Written November 13th, afternoon
Ok, so now I’m back on a train heading west from Québec City to Montréal for a night before getting on a sleeper train to head back further east tomorrow. Domestic travel, bebbe!
Québec City is rather beautiful in a very familiar, a very “normal”-seeming (i.e. European), way in which a city can be beautiful. Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and unlike most of the others I’ve visited which treat the award with a smug nonchalance (i.e., “of course we’re a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have you seen us?”), Québec City is fucking obsessed with it. There are more UNESCO flags in that Old Town that may perhaps exist in the rest of the world put together – the place behaves like it’s astounded it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like if it doesn’t stop showing how grateful it is, the honour is going to be taken away.
There are old city walls, there’s a funicular, lots of grand early skyscrapers…
It’s pretty, sure, but I honestly can’t imagine any reason why I would ever go there again, which is a somewhat strange feeling to have – I can’t think of any other cities I have visited and not hated that felt too out of the way to ever reoccur as a setting in my life. I suppose that the difference is that in Europe, everything is so much closer together.
Maybe if I expected to spend the entire rest of my life in Canada and I was forever unable to temporarily leave and re-enter the country (which I can now finally, formally, do), then maybe I might go back, but even then I can’t really imagine choosing to go to Québec City instead of Montréal if I wanted a francophone domestic minibreak. There are also, I hear, other charming locations in that province.
Montréal is a beautiful, fun, busy city, though.
Montréal feels like a proper city in the way that Toronto never quite manages to do. My sense of Montréal’s identity, too, hasn’t been diminished by experiencing a deeper sense of Quebec the province – Montréal and Québec City are distinct, different, characterful cities, in a way that the cities I’ve been to in Ontario just, well, haven’t been… As someone who grew up in a characterless conurbation, I know one when I see one.
Anyway, no one is here for my rough guide to being bored in the world’s second biggest country-
Grievers is the debut novel by adrienne maree brown, and is published as part of a new series of writing inspired by the literary style and politics of Octavia Butler, called “Black Dawn”.
Grievers is set in Detroit, a city I once spent an afternoon in, but have been unable to visit again since (despite being just across the river from it on several occasions) due to my – until yesterday – vague visa status.
The novel is about a pandemic afflicting Black and multiethnic people only, a pandemic that causes the complete shutdown of affect – a person becomes “sick” and then is unable to do anything, anything at all, until they starve to death or otherwise start partially decomposing while their heart still beats.
Dune, the protagonist, is the daughter of activists, but her father died in a traffic accident prior to the start of the events in the novel, and by the end of the first chapter, Dune’s mother is sick with the syndrome that will become known as H-8. There is no cure, those infected can only wither away.
From this point onwards, the narrative follows Dune as she loiters in the city as it slowly falls apart (or falls more apart, she sometimes thinks).
This is ambient apocalyptic writing – it is the end of the world, but Dune isn’t in an action story, she is instead wandering around Detroit, scavenging useful items from hardware stores and community gardens. Dune is learning how to preserve and how to can fresh foods, Dune is attending meetings trying to learn more about H-8, Dune is collecting details about the victims of the sickness and incorporating them into a to-scale 3D map of the city her father built in the basement before his death. Also, too, Dune is caring for her paternal grandmother, who is very old, and slowly dying, too, though not from H-8.
There are allegories present and they are here not as exposition but as explanation: are Black people caving into grief after generations, hundreds of years, of intergenerational trauma?
Is H-8, this sickness, this syndrome, the result of oppressive society that has finally become “too much” in Trumpian America?
Is the possession of hope a liability, a weakness, a lie, when the climate emergency continues apace and the iniquities of the capitalistic world show no signs – or possibilities – of abatement?
Is an unignorable state of grief, a total collapse under ennui, not only inevitable, but the only reaction that makes sense when weighed against a realistic potential for short-term or even revolutionary change?
Grievers is a thought provoking and articulate novel, building its world of danger and horror without the use of shock or gore or any kind of malevolent threat.
The sickness, H-8, remains unexplained at the novel’s end, and this doesn’t feel like an error or a cop-out. Dune, and her peers and the reader, feel the consequences of this world, of the situations created and documented by adrienne maree brown is this impressively constructed novel.
This is a great read: powerful and intelligent, able to acknowledge both the value and the weakness of allegory, of metaphor.
Some topics feel impossible to speak about directly, but it is precisely this silence on the behalf of the oppressed that the oppressors rely on: in this novel, it suits those in power for swathes of the Black population of Detroit to start dying for no particular reason. As has been the case with COVID-19, it is not the rich and powerful who are dying, so why should we expect them to care..?