GRIEVERS by adrienne maree brown (BOOK REVIEW)
“She felt along an edge of awareness in her too, the massive distinction between well and sick, the slender shade of difference between sick and dead. Whichever man or god created this demon, they’d raised the question in her: What makes life worth living?
She had one answer: It’s more than breath.”
“The hierarchy of grief is measured in words and silence. The closer the death, the less words it can hold.”
adrienne maree brown’s Grievers (2021) is, along with Margaret Killjoy’s A Country Of Ghosts (2021), the lead title in AK Press’s Black Dawn series, which was set up to imagine anticapitalist, anticolonialist and antiracist futures in honour of Octavia E. Butler’s work. It beautifully and challengingly compliment’s Killjoy’s novella. Whereas A Country Of Ghosts was about imagining possible better ways of living and how they might look, Grievers argues that resistance, social justice movements and kinship are necessary for survival especially as the world around us becomes more apocalyptic and dystopian. Set in a near future Detroit ravaged by a woefully mishandled pandemic, brown’s novella is an intense piece of writing that looks right into the heart of grief, of what it means to come to terms with losses both small and devastatingly large. brown is interested in how communities and individuals experience and move through grief, the ways in which community can support grieving and the difficult journeys that one must make on one’s own. Arriving as it does in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Grievers is an emotionally gruelling but thoroughly necessary read, a book that does not flinch from the collective trauma experienced by everyone and especially people left without support by the state.
Dune’s life in Detroit is disrupted when her mother Kama becomes the first victim of a mysterious illness that leaves people immobilised in the middle of their everyday life. As Detroit’s hospitals fill up and the city is shut in by quarantine, Dune must learn to navigate poverty and loneliness. She splits her time between looking after her grandmother and only surviving relative, Mama Vivian, and foraging for food and supplies. Soon she finds her life shaped by the absences of her activist parents, discovering her mother’s passion for community and her father’s fascination with cataloguing information. As Detroit becomes increasingly abandoned, Dune decides to stay and work through the grief of losing her family and her city, in the hopes that perhaps she can make sense of it all and start to build something new.
Grievers exploration of grief is raw and powerful, but also deeply considered and thoughtful. brown avoids any of the cliches or easy answers – grief is just something the characters who survive have to move through. Dune’s life is not just shaped by the loss of her mother, but her father died in an accident years previously, and as a citizen of Detroit she has lost loved ones and friends to AIDS, drugs, poverty and more. But as well as the intensely personal grief of losing a loved one, brown explores other kinds of grief, some of them personal, some of them communal. The mysterious illness in the book appears only to affect Detroit’s Black community, and Dune experiences the loss of having her community decimated by a devastating illness whilst the government fail to do anything about it and the hospitals are turning people away because they can’t afford the health insurance. Grievers expertly shows how institutionalised racism and violence are directed at the most vulnerable. At various points, Dune wonders if the disease itself isn’t a kind of grief, a bodily reaction to the intense pressures put on Black people by a profoundly racist society.
What hope can those whose lives are shaped by grief cling on to? Again brown offers no trite answers – there can be no easy fix, and the pain and suffering of victims and the survivors cannot be downplayed. But Dune finds inspiration through the lives of her parents and grandparents, who were all involved in various levels of activism and community. Kama was a passionate advocate for social change, always coming up with plans and meetings to energize the community, whilst her father and her grandparents studied history and theory and wrote books, articles and think pieces to spread information, challenge preconceptions and change minds. The lives of her parents do not directly map on to Dune’s new life in the ruins, but she is able to draw inspiration and energy from the way they lived her lives, and draw on their knowledge to help her survive.
Grievers is an intense read because it is dealing with the social inequalities that are shaping the responses to the pandemic. brown is unafraid to engage with these very raw wounds. However part of what makes Grievers such a powerful read is that it acknowledges the difficulty of present times whilst providing pointers for how we might move on afterwards. Dune’s experience of moving through grief brings her in touch with the numinous and the magical, allows her to bring herself close to things she would otherwise not have been aware of. And eventually, there is a way through for Dune, and perhaps all of us, a place where we may recover from grief and start to rebuild the kind of community we would all like to live in. Grievers’ hope is transformative because it is so hard won. In the afterword, brown mentions that Grievers is the first part in a novella trilogy. I eagerly await the next instalments for the quiet and profound wisdom that brown brings to her imaginings of surviving through trauma and change.