Archive for the ‘Mootoo, Shani (2)’ Category

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab, by Shani Mootoo

October 13, 2014

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.


    Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo

    September 27, 2009

    Review copy courtesy WordFest

    Review copy courtesy WordFest

    One of the great strengths of the Giller Prize, since year one, has been the attention that it has drawn to works by authors who now live in Canada but were born and raised elsewhere — and have chosen to return to those roots in their fiction. Indeed, of 15 winners to date, four meet that description — M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe. So it is a delight to report that 2009’s longlist features another title from that tradition — Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo — a book that at this early stage in my longlist reading I very much look forward to seeing on the shortlist.

    Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo has lived in Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto) for more than 20 years. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, made the Giller short list; her second, He Drown She In The Sea, was IMPAC longlisted — so she is no stranger to international prize competitions.

    giller avatarValmiki’s Daughter is set in Trinidad and, as the title suggests, focuses on that island’s Indian community that V.S. Naipul has made familiar to readers internationally. Valmiki Krishnu is a well-off doctor, with two maturing daughters Viveka and Vashti. He also has a private life shrouded in intrigue:

    Just before moving onward, you will be hit with a strong, sweet whiff of garlic, scallions and ginger as they are sauteed, a street away, in peanut and sesame oil. You will smell, but you won’t see, The Victory Hotel, which houses The Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, the best hotel and the best restaurant this side of the oil refinery. The hotel is mostly used by visitors to the island, but it is known to be available on occasion to certain businessmen and professionals who are willing to pay the daily double-room rate for the privacy of their illicit pleasures. The Golden Dragon is where the aldermen, the mayor, and lawyers take their lunch, and where some of the doctors take theirs too. On occasion you will find Dr. Krishnu there. He usually requests one of several private dining suites at the back of the restaurant. He will, of course, not be alone, but the staff is discreet.

    Those companions tend to be married, white women but that is not Dr. Krishnu’s biggest secret. He has taken up hunting (at which he is hopeless) because it gives him the chance to retreat to the woods for the weekend with Saul: “These days, Saul was the object of Valmiki’s most powerful and basest desires.” Saul has re-awakened in Dr. Vishnu the passions and memories of his student days and the compromise that he made in abandoning them to pursue a “normal” life.

    While Mootoo is careful to indicate that the doctor’s wife, Devika, actively avoids approaching this issue, the author leaves little doubt that the wife is fully aware of it. Indeed, as the early parts of the novel unfold, it is becoming even more threatening. Eldest daughter Viveka is not only mannish in appearance and attitude, she displays no interest in any possible suitor: Has she inherited her father’s “tendencies”? Viveka wants to join a local all-women’s sports club that meets twice a week to play volleyball, immediately arousing her mother’s suspicion:

    Devika asked her if she was crazy, wanting to go and play a game in a club that was open to anybody and, of all places, in that part of the city. Whereupon Viveka reminded them that Helen, daughter of their financial adviser, was on a team that played there. Devika had responded, “I don’t care if the Queen’s children play on that court, my children are not playing there. You should know better than asking.”

    Those quotes pretty much sum up the tensions around which Mootoo builds her story. There is the tension of class and its requirement for appropriate behavior. There are the tensions of family history and the fear that the failings of the previous generation will be revisited in this one. And, as the novel unfolds, there is the tension of a young woman facing the conflict between what she knows she wants (however “wrong” it might be) and what is expected of her.

    That last tension is brought to a head with the arrival back home from Canada of Nayan, son of the local cocoa farming magnate, and his French wife, Anick. Anick brings both North American and European modernism to the stilted culture of upper-class Trinidad; it is not long until her friendship with Viveka brings the hidden issues that all of the Krishnu family want to avoid to the forefront.

    While that is a rather slim story line, Mootoo carries it off with aplomb. She has a very perceptive eye for detail, not just in personal relationships but for the surrounding environment as well. And she is adroit at slowly but surely building the stretching of the tensions that are central to the book. Valmiki, Devika and Viveka all become fully-developed characters — as does the story of how each is imprisoned by the social mores that surround them.

    The result, for this reader, is a highly successful, thoughtful novel. It is neither earth-shattering, nor post-colonial (the politics of Trinidad and race play almost no part). Rather it is an intriguing study of the internal conflict faced by a young woman and the price that conflict extracts from her family.

    (EDIT) A final note about this book — it was originally published in November 2008, too late for last year’s Giller but eligible for this year. The paperback edition will be available in early November. I read an advance copy, thoughtfully provided by WordFest, the Banff-Calgary authors’ festival, where Shani Mootoo will be appearing. It was a finished book, so I’m going to assume that Mootoo’s publishers, Canada’s well-regarded House of Anansi, will be pushing forward the release date now that it has been Giller longlisted. For the sake of eager readers, I certainly hope so — it is a very good book.

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