Giller Prize 2020 Special: The Chat with Shani Mootoo

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ShaniMootoo_PhotoCredit-Ramesh Pooran

Today we repost our chat from earlier this year with CanLit legend Shani Mootoo. Her new novel, Polar Vortex, is a finalist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The Globe & Mail calls it “an unsettling novel about how secrets always come back to get us – especially the secrets we’ve managed to keep from ourselves.”

Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and lives in Canada. She holds an MA in English from the University of Guelph, writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Mootoo’s critically acclaimed novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki’s Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night. She is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the James Duggins Mid-Career Novelist Award from the Lambda Literary Awards. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and the Booker Prize. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

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Polar Vortex is such a fabulous novel. It reads like a literary thriller. In a novel about secrets, Prakash’s visit to Priya and Alex’s home in the country feels fraught from the very first page. What was the seed for the story? And did you set out to write a literary thriller?

Your complimentary words about the novel are much appreciated. I did not set out to write a literary thriller, and it was only after it was published and reviewed that I realized others were thinking of it as such. I have never begun writing a novel knowing what is was about, or where it would go. Short stories are different. I must know their content and trajectory before I begin to write. But not with novels. There is, for me, comfort in the length of a novel, in knowing that there is time to discover the raison d’etre of a character who has popped into my mind totally unsolicited. Often it’s a voice, an attitude, that catches my attention, and that voice takes on a gender and personality only as I begin to put that down, with some considerable struggle at first.

In this case, it was the physical sense of a flicker constantly occurring in a woman’s mind as she tried to make sense of and excuses for her questionable actions. The novel grew into what it is only as I developed Priya. Almost paragraph by paragraph, each one dictating the next. Of course, halfway through what would become the length of the novel, I caught the possibilities that were shaping into a story, and went back to the beginning and began to write in the missing parts.

Long ago, when I was solely a visual artist, a work of art for me was a single painting. Everything had to be contained in that one single, still work that a viewer would stand in front of for, if I were lucky, a few minutes, and then walk on. With novel writing, it’s as if a single nagging moment in my mind must be pushed and explored. I know, from that art world training, that if I simply trust that my mind is its own bounded and complex universe, with meaning and logic that is always evolving as I grow and experience life, and is yet always complete at any given moment, that even a kernel of an idea has a kind of perfect content and a complete story.

It is my task, as an artist or writer, to excavate this. It is this exploration that I most enjoy. I must trust, and follow that kernel, without driving an agenda of my own into it. If I were to have started the process of writing with an outline and a plot and knew what my story was, I would lose interest. It’s as if it’s all there, my ongoing challenge being to learn how to extract it, and how, only towards the end, to allow my more worldly self to come back in and take control of the material. It’s a constant process of learning to trust, and to write.

The novel is a master class in exploring the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. In particular, you explore how differences in race and sexuality affect how relationships are developed and understood. These are concerns that have always been central to your work, but here the setting is different—the winter landscape of rural Canada. Why were you drawn to explore relationships within this particular space?

Quite some time before this story existed, I had dinner with V.S. Naipaul who was related to my family. Rather critically, by way of challenging me, has asked me why I wrote about what I already knew, and why didn’t I write what I didn’t know. It is completely the opposite idea that we, as writers, hear, and say to students: write what you know.

But I was intrigued. I could see, for example in A House for Mr. Biswas, the success of writing what he knew, and I could see, too, in some of his other books, the struggles, failures and, most importantly, the brilliance of discovery and exploration of what he didn’t already know. It takes tremendous courage, I thought, to allow yourself the possibility of failure in the service of learning. I became unsettled and agitated, and out of that came realizations, one of which was that there is a correlation between where first generation immigrant writers tend to settle here in Canada—in cities, that is—and where their stories are centred—in those city spaces, within the walls of their immigrant families, with the then inevitable content of back-home, of leaving there, of arrival here and yet never landing.

I wanted then to shake up my mind, expand it. I applied for and received a research Chalmers Fellowship to study landscape, citizenship, and language in my creative work. I had already moved by then to a very picturesque countryside where at the time I was one of about three people of colour in an area of small villages and a town made up of about 2,000 people. I fell in love with the landscape and realized that after forty years in Canada, I still didn’t know how to put the minutia of the landscape into words or images. I began travelling with a friend by boat on inland waterways, taking in The Shield, photographing details, and painting them. I was now looking down, not across at the vaster tourist vistas, but at what was under my feet.

Another thread in your work is an exploration of the fluid nature of sexual identity and desire. I’m thinking of this novel, but also the sexual and gender fluidity in your powerful debut novel, Cereus Blooms at Night. Can you speak more about why this is a particular interest in your work?

It was not until the final three months of the writing of Cereus Blooms at Night that the gender-bending characters, Tyler and Otoh, came into being. If you can imagine that story without two of its most important characters, you’ll see that something was indeed needed to make sense of the unfairness of Mala’s incarceration. For some years before Cereus ever existed, I had been contemplating making a short film about a man and a woman, both of whom enjoyed cross dressing, and wanted partners who, like themselves, were heterosexual, but played their opposites in how they dressed. I had not (and have not) made the film, but the characters migrated into the novel, with Tyler being the vessel that contained Mala’s story.

I wanted to explore how the incredibly banal fact of clothing could raise the ire of much of the rest of society. Even today, it surprises me there are people whose identities run the gamut of queer who think of Tyler and Otoh as gay.

I had not begun writing Priya as someone who would use gender and sexuality to find her place in society. I suppose the fact that I did write such a character, does confirm the supposition in your question.

Suffice it to say that I was taught at an early age that gender is fixed, and to counter that fixedness is to go against society and its norms. And that if I did, as I might have sensed from young that I one day would, I could be a pariah and an outsider. As a young child I could not understand the harshness at the heart of the society around me, of the pleasure it takes in policing the harmless lives of others, or the need for outcasts. I still don’t understand this. But, in essence, you are asking me why I feel this way. How does one not feel this way?

Returning to the topic of secrets, both Alex and Priya (and for that matter, Prakash) keep a lot to themselves. Why is secrecy such a rich source of creative power in your writing?

In the novel, Priya marvels that two tiny slits at only one end of the entire length of the human body are what take in and allow us to assess the world. She notes that, at the same time, when those two slits, our eyes, look out at another person, there is only so much that can be known about that other person. The mind of the other person, regardless of what comes out of their mouth, is hidden.

This section comes straight out of my earliest realizations as young as a child. When I was a child, before I knew better, I wrote an idealistic poem that had in it the lines: Man loves man, woman loves woman, man loves woman. I showed it to my parents, and they sat me down and questioned me with deep concern in their eyes and voices. I was instructed then that only one of those arrangements was acceptable. I couldn’t see the logic in this. Around the same time, as a child curious about sex and love, I made a painting of a naked man and a naked woman holding hands, their backs to the viewer, walking through a field of high cane. When my parents sat me down again, to ask me what exactly was this painting about, I knew better than to tell them that I was engaging in sexual fantasies. I told them it was about Adam and Eve. They believed me. They were not able to tell what was truly in my mind. This was an amazing revelation to me.

For various reasons, I later became obsessed with “truth,” regardless of the cost. And I did suffer often for telling the truth. Then one day, as an adult, I found myself obfuscating, allowing myself to tell a white lie in order not to hurt someone I truly loved. It hurt as much as it fascinated me that what was really going on in my mind, the truth of the situation, had remained hidden. I had been believed and trusted. From then on, I began to hear everything with the sense that the truth was always only either partly told, or was not being told. I began to sprinkle a good spoonful of salt on what politicians, advertising, history, government, family, and even friends related, especially when excuses were being made or reasons given for some decision or action taken. I remember, too, when once I was relating something to my family, my mother said with great exasperation, "Just get to the point, will you?”

By that time, I was already enjoying telling stories, and I understood that a good account, even when what were of primary importance were the facts, could be made more interesting—at least to someone who was not my mother—by embellishments and intrigues. If the facts weren’t altered, and no one was hurt by any little untruths included, no one would be the wiser. Now, as a writer, it is not that embellishments (as Prakash was given to making) make for a finer story, but that they help contextualize a believability for the lies that are being told, and they help draw others away from inconvenient truths, and so secrets are made or kept. The secrets that are kept are often in the service of making one appear to be better than they are. I think if we’re honest, we’d agree that we all manipulate the truth from time to time. This is what I enjoyed most about this novel; every line seemed, once I was in the groove, to be a most obvious and ordinary opportunity for obfuscation, for doubting, for duplicity.

The novel also speaks convincingly to the unreliability of memory, or rather how two different people can hold wildly different perspectives of the past. The novel unfolds over the course of one day, but moves back and forth through time. Can you talk more about your process in putting this work together, from a technical point of view? 

It is what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become our characters. Not only while we’re at the computer writing, but we live and breathe the characters for the full duration of the length of the book’s writing. Our characters take on aspects of ourselves, of others we know in real life, and through media.

A most benign example of the unreliability of memory, to respond to your comment, is when, as adults, siblings spread themselves across the globe, then come together for funerals or celebrations, and begin to chat about incidents that had occurred when they were children. The same event is often remembered very differently by each person, causing arguments, sometimes bitter, because someone’s "truth" is disputed, someone’s else’s is ignored. I am always fascinated not simply by this phenomenon, but why this is so. Why did so and so remember it that way and not this? It could be perspective, but perspective is not only physical, it could be bias, and if so, what was the bias, why the bias? Less benign is when a victim who knows what happened to her is told by the perpetrator that what she says happened never ever happened, and who on the outside believes whom.

In writing this novel, I drew on this long-held amazement with how memories differ from one witness to another, and my fascination with the more sinister gaslighting.

I began writing the present of the novel, in which time Priya is lying to her partner. Because I was writing in the present tense, and from inside the mind of Priya, I had to decide (as I have had to with all my novels) who the narrator (in this case, at the beginning of the novel, Priya) was "speaking" to, even as the words seemed to be inside her head. Her inner talk oscillated between being directed to the reader of the book, and to herself. If it were entirely to herself, however, I knew it would make her seem mad. That’s not at all how I wanted her to be understood.

When I felt that Priya’s behaviour and her stories needed to be explained to the reader, I found myself having her "speak," as if directly, to the reader about her past. This is because she herself would have known her own past and would not need to say it back to her self. It was a conscious and constant juggling between Priya’s justifications to herself and explanations directed to the reader that could easily have seemed like confession. So audience was a main concern here, for the sake of the logic of the story’s reason for existing. I often ask myself, who is the narrator? Why is this story being narrated by this particular narrator, even if the narrator is omniscient? And to whom exactly is the narrator—even an omniscient one—speaking? Is it a record, an explanation, a plea, a message, a confession? The answers give the direction, and dictate the logic that must follow.

So, as I said, I began writing in the present, but as soon as Priya catches something the reader should know about in order to understand or believe what she is saying, she launches into the past. And then her present predicament picks up again. Sometimes I wrote it seamlessly, this way, but at other times I had to go back and write in a present moment, or flesh out or write in a new past event. As I don’t work with a plan or an outline or even with a sense of a plot trajectory, I move back and forth as the story develops and needs to be organized for the sake of consistency.

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Excerpt from Polar Vortex

When we get to the terminal, I want to ask him to turn back, but we’ve arrived precisely at the boarding time and ours is the only car. We are waved on by the ferryman and, without stopping, Prakash complies. The boat pulls out of the dock and we get out of the car into the cold wind. My hair is whipped in every direction. I clutch the railing and watch the water like black oil slide fast behind the ferry. Last year this time, the ferry had to traverse a straight path that had been cut through deep ice. Dead ducks and gulls lay on the frozen edges of the path. It was a strange, sad sight. Looking over the edge of the ferry, you could see how thick the ice was then. There were layers of it, like shelves, in varying shades of turquoise. The vast sheet that covered the rest of the lake was as smooth as glass, parts of it cloudy like menthol candy, with hairline cracks weaving across the surface. It was eerie moving through that narrow channel of black water. Every few metres lay an upturned dead bird, its wings splayed and stuck to the ice, the rest of its body rigid, facing the sky. Brilliant red blood had smeared the ice around most of the birds. And overhead, a few seagulls followed our path. In some places you saw birds frozen just below the surface. They’d likely used the passage cut for the boats to dive below the water to fish, but were killed by the boats themselves, and eventually washed up onto the ice in the boats’ wakes. There had been swans in the channel, too, hugging the edges of the ice shelf. It seemed dangerous. Cruel. There was nothing you could do. It’s different today. Now, gulls sail overhead, ducks bob on the water at a safe distance. The water, billowing like taut plastic, is so densely black it appears nothing could exist beneath its surface.

Excerpt appears with permission of the publisher.

October 29, 2020
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