In Conversation

How books helped Canada Reads author David Chariandy feel less of an outsider while growing up

Lisa Ray is defending David Chariandy's novel Brother during Canada Reads 2019.
David Chariandy is the author of Brother, which will be defended by Lisa Ray on Canada Reads 2019. (CBC)

For David Chariandy, books have long represented a lifeline of sorts. It was through literature he was able to define his identity and the world around him.

His latest novel, Brother, is the story of two brothers growing up in a troubled housing complex in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Brother won the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2018 Toronto Book Award. It is currently a Canada Reads contender, where it will be defended by actor and model Lisa Ray.

The debates take place March 25-28, 2019. They will air on CBC Radio One at 11 a.m. (1 p.m. AT/1:30 p.m. NT), on CBC at 4 p.m. (4:30 NT), live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service.

Chariandy spoke with CBC Books about how books inform his life and career.

When did you become a reader?

"My love of books started in childhood. I think it's because, in many ways, I felt very much like a misfit. I sought books through which I could escape the world I knew. I ended up reading a lot of fantasy. My favourite author was Tolkien. I think my taste for fantasy were almost entirely ruined by Tolkien because the books are so damn good! The books are so complicated and you can live in the world. 

I felt very much like a misfit. I sought books in childhood through which I could escape the world that I knew.

"I remember enjoying The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. That was another fantasy series, but it was about a person who lives in our time and has leprosy. He's become a social outcast and is shunned by people around him. That resonated with me, growing up racialized in Scarborough. But in the book the protagonist escapes his world and enters another world in order to become a very unlikely hero."

So, you were drawn to a literary theme of the outsider?

"Very true. Also in childhood — for the same reason of escape — I enjoyed Cosmos by Carl Sagan. He was a scientist explaining the world as it was. But he was also speculating on things like black holes, dimensional universes and extraterrestrial biology. All of that was amazing, again, for a kid who felt stifled and confined because of how others viewed him. Cosmos offered me a chance to think of the world in more wondrous terms."

When did you know you wanted to be an author?

"The big breakthroughs for me occurred a little later in life. Until university, I don't recall reading a book by a black author. They were certainly never assigned in school. But in second year I was in the stacks of a university library and I randomly picked out a book by someone named James Baldwin, titled The Price of The Ticket. It's Baldwin's collected essays. I remember opening that book randomly and just being mesmerized by the essay Stranger in the Village. It's about Baldwin's experience of visiting a remote Swiss village as a black person and reflecting upon the way he's looked at. It blew my mind that someone could write something like that from personal experience and yet not be confined to the personal, and in fact reflect upon the history of the world. 

Books can rivet us to our lives in language, which is extremely important because we do live in language.

"I also remember reading Michael Ondaatje's work. I was mesmerized by his writings, but I also picked up an anthology that he edited, titled From Ink Lake. In that anthology I encountered, for the first time, a lot of Canadian writers that I hadn't otherwise encountered at that point. I remember Dionne Brand and Alistair MacLeod had pieces in there — writing that I was simply moved by. 

"The two writers who ultimately broke things open for me were Austin Clarke and Brand. Clarke's The Meeting Point is possibly the first novel by a black writer substantially chronicling the black experience in Canada. It was about black West Indian domestic workers in the 1960s. Clarke became a beloved mentor for me. He supported my work so much. He was writing about an experience I thought no one really could write about — of West Indian domestic work. My mother was one of those workers.

"And then, finally, Brand. I think her novel In Another Place, Not Here gave me a sense that something truly different and radical could be done within the novel. That was another moment of growth."

Do you have a favourite bookstore?

In Vancouver, I like Massy Books, where I had a book launch. And anytime I come to Toronto, I definitely go to Type Books, A Different Booklist and Another Story

"I think books do perhaps three things at once. Books can rivet us to our lives in language, which is extremely important because we do live in language. Books can also clarify what is important in your own life. And books can equally draw one's attention to lives completely remote from oneself." 

David Chariandy's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


The Canada Reads 2019 contenders

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