadine, and they were one awkward family unit. Then Carla moved out, Jamal started boosting cars, and Derek continued to ignore his paternal responsibilities. Carla has become Jamal’s bail-person and surrogate mother, but she has no idea how to rescue him from the vicious circle of crime into which he has fallen. Every time she gets him out of jail, he quickly finds a way to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Like so many other disadvantaged youth, his story is a mixture of racial discrimination and poor judgement, a dangerous combination that puts him at risk for prison time on the order of decades or life—if life on the street doesn’t kill him first. There is no right answer, no easy solution, to Carla and Jamal’s quandary. And I really like how Brand explores that from its various angles, including the emotional confrontation that Carla has with her father. Blame flies around like it’s on sale; tempers flare; and Carla storms out and commits the act of a child punishing a parent.
What We All Long For would not be all that bad were it not for the ending. I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say, two disparate plotlines don’t converge so much as collide in such a contrived way that it made me almost—almost—throw the book across the room. I don’t know what Brand was thinking; I guess she thought the coincidence was poetic and particularly ironic as a way to end the book. But the effect is cheap and tawdry, and it undermines what little good will her socially-conscious politics had otherwise incurred. And then, of course, we never get to learn about the aftermath. The “violent, unexpected encounter that will alter forever the lives of Tuyen and her friends”, as the back cover copy promised it, certainly does just that—not that we ever get to see how it alters their lives.
Good book? Bad book? What We All Long For is well-intentioned, I suppose, a brilliant attempt that falls short of the mark. It’s burdened by clumsy characterization and poor plotting. This is regrettable, because we need more novels like this—authentic, Canadian novels with main characters from visible minorities, novels written by authors who aren’t white guys trying to sound multicultural. So I wish I could have given What We All Long For the praise it seems to have earned from everywhere else … alas, its provenance does not excuse its flaws, which are too numerous to ignore.