Sunday, June 15, 2014

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo

Jonathan was nine when his lesbian mothers split up. Sid, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad, was the one who had been the stay-at-home parent since his birth. Jonathan was an adult before he finally found Sid again... except that Sid had transitioned to a man, and was now Sydney.

In Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Shani Mootoo writes about loneliness, family, identity and the search for a sense of belonging. Jonathan's memoir and Sydney's journals advance the story in a way much like that described by the title.

A Trinidadian of South Asian heritage, Sydney was frequently frustrated and hurt by racism in Canada. Shyam Selvadurai included a similarly honest portrayal of the immigrant experience in his novel The Hungry Ghosts. I hope that books like these will help to make this country a better place for everyone by shining a light on the darker aspects of our society. When we discussed Cathy Ostlere's Karma at my CanLit Book Club last month, one member said that reading about the Hindu mother's terrible isolation in small-town Saskatchewan opened her eyes to the importance of treating newcomers with compassion.

Bridging emotional distances is more challenging than geographical ones for the characters in Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab. Jonathan, on the phone from Trinidad to his girlfriend in Canada:
"I began to tell her about the crabs that were caught in the swamps and sold roadside in neatly tied-up bundles. Their backs are smaller than my fist, I told her, as if she were begging me for details. The facts of the funeral and of my role in it were like a human presence sitting in a chair watching me as I talked, but I mentioned none of this."
In this as in Mootoo's previous novels -- Cereus Blooms at Night (one of my all-time favourite books), He Drown She In the Sea and Valmiki's Daughter -- the Trinidad setting is richly evoked. Whenever food specialties came up, I got cravings.
"Zain was saying that by the time we got back, Cynthia would have made coconut bake and salt fish. Cynthia was a really good cook, and she was black, Zain said, so of course she didn't make bake like an Indian. Cynthia's bake was black bake, she added impishly. 'Hers isn't limp and bland like a thick sada roti. This is bake in which you can actually taste the coconut. A wedge of it between your thumb and forefinger is firm; when you hold it up to your mouth, Sid, it meets you like a man.'"
I have never been able to recreate the black fruitcake I tasted when I was a host for a Trinidad exchange program, but coconut bake is doable.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is a thought-provoking book with memorable characters.

Readalikes: for the Canadian immigrant experience - The Hungry Ghosts (Shyam Selvadurai); for people's lives in Trinidad - Is Just a Movie (Earl Lovelace); for gender identity questioning - If You Could Be Mine (Sara Farizan); and for a PoC transgender parent - Trumpet (Jackie Kay).

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