How a moment of bigotry sparked David Chariandy's memoir on race

The author talks to Shelagh Rogers about new memoir, I've Been Meaning to Tell You.
I've Been Meaning to Tell You is David Chariandy's latest book. (Joy van Tiedemann/McClelland & Stewart)
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David Chariandy is a Toronto-born, B.C.-based writer and author of the novels Soucouyant and BrotherIt was an experience of overt racism that prompted him to pen a work of nonfiction.

His memoir, I've Been Meaning to Tell You, is an open letter to his young daughter that examines the legacy of race by sharing their family's story and his personal experience as the son of Black and South Asian immigrants from Trinidad.

A fateful encounter

"I was having lunch with my family. We had what I would call a reasonable lunch and then myself and my daughter rewarded ourselves with a big slice of chocolate cake. We got thirsty and I stood to fill up my glass of water at the fountain and there was a woman who was approaching the fountain at the same time. I paused, but the woman didn't seem satisfied with that gesture. She then, very demonstratively, shouldered herself through me toward the fountain. She then filled up her glass and turned around in loud voice and said, 'I belong here.'

"What made it significant was that this was spoken aloud in the presence of my daughter, when I as a father was trying to have a special moment with her. What made it truly complicated, and why I chose to begin the book with this anecdote, is because my daughter did not quite understand what had happened."

A sense of pride

"I actually felt the need to ask her before I set pen to paper to write this book. She is a quite an extraordinary individual. She is sure about who she is and what she wants in the world. I find it so mesmerizing. Children these days have such an understanding that I felt I never had growing up.

"My family instilled in her the values of hard work and a sense of pride. It was important for me to tell her the story of how her parents and her ancestors have both experienced and met the challenges they encountered."

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