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Migration and masculinity.

Gender, race, sexuality, place, perspective, memory, displacement, migration, language and lush language. All have been core to literature before, but all are presented in a new light in celebrated author Shani Mootoo's newest novel, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.

Mootoo is also the author of the Giller Prize-nominated novel Cereus Blooms at Night and the novels Valmiki's Daughter and He Drown She in the Sea. She has published poetry, exhibited her visual artwork and produced films. She was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young woman, originally to Vancouver. She now lives outside of Toronto.

Moving Forward tells the story of a young man named Jonathan who has been searching for one of his two mothers since she left their family when he was nine. Now an adult and a writer, he's not been able to stop wondering why Siddhani left or where's she's been since. When Jonathan finally finds his missing mother, he discovers that she transitioned years before and has been living as a man named Sydney in Trinidad.

Sydney is now unwell. Jonathan tries to understand Sydney's motivations for this decision, in addition to why he left all those years ago. The novel is told predominantly from Jonathan's point of view. Sydney's story is told through Sydney's telling of it to Jonathan, letters between Sydney and his best friend, Zain, and Jonathan's writing of his own memoir.

Mootoo talked to Herizons about the novel, its themes and her process in writing it.

Herizons: Why did you chose to write from Jonathans perspective, given that Jonathan is a straight white man and you have all these other characters that arguably have more unique and less-often-heard perspectives?

SHANI MOOTOO: The question is interesting to me but only insofar as where it's coming from--what is behind the question?

I've been reading a lot lately about appropriation and who gets to write characters of colour or trans characters, and so I thought it was an interesting thing for you [as a queer woman of colour] to put out this perspective. The hetero-white-guy perspective is everywhere--that it's not your first-hand experience makes it interesting and more curious to me.

SHANI MOOTOO: I know a lot of straight white men who are not interesting and a lot who are interesting. But I think they are not interesting because they are not encouraged--not allowed, as it were--to have feelings and emotions and to have hurts that are a result of things that happened to them a long time ago. They must get on with it, they must buck up and be strong, and I wanted to write the possibility of a man who not only is straight and white, but also comes from a British cultural background. His mother is of the imperialist kind of attitude. So he has a lot of privilege in the world. I, as a writer, allowed him to be broken, because of hurts from his childhood and so on, not because of some slight in the world, not because of a battle with another guy or something like that. This is a family thing. It's like, get over it, come on, and I think that's one of the problems with masculinity: that men are not supposed to, and not allowed to, feel. Sydney keeps encouraging Jonathan to feel something.

The other thing is that, in a world of prejudices and so on, the people who have to take on the fights are those who have the power, the ones who are from the dominant prejudicial culture--right? So if Jonathan is forced--not by me, but by the situation in the story--to tell the story of someone who has hurt him, about something he doesn't necessarily approve of, he has to tell that story responsibly, he has to go in and imagine himself as that person, and feel it, and really understand it.

That was the point of having, of all possible narrators, the one who has the power to listen and to hear, and to speak back and to speak up.

What you're saying makes sense. He's the character you expect to go on an emotional journey the least, because it's least expected of him.

SHANI MOOTOO: That's the saddest thing on earth. I've had people say to me, "He's such a wimp," and I think this is the problem with masculinity: There is a name, a derogatory name, for men who feel and hurt.

I'm wondering about telling Sydney's story as a retelling, because Sydney is in the book-, and a lot of Sydney's story ends up getting told through Jonathans hearing and interpretation of it.

SHANI MOOTOO: And through Jonathan's writing of it as well. There's a part where he says, "This is the story Sydney told me, and I'm trying to tell it back as best as I can." But later on, very close to the end of the book, he says, "Okay, I'm gonna write Sydney's story," and he does things like telling Sydney's story, but as if Sydney's doing it, in first-person. And Sydney's saying things like, "Oh, I'm so sorry I left Jonathan, I miss him so much." Jonathan is trying his best to really represent Sydney well, but he can't help put in those little things that he as a person needed to know from Sydney: how much Sydney thought about him and that sort of thing.

I hate the question about fiction and non-fiction, but I'm going to ask it anyways--I'm wondering how much you take from your life or experiences, or if you put characters together from traits of people you know, or how much is really made up.

SHANI MOOTOO: What is it that you don't like about the question?

I think it makes people defensive. I also have a hard time believing anything is entirely fictional, emotionally at least --not that characters cant be made up, but that I think that people often draw from their own experience in some way.

SHANI MOOTOO: I think that to waste time trying to set a story in a landscape that you don't know--if the landscape that you do know can do the job and allow you to get on with the story--why waste the time? My father's a doctor, and sometimes I think, stop making the fathers doctors, make him a lawyer. And then I think the conversation would be so different, and I have to think about that, and it's not part of the story. So why encumber the story with all these other things, you know? What am I trying to prove? I want to get on with something.

There are little details that I enjoy putting in that I know certain people will recognize, but it's not doing anybody any harm.

We're so often told that we must write what we know, and then there are the people who say to make a leap, to stop being a village writer and step onto the big stage, you have to leave that comfort space. Tell that to Alice Munro--she didn't leave her little space, and she stepped way onto the big, big stage.

I think there's something to be said for making the leap but not sweating the small stuff. I am not a straight white man. I have not transitioned. I was not murdered. And I haven't died. And all of those are very big, big situations in the book. But I was an immigrant to Canada, I did come on my own--like Siddhani--and I did experience a great deal of aloneness, and loneliness, and anxieties that I could write very, very intimately about.

I'd like to hear more about your experience of writing the transition story and what went into that for you.

SHANI MOOTOO: I read a lot--I read a lot. I spoke with a lot of people. I tried to understand what would make me want to transition if I ever wanted to. And, in the end, I realized that this phrase, this overused phrase, "trapped in the wrong body," that that was a way of hiding many other reasons why a person might feel the need to transition. So it really was an exploration for me, and to want to take a role that is probably not a popular role.

Syd actually says, "If I were asked if I wanted to be a man, I would actually, truthfully answer no." In the end, Syd believes she won't be able to do to a woman what she wants to do, or what she feels she would like. India [Jonathan's other mother] says Syd is short--she might look like a man, but she can't change her height. You know, short men don't always cut it, either. So ... it was an exploration of masculinity for men and masculinity for women, and also trying to open up the discussion about why people might want to change their gender and whether, in the end, it really accomplishes that. I think it's society that needs surgery more than the person.

You have a big publisher, and your books are widely distributed. I'm wondering about writing about complex identities for a broad audience and how that's received.

SHANI MOOTOO: You have all kinds of people who are moved by things that happen in the various art forms--more moved by that than [by] situations in real life that are similar. And I wonder if they don't have their hearts and minds opened up in ways that don't implicate them so much, or implicate their prejudices so much, so that they don't feel that they are being confronted by something very specific they have to answer, but they get to quietly think about things and feel things. There's something very, very powerful about feeling through art, being made to feel through art.

One of my memories that struck me very profoundly was reading from my first book, a collection of short stories that are all queer stories, and very much about race and so on. I was sent to a small town up in B.C., and it was a very small reading at a bookstore, and these three old ladies came to talk to me afterwards. I was surprised, actually, that they came to the reading, and I was surprised they stuck around to talk to me. And they loved my readings. I sat wondering and I was like, did they understand what I read?

My own mother, in a period when she and my father were not talking to me because of my sexuality, read [my first novel] Cereus Blooms at Night, which she did not want to read because she just didn't want to know all this "nonsense" I was writing. But some friends told her, "Look, the book is doing really well. You need to know what it is, you'd be surprised." She read it and she said, "Shani, I got such a headache I couldn't bear it in some parts of that book." And I said, "Why?"

"How could those two women have just gone away like that and left the children? You should have made them, made it possible for them to take the children." My mother was saying that, right?
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Title Annotation:'Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab' by Shani Mootoo
Author:Ziniuk, Tara-Michelle
Publication:Herizons
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:1872
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