How I Wrote It

David Chariandy writes his truth for his 13-year-old in his latest book

The author discusses why he wrote I've Been Meaning to Tell You, an open letter about race and belonging to his teenage daughter.
I've Been Meaning to Tell You is David Chariandy's latest book. (McClelland & Stewart/Joy van Tiedemann)

David Chariandy is the author of the novels Brother and Soucouyant. With his latest nonfiction book, I've Been Meaning to Tell You, David Chariandy contemplates, in an epistolary format, how to talk to his young daughter about the politics and history of race by sharing their family's story and his personal experience as the son of Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad.

In the book, the Toronto-raised and Vancouver-based author draws upon his personal and ancestral past, including the legacies of slavery, indenture and immigration, as well as the experiences of growing up a "visible minority" within the land of one's birth.

Below, Chariandy tells CBC Books how he wrote I've Been Meaning to Tell You.

Of the moment

"I began writing this in 2017, around the time my daughter was about to turn 13 years old. It is a open letter written to my daughter. I was thinking about what it looked like to raise a child in this particular political and social climate. I was thinking about the politics of race and belonging. I felt I needed to write it quickly because it's very much of this particular moment."

Parental perspective

"This entire book was written with the assumption her life, as a girl of colour, is profoundly different from my life. I couldn't assume I could tell her how to navigate this world. What I can do, and maybe what I'm obligated to do, is to tell her a particular story of ancestry. But even then, there were moments when I had to determine how much of the past I can share with her, particularly if it is a difficult past."

Honest truth

"I assumed, naively, that a 13-year-old can only handle so much —  and that you have to protect your children from the difficult and painful truths of the past. But I learned, in writing this book, that's just not true. In fact, the greatest way of instilling hope, and a sense of the future for a child, is telling the story of the past and being truthful as possible while doing so. This meant writing in a particular way. It was about writing in an intimate voice, to highlight the legacies of struggle and hardship and pain, but also of resilience and beauty."

Fiction versus nonfiction

"My immediate reaction in writing nonfiction was that it is completely different from fiction writing. However, a lot of the themes that I've used in fiction to date have emphasized the theme of memory. This book is not simply an effort to tell a story in a linear fashion but to return to moments of the past, selecting and arranging those moments of the past in a non-linear fashion to tell the story I wish to tell. Then there is a connection between this exercise in nonfiction and my method of writing fiction."  

Bias and prejudice

"I have lived and fought through the politics of race and belonging in a particular body, a man's body. I tried to be particularly conscious about any biases, prejudices and blind spots that I myself might have, as a cisgender male author. I'm someone from a particular generation and someone who identifies as Black, but who has a particular racial mix. I am telling a limited story about a greater story that is out there. Yet, this is what I can offer — to tell and share my story with my loved one."

David Chariandy's comments have been edited and condensed.

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