Author Tags: Fiction
"It is important for me to find my own niche as a Canadian. I am not a vaccuum waiting to be filled up with someone else's culture and information." -- Shani Mootoo, 1991
“I used to go into Yoka’s coffee on West Broadway just to pick up B.C.. BookWorld. Reading B.C. BookWorld was almost like singing in the shower. I wanted to connect with the writing world but I didn’t know why.” -- Shani Mootoo, 1998
Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland in 1957. At three months old, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Trinidad. She wasn’t reunited with her parents until she was five. “When I was ten I wrote what I considered to be a novel,” she recalls. “At the time I thought my father was the most powerful man in the world. So I asked him to publish it.” Her writing career was quickly nipped in the bud. Mootoo soon discovered telling the truth in print was dangerous within her family. She switched to painting, mainly because visual art could be more ambiguous. There were family secrets that couldn’t be divulged. While attending Western University in Ontario, Mootoo hoped to pursue a Master’s degree in arts at Concordia. “My parents wouldn’t let me go,” she says. “My brother had to get his medical degree and that was more costly.”
Mootoo came to Vancouver and worked at a variety of jobs. She says she was fired from all of them. Living near 12th and Granville, she continued to work as a multi-media artist. One day Persimmon Blackbridge came to her apartment and noticed the piles of Mootoo’s writing next to her computer. Without Mootoo’s knowledge, Blackbridge showed some of Mootoo’s rough work to her own book publisher, Press Gang Publishers. Initially Mootoo didn’t wish to pursue publication. “It was cathartic writing, meant for myself,” she says, “I wasn’t writing a book.” When asked to read at a Rungh Society literary event, Mootoo complied, writing a new story for the occasion. In the audience that evening was Della McCreary of Press Gang. After the reading, Mootoo received a contract in the mail. There was a note saying, ‘We don’t want to pressure you. We just want to show you what a contract looks like.’
Inexperienced at the writing game, Mootoo contacted her cousin, Trinidadian-born Neil Bissoondath. He was the author of several acclaimed books and himself a nephew of Trinidad’s most famous author, V.S. Naipul. Bissoondath told her she should ask for an advance. Much to Mootoo’s surprise—-and alarm—-Press Gang said yes, they’d make an exception, they’d provide a small advance. Mootoo decided to write short stories instead of a novel, thinking it might be easier. In 1993 she released Out on Main Street (Press Gang), a fiction collection endorsed by Jane Rule. With settings that ranged from a girls’ convent school in Trinidad to an Indian restaurant on Main Street, it clearly had autobiographical origins. “Most immigrants have so much bottled up,” she recalls, “when they finally get a chance to speak in print, it turns into a shout,” she says. “I soon became wary of that.”
Mootoo continued her multi-media work with an exhibition of her work at the Surrey Art Gallery called ‘This Is Our Little Secret’. Upon seeing the exhibit, a local psychiatrist came to view Mootoo’s paintings in her studio. “He saw all the sexual abuse paintings I’d done,” she says. “He asked if I would take the paintings and my poetry to the Stave Lake Minimum Security Prison for Sex Offenders.” Frightened but intrigued by the prospect, Mootoo made a preliminary visit to the prison with a close friend. “I came out of there like a piece of steel,” she says. “Next time I went, I had lunch at the canteen. All the people serving me were sex offenders.” Gradually Mootoo overcame her fears and agreed to show her work to 36 sexual abusers. She met two groups of men, consisting of 18 offenders each time. These encounters forced her to more deeply explore how she felt about being abused and how she felt about abusers. After Mootoo’s third visit, several of the inmates made painful ‘disclosures’, revealing they themselves had been abused. It was a validation of the artistic process, the need for experimentation and taking risks. “Whatever has been successful for me as an artist has been exploration,” she says. Without an outline, Mootoo began work on a novel. “I wrote Cereus [Blooms at Night] the way I would approach a painting or a video.”
Set in the fictional Caribbean town of Paradise, Cereus Blooms at Night takes its title from the cereus plant, a cactus that blooms for one night only. Its dual odour, both foul and sweet, can induce ecstasy. One night Otoh trespasses into the overgrown garden of Mala Ramchandin, an elderly recluse. Otoh wants to know why his father has been obsessively devoted to Mala for decades, despite not seeing her. “As the story unfolds,” reviewer Christina Patterson wrote in The Guardian, “it proves to be a hothouse of secrets, cruelties and Hardyesque missed opportunities.” The bird-like Mala is brought to the Almshouse on a stretcher, her fists clenched. Although she stinks of ‘rich vegetable compost,’ a gay male nurse named Tyler takes an abiding interest. The madwoman’s wailings are replaced by perfect imitations of birds, then by semi-coherent ramblings. Tyler gradually pieces together Mala’s bizarre story. Mala’s father Chandin was raised by white missionaries. He was in love with his adopted sister Lavinia. After Chandin reluctantly married Lavinia’s best friend, Sarah, they had two daughters named Mala and Asha. Mala’s childhood name was Pohpoh. When Lavinia returns from abroad, she becomes a welcome and frequent visitor in the house. Chandin discovers too late that Sarah and Lavinia are lovers. When their mother elopes with Lavinia, Pohpoh (Mala) and Asha are left behind to endure the grief and sexual revenge of their angry father. Faced with rape at home, Asha runs away and Pohpoh (Mala) finds solace in nature. The dualism of torment and ecstasy, between contrasting scents of the cereus plant, is part magic realism and part psycho-sexual logic. Tyler, the male nurse, discovers that Otoh, a frequent visitor to the ageing Mala, was born a girl, but Otoh decided to become a boy at age five. Romance blooms between Tyler and Otoh, a beautiful, bizarre and symetrical event. Its flowering is almost as unlikely as the zenith of the cereus plant on a hot Caribbean night.
After having moved to Edmonton, Shani Mootoo followed her award-winning Cereus Blooms at Night with a novel set on a fictional Caribbean island during the WW II, He Drown She In the Sea (M&S 2005 $24.99), also set in modern-day Vancouver. Harry St. George recalls his unrequited love for Rose, the daughter of a wealthy man; then Rose suddenly shows up in Vancouver where Harry lives.
Shani Mootoo's papers were acquired by Simon Fraser University's Special Collections in 2005. Her novel about a well-to-do Trinidadian family, Valmiki's Daughter, mainly concerns a doctor, Valmiki, and his daughter, Viveka, both of whom are concealing their true sexual identities. It was published when Mootoo was living in Toronto.
Out on Main Street (Press Gang, 1993) - poetry
Cereus Blooms at Night (Press Gang, Grove Press, 1998) - novel
The Predicament of Or (Polestar, 2001) - poetry
He Drown She In the Sea (M&S 2005) - novel 0-7710-6401-2
Valmiki's Daughter (Anansi 2008) - novel
Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (Doubleday Canada 2014) - novel
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Fiction"
Cereus Blooms At Night
Publishing history (1998)
After Cereus Blooms At Night became a runaway success, New York agent Maria Massie of Witherspoon Associates contacted Mootoo. Press Gang agreed to allow Massie to negotiate sales of international rights. Editor Ellen Seligman and Doug Gibson of M&S also took an interest, enabling M&S to publish the current softcover version in Canada. Lucrative sales of foreign rights were welcomed by Press Gang, the all-women’s collective that has encouraged women to publish since 1975. The Vancouver-based collective had recently moved into a cozy heritage building, formerly a post office, just off Commercial Drive. Mootoo’s agent also represents Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize recipient for her first novel, The God of Small Things. “Maria’s really neat,” says Mootoo, “I just love her. She’s done things really slowly. She could have sold things faster than she did. Bloomsbury in the U.K. offered more money but she thought the editor at Granta would be best for me.” Film rights have yet to be sold. The reputation of the novel, as it begins to gain admiring reviews in the United States, will only push up the final price. Shani Mootoo meanwhile lives modestly in a new East Vancouver apartment, with her dog Frankie. She commutes to see her lover in Brooklyn while learning how to cope with the demands of promotion. In 1998 Mootoo participated in Victoria, Shawnigan Lake and Edinburgh festivals. In October of 1998 her novel was launched in the United States by Grove Press. “I don’t know how people who have a lot of money can work,” she says. She may soon have to find out. The 41-year-old has gained world-wide recognition for Cereus Blooms at Night (M&S $14.99). Shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 1997, this first novel subsequently became a finalist for the Chapters/Books In Canada First Novel Award and the Giller Prize. Mootoo also made it onto the ‘long list’ of candidates for the Booker Prize, the United Kingdom’s most coveted literary prize. [BCBW 1998]