Love Enough, Dionne Brand's first novel in almost a decade, opens on Dupont Street, which winds through Toronto like a creek, parallel to the train tracks, bisecting downtown from midtown. The route is a favourite of cab drivers trying to avoid the city's increasingly congested main arteries, and home to a couple of splendid new restaurants, but is, frankly, a rather ugly street. Yet it holds a secret: According to Brand, and one of the protagonists of her novel, the street is privy to the best sunsets in the city.
Brand first witnessed this a number of years ago, driving eastbound one summer evening; she caught sight of it in her rear-view mirror, framed by buildings on either side. "It was so gorgeous," she recalls, walking down Dupont on a recent afternoon, the sun just starting its descent in the west. "That was the first time the idea struck me as to what might be the opening. It struck me that that was the perfect metaphor. It's a metaphor for so much. For looking back to see something beautiful – both [behind] you, where you're not looking, but also in the past."
The 61-year-old Brand is constantly on the lookout for such moments. Over the course of more than 15 books of poetry, criticism and fiction, Brand has become one of the foremost chroniclers of the city, capturing those small, unexpected and often surprising moments that might be otherwise missed. Early on in Love Enough, one character accuses another of being someone "who watch[es] everything all the time." They might as well be talking about Brand.
"I find it pleasurable to observe," says Brand, sitting on the patio of a coffee shop, her greying hair pulled into tight cornrows, a scarf wrapped loosely around her neck, her back to the sidewalk to ensure her concentration is on the reporter, not those passing by.
Love Enough began as a short story, June, published in this very newspaper in 2007, about two women arguing over a radio report; it evolved over the years into a slim volume ("I don't like to go on too long," she says with a laugh. "You'll notice my novels are getting shorter and shorter") that contains surprising depth. The novel is several stories in one: There's June, she who loves the sunset, an aging activist constantly at odds with her lover, Sydney; Lia, a young woman haunted by the disappearance of her friend, Jasmeet; Lia's brother, Germain, known as Ghost, a young man who spends much of the novel driving a stolen car aimlessly through the city with his friend Bedri, the son of a taxi driver. The novel, originally called Beamer, a nod to the stolen car, came to be called Love Enough after Brand "found myself kind of writing that phrase, or some permutation of that phrase, throughout the various interconnected characters – not with a deliberateness, but coming to it all the time.
"Its emergence throughout was a surprise, even to me," she says.
That Love Enough exists at all was a surprise to Brand.
"I actually didn't think I was going to go back to writing a novel," says Brand, whose last work of fiction, What We All Long For, was published in early 2005. "I always think I'm abandoning it, I always think I'm leaving it. And I never do."
In the intervening years, Brand published two collections of poetry, Inventory and Ossuaries; the former was a finalist for and the latter won the Griffin Poetry Prize. "I had a lot of poetry in me, and my head was so full of that compressed and intense shape to things. But I've always been interested in how to apply that intensity, and that pressure, to a narrative – where I could move in the same ways one moves in a poem, but containing a sustained narrative."
Between sips from a cup of Earl Grey tea, as both the sun and temperature descend, Brand points out that she and her sister first lived on Dupont after emigrating to Toronto from Trinidad and Tobago to attend the University of Toronto. It was a very different street back then. "There used to be factories along here. There was a foundry back that way." She points off to some unspecified place in the distance. "It's kind of an industrial street that's turning into a residential street." Lined with semi-detached houses, lofts, high-end car dealerships and proposals for forthcoming condo developments that have some residents up in arms, it is a microcosm of the changing face of Toronto, one of Love Enough's many themes. (Brand agrees when I suggest the characters from her last novel, a mix of artists, bike couriers and poets, might have trouble paying rent in Toronto circa 2014.)
"You know, I've seen the movement of working people – working-class and poorer people – moving out of the centre of the city because they can't afford to live in the city," she says. "If you drive north of Eglinton, you will see whole other kinds of communities – alienated communities. Downtown, we think, 'Why do they support what seems to be people who are against their better interests?' And it is that alienation, in a sense, that is also a part of the gentrification of the centre. Not even gentrification. It's much more upscale than gentrification of the centre. People are being forced to those outskirts."
From 2009 until 2012, Brand served as Toronto's poet laureate; it gave her another perch from which to observe the city. At a ceremony dedicated to Palmerston Boulevard, for instance, Brand read a poem "about what the street looks like, and what happens on the street, and the life of the street and so on." When Brand was finished, a woman approached her and gently chided her for forgetting to include what she felt was a key feature of the street: pigeons. Brand apologized, but the woman shrugged it off: "She said, 'Oh well. You don't have to remember everything. You're not responsible for everything!'"
Brand laughs loudly when recalling that "brief but intense, yet anonymous, encounter."
"That interaction was one of those fabulous interactions that one has in the city, sometimes, just walking along, that I love, and that I tried to put in the book," she says. "That is what I like about this city, and that is what I keep trying to write."