What We All Long For
What We All Long For follows the overlapping stories of a close circle of second-generation twenty-somethings living in downtown Toronto. There’s Tuyen, a lesbian avant-garde artist and the daughter of Vietnamese parents who’ve never recovered from losing one of their children in the crush to board a boat out of Vietnam in the 1970s. Tuyen defines herself in opposition to just about everything her family believes in and strives for. She’s in love with her best friend Carla, a biracial bicycle courier, who’s still reeling from the loss of her mother to suicide eighteen years earlier and who must now deal with her brother Jamal’s latest acts of delinquency. Oku is a jazz-loving poet who, unbeknownst to his Jamaican-born parents, has dropped out of university. He is in constant conflict with his narrow-minded and verbally abusive father and tormented by his unrequited love for Jackie, a gorgeous black woman who runs a hip clothing shop on Queen Street West and dates only white men. Like each of her friends, Jackie feels alienated from her parents, former hipsters from Nova Scotia who never made it out of subsidized housing after their lives became entangled with desire and disappointment.
The four characters try to make a life for themselves in the city, supporting one another through their family struggles.
There’s a fifth main character, Quy, the child who Tuyen’s parents lost in Vietnam. In his first-person narrative, Quy describes how he survived in various refugee camps, then in the Thai underworld. After years of being hardened, he has finally made his way to Toronto and will soon be reunited with his family – whether to love them or hurt them, it’s not clear. His story builds to a breathless crescendo in an ending that will both shock and satisfy readers.
What We All Long For is a gripping and, at times, heart-rending story about identity, longing and loss in a cosmopolitan city. No other writer has presented such a powerful and richly textured portrait of present-day Toronto. Rinaldo Walcott writes in The Globe and Mail: “… every great city has its literary moments, and contemporary Toronto has been longing for one. We can now say with certainty that we no longer have to long for a novel that speaks this city’s uniqueness: Dionne Brand has given us exactly that.” Donna Bailey Nurse writes in the National Post: “What We All Long For is a watershed novel. From now on, Canadian writers will be pressed to portray contemporary Toronto in all its multiracial colour and polyphonic sound.”
But What We All Long For is not only about a particular city. It’s about the universal experience of being human. As Walcott puts it, “Brand makes us see ourselves differently and anew. She translates our desires and experiences into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us.”
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This city hovers above the forty-third parallel; that’s illusory of course. Winters on the other hand, there’s nothing vague about them. Winters here are inevitable, sometimes unforgiving. Two years ago, they had to bring the army in to dig the city out from under the snow. The streets were...
1. What do each of the main characters – Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, Oku and Quy – long for? Do their longings overlap in any respect? Do they evolve over the course of the novel?
2. If Tuyen approached you in the street and asked, “What do you long for?,” how would you answer? Can you narrow...
"Dionne Brand's What We All Long For is her third and most accomplished novel…. And it is not too much to say that Brand writes Toronto in this new novel as it has never been written before. . . . The craft of What We All Long For solidly establishes Brand as a literary contender. . . . She translates our desires and experience into a language, an art that allows us to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us. Yes, I am crediting Brand's art with tremendous power."
—The Globe and Mail
"Brand particularly lingers with her young characters, making them lovable in their beauty, loyalty, bravado, and vulnerability. Filmmaker, novelist, and poet, Brand draws on her multiple gifts in What We All Long For. . . . Brand’s most accomplished novel yet."
—Quill & Quire
"Wanna bliss out? Read Dionne Brand writing about Toronto. The opening of What We All Long For . . . is so vivid, so convincing, you wish it would go on for pages. . . . [The characters are] diverse, talented, bristling with rage, regret and guilt. . . . This is a straight-ahead narrative, craftily conceived so that the relationships morph and the tensions build. . . . It's some of the best writing you'll see this year."
—Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine
"What We All Long For [is] a complicated, curious, heartbreaking book about being on the margins and finding one’s own place, rather than trying to fit like a square peg into a round hole.... The scope of the story is broad, generous and ambitious, and Brand . . . speaks the lingo of her characters, their jive, their patois and their broken English, as if they were her own."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"What We All Long For is an eminently satisfying novel, not only for its complexity and honesty but for the lyrical nature of its prose."
—Winnipeg Free Press
Praise for Dionne Brand:
“Brand has two gifts that are incendiary in combination: a concise and intelligent grasp of the subtleties of emotion and an apparently effortless facility with language. The result is an extraordinary ability to capture the flicker of experience.”
—The Globe and Mail
“A writer of the first rank. . . She combines folklore with poetry in a manner that recalls Michael Ondaatje, and she writes reportage like Mavis Gallant.”
—The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax)
“Brand’s style intoxicates. . . . [She] is one of the freshest, fiercest voices in Canadian letters.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“Brand’s is a voice both brave and beautiful.”
“You have to read the power of Dionne Brand’s language to appreciate just how much life poetry it expresses.”
—Morning Star (UK)
From the Hardcover edition.