David Chariandy invokes the past at York

On April 21, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author David Chariandy reading from his novel SoucouyantYork teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Memory is a bruise still tender. History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish.

from Soucouyant
by David Chariandy

For the author of a book subtitled A Novel of Forgetting, David Chariandy (PhD ’02) made a memorable appearance at the Canadian Writers in Person Series. Despite the haunting darkness of his debut novel Soucouyant, the young Simon Fraser University English professor and York alumnus was all smiles as he welcomed the students’ response to his work.

Right: David Chariandy

Soucouyant is about the difficulty of telling the story of the past, something spectral of which you don’t know the meaning,” said Chariandy. In the novel, the nameless narrator returns to his mother’s home on the Scarborough Bluffs, only to find her slipping further into pre-senile dementia. Although she has never told him the full story of her experience as a Trinidadian immigrating to Canada, her crumbling mind "forgets to forget" and spectres of the past begin to re-emerge. 

Chariandy chose these two experiences as a way of complicating the way we tell our history. The disorientation of a person suffering dementia is similar to that of an immigrant arriving in a new country: in both cases, their personal stories are potentially lost, and as the author said of his own family’s experiences, “why not remember them?” Though such stories might stir up unpleasant memories and ask us to recompensate old wrongs, it is nonetheless vital, said Chariandy, and as one character in Soucouyant states, "Justice don’t never make anyone happy. Is just justice."

The author cited a famous quote by Milan Kundera as a source of inspiration: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” As the narrator recalls the schoolbook version of his family’s history, the memories unleashed by his mother’s illness tell a different version. As Chariandy noted, “oppressive regimes falsify histories,” so how reliable is the written record compared to the individual experience of a young Caribbean woman in Kensington Market?   

At the heart of his novel is another question: how do we remember? For the characters in Soucouyant, it is not a cerebral exercise but rather a sensory one; the touch of a knee recalls the lineage of families; the smell of a coconut bake summons visions of an island childhood; the sound of rushing water invokes a sea of forgotten history. This involuntary approach to memory is echoed in the structure of the novel. Though composing his work in a non-linear fashion nearly “drove me insane”, it offered Chariandy endless possibilities to tell his story. 

One image that subtly connects all of the story fragments is that of the mythical soucouyant of Caribbean folklore. Living as an old woman by day, the vampiric creature sheds its skin by night and flies like a fireball across the sky to suck the lifeblood from sleeping victims. Each of the characters experiences this in their own way, as if the past were a creature that both illuminates and drains one’s spirit like an oppressive shadow. Somewhere between the tension of memory and forgetting, the reader hopes to catch the truth and be liberated from the burdens of history. 

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. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. In celebration of the University’s 50th anniversary, all of this year’s  writers have connections to York. On May 12, Sonnet L’Abbé visited York to read from her collection of poetry Killarnoe (McClelland & Stewart, 2007).