In Conversation with Shani Mootoo

Shani Mootoo photoShani Mootoo was born in Dublin, Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Canada more than thirty years ago. She is a visual artist, video maker, and fiction writer. Mootoo’s novels are Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (Doubleday, 2014), Valmiki’s Daughter (Anansi, 2008), He Drown She in the Sea (McClelland and Stewart, 2005), and Cereus Blooms at Night (Press Gang, 1996). She has won the Ethel Wilson Book Prize, has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Chapters First Novel Award, and was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, and the Dublin IMPAC Award. Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab was recently shortlisted for the Lambda Award.

Fazeela Jiwa: At the Writing Thru Race redux conference held in Toronto in March 2015, you spoke about another kind of ghetto, one in which you and other writers who are identified as raced or queered are acclaimed for their first works only, as if their writing and identities have not evolved since then. You noted that newer work by these writers does not have as much currency as those first works, many of which were published in the politically active 90s, despite the fact that they are as contemporary now as these writers’ debuts were then. Why do you think this is?

Shani Mootoo: Over the last decade or so, I have asked this question of publishers and of university teachers. I’ve asked it kindly, in an effort to provoke a thoughtful conversation that might enlighten us all and be a catalyst for change. Despite much verbose agreement, displays of sympathetic offence, and promises from almost each one that he or she would be the one to right this wrong, not much has changed.

The early nineties was a kind of blessed time for many of us. We were making a lot of noise, the same sort of noise that was being made by disenfranchised artists for many years before, about how we and our works—our writing, visual arts, etc., weren’t being treated equally, weren’t being given equal space and time, weren’t being judged with understanding of our differences and uniqueness. We said—as it has been said by numerous activists before—that such insensitivities occurred because the gate-keepers were ill-equipped to understand and judge our works. There was a lot of word-wrestling between those of us banging on doors and those who had the power to open those doors or to keep them closed then.

And suddenly, it seemed a light bulb went on. Doors, to our surprise, to our shock, opened. We were invited to sit on boards, on editorial teams, curatorial teams, to curate, to jury, to exhibit, to publish, and the works of those of us who were part of the struggles of the time were taken up at the university level where courses were being created to teach this new presence in the land. On the other side, within the academy, room was made for a new brand of professors to teach these courses, and it looked as if the gate keepers now included queer men and women and men and women of colour who themselves were now very visible.

But in the places where our works were taken up, it was as if—regardless of who was behind the podium in the classroom—it was not quite conceivable that “we” could exist simply because we actually do exist. If we were invisible before, this sudden visibility, the surprise of our presence in the landscape, had to be given a context. “Post-colonial” was the frame put around us, that explained us, that permitted our rants about being invisible and being denied, left out, forgotten, side-stepped, ignored, etc. It is understandable that frames are needed. But that one-note frame, the frame of “post-colonial,” bore a burden that would crush many of us. Our existence twenty years later cannot still be owed to this framework—it’s a been-there-done-that sort of situation both for the art makers and for the analysts, critics, educators—so how to account for the presence of any one of “us” now?

That old frame was dependent on the display within our works of myriad negative positions, odes to our despair as raced or queered people, the unfairnesses to which we have been subjected, and our general and clearly visible powerlessness—that frame held us all as a large cohesive group. But trying to separate the individual from the group, from the issues of a recognizable, definable group, is a challenge. Those very issues that once gave us visibility and currency, are—if these things can be seen as fads—nowadays passé. In terms of the individual, any one of “us” who no longer laments in his or her work the issues that once gave us currency, which is to say, an individual who wants to write or make art about things other than identity, is uncontextable, and therefore cannot easily and simply “exist.” Because Canadian canons of visual art and literature remain mostly white, it becomes difficult to know how to position one of us. Of course, one or two of us have been included in these canons, but it would appear that these exceptions are sometimes offset by class and gender. I don’t believe these reflect tokenism, but the presence of a few can lead to complacency, to the idea that because one or two are included, there’s no longer a larger problem of exclusion.

To state it simply, the presence of a raced or queered individual in the Canadian canon is particularly visible, and, as such, must be accounted for. If this cannot be done with theories such as “post-coloniality”—which are dependent on the sampling of multiple examples—many of us will be left out. It seems evident that who gets into the canon, and why, is not always based on a notion of quality, but also on politics, the questions being whose notions of quality, whose politics, and also, who is to gain? I had assumed that people of colour and queer people who had gained teaching positions in the academy would support the rest of us, and it is clear that they try, but for some reason have been unable to shift this. And so, the value of artists and writers of colour for the large part continues to remain tied to a recognizable, nameable period of time, and to their first works that appeared during that time.

FJ: Your newest novel Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab has been discussed in the literary mainstream for its attention to gender identity, but it is also quite critical of the immigrant experience in Canada, as shown through the alienation that Sid feels as a person of colour. I’m wondering if your first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, is more palatable now partly because the concerns it poses can be relegated to the past, while your newer writing exposes the complex and still problematic nature of life in Canada for characters like Sid?

SM: Cereus was my first novel. I had come out of an art-making practice and I was accustomed to experimentation. In the world of visual arts, the elliptical, the metaphor are what reign. Cereus wasn’t explicit. It leapt about realism, it was brassy in a playful way, and didn’t come straight out and say what I now feel needs to be said plainly. At the time that Cereus was written, I don’t think as a country we were comfortable with conversations about race, queerness, immigration. It was easier to place that novel in a literary context, like magical realism, than to see it as being about the kinds of themes you’d find more explicitly stated in my more current work. At that time, a novel like Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab had no context in which to exist. Nineteen years later, there have been enough conversations, and a great variety of topics that include social-political issues in the mainstream to equip readers with their own vocabulary to address the themes in that most recent novel.

The professors who had brought those first early waves of queer work into the academy in the early 90’s no longer seem to want to rock the boat. I feel that there is a play-it-safe mentality—just do what is known, what has already been sanctioned, what will get bought, and what can be sold. How many times have I been in a classroom where the same conversation happens, across the country and over 19 years, about Cereus Blooms at Night. I am foolish to complain, because it is precisely because of this that I get royalties for that novel, that I am known as a writer. I am deeply grateful, but to my mind the value of that novel only gets deeper and wider in the context of my other writing. I had the great honour of having had the University of the West Indies, the Cavehill Campus in Barbados, host a symposium on my work, where Professor Evelyn Callaghan said to me that now that I’d written (at the time) three novels, there was a frame in which to look at me as a writer. Here, in Canada, it’s not common for a writer of colour to be respected for an oeuvre, but rather to have a single worked studied for a singular issue. Writers of colour have issues. Writers who are not designated “of colour” have careers. They are still the real writers. But this is not about the writers, this is about those who teach—not of colour and of colour.

FJ: Similarly, Lee Maracle noted in an interview on the CWILA website that critics often speak about the content of her writing, rather than the art of the writing itself— which is different from the critical reception of white writers. How important is the content of writing, especially for writers of colour, immigrant writers, queer writers? Why is the art of writing diminished when it comes to writing by POCs?

SM: After writing several pieces of fiction, I am painfully aware that as a writer I am making things up for a kind of entertainment—but the situations that I put my characters in, actually exist in the real world and they happen to real people. While my characters, who are just made up of letters and words, and imaginings that I, as the writer, invent and control, can manage—because I am the creator of all—the consequences of their actions, and can have the satisfaction of having their oppressors punished, or at least repent with understanding. Real people in the real world face situations with repercussions that are oftentimes beyond the scope of literature and entertainment, and even the imagination, and are not easily or readily, or satisfactorily, even through the legal system, resolved.

Despite the public at large having been exposed in the last twenty years to discourse regarding colonialism, post colonialism, queerness, race, immigration—and in Canada, we have finally begun to be able to talk about class and to imagine it as more than the working class—the reading public still does not have an appetite for these subjects in their vehicles of entertainment. Well, unless the stories concern rich families and their staff, as in Downtown Abbey. And, more and more, literature is being seen as entertainment, not a place where one can expand one’s knowledge, or gain insights into another person’s (the writer’s, that is) ideas about humanity, or slip into the shoes of a person different from oneself. And entertainment is, more and more, about taking us away from reality—the painful realities of this material world. At the same time, you often hear lay-critics deem a book failed because it did not confirm what they already know of the world, as small or as insular as theirs might be.

At times, I find myself hashing and rehashing what we—as artists of colour, queer artists, and those among us who are First Nations artists—had been agitating for during those days of activism in the 90s. I consider the gains we’ve made since that time, —and, indeed, the losses—and I find myself thinking not about art-making, writing or access in general, but wondering about human nature. Access, it turns out, is still not a right. It was a gift—but a gift whose giving was itself a reward. It was a reward the giver gave to him/herself, and once benevolence was displayed and recognized, those who continued/continue to hold power seem to have felt that their efforts were akin to having done their penance—and publicly, too. They were then, once again, free to carry on as before. It was never about “us.” It was always about the power-holders, a sort of: mea culpa, and now can we please just get on with it? And now, times have changed; if we bring these issues up nowadays as things still to be acknowledged and attended to, we’re told to hush-up with the passé rhetoric. This is one of the big losses, I think. The language of that particular activism has lost its force, and even its meaning, through the co-optation of the “gifting” of access. Real access, it turns out, is fragile—even if possible for some.

Do any of us even know what it could look like if full access were truly handed to us, and for keeps?

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