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“the Ebb and Flow of Favour”: Narrative Structure in Dionne Brand’s “Job”

In: English and Literature

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Joe Blow English 1100, Section R75 Instructor: Sheila Hancock February 27th, 2011 “The Ebb and Flow of Favour”: Narrative Structure in Dionne Brand’s “Job” In “Job,” Dionne Brand offers a short vignette that attempts to expose racism and sexism in 1970s Canada. In this one-paragraph narrative essay, Brand tells the story of her rejection by a potential employer—that her rejection is based on her race is the fact the story hinges upon; that she is willing to be exploited based on her gender is the essay’s central irony. Brand offers a narrative structure that allows the reader to empathize with the speaker—to experience an emotional response that reflects that of the speaker. She accomplishes this response by withholding information until a crucial moment, by varying sentence length and control to reflect emotions, and by repeating certain images throughout the essay. [Thesis statement] Brand opens her essay by outlining the series of events that lead her to seek employment at an office on Keele Street in Toronto. She recounts how she secures—by telephone—an interview for the following day; she then recounts her careful preparations for the interview and her arrival at the office on the day of the interview. Suddenly—and apparently inexplicably—she is told that the job no longer exists. Just as it dawns on the speaker that the reason she is unacceptable for the position is her race, it also dawns on the reader. Brand, with careful rhetorical manipulation of structure, mimics the speaker’s epiphany in

the reader by withholding the information that the speaker is black. [Topic sentence] Indeed, the first mention of the speaker’s race comes after her rejection as she makes her escape and laughs “that laughter that Black people get, derisive and self-derisive” (74). Before the non-interview, the speaker sees herself as neutral in terms of race (interestingly, not in terms of gender). Race is not an issue as she speaks on the phone or as she prepares herself for the interview; thus, the reader also pictures the speaker as neutral. Because information regarding the speaker’s race is withheld, the reader must invariably wonder what is “wrong” with the speaker when she is rejected by her potential employer. As it slowly becomes clear that what is “wrong” is her blackness, we realize our own assumptions about race and neutrality, about other and same. Brand further manipulates the reader’s emotions by varying sentence length and structure to mimic the speaker’s emotional state. [Topic Sentence] Her securing of the interview is described in two sentences: one simple, one compound, both of which are controlled and grammatically correct. As her excitement regarding the potential job rises, her control over sentence structure begins to loosen: “Yes, it was that tiny office in the back of a building on Keele when I was turning eighteen, and I dressed up in my best suit outfit with high heels and lipstick and ninety-seven pounds of trying hard desperate feminine heterosexuality, wanting to look like the man on the phone’s imagination so I could get the job” (73). The sentence is not only complex, it contains a number of stacked phrases, many of which are purposely misplaced. The effect, particularly of the stacked modifying phrases, is that of rising excitement and

expectation and a loss of control over emotion. The next sentence also lacks control and grammatical proficiency, but for a different reason: as the clauses and phrases are stacked one upon the other, the sentence reflects a building disappointment—an unraveling of the previous excitement and expectation: When I went to that tiny office and saw the smile of the man on the phone fade, and the job disappear because all of a sudden it needed experience or was just given to somebody else and, no, there would be no interview and if it where today I would have sued the pig for making me walk away with my eighteen-year-old self trying not to cry and feeling laughter, that laughter that Black people get, derisive and self-derisive rising inside my chest. (73-4) This one very loosely structured sentence not only reveals the speaker’s realization and disappointment, but also reflects her building anger: here, we see her diction shift from the slightly colloquial, everyday language of an eighteenyear-old girl to that of an angry, rightfully embittered adult woman: “and if it were today I would have sued the pig” (74). This apparent lack of control over sentence structure continues until the speaker becomes resigned to her disempowerment as a black woman in the predominately white male culture of Canada in the 1970s. This resignation is most evident in the penultimate fragmented sentence, “A kitchen then, maybe, but not an office” (74). The fragmented sentence reflects the now-fractured optimism of the speaker and reveals the opposite of the rising excitement and building disappointment of the earlier run-on sentences.

Further evidence of Brand’s manipulation of structure to underscore meaning is the repetition of the image of the “tiny office” (73-4). [Topic Sentence] The image opens the essay and is repeated no less than five times, which is significant in an essay of less than five hundred words. Clearly, within the patriarchal structure of 1970s Canada, the most powerful citizen was the white male executive. Within this class, however, gradations of empowerment would have been indicated by various markers of prestige—a large corner office at the front of a building would indicate an executive with greater power and status than that of a “tiny office in the back of a building on Keele Street” (73). Yet this “tiny office” is exactly where Brand’s speaker hopes so desperately to secure a position. What she longs for is the least empowered position within the dominant society’s hierarchy: the beleaguered female assistant to the lowestlevel male manager. The meagerness of her dreams becomes more profound with each mention of the “tiny office” and, finally, in the resignation evident in the sentence, “That I could ever think of getting such a job, even so small and mean a job that some white man could forget himself and at least see me as someone he could exploit, and I was willing to be considered as someone to exploit” (74). The tiny-ness of the office also comes to symbolize the small-mindedness of its inhabitant—a racist, sexist man willing to exploit his tiny modicum of power to choose an assistant who meets his idea of what a secretary should be: female, sexually available, and, most important, white [Topic Sentence]. Significantly, the office mentioned in the penultimate sentence has no modifying “tiny” attached

to it: the “office” has become enormous, unattainable to a black woman destined, in 1970s Canada, for “a kitchen then, maybe, but not an office” (74). In this sad little vignette of racism and sexism in Canada in the 1970s, Brand’s manipulation of structure underscores the speaker’s “arc of emotion” (Meyer 73) and allows the reader to experience a similar “arc”: from optimism to tragic epiphany, from anger to, ultimately, resignation. Indeed, Brand’s technique teaches us as much about our own misconceptions of neutrality, race, and gender as it does about the speaker and her once potential employer.

Works Cited Brand, Dionne. “Job.” The Reader: Contemporary Essays and Writing Strategies. Ed. Caroline Meyer and Bruce Meyer. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 2001. 72-4. Meyer, Caroline, and Bruce Meyer, eds. The Reader: Contemporary Essays and Writing Strategies. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 2001.

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