Theory by Dionne Brand

“There are multiple reasons why I find myself in the situation of not having completed my dissertation; on the other hand, I believe one ought to take stock of one’s own bullshit.”

Theory, the latest novel by Dionne Brand, begins and ends with this footnote. The unnamed, ungendered narrator retells three romances over the course of writing their dissertation: Selah, embodiment of beauty; Yara, the altruistic playwright; and Odalys, the faith-healer. Through these relationships we learn more about the narrators ambition and their struggle to complete their dissertation.

This is a funny book. Often you are laughing at the narrator for their folly, their lack of intuition and self-honesty in relationships, be they collegial or personal.

But in some ways you are laughing at yourself. I think one of the major themes in this book is how expectations in the family and the university shape our love lives in turn. When one is negotiating with professionalizing ambitions at home and at work and, yes, in “love,” where do you turn? The narrator is constantly qualifying their opinions, revising their statements, taking back judgments of character. So in one light, it’s no wonder they never finished the diss. But they make a good case for themselves:

“At the root of the problem are the quotations and references. One is not allowed an original thought. I asked the committee: Does Derrida keep quoting everyone before him to make sure he is right? Does Spivak have to array around her all the dead philosophers and theorists to prove her credentials for speaking? And finally, there’s no reference for what I want to do. Why can’t I simply speak without having to have that speech legitimated by god knows who?”

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