Shani Mootoo on chocolate, house chores and cryptic notes
Trinidad-born author Shani Mootoo's novel Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is a powerful portrait of gender, identity and friendship that made the longlist for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Below, Shani Mootoo answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Drew Hayden Taylor asks, "How do you decide character names?"
Names are like poems, and they beg for the desired economy of a poem. A name, I think, should say enough to give a picture, should say more than enough to suggest a history, should feel good in the reader's mouth, have rhythm and might sport a hint of internal rhyme, a little alliteration — and if it doesn't, it speaks volumes, too. A lot of mumbling comes from me in the naming stage as I try out a name. How does it feel in the chest, how does it sound outside of the body, what does it evoke, does it drag with it unwanted baggage from outside of the book, and what does it say about the other characters whom it must live next to?
2. Cordelia Strube asks, "Does everything you write have a vaguely identifiable purpose (i.e. a theme)?"
"Purpose" and "theme" seem different to me. "Theme," to my mind, relates to a set of common ideas or questions that one is repeatedly drawn to. "Purpose" veers in the direction of "agenda," and agenda-driven writing runs the risk of being heavy-handed and manipulating: rants, lectures, scoldings, etc. When I began writing I had not intended to latch on to any theme in particular, or to send some sort of message to my reader or to the world. But after several novels, identifiable themes have emerged in my works: family relationships, matters of love, the origin of desire, gender and sexuality, prejudice, regret. I have an aversion to the idea of approaching one's creative work with an agenda (beyond the desire to give the reader a captivating read). I often start with a tiny image or question and don't know where the story will go. If anything, there may be a vaguely identifiable question that drives me, and the story.
It's hard for me to write outside of my basic experience, and so, my fiction has the feel of autobiography — even when I write in the first-person voice of a straight white man.
3. Gail Bowen asks, "Claims of suffering writer's block are just excuses for laziness. Agree or disagree?"
Disagree. It is a kind of reasonable paralysis. I think writing unmasks the writer, exposes her values, her politics, her fears and beliefs, her abilities and what she lacks. Practically naked, she and her work will eventually be judged by people she has never even seen. People she will never meet will have access to all kinds of information about her. If readers and critics love her, so will her publisher. If not...
4. Donna Morrissey asks, "What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in your personal life while you're creating a book?"
Doing my quota of house chores. Returning emails. Maintaining friendships. Inability to sleep. Tiredness on account of that inability to sleep. The perceived need for daily doses of chocolate, and milky desserts. In general, having to juggle the real world and its demands with the one you're trying to create. Someone on either side is always needing something from you, both at the same time. Stiffness from sitting in one place and position too long. The fear that after spending years working on a single book it won't be very good. Having admitted these, I must add that the list of what in my personal life supports and encourages the process of creating a book is actually longer.
5. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Name three Canadian writers you believe should be more widely read than they are. Why?"
More fuss should be made of poetry, in general. Poetry has its loyal following, but if you're not a confirmed poetry lover it's unlikely that you'll pay too much attention to what's happening in that genre — here or abroad. I can't name only three poets. They are a special intellectual and creative breed and should all be read. We want more poetry! We need more poetry! Nothing sharpens the ear and the mind, takes your breath away and makes the heart skip a beat like poetry does and nothing does away with clichés better!
6. Peter Robinson asks, "How important is the sense of place in your work?"
While my work tends to be idea-driven, I feel that ideas come from particular material spaces. Those spaces are crucibles for all that takes place in them. Therefore, they are a vital aspect of my story. In any case, I take great pleasure in the possibilities for sensual exploration through language that place allows. Two of the best explorations of place in literature I've read are to be found in The Orchid Thief and Waiting for the Barbarians. Drawing place out is a way of owning it, too.
7. Charlotte Gray asks, "Do you think creative writing courses encourage or discourage originality?"
I went to art school. There were a good many very talented students in my year. We learned art history and were immersed in contemporary movements. We were introduced to experimentation and its rigours. Then we learned how to turn on its end all we'd been taught. But of those talented students only three had the means, stamina and originality to forge a lasting art career.
Extrapolating, I sense that although taking creative writing courses might afford one the opportunity to be immersed in reading and writing in a constructive, instructive, intensive atmosphere, it is the student who was always going to make it anyway whose creativity flourishes. That student might not have needed the course, but would benefit from it. And then, of course, there is the teacher and the teaching method. I was terribly lucky: I had, for the most part, very good teachers. But I have read books and known almost immediately that they were written by graduates of creative writing courses. One can only hope that with time and practice such writers will emerge and find their own voice. The dilemma with my thinking is that the ones who will not make it, definitely won't make it without the guidance a course might give. But they'll only know that after having taken the course.
8. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "Have you ever written a sentence you think could save lives?"
I have a very short memory, so I can't say if one might be buried in the haystack of sentences I've written. Ah, if only I could save not just one life, but many, with a mere sentence! I'd in no time be anointed leader. But I believe I have saved a single person's skin, which is a lot like saving a life, by sending an urgent note with the sentence "Say you were with me, just say you were with me, dammit!" I'll leave it to you to imagine whose skin was in mortal danger.