Literary Analysis of No Language is Neutral

Knowledge of the ideas in the previous section on Scholarship can inform your own close readings of the text. This section will demonstrate close readings of some key passages from the book’s central section (also called “No Language Is Neutral”), showing how they can be read with attention to the levels of narrative as well as formal effects like sound, tone, word length, or letter patterns. Note the way such close readings, however unique and based on a reader’s personal interests, bring out details that resonate with the conversations outlined in the Scholarship section. Think of these readings as examples of and guidelines for a close reading of your own, which you can use to make a unique critical contribution on a topic that interests you.

Close Reading I

One notable element of the book is that it treats migration not as a single, monolithic idea but as a varied, multivalent experience that includes a variety of dislocations and uncertainties. One way to consider how the book treats migration is to look at the descriptive language around place. An early passage from “No Language Is Neutral” describes a Caribbean location using a range of images:

             To hate this, they must have been

dragged through the Manzinilla spitting out the last

spun syllables for cruelty, new sound forming,

pushing toward lips made to bubble blood. This road

could match that. Hard-bitten on mangrove and wild

bush, the sea wind heaving any remnants of

consonant curses into choking aspirate. (20)

Consider how this passage conveys a sense of place and narrative. How specific is its articulation of the speaker’s location and movements? Aside from the proper noun “Manzinilla,” Brand’s diction seems quite vague. What we’re given is not a narrative of the speaker’s concrete experiences, but rather a series of images that get at travel indirectly: the phrase “dragged through” suggests violent, coerced movement; “This road” signifies transport as much within a location as in the abstract sense of being “on the road”; “wild / bush, the sea wind heaving” invokes a coastal setting and therefore conjures images of seafaring and, less directly, air travel. After searching for patterns like this, look up specific terms (try “Manzinilla,” for example) to find additional nuances.

In addition to the descriptive language, we can look at how the poem’s meditation on migration is developed in the form of the poem—both its organization and individual lines. What sounds do you hear? What patterns can you identify? The passage consists of sentences that wouldn’t be out of place in a prose paragraph, except that here they are broken into lines. The first two lines resemble speech, but with consonance in “spitting out the last / spun syllables,” “lips made to bubble blood” (in the series of bs as well as their resonance with the p in “lips”), and “consonant curses into choking aspirate” (in the alternating c/k and s sounds). It appears that consonance occurs in parts that describe the speaker’s language or pronunciation, which suggests that the form of these lines reinforces their content.

These nuances—which a reader wouldn’t notice when encountering the passage as part of a linear reading through a large swath of the text—can provide support for larger ideas about the text’s treatment of trauma and migration. The next step in close reading is to expand on them to detect what they say about movement (for example, its variability and omnipresence, or the difference between free and coerced movement) or the relationship between speech and historical trauma. Think about how these conclusions validate or challenge the arguments outlined in the Scholarship section. This passage, for instance, in using formal effects to draw attention to certain instances of speech, may affect one’s understanding of Brand’s use of nation language.

Close Reading II

Now let’s look at how the language in Brand’s descriptions of Toronto emphasizes movement instead of fixed boundaries. This passage uses streets and directions as geographical markers:

I walk Bathurst Street until it come like home

Pearl was near Dupont, upstairs a store one

christmas where we pretend as if nothing change we,

make rum punch and sing, with bottle and spoon,

song we weself never even sing but only hear when

we was children. (27)

Note that the precision in these lines—their reference to walking in a specific direction to a set location (here, a street that gives its name to a subway stop)—emphasizes movement and specific memories as opposed to fixed cultural boundaries (for example, by using memories about Christmas to demarcate a familiar stretch of Bathurst). Consider how this passage expands on or opposes the previous passage’s oblique reference to coerced movement.

Pay attention also to Brand’s diction. Words and phrases like “weself” and “we was children” are obvious examples of “non-official” English, but the passage also engages reflexively with language, foregrounding the considered and performative (as opposed to “natural”) aspects of speech. Take, for instance, the speaker’s lamentation of “calling Spadina Spadeena / until I listen good for what white people call it” (26). Here, the very name of a Toronto street seems to signify racial difference, as well as the fraught process of naming. Note the reference to self-conscious speech here, and compare it with Brand’s other treatments of pronunciation.

Reflection Questions

  1. Are there patterns in Brand’s use of specific and non-specific locations? What do these identifying strategies have to do with ideas of origins? Of cosmopolitanism?
  2. In free-verse poetry, the line is regarded as a key unit of meaning. Are there patterns in Brand’s use of line breaks in organizing the above passages?
  3. Zackodnik characterizes the passages in the first close reading as rendering “the colonizer’s theft of language as a bodily experience” (196). Do your readings support Zackodnik’s conclusion? Do they suggest that something different is going on, thereby either building on Zackodnik’s argument or refuting it?

Works Cited

  • Brand, Dionne. No Language Is Neutral. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998. Print.
  • Zackodnik, Teresa. “‘I Am Blackening in My Way’: Identity and Place in Dionne Brand’s No Language Is Neutral.” Essays on Canadian Writing 57 (1995): 194-211. Print.