Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, by Shani Mootoo


Purchased at

Purchased at

Shani Mootoo has featured on this blog before: an enthusiastic review of the 2009 Giller-longlisted Valmiki’s Daughter. In that one, Mootoo — born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, resident of Canada for some while — focused on an upper-class Trinidadian family, the father a doctor struggling with his homosexuality, a daughter effectively flaunting her lesbianism against local convention and the arrival back in Trinidad of a family acquaintance and his “best-friend” wife who have made good in North America.

Given that, let’s consider the main elements of Moving Forwards Sideways Like A Crab:

  • Jonathan Lewis-Abbey is heading to Trinidad from Toronto. The mother he knew as “Sid” (not his biological mother, but her partner) for the first nine years of his life has been “Sydney” for the last 30. After decades of missing his “mother”, Jonathan found Syd about ten years back and has visited frequently since — this trip is taking place because Syd is dying and wants Jonathan there to impart some last messages.
  • Sydney mainly wants Jonathan there so he can explain why he left their Toronto home without warning, why he opted for a surgical sex change and why he needed to come “home” to Trinidad after his North American experience.
  • An important part of that is Sydney’s need to return to his own coming-out experience, his friendship in school days with Zain that evolved into a lover’s obsession, Zain’s return of that friendship even after she married and became a mother of two and a harmless, but compromising, incident involving Sid and Zain that Syd believes led to her murder.
  • 11shadow logoThose bullet points are the background of the plot — Moving Sideways Like A Crab is set in the present tense so all of that comes from back stories which form the bulk of the novel. After a few “here is what really happened” exchanges with Jonathan, Syd dies and the Toronto son is left as the key family member to look after the mourning and cremation. Syd has not just left a final few verbal stories, he has also left letters and journals that Jonathan digs into, trying to understand how his mother “Sid” became his generational parent “Sydney”.

    A prologue from one of Sydney’s notebooks outlines the challenge that he feels he is facing in setting all this in motion as his death approaches:

    In the end, I hope that Jonathan will understand why, after coming to Canada in search of some sort of authenticity, after living in Toronto for more than three decades, I returned home — I returned, that is, to live again in Trinidad. But how do I explain it so that he doesn’t think I ran away, gave up, failed?

    One more chance is all I ask for. But time is against me, and there is so much to tell.

    Contrast that with the following excerpt from Jonathan (Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is structured as a memoir from him, although it frequently digresses into Sydney’s notebooks and straightforward narrative) as his plane is about to land in Trinidad. This flight is taking place only two months after his last visit — Sydney’s looming death has changed all schedules.

    It amuses me how the instant the fasten-seatbelts sign is turned off during the flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidadians get up and strut about. They seem to know one another; they congregate in the aisles unabashedly airing their business, telling jokes, heckling each other or reminiscing. Their anticipation is palpable. Some begin the journey as strangers, but through conversations struck up in the interminable lineups at the airport or during the five-hour flight itself, they inevitably learn that they know someone in common or are even related. I have always envied their ease and willing camaraderie, and having been to their island numerous times over the past decade, have often wanted to contribute my penny’s worth; but discretion — on account of being just a visitor to the island — has prevailed.

    (A digression, which won’t make sense to anybody but Canadian visitors here, but I suspect will strike a bell with many of that group: I was totally taken with that paragraph from a purely Canadian perspective. I’m not a Nova Scotian, but I have flown into and out of Halifax many times — on every flight, it seemed to me that it took less than an hour for the three people in the row behind me to discover a common friend (or enemy) and, more than once, a relative. That is a sense of community that not much of the world gets to experience.)

    I have chosen those excerpts quite deliberately to illustrate the high expectations that Mootoo’s opening pages produced for me. On the one hand, a dying individual struggling to explain (perhaps even justify?) her/his past decisions. And on the other a “traveller” — certainly a knowledgable one, but someone who realizes he is entering a culture that he may know but is not part of.

    That promised a lot, particularly given my enthusiasm for Valmiki’s Daughter with its similar elements. Unfortunately, I have to report that, for this reader at least, Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab does not deliver on the promise.

    Much of the narrative of the novel revolves around Jonathan trying to come to terms with why Sid did what she did to become Sydney. While I can certainly appreciate that that is a compelling topic for some readers, I think for most it is a case of “looking at” rather than “being part of”. And I am afraid that Jonathan, as he proceeds along this final path of life with Sid/Sydney, shrinks, rather than grows, in interest.

    And while Trinidad is always part of the story (indeed, part of my problem is that Toronto and lives there — both Sid/Syd’s and Jonathan’s — never get addressed by the author), it does not becomes three-dimensional — local custom and behavior are never investigated beyond how they played with the high-school Sid, the dying Sydney or his funeral rites. As I read the novel, I frequently found it comparing not well with Sam Selvon’s final Moses novel.

    Shani Mootoo is a very talented writer — and I salute her attempts to produce books that include conflicts of immigration with its challenging attitudes and circumstances, the difficulty of dealing with both old and new cultures and, perhaps most pressingly, sexuality. For this reader, it worked very well in Valmiki’s Daughter — this novel falls well short of that mark. I certainly do not fault the Giller Jury for including this on the longlist; neither do I dispute their decision not to advance it.


    7 Responses to “Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, by Shani Mootoo”

    1. roughghosts Says:

      Thanks again Kevin for your insight into contemporary Canadian literature. As an informed, bookish Canadian I should know better but so much of what I read of current Canadian writing, even if it has its brilliant moments, falls short in the end. I read Shani Mootoo’s Cerus Blooms at Night at a time when I needed to read it and remember it fondly. Valmiki’s Daughter sounds promising too. However I will not rush for the latest. It is the transgender element that causes me concern… I am cautious to read what I know too well and with few exceptions the experience which is at once comlex and mundane is poorly imagined.


    2. kimbofo Says:

      An interesting review, Kevin. I have to say that this is the only book I didn’t bother buying off the long list for reasons I can’t quite explain, but I can now see that it probably wouldn’t have appealed.


    3. KevinfromCanada Says:

      Roughghosts, Kimbofo: One of the aspects of Valmiki’s Daughter that worked for me was the way Mootoo positioned the sexual identity issues in the context of the people and culture around the character. In this one, the question is a much more internal one, both with Sid/Sydney trying to explain why he did what he did and Jonathan trying to understand that. Unfortunately, I found myself just watching the two of them rather than feeling like a part of their search.


    4. Judy Gardner Says:

      I’m missing your reviews and trusting all is well


    5. Richard [UK] Says:

      I share Judy’s ‘concern’. Hope you are OK.


    6. KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for the thoughts — some personal health issues have taken reading off my list of activities so far in 2015. I’m hoping they will be under control and KfC will be back in action in a couple of months.


    7. Sarolta Rozsas Says:

      I miss your reviews and hope you continue soon.
      rozsass (a regular visitor from Budapest)


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