Books

Shani Mootoo's novel Polar Vortex explores love, relationships and real connections in an age of social media

The Ontario-based author talks about how she wrote her latest novel.
Polar Vortex is a novel by Shani Mootoo. (Ramesh Pooran, Book*hug Press)

Shani Mootoo is a novelist, poet and visual artist whose debut novel was 1997's Cereus Blooms at Night.

The Ontario-based writer's novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. Mootoo was also a reader for the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize

Her latest is Polar Vortex, a novel about a woman of Trinidadian-Indian descent named Priya who is exploring her sexuality and identity living within a major Canadian city. Abandoning the city for the picturesque countryside, Priya and her partner Alexandra attempt to give themselves a new lease on life.

Priya ultimately reveals that she is running from a fraught relationship with a male friend who kept pursuing her: Prakash. After Priya feels safe enough to once again establish an online presence, Prakash finds her and reaches out. 

Polar Vortex is on the longlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Mootoo spoke to CBC Books about writing Polar Vortex.

Authentic lives lived 

"Polar Vortex is about Priya, a Trinidadian Indian lesbian who came to Canada at a young age. She doesn't know what the possibilities are for her, living as a lesbian. What she knows, is that she will struggle with family. She is trying to figure out if it is possible to keep her family through marrying a man.

"I know a lot of people, particularly Trinidadian Indian men, who are gay but have married women. That is unfair to do to the woman. Some of the women know, but they're kind of trapped, or maybe there's good money involved.

In the end, love — to truly love and to truly be loved — that's authenticity. You want authenticity.

"In the end, love — to truly love and to truly be loved — is authenticity. You want authenticity. That's what I was trying to get to with this book. Priya is living a life of constantly trying to figure these things out."

Outside the city

"When I finished my last book I said — as I almost always do — that it's the last book I'll write. Within five days, I was writing (again). I've been an artist forever. That impulse to make — and mostly to question, to want to know what and why — propels me. 

I've been an artist forever. That impulse to make — and mostly to question, to want to know what and why — propels me.

"It's just that pull towards the word. A long time ago, My distant uncle, V.S. Naipaul, had encouraged me to not write about 'back home' and to write where I am, and write about something I don't know. The only thing I knew I wanted to do was to write about this landscape, which is not the city of Toronto, where you have a lot of people of colour and immigrants. We tend to settle in cities. We write about our connections in the cities and our failures and successes.

"But it's always in the cities. And here I am, in the countryside where I could count the people of colour on my hand. The landscape is very, very different. I wanted to explore that."

Knowing someo ne

"You can't escape your past. I don't say that in Polar Vortex. But if you're asking me specifically about social media right now, everything is recorded. That's been going on for a long time. We're constantly being monitored. It's so interesting how, when a crime is committed, the police can very easily pick up an image. Think about the Boston marathon, where the two guys were picked up by police. Every few yards, there was an image of them. That was a visual monitoring.

Everything we see and do is recorded; even if you're not on social media. The writing of the novel unfolds with that last idea and sentence that I put down.

"Everything we see and do is recorded; even if you're not on social media. The writing of the novel unfolds with that last idea and sentence that I put down. I then went back to knit them together and create the story that was to be created. There's a point where I am just the craftsperson and there's this other thing that's already happened.

"You can live closely with someone forever and you can have no idea what's in that person's mind — who they are or what they're doing." 

An artful process

"If I was still in the city, a nice writing space would be a crowded cafe or something. But here in the county, those kinds of speed places are very far apart. You have to travel. You can't walk anywhere. I like working on the counter in the kitchen where I am between my partner and four parrots. There is a lot of noise — and the parrots constantly calling for attention and so on — that keeps me focused for some bizarre reason.

Writing just comes from the need to be putting down something.

"I don't know what it is that I'm doing from the start, writing just comes from the need to be putting down something. Sometimes I don't know who is speaking. I don't know how many characters they're going to be or where it's going to be set. And I'm struggling and struggling to find what it is that I want to write. When I latch on to something, I don't know if it's the voice of a man or woman or whatever, it takes a long time. To be honest, I don't begin to see anything until I'm almost a third of the way in to what would eventually become the story.

"It is not until I'm finished that I kind of look back and see what it is I've done and how I might structure it. So it's not as organized. I think it comes out of the 1970s art world that I grew up in."

Shani Mootoo's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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