Canada Reads

'Their stories have not always been listened to': Lisa Ray and David Chariandy discuss his novel Brother

Lisa Ray will be defending Brother on Canada Reads 2019. The novel follows two brothers making their way through the world, while navigating racial prejudice, violence and poverty in Canada.

Actress Lisa Ray is defending Brother by David Chariandy on Canada Reads 2019. The novel follows two brothers making their way through the world, while navigating racial prejudice, violence and poverty in Canada.

Chariandy spoke to Ray on writing about the heroic, quiet lives of underrepresented voices, looking beyond the myths in Canada and why he spent 10 years crafting Brother.

The Canada Reads 2019 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), be live streamed online at CBC Books at 11 a.m. ET and will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service. 

Lisa Ray (LR): Brother follows these two young men and it's sort of a coming of age novel set in Scarborough, Ont. — a much maligned suburb of Toronto. It's also where you grew up. How would you describe the Scarborough of your youth?

David Chariandy (DC): The Scarborough of my youth I think is a lot like the Scarborough of today. It was filled with many incredible, ordinary people going about the everyday, but nevertheless being quietly heroic in what they were confronting, the lives that they were living and the beauty and creativity they were etching out in really difficult circumstances.

LR: Beautiful. I get that so much from Brother. It's just the beauty in the everyday, the tragedy in the everyday, and, as you say, the quietly heroic lives. There is heroism in the brothers, but also in their mother. Can you speak to that a little bit? 

DC: I think heroism is the right word. I mean she is going through many different challenges and she's feeling those challenges acutely, all of the time. But it's equally important to capture in the novel is her heroism, her agency, her ability to imagine and act with great intelligence in circumstances in which her creativity and intelligence is being challenged all the time.

LR: She's risen above her circumstances when it's very easy to be diminished by them.

DC: Yes, and to then attempt to instill in her children a sense of hope when they're feeling not too much hope — that's another thing that I really wanted to capture in that particular character.

LR: It took you 10 years to write this novel. Do you want to share a little bit about that journey? What were some of the more elusive parts of the storytelling?

My process involves an almost necessary failure.- David Chariandy

DC: It really did take a long time for me to write this book. I think it's because I'm a slow writer. It's not like I put the novel down or I wasn't working working on it for stretches of time. I worked diligently on this book for a set period of time, every single day, for those 10 years. In a certain way, my process involves an almost necessary failure in that I needed to write a sentence 10 or 20 times in order to get it right. Even if I got it right miraculously the first time, I would have to fail at that sentence 10 or a dozen other times in order to realize that.

Also, because I'm trying to capture the consciousness of someone who's undergone great loss and a traumatic circumstance, the novel is non-linear. The book can be written in infinite different ways.

LR: Did you actually visit Scarborough in order to draw inspiration? It's very vivid.

DC: Certain aspects of the novel draw from living in Scarborough. My parents continue to live in Scarborough. But at the same time I think the other project of this novel is to imagine a life that is slightly different from yours and I follow through on that question of what if? What if my life was slightly different? What if a certain encounter had tragic results? What if instead of finding my way, I succumbed to despair? I think the novel is both something very intimate to me and also a necessary act of imagination.

I think just by telling the story of these people who have been underrepresented in contemporary mainstream Canadian literature, that's a political act.- Lisa Ray

LR: It feels so intimate that I think a lot of people are going to think it's your life and that's actually a testament to your incredible skill and imagination. The novel is, of course, underpinned by violence, casual violence by authority and by one particularly tragic act. It was so deeply harrowing and yet I feel like I was bearing witness to something that was really important. Even though this novel is set 1990s, incredibly, the themes are very relevant. They're very today. It's not an overtly political novel, but it is also a political novel. I think just by telling the story of these people who have been underrepresented in contemporary mainstream Canadian literature, that's a political act. You've given them a voice, creating what I believe is almost like an opera around something that would be turned into a headline otherwise. 

DC: How do we see the lives behind the bloody newspaper headlines? How do we also recognize that what has become more frequently recognized today — as a result of a lot of political movements that have bravely put certain burning questions in the eyes of people who otherwise wouldn't be aware of these issues — [has been going on for many years]? The questions explored in the novel are old questions. These circumstances have been happening for decades and centuries. What does it mean when a story set in the past suddenly, for some, seems very relevant and new? I think understanding that long legacy is also what I was trying to explore.

LR: We have this conceit in Canada that we are very fair, that we are a very judicious and multicultural society. At many levels we are, much more in comparison than other parts of the world. But that's not good enough because there are still things happening in Canada every single day where there are people who are falling between the cracks. We still see confrontations of racial prejudices, judgments.

I've always found that reading — being led into another life — is the best way of actually loosening those prejudices because otherwise you're standing on a soapbox and saying, "Hey guys, we should all get along." But we are also deeply human and there are things that are ingrained in us and I find that we have to keep addressing that in Canada.

Behind a myth that we like to tell ourselves about Canada, there is a reality and unfortunately that reality is oftentimes quite violent.- David Chariandy

DC: Behind a myth that we like to tell ourselves about Canada, there is a reality and unfortunately that reality is oftentimes quite violent. It begins with colonization and stolen Indigenous land. It goes through and includes slavery and legal segregation. It includes all kinds of racial hierarchies that we don't want to acknowledge. So maybe it's especially important, if we have cultivated a myth about our nation, that we rivet our attention upon those very things that we don't want to look at.

LR: The theme is is one book to move you and I honestly can't think of a better book that could move all of Canada today. I need a little bit of advice. How do you think I should prepare for these debates? I've got the passion, but I've never done this before. 

DC: The book is very particularly and unapologetically about the lives of individuals whose stories have not always been told. They have stories to tell, but their stories have not always been listened to and those lives are beautiful and heroic. They strive for dignity, but they're confronted with hardship and, occasionally, outright violence. I think telling that story and being unashamed about its particularity is very important.

At the end of this book, I quote a line from the ancient Greek play Antigone. The play by Sophocles is about a woman whose brother is killed and she is forbidden from mourning him. It's an ancient play about the conflict between the law and politics and what you need to do for your sibling — about this type of duty that goes beyond what the law is. I guess that's the other thing I was mindful in writing this book, that there are deep human questions around loss and around the conflict between the politics that we cannot escape. We can't just dream ourselves out of them and we can't pretend that, "Oh I believe my art has nothing to do with that." We are always in it. And yet, to understand that a particular life resonates with lives in all sorts of different circumstances throughout time is a powerful realization for me.

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

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