Art & Literature

The eyes of Shani Mootoo

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett

Writer, filmmaker and visual artist Shani Mootoo is one of Canada’s boldest and most respected writers, so I was somewhat surprised to discover how softspoken she is. After all, her spectacular global journey – born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1957 to Trinidadian parents, she grew up in Trinidad and relocated to Vancouver at the age of 24 – has also been one of self-discovery.

“I was once married for about four minutes,” Mootoo told me. “He was Canadian and I left Trinidad for Canada with him. It wasn’t a marriage of convenience, but it was convenient to leave Trinidad for Canada. I know many Trinidadian gay men and lesbians  who are married to have a [heterosexual] family life as adults. So I think in my subconscious I realized it was not possible to live as a lesbian in Trinidad.”
Moot first bookMootoo’s first book Out on Main Street was a collection of her short stories published by the Vancouver-based feminist publishing house Press Gang in 1993. But it wasn’t until her first full-length novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, also published by Press Gang, in 1996, and shortlisted for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, that her international literary career took off. Cereus Blooms at Night – published in 15 countries in nine languages – is set on a tropical island, narrated by a male nurse who explores the legacies of sexual abuse and the boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual desire.
Her new book Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab also covers a lot of queer territory, but Mootoo says her mainstream publisher DoubleDay Canada has been nothing but supportive. “They did not tell me how to write this or that, and whether I identify as a lesbian writer or a writer who just happens to be lesbians depends on the situation I am in, because everything we [queers] say is a political pronouncement. I don’t want to be owned by anyone. But at the same time I will stand up where I need to stand up.”
Moving Forward tells the story of Jonathan Lewis-Adey who was nine when his parents, who were raised him in urban downtown Toronto, separated, and his mother Sid vanished from his life. It is not until he is a grown man – a writer with two books to his name, a supportive girlfriend, and a promising career – that Jonathan finally reconnects with his beloved lost parent, only to find, to his shock and dismay, that the woman he knew as “Sid” has become an elegant man named Sydney living quietly in a well-appointed house in his native Trinidad. “Siddhani Mahale – “Sid” – first experienced a profound sense of disconnection in her native Trinidad where, as a lesbian whose sexual preference was implied by her clothes and demeanour, she was the victim of intolerance,” the Toronto Star reviewed. “After leaving her Indian/Hindu milieu on the Caribbean island and moving to a less tradition-bound country, Canada, Sid suffered the dislocation of being in an unfamiliar, much colder and socially much more frigid realm.”
I ask Mootoo how she was inspired to write this book. “I had met trans men and women when I was living in New York in the 1990s, but about five years ago by chance I was taken to party for a trans man and there met some other other trans men who had partners – women – and there was also a trans man who had given birth,” Mootoo replied. “The party was delightful in so many ways. [But then] at some point, while women were flirting with the birthday man, a very straight-looking man called this trans man ‘Mom.’ My first feeling was, ‘You’re being a bit bratty, this is his birthday.’ And he continued to do it. I realized he was actually distressed and having a very hard time. The choice the mother made to become a man was his own choice, but forced on this boy. So that’s how my book came about.”
The critics are swooning over Mootoo and Moving Forward. “A stunning meditation on story – how our lives are shaped by both the stories we’re told and the stories we tell, portrays the beautiful (yet often tense) bond between a parent and child, the complexities of immigration, the fluidity of gender,” The National Post raved. “It is a gorgeously written novel, typical of Mootoo’s poetic gifts.”
The Globe and Mail was equally enthusiastic: “Moving Forward has a fascinating premise, one that emboldens Mootoo's ongoing literary project of giving voice to sexual minorities with brown faces from hot countries. They are stories that can no longer be silenced.”
Not surprisingly, Mootoo welcomes the accolades with much grace. But don’t mistake her softspokenness as weakness. To the contrary, Shani Mootoo is a trailblazing dyke helping change the world one book at a time. 
“You didn’t know me four years ago, but its taken that long for my hair to grow,” Shani tells me. “There was a time in order to insist on my queerness that my race got in the way. So I had other identifiers of lesbianism [such as short hair]. If I didn’t have visible signifiers, I would not be read a as a lesbian. I would be read as straight. Fortunately, what is read easily is the butch look, so wearing butchness was like a costume. Today so much is known about me before I arrive in a room that I can wear my hair longer now. And earrings! And not feel like it has feminized me. There is a new freedom with this identity, although butch is what I have been working towards.”
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