As a child, her words landed her in trouble. But, as a ‘masterful storyteller,’ Shani Mootoo’s words have also landed her on the shortlist for the Giller Prize, the longlist for the Man Booker Prize and, most recently, as the winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist. Mootoo, BFA’80, was 10 years old when she shared one of her poems with her parents. In them, she described an idyllic world in which, much to her parents’ discomfort, “man loves man, man loves woman, woman loves woman.” What quickly followed was a lesson on ‘who could love whom,’ and the societal mores of her homeland, Trinidad, which still, to this day, criminalizes homosexuality.
This was not the first time her words provoked a strong reaction, having been silenced by her grandmother years before for telling of a family friend who touched her inappropriately.
Saddened, she pushed her words aside, and chose instead to explore her ideas through a more ambiguous medium – art. And it was her art that brought her to Western.
“The whole world of Trinidad at that time was close-knit and young people tended to do what their friends did,” Mootoo explained from her home in Prince Edward County, Ont. “I wanted to study art, whereas people my age wanted to go into business, medicine or law. So, I was seen as the one who was not going to amount to very much.”
Her parents insisted she apply to the University of West Indies for Law.
“I did it – I was incredibly unhappy,” Mootoo recalled. “It caused a lot of trouble at home. I wanted to go to Goldsmiths in England, and I was accepted at Concordia. But my parents said, ‘No.’ Eventually, they spoke with friends whose children were all going to Western to study business, and said, ‘If you are going to do art – which we don’t want you to do – you will go to the university that we want you to go to.’”
Her father contacted Duncan deKergommeaux, then Studio Arts head, who, upon seeing Mootoo’s portfolio, immediately accepted her over the phone.
When she arrived at Western on a student visa, she chose not to associate with her Caribbean peers.
“That was partly because we were of a really different mindset. They were on a track of making money, taking over their family’s businesses. I was off on my own; I didn’t want to be the odd man out. The other thing is, I didn’t want my queerness, which I knew about, to become public knowledge because it would spread back home.”
Instead, she “ensconced” herself in the art department where she encountered teachers like deKergommeaux, painter Paterson Ewen and sculptor Robin Peck. “Paterson and Robin took me under their wings, and that was a big deal for me,” she explained. “The world opened up for me at Western. We had travelled a lot in my family, but at Western, I was actually meeting people and becoming friends with them.”
Mootoo was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to Trinidad at three months old. She immigrated to Canada a year after she graduated from Western, and worked as a visual artist and video producer in Vancouver, Alberta and New York City, creating work that’s been exhibited internationally.
Getting published as an author, “was completely accidental,” and came about when her private writings were shared, unbeknownst to her, with Press Gang Publishers, who eventually persuaded her to write Out on Main Street, a collection of short stories, in 1993.
She soon learned how far her written work would reach, but nothing prepared her for the attention she would receive three years later, when her break-out novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, thrust her into the spotlight.
“It got shortlisted for the Chapters First Novel and the Ethel Wilson Book Prize Award, and longlisted for the Man Booker,” she recalled. “When I got the phone call about the Giller, I didn’t know what it was.”
When I got the phone call about the Giller, I didn’t know what it was.
At the Giller ceremony – where Mootoo stood alongside nominees Mordecai Richler (who won for Barney’s Version) and Carol Shields – Canadian literary icon Mavis Gallant remarked on Mootoo’s future potential. McClelland and Stewart saw it too, approaching Press Gang to buy the rights to Cereus and her next novel.
“I actually panicked and couldn’t write for eight years, because this was not actually something I had intended to continue. But, I did enjoy writing it tremendously. Every line was a struggle. A delightful struggle.”
Although the book was published in 14 countries outside of Canada, Cereus wasn’t embraced by everyone. Back in Trinidad, a student at the University of West Indies was forbidden by her parents to do her thesis on Mootoo’s work, and during a conference at that institution, Mootoo was “torn to pieces on stage for exposing the lesbian stuff,” she said. “There were professors in the audience who had taught my work, who would not stand up for me.”
Mootoo wasn’t bitter, having learned from her politician father that, “you have to put the personal aside to see the bigger value. If you change things or other people, I think the discomfort you experience is minor. Homosexuality is still illegal in Trinidad, but there’s a great deal of conversation about it, there’s a lot of talk about childhood sexual abuse – all kinds of things that were part of my work.”
She added, “People can read fiction, and talk about fiction more openly than they can talk about things that are actually happening in society. Step-by-step it goes from the fiction, to conversation about the fiction, to the little revelations that, ‘Well, you know, that happened to so and so,’ or, ‘This actually happened to me.’”
Her novels since Cereus – He Drown She in the Sea, Valmiki’s Daughter and Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab – have kept her on prestigious literary award lists. In 2011, she was invited back to the University of West Indies as a writer-in-residence. That was particularly significant, she said, because, “I love my country very, very much. My three countries – Ireland, Trinidad and Canada.”