What We All Long For

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Overview

Dionne Brand powerfully delves into uncharted aspects of urban life, the bittersweetness of youth, and secrets families try to hide. Tuyen is an aspiring artist and the daughter of Vietnamese parents who’ve never recovered from losing one of their children while in the rush to flee Vietnam in the 1970s. She rejects her immigrant family’s hard-won lifestyle, and instead lives in a rundown apartment with friends—each of whom is grappling with their own familial complexities and heartache.

In turns thrilling and heartbreaking, Tuyen’s lost brother—who has since become a criminal in the Thai underworld—journeys to Toronto to find his long-lost family. As Quy’s arrival nears, tensions build, friendships are tested, and an unexpected encounter will forever alter the lives of Tuyen and her friends.

Gripping at times, heartrending at others, What We All Long For is an ode to a generation of longing and identity, and to the rhythms and pulses of a city and its burgeoning, questioning youth.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Superb . . . Brand’s best novel yet.”—National Post

“Brand . . . translates our desires and experiences into a language, an art that allows [her] to voice that which we live, but could not utter or bring to voice until she did so for us.”

The Globe and Mail

“Brand’s most accomplished novel yet. . . . both credible and incredible.” —Quill & Quire

"Brand is quite subtle and nuanced in her analysis of her characters." —Toronto Star

"...a wonderfully layered and polyphonic novel...[Brand's] writing enfolds a generosity or openness that enables it to transcend its 'artifice.' These qualities are on display in abundance in this moving novel of how families, histories and geographies shape the nature of dreams." —Vue Weekly (Edmonton)

"What We All Long For is a watershed novel." —National Post

"Brand's text is gifted with unavoidable questions of what partnership means." —Herizons

Publishers Weekly

Despite their hip exteriors, the four Toronto 20-somethings at the heart of Brand's solid novel all struggle with issues of race and identity. Tuyen, a lesbian artist, is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who still grieve for the son they lost in Vietnam. Carla, a biracial woman, grapples with a misplaced sense of responsibility for her younger brother, Jamal, whose rap sheet is more than Carla can fix. Oku struggles under the watchful, and often resentful, eye of his father, a Jamaican immigrant who feels both threatened and frustrated by his son's poetic aspiration. Jackie, a young black woman whose family came to Toronto from Halifax, vicariously mourns the loss of her parents' youthful dreams. Although the friends have an unspoken rule never to talk of family, the problems of home spill inevitably into their daily lives, culminating in an explosive moment when the families finally meet. Brand's "slice-of-life" style is often at odds with her melodramatic subject matter. But the emotional depth of her characters provides original insight on the young urban dweller. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312377717
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
  • Publication date: 11/25/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dionne Brand won the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Trillium Award in 1997 for Land to Light On. In 2003 she won the Pat Lowther Award for poetry for her book thirsty. Her novels include In Another Place, Not Here and At the Full and Change of the Moon. She lives in Toronto.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

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 glacial, the electrical wires were brittle, the telephones were useless. The whole city stood still; the trees more than usual. The cars and driveways were obliterated. Politicians were falling over each other to explain what had happened and who was to blame — who had privatized the snow plows and why the city wasn’t prepared. The truth is you can’t prepare for something like that. It’s fate. Nature will do that sort of thing — dump thousands of tons of snow on the city just to say, Don’t make too many plans or assumptions, don’t get ahead of yourself. Spring this year couldn’t come too soon — and it didn’t. It took its time — melting at its own pace, over running ice-blocked sewer drains, swelling the Humber River and the Don River stretching to the lake. The sound of the city was of trickling water.

Have you ever smelled this city at the beginning of spring? Dead winter circling still, it smells of eagerness and embarrassment and, most of all, longing. Garbage, buried under snowbanks for months, gradually reappears like old habits — plastic bags, pop cans — the alleyways are cluttered in a mess of bottles and old shoes and thrown-away beds. People look as if they’re unravelling. They’re on their last nerves. They’re suddenly eager for human touch. People will walk up to perfect strangers and tell them anything. After the grey days and the heavy skies of what’s passed, an unfamiliar face will smile and make a remark as if there had been a conversation going on all along. The fate of everyone is open again. New lives can be started, or at least spring is the occasion to make it seem possible. No matter how dreary yesterday was, all the complications and problems that bore down then, now seem carried away by the melting streets. At least the clearing skies and the new breath of air from the lake, both, seduce people into thinking that.

It’s 8 A.M. on a Wednesday of this early spring, and the subway train rumbles across the bridge over the Humber River. People are packed in tightly, and they all look dazed, as if recovering from a blow. There’s the smell of perfume and sweat, and wet hair and mint, coffee and burned toast. There is a tension, holding in all the sounds that bodies make in the morning. Mostly people are quiet, unless they’re young, like the three who just got on — no annoying boss to be endured all day. They grab hold of the upper hand-bars and as the train moves off they crash into one another, giggling. Their laughter rattles around in the car, then they grow mockingly self-conscious and quiet, noticing the uptightness on the train, but they can’t stay serious and explode again into laughter.

One of them has a camera, she’s Asian, she’s wearing an old oilskin coat, and you want to look at her, she’s beautiful in a strange way. Not the pouting corporate beauty on the ad for shampoo above her head, she has the beauty a falcon has: watchful, feathered, clawed, and probing. Another one’s a young black man; he’s carrying a drum in a duffel bag. He’s trying to find space for it on the floor, and he’s getting annoyed looks all around. There’s an enviable loose physical allure to him. He has a few days’ growth on his face, and when he smiles his eyebrows, his eyes — his whole face can’t help its seduction. The third is another woman, she might be Italian, southern. She’s bony like a mantis in her yellow slick plastic coat, except her mouth has a voluptuousness to it, and her eyes, the long eyelashes weigh them down. The Asian woman points the camera at her, coaxes her for a smile, and the flash goes off and she looks startled. It’s obvious they’ve been out all night. They’re talking now about some friend of theirs whom the young man loves. But all three are finally subdued by the taut silence around them, as if succumbing to some law they’d broken. Who wants to hear about love so early in the morning?

Mornings are like that on the subway trains — everyone having left their sovereign houses and apartments and rooms to enter the crossroads of the city, they first try at not letting the city touch them, holding on to the meagre privacy of a city with three million people. But eventually they’re disrupted like this. Anonymity is the big lie of a city. You aren’t anonymous at all. You’re common, really, common like so many pebbles, so many specks of dirt, so many atoms of materiality.

Now that conversation has entered everyone’s heads, and will follow them to work; they’ll be trying to figure out the rest of the story all day. Now they’ll be wondering where those three were last night, and someone will think, Why isn’t my life like that? Free like a young person’s. Someone will go off into a flight of imagination as to where they’d been — probably the railroad tracks, probably High Park, probably smoking dope at a party, drinking beer and dancing. Definitely dancing. And some other jealous rider will think, That bunch of free loaders! Never worked a day in their lives! Life will get them hard some time, don’t you worry.

And jammed in a seat down the car there’s a man who hardly understands English at all, but he hears the tinkle of laughter, and it surprises him out of his own declensions on fate—how he ended up here and what’s to be his next move, and how the small panic that he feels disgusts him. He rouses himself from going over the details of his life, repeating them in his head as if to the woman reading a newspaper next to him. The laughter pierces him, and he thinks that he’s never heard laughter sound so pure, and it is his first week in this city. Only when he was very, very little — a boy — then he heard it, he remembers.

What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not. Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.

There are Italian neighbourhoods and Vietnamese neighbourhoods in this city; there are Chinese ones and Ukrainian ones and Pakistani ones and Korean ones and African ones. Name a region on the planet and there’s someone from there, here. All of them sit on Ojibway land, but hardly any of them know it or care because that genealogy is wilfully untraceable except in the name of the city itself. They’d only have to look, though, but it could be that what they know hurts them already, and what if they found out something even more damaging? These are people who are used to the earth beneath them shifting, and they all want it to stop — and if that means they must pretend to know nothing, well, that’s the sacrifice they make.

But as at any crossroad there are permutations of existence. People turn into other people imperceptibly, unconsciously, right here in the grumbling train. And on the sidewalks, after they’ve emerged from the stations, after being sandpapered by the jostling and scraping that a city like this does, all the lives they’ve hoarded, all the ghosts they’ve carried, all the inversions they’ve made for protection, all the scars and marks and records for recognition — the whole heterogeneous baggage falls out with each step on the pavement. There’s so much spillage.

In this city there are Bulgarian mechanics, there are Eritrean accountants, Colombian café owners, Latvian book publishers, Welsh roofers, Afghani dancers, Iranian mathematicians, Tamil cooks in Thai restaurants, Calabrese boys with Jamaican accents, Fushen deejays, Filipina-Saudi beauticians; Russian doctors changing tires, there are Romanian bill collectors, Cape Croker fishmongers, Japanese grocery clerks, French gas meter readers, German bakers, Haitian and Bengali taxi drivers with Irish dispatchers.

Lives in the city are doubled, tripled, conjugated — women and men all trying to handle their own chain of events, trying to keep the story straight in their own heads. At times they catch themselves in sensational lies, embellishing or avoiding a nasty secret here and there, juggling the lines of causality, and before you know it, it’s impossible to tell one thread from another. In this city, like everywhere, people work, they eat, they drink, they have sex, but it’s hard not to wake up here without the certainty of misapprehension.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

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 your longings down to just one for her lubaio?

3. Carla observes that the immigrants she sees passing in the streets are “trying to step across the borders of who they were. But they were not merely trying. They were, in fact, borderless.” Are the identities of the second-generation characters borderless as well?

4. The novel explores the tensions between immigrants and their second-generation progeny. In what way are these tensions typical of any child-parent relationship? In what ways are they complicated by the immigrant experience?

5. Tuyen, Jackie, Oku and Carla are essentially unilingual. And yet Tuyen acted as a translator for her parents throughout childhood. Jackie is fluent in “valley girl, baller, hip-hopper, Brit mod …” Discuss the role that language plays in terms of how the four friends navigate the city.

6. In the first chapter, Brand writes: “Anonymity is the big lie of a city. You aren’t anonymous at all. You’re common, really, common like so many pebbles, so many specks of dirt, so many atoms of materiality.” How does the novel address our commonality as opposed to our anonymity?

7. The novel is written in an omniscient voice with the exception of the chapters in which Quy tells his first-person narrative. What qualities does the omniscient voice bring to Brand’s story telling? Likewise, how does the first person voice enhance Quy’s story? How would you compare the writing styles of the omniscient and first person narrators?

8. “What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not. Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.” The novel examines a range of different people living in the city, some of whom meet and connect, some of whom pass one another by. What role does chance play in the story?

9. In what ways is the novel built around the notion of absence – whether of people, objects, hopes, dreams?

10. Tuyen’s parents torture themselves in arguments about whether they had tempted fate by calling their first born Quy, which means “precious” in Vietnamese. What role does fate play in the novel?

11. In an interview in READ Magazine, Dionne Brand says, “Toronto has never happened before, and that’s something incredible … [I]t hasn’t ever happened before because all of these different types of people, sharing different kinds of experiences, or what we call identities, have just not been in the same place together before.” How does this observation apply to Toronto as it is depicted in What We All Long For?

12. “Talking is always a miscalculation,” asserts Tuyen’s father. Is this true for any of the characters in terms of how they communicate with friends or family?

13. The concept of innocence recurs throughout the novel. For example, Oku observes that Jackie’s face has “no innocence whatsoever.” Jackie, in turn, criticizes Oku’s poems for the innocence they portray. She says. “I don’t trust innocence … I know what’s going to happen to me.” How do each of the characters perceive innocence?

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