The Pleasures of Reading Different Lives: An Interview with Room's 2015 Contest Judge Shani Mootoo

Interview by 
Nav Nagra

Shani Mootoo was born in Dublin, Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Canada more than thirty years ago. She is a visual artist, video maker and fiction writer. Mootoo’s novels are Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (Doubleday Canada, 2014), Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi, 2008), He Drown She in the Sea (McClelland and Stewart, 2005), and Cereus Blooms at Night (Grove Press, 2009). She won the Chapters First Novel Award, the Ethel Wilson Book Prize, has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, and the Dublin IMPAC Award. Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab was recently shortlisted for the Lambda Award.

ROOM: Your novel Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab explores immigration, family, gender and identity. You manoeuvre these complexities with grace and poetry. Was dealing with such complex issues difficult as you moved through the novel?

SM: Writing is never easy and simple to tell. Most stories can usually be told in four or five lines or four to five minutes. When dealing with such difficult issues the chronology that you use really helps to explain how things unfold in the story and how they unfold in the world. One of my favourite books Toni Morrison’s Beloved shows how you can keep telling the same story over and over with such beauty and contextually that allows for subjects like the oppression seen in Beloved to be expressed.

ROOM: Gender fluidity is a hot topic in today's media. We see this fluidity in Sydney's character in the book. What was it like writing a character that embodies something so prominent in today's society?

SM: It began with me at a party for a trans man. There were lots of trans people around me at the party. The son of the trans man came to the party and would not allow the man to have the party as a man and kept insisting on calling the man “mum” in a very obnoxious way. I wanted to explore this dynamic. I’ve been writing this book since 2008 and it’s 2015 now. The consciousness of trans people in the mainstream has changed. And the book came out at a time when people who were straight, queer and trans were well within the mainstream lending a different impact to this novel. A lot of trans people have felt that the stories in the book are stories that we need to tell in order to transform perceptions.

ROOM: I was once told that as a writer you cannot take yourself out of your writing. As I read your work I get the sense that you are present between the lines. Do you feel this as you are writing?

SM: I think you do both at the same time. You are both in yourself and in the character. You will have a different experience with each character. If only we were allowed to be non-gendered. You go into your characters and you write them into themselves. I think it makes it sounds grand but when you are really in the zone you can do this.

ROOM: What is your writing process?

SM: I suppose there are two ways to answer. I can write in a crowded train station. I have the ability to block out the world and go into my mind. I like the white noise. At home I have a desk but I sit with the birds as they squawk wildly. I can write anywhere. I had a huge visual arts life so I also start with not quite an idea but an image and not an image I want to paint but an image I want to explore through writing.

ROOM: What is your next project?

SM: I’m painting and doing a lot of photography. I’m working on a novel where I am trying to leave Trinidad. I left Ireland when I was only months old. I was trying to leave Trinidad but I can’t leave it. You are not allowed to leave it in your text and actual life, you can never leave the place of your heritage no matter how hard you try it is always a part of you. The subject of my writing revolves around a little brown boy and a white British woman who interrupts everything.

ROOM: You are Room Magazine's Fiction Judge for 2015, have you judged any other contests before and what do you like most in reading submissions from a myriad of different writers?

SM: It’s like reading different lives—it is a pleasure. It’s fascinating how many stories are told. We are so similar but we are so different to read. There is so much to reveal in the world. The first paragraph is so important like how the first word in poetry is important. There is so much more we are bombarded with—the first sentence, the first paragraph is therefore so important. It’s funny though how the second paragraph must be equally as good. It has to be brilliant from the beginning.

ROOM: What do you think is the most challenging thing about being a writer?

SM: One is that you don’t have a boss. You can’t think of your publisher or your audience as your boss. You have to have a confidence of steel. You can’t be shaken by deadlines and critics. You need the willpower to do the work and not be taken down by the work and know when to step away to take a breath and experience life, which is something, your writing needs. Writing is a different kind of confidence you have a right to tell the story and feel you have something to say. I find the problem is work becomes too didactic as opposed to writing the world and shaping it.

ROOM: What genre of prose do you enjoy working with the most?

SM: All kinds of prose. I can’t pick just one.

Nav Nagra is a member of the Growing Room Collective.

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