Author Shani Mootoo blooms at York

On Thursday, Oct. 21, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Shani Mootoo. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the course, sent this report to YFile. 

“You are, to her, the promise of a cereus-scented breeze on a paradise night.”
Shani Mootoo, from Cereus Blooms at Night

Like moths attracted to the perfume of the cereus blossom, students and faculty were drawn to Shani Mootoo’s dramatic reading from her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night (Press Gang, 1997). Mootoo had flown in from Edmonton, Alta., to read for the Canadian Writers in Person course on Oct. 21.

Right: Shani Mootoo

She made the trip despite a leg which was sore from an encounter with a blender (she dropped it on her shin). The leg held up, and students were delighted to hear her read selections from Cereus Blooms at Night and from her collection of short stories Out on Main Street (Press Gang Publishers, 1993) and her collection of poems The Predicament of Or (Raincoast, 2001). Mootoo also treated her audience to a glimpse of her current project, the soon-to-be-published “He Drown She in the Sea” (April 2005).

Mootoo infused her reading with the dialects of her characters. She said she practises the effect and enjoys trying to pull together different voices into one book. Although the influence of her Indo-Trinidadian upbringing is strong, she chose to set her first novel on the fictitious island of Lantanacamara. She feels she is more Canadian, having lived here since she was 19 years old, and to set her book in Trinidad would have taken advantage of a culture of which she is no longer a part.

Immigrant Canadians tend to be encouraged to write about their homeland either in a way that depicts a ghettoized or more exotic version of their culture in Canada, says Mootoo. With Cereus Blooms at Night, Mootoo wanted to get away from the perception of the book being an autobiography so that she could put the emphasis on the story. This didn’t stop her mother from calling her one night and nervously inquiring, “You’re not writing about us are you?” An amused Mootoo said she replied, “Mommy, did I kill my father? Did you run off with another woman? No…”

In discussions following the reading, Mootoo was fierce when she described her sense of identity, especially in her current project, which follows an interracial relationship set in British Columbia. She said she considers writing about the Canadian landscape to be a political act. It is “me inserting myself in the Canadian landscape as a citizen with full rights to play in it. By writing about the geography, I feel I can own it. I want to create a space in which an immigrant character written by an immigrant Canadian can exist where white Canadians are.” She is also resistant to any sense of a fixed identity and, particularly in Cereus, challenges ideas of gender and sexuality. “The moment I feel settled about anything, I want to undercut it. I don’t want to be told by anyone, including myself, what I am.”

Many students were interested in Mootoo’s writing process. A Renaissance woman, who is an artist as well as a video-filmmaker, poet, short story writer and novelist, she finds that the idea or image comes first and then the media that expresses it most fully is chosen after the image. Mootoo says she intimately identifies with the world she creates in her work until it is completed and then she steps away from it when it’s done. She then places the book in the hands of her readers for them to interpret the material, saying, “For every reader, I have written a different book.”

More about Shani Mootoo

Shani Mootoo is a writer, a visual artist and a video-filmmaker who develops and explores her particular approach to artistic expression in a multidisciplinary approach to media. Born of Indian ancestry in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo moved to Canada at age 19. Her experience as a multiple immigrant (India, Ireland, England, Trinidad and Canada) emerge, shape and colour her writing. Mootoo traces themes of ethnicity, gender and sexual identities through her work, taking as her main focus the relationship between authenticity and identity. Her collection of short stories, Out on Main Street, explores questions of authenticity and identity through the first-person narration of the main character of the title story of the collection, an Indo-Trinidadian butch lesbian. Her first book, Cereus Blooms at Night, offers a reflective examination of “socially deviant” identities through hybridity and the sexually divergent. Shani Mootoo currently teaches at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Prior to the reading, Mootoo was entertained at a reception at the York Centre for Feminist Research and her reading was filmed by CBC Television.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Nov. 4, Chester Brown will discuss his work, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.