A New Write of Passage

Giller-nominated author starts new chapter as graduate student at U of G



Show, don’t tell. That’s what they advise beginning writers. With three novels — including her most recent, Valmiki’s Daughter, long-listed for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize — a short-story collection and a book of poems behind her, Toronto’s Shani Mootoo has absorbed that lesson. Indeed, she’s shared it in turn as a coach and mentor, including a stint as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta. Now, as a new graduate student plunging into literary and critical theory this year at U of G, she has to learn to do the reverse.

That’s a challenge, says Mootoo, 52. “I have to train myself to think differently. I’m accustomed to writing stories. The challenge is to take the ideas I know in my heart and, rather than embed them in metaphors or stories, deepen them and flesh them out unequivocally.”

Still, just two months into her studies, Mootoo is relishing the change. “I’m getting a great deal out of this already. I just wish there were a few more hours in the day.”

From her home in downtown Toronto, she catches the bus three times a week for classes at Guelph. She expects to take a year to complete her master’s degree with Profs. Smaro Kamboureli and Christine Bold, English and Theatre Studies. Before beginning her studies, Mootoo had written about one-third of a draft of her fourth novel. Her progress there has slowed dramatically because she’s spending only about a day a week on it now. But it’s only for a year, she reminds herself. And she believes her student experience here is already lending insights into her approach to writing.

Notably, she says, her studies are giving her a different view on how she or her characters address race. In much of her work, that’s been a central issue for this Trinidad-raised writer and visual artist who moved to Canada at age 19. So have issues of identity, belonging, sexuality and gender, and child sexual abuse — all of them welling up from Mootoo’s own varied experiences as an adult here in Canada and as a youngster in the Caribbean.

As an adult, her first plunge into those murky waters came not through words but through pictures. After completing a fine arts degree at the University of Western Ontario in 1980, she began a career as a multimedia visual artist, creating videos and painting in Vancouver.

Besides leaving Trinidad, it was visual art that allowed her to breathe, says Mootoo. She used images to share thoughts and feelings she’d been urged to suppress after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of an uncle. But it wasn’t long before those images began to spill from the canvas and onto the printed page.

Initially she wrote for herself, perhaps drawing on the same source that had led her to begin jotting ideas down as a seven-year-old back in Trinidad. Even much of that early writing dealt with sexual relations, she says, recalling her early questions about relations not just between men and women but between same-sex couples as well.

She had shared some of her writing with another artist and member of a lesbian artists’ collective. Those pieces found their way to Press Gang Publishers, a feminist co-operative in Vancouver. In 1993, Mootoo published Out on Main Street, a collection of short stories about Caribbean women of Indian descent.

Sexual identity and magic realism infuse her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night. The book was a Giller Prize finalist in 1997, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and was nominated for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. She followed that with a poetry collection, The Predicament of Or, in 2001. Her second novel, He Drown She in the Sea, made the long list for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Sometimes an idea still presents itself as a series of images rather than words. This fall she will premiere a film called And the Rest Is Drag, directed with Melissa Brittain and Danielle Peers. Exploring drag king culture in Alberta, the film will appear as part of Exposures, a queer arts and culture festival to be held in Edmonton in November.

At other times, Mootoo is driven to express an idea in just-so language — the kind of compressed word images that make up poetry. This month, she was fired up about the possibilities of poetry, having just returned from an Alberta writers’ festival that featured evening poetry bashes. The novel is just the opposite. “Its length allows time for understanding the ‘why’ of the story.”

Whatever the medium, one idea often leads to another, she says. “Usually it’s something left over from the last work.”

Take those early writings in Canada that eventually became her short stories. The publisher had asked her what else she was writing — a novel, perhaps? “I spontaneously said yes. She asked if she could see it.”

Among those vignettes was an old woman boiling snail shells in a pot. Burrowing in to learn more about that character led the writer to Mala, the central presence in Cereus Blooms at Night. Mootoo found herself writing backward to fill in the story.
Similarly, her new novel began at the end.

Last year she explained the genesis of Valmiki’s Daughter during the book’s launch in Toronto. Discussing the novel onstage with writer Shyam Selvadurai (a longtime acquaintance who is U of G’s writer-in-residence this semester), she spoke about the picture that presented itself to her — and indeed the very sentence that appears only pages from the end: “So, it was on the north coast of the island, on a strip of sand too slim to label a beach, that he lay on top of her.”

“She” is Viveka, a young woman wrestling with her sexual identity — a struggle further complicated by her father’s own sexual ambiguities. Starting with that beach image, Mootoo found herself working backward to learn about Valmiki’s daughter. “I found myself wondering what’s making her do this, what’s leading her to this place.”

Valmiki’s Daughter explores sexuality and the secrets behind relationships, without necessarily judging the characters or their actions — perhaps the grownup version of that early childhood questioning.

How do Mootoo’s parents — whom she describes as “old-fashioned” — respond to seeing what goes on in their daughter’s head today? She says relations with her father, Romesh, were rough about a decade ago but have since smoothed over.

During her visit to Trinidad this summer, he didn’t mention reading Valmiki’s Daughter, but speaking on the phone on her return to Canada, he told her he’d enjoyed Cereus Blooms at Night. “You and I don’t see eye to eye,” he said, “but write and never censor yourself.”

And her mother, Indra? “Mommy tells me not to cut my hair too short.”

Family connections also played a role in Mootoo’s growing recognition of herself as a writer. A favourite vignette involves prolific author and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, a distant cousin of her father’s. (Another scribe in the family is Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer Neil Bissoondath, a nephew of Naipaul’s.) She hadn’t seen Naipaul since she was a teenager when they crossed paths one day at a relative’s house in Trinidad. She overheard him ask someone: “Is that Romesh’s writing daughter?”

Mootoo used to think she’d need to amass a Naipaul-sized collection of a dozen or so novels before she could consider herself a genuine writer. But she says she’s learned to rely on her inner writerly impulses rather than on validation from others.

“It doesn’t come from outside. You feel so compelled. It’s like a lover I want to go back to constantly. I can’t leave her for very long.”

She says readers praise her writing style and insights, including her talent for exposing what’s not always seen. “A lot of people have written me to say my book told their story in a way they could probably not have told it themselves” — no small praise, given her earlier circuitous route to finding her own voice.

For Mootoo, writing is about finding meaning. What’s her goal? “It would be to create and leave behind a body of work that is not self-indulgent but that tries to present a vision of things as they might be.”

Looking to explain something of the writing process itself was what led her to Guelph this year. That and a more prosaic purpose: she’s looking to upgrade her credentials so she can teach. “I knew I had to get a master’s degree, but I wanted to study something that would challenge me more than creative writing.”

That’s when she met Kamboureli, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Critical Studies in Canadian Literature and is head of the TransCanada Institute on campus. They met at an art show curated by Canadian writer Ashok Mathur.

Now Mootoo commutes to Guelph, attending classes in the MacKinnon Building. Kamboureli says a “wonderful moment” occurred in the classroom during a guest lecture by Mathur, as he and Mootoo provided insights for the other students about early-1990s views of racial and cultural policies in Canada.

Mootoo is enjoying visits to the TransCanada Institute and working with what she describes as a collegial group of students. She’s learning — and sharing her own experience in turn. “I bring experience to the class from a cultural producer’s point of view.”