Thunder Bay·Audio

'Curious magic of literature' makes 1 family's story universal in Canada Reads nominee 'Brother'

David Chariandy, the author of 'Brother', one of five finalists for Canada Reads 2019, is speaking about his novel on Monday March 18 in Thunder Bay, Ont., His novel examines everything from racism to grief to the complicated relationships shared by siblings.

Author David Chariandy, who writes of racism, family, grief and love, is speaking in Thunder Bay March 18

David Chariandy's novel 'Brother' explores the bond between siblings, and the aftermath of a police shooting. He's speaking about the book at a CBC Thunder Bay Canada Reads event on Monday March 18. (CBC )

David Chariandy's novel, Brother, one of five finalists for Canada Reads 2019, may be short in page length but it is long in emotions and observations.

His novel, which is set in a Toronto housing project in the 1990's, focuses on a family of three — Ruth, an immigrant from Trinidad, and her two sons, Francis and Michael.

"The curious magic of literature that stories can speak across the divides of experience and touch people in different ways- David Chariandy, author of 'Brother'

The book moves through time, isolating moments from the brothers childhood and adolescence. But it also chronicles the painful present day as an adult Michael and his mother try to navigate life after the tragic death of Francis in a police shooting.

Brother is about racism, discrimination, and opportunities denied. Yet even more so, it is a novel about memory and grief and love.

Chariandy, who is speaking about his novel in Thunder Bay on Monday March 18, offered CBC, in the northwestern Ontario city, these thoughts on his book.

'Extraordinary victory' of kinship

One of Chariandy's inspirations for the novel was the idea of kinship and "how love between family members, often times very complicated love, enables family members and whole communities to survive through very challenging circumstances."

Mother Ruth "is a model of what can be love under highly pressured circumstances" said Chariandy. "It's not easy to be loving when you're being bruised by your life all your time. It's not easy to come home from hours of miserable work that you're not rewarded for, in fact you might even be denigrated for, and then suddenly switch on something and be loving and light."

Ruth is a remarkable women in that she consistently finds the strength to show her love to her sons, which is "an extraordinary victory and is my effort to pay some sort of tribute to the love of mothers, and in this novel it's specifically of Black mothers," said Chariandy.

The relationship between mother and son is a key part of the novel, but Chariandy delves even more deeply into the relationship between siblings, specifically the bond between brothers.

"Different scripts of masculinity'

Younger brother Michael, who narrates the novel,  shares a "loving relationship" with Francis, but the two are considerably different people, and those differences emerge as they start getting older said Chariandy.

They are young men who have begun "to write for themselves different scripts of masculinity, who have absorbed from the world different ways of being men and I think that difference between them puts them in conflict, even when they're attempting to support and even just see one another."

State violence 'only new to certain people'

"It is true that this is a novel in part about state violence and about race violence," said Chariandy, adding that he is often asked about his decision to write about those issues, given their currency, which he attributes to the hard work of activists and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Of course it's only something new to certain people," said Chariandy. "The mainstream has relatively recently been made to see these questions. Yet, among the communities that I associate myself with, and that I come from, these are not new questions at all."

'Universal' but not 'autobiographical' 

"The curious magic of literature that stories can speak across the divides of experience and touch people in different ways," noted Chariandy.

As a man of mixed heritage - South Asian and Black - who identifies as Black and grew up in Toronto, Chariandy is often asked if the novel is autobiographical. He stressed it is strictly a work of fiction, acknowledging there is often "a burden non-white authors face to embody their book and so we're getting some truth about you in the novel that we read."

But like many writers, Chariandy's own observations seep into the novel.

"It is about Scarborough. I grew up in Scarborough. It is about feeling a negative gaze upon you growing up and I grew up with that negative gaze upon me.- David Chariandy, author of 'Brother'

"It is about Toronto, and I grew up in Toronto. It is about Scarborough and I grew up in Scarborough. It is about feeling a negative gaze upon you growing up and I grew up with that negative gaze upon me."

Those are experiences many people can relate to, but Chariandy said he did not set out to write a "universal" story. Instead, he was scrupulous about grounding the story in a very particular place, time and family and yet "the magic of literature is that by attempting to capture that specificity, there is a chance it actually resonates more broadly."

After grief, 'hope found in an embrace'

Michael writes about the grief that rips through his family when his brother was killed in "the incident."

Part of Chariandy's goal in writing the novel was to explore how families and communities affected by a catastrophic event "effectively mourn and not be incapacitated by grief, how do families and communities, if not heal, then somehow draw upon the deep resources of their culture and their love and find their way forward."

The characters seem to find their way forward in small, halting steps and simple gestures of love and caring.

"Hope is found in an embrace. Hope is found in a meal, lovingly prepared by someone who understands the grief that you've gone through. Hope is found in rekindling relationships that have been broken by the force of trauma. I guess that's the hope I'm most interested in."

Chariandy is joining Colleen Peters, the president of the Caribbean African Multicultural Association of Thunder Bay for a panel discussion of Brother, hosted by Cathy Alex of CBC Thunder Bay.

The event begins at 7 p.m. Monday March 18 at Mary J.L. Black Library in Thunder Bay. Admission is free and everyone is welcome.