Mootoo, Shani

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“Cultural bastards, Janet, cultural bastards. Dat is what we is.” Out on Main Street

Biography

Image by Pearl Pirie/CC Licensed

Image by Pearl Pirie/CC Licensed

Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland in 1958 and raised in Trinidad. She moved to Canada at the age of 19, where she began a career as a visual artist. A skilled multimedia artist and video maker, she has had exhibitions in the U.S and Canada, and her videos have been shown at a number of film festivals. Mootoo has said that she has gravitated to the visual most of her life, because as a child, when she told her grandmother of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of an uncle, she was told never to say those words again. She found it safer not to use words and started making pictures. Finally acknowledging and naming her experience of abuse prompted Mootoo to return to words, and write her first collection of short stories (Ghosh).

Major Themes

Mootoo’s migrant and immigrant experiences emerge as central themes in her work. In Out on Main Street, Mootoo exposes the complexity and shifting borders of a hybrid identity. She explores a variety of situations in which her characters are pressed to display a prescribed cultural authenticity by individuals from within the same culture and by those who are clearly outsiders. The culturally “inauthentic” person is made to feel guilty for not being exotic or different enough. Mootoo has commented that the externally imposed demand for authenticity compels her attempt to be a good Indian. Like one of her characters, Mootoo has also bought cookbooks to learn something about Indian cooking, before [she] disappointed people. In Cereus Blooms at Night, Mootoo gives a more reflective examination of hybridity and sexual minority identities.

Out on Main Street

A collection of short stories that was released to much acclaim in 1993, the stories pivot around the identities of diasporic South Asian women. The two most intriguing stories of the collection focus on issues of authenticity. The first, “Out on Main Street,” is narrated by an Indo-Trinidadian butch lesbian, who relates, in a somewhat amused tone, the experience of shopping with her girlfriend in an Indian area of Vancouver. For the narrator, a visit to the Punjabi market on Main Street consists of strained encounters with Indians who do not accept the narrator’s Trinidadian Indianness or her lack of femininity. Remotely connected to India by descent but with her brown skin signifying “Indianness,” the narrator struggles with the Main Street Indians’ contempt. The Main Street Indians see the narrator’s brown skin and assume that as an Indian, she should know Indian culture. Yet the Indian culture they refer to is one that has only recently been transplanted from India, and one that maintains ties to India. Trinidadian Indians are far removed in time from India, and as the narrator notes, their culture retains little that is “authentically” Indian. In an incident that particularly illustrates this point, the narrator expresses excitement over Indian sweets and attempts to purchase them using their Indo-Trinidadian names. Yet the names she uses are not the same as those used by the Main Street Indians from India. They are Indian words, but many have clearly lost their original meaning over time; the Indians smirk at her language, and mock her, offering her service with a deliberate slowness, and “correcting” her in condescending tones. In contrast, they fawn over her girlfriend, whom she notes, in the dialect of Trinidadian English, is “pretty fuh so” because she “so femme dat she redundant”.

In “The Upside-downness of the World as it Unfolds,” an Indo-Trinidadian narrator encounters two white women who patronize Indian restaurants and temples, and sprinkle their conversation with Hindi words. They enthusiastically invite the narrator to a temple ceremony to “learn a little about your culture.” The narrator wears a t-shirt and jeans, while the two women wear elaborate saris. At the temple, the narrator begins to understand the growing anger she feels at the performance of Indianness by the white women and in a moment of subtle recognition notes that her discomfiture is caused by the fact that the “Brown folk” are “on the periphery of the room, not at all central to the goings-on.”

Cereus Blooms at Night

Set on the imaginary island nation of Lantanacamara, in the city of Paradise, the novel is narrated by Tyler, Lantanacamara’s only male nurse, and caretaker of Mala Ramchandin, whose life story is the novel’s central plot. Tyler received his training in the Shivering Northern Wetlands, where he also came to terms with his attraction to men. Mala, an old woman who does not speak, binds the novels characters together. They find each other through some connection with her, and because of her, gain a different understanding of their lives. As a child and young adult, she suffered constant sexual and other abuse by her father’s hands. The abuse begins when her mother leaves her father for the woman who had rejected him; and he decides to visit his revenge upon his two daughters. Mala’s sister runs away as soon as she is able to work, yet Mala stays, feeling guilty for her mother’s abandonment of her father.

Made insane by abuse, Mala starves her father to death and it is only by chance, as an old woman, that she is suspected of murder, and eventually placed in a nursing home, where she is placed in Tyler’s care. Through her, Tyler meets Otoh, the “son” of Mala’s childhood friend. Otoh, born a girl, was convinced that she was in fact a boy and soon convinced everyone else that of that belief. The secondary story in the novel, is that of Tyler’s romance. Tyler, mocked and isolated because of his sexuality, falls in love with Otoh, and the two begin a romance that defies the labels of heterosexuality or homosexuality.

Questioning the “reality” of gender, Mootoo self-consciously connects these outsiders. Mala is shunned because “her father mistook her for his wife,” Tyler is mocked because of his failure to perform conventional masculinity, either in bearing or profession, and Otoh cannot expose himself, because his body remains female. The novel ends with Mala placing her trust in Tyler, experiencing the pleasures of freedom from abuse and of acceptance.

Selected Bibliography

  • Mootoo, Shani. Out on Main Street. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1993.
  • —. Cereus Blooms at Night. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1996.
  • —. The Predicament of Or. Richmond: Raincoast Books, Polestar, 2002.
  • —. He Drown She in the Sea. New York: Grove Press, 2005.
  • —. Valmiki’s Daughter. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2010.
  • —. Moving Forward Sideways, Like a Crab. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2014.
  • Ghosh, Dipti. “Baigan Aloo Tabanka Bachanal: Writer, Artist, Filmmaker Shani Mootoo in Her Own Words,” Trikone magazine, 1994, vol.9 (4): 5-6.

Related Sites

Press Gang Publishers and its history
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Gang_Publishers

Author: Candice Dias, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2017

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