A visual artist and filmmaker by training, Shani Mootoo is drawn to particular landscapes. It’s a theme in her writing – the lushly and powerfully beautiful fictional Caribbean islands she created for 1996’s Cereus Blooms At Night and, most recently, He Drown She In The Sea, where flowers, trees, mountains and water loom large in the lives of her characters.
Born in Ireland in 1958, Mootoo was raised in Trinidad and has lived in Vancouver and New York. Currently she resides in Edmonton, where she teaches creative writing at the University Of Alberta. She is very happy there, she says, having made “some of the best friends I’ve ever had.” But she’s still adjusting to the scenery.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, “but in the prairies it’s all about the sky. And I’m someone who thrives by the mountains and the sea.”
Mootoo became a writer almost by accident. When she was a child, she told her grandmother that she was sexually abused by a family member. Her grandmother told her never to speak of it again, and Mootoo retreated from language and escaped into making pictures.
“I stopped trusting language then. And there were so many other things that I was told to ‘hush about.’ I remember being so confused as a child about how and why the genders paired up as they did. I couldn’t understand the racial and religious tensions and hatred that I saw. But when I spoke, when I asked questions, I was told to be quiet. In response, I pulled back.
“Having written two novels, now, my relationship to language has changed. It’s not that I feel that everything I have to say is of utmost importance, but I have more courage to speak out.”
Many of those childhood questions were channelled into Mootoo’s debut novel Cereus Blooms At Night, a compelling magic realist tale of lesbianism, incest, gender switching, love and madness. Mootoo, who had previously published just one collection of short stories, was catapulted into literary stardom when the novel was nominated for a Giller Prize in 1997.
Her new novel, He Drown She In The Sea, is the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers, spanning decades and several times zones. Mootoo readily acknowledges it’s a big departure from Cereus Blooms At Night.
“As an artist, my pattern has always been to work in reaction to the last thing. The hype around Cereus made me suspicious. I hadn’t been on a serious path to become a writer. It was an experiment. I felt that I had been playing around, that I hadn’t tried hard enough. At the end of it, I didn’t feel that I had fleshed out the characters in Cereus in a deep way. So I knew my second novel couldn’t be another Cereus.
“For He Drown She In The Sea, I wanted to get into what I describe as, ‘the tickling space behind the knees.’ I wanted to describe how people really lived and how they really felt.”
Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Guanagaspar in the 1940s and in present-day Vancouver, He Drown She In The Sea tells the story of Harry St George, the son of a poor laundress. By good fortune and hard work, Harry manages to escape the strict class and racial divisions of Guanagaspar, moving to Vancouver where he runs a successful landscaping business. Believing he had left the island behind, he is drawn back home after he meets up with his childhood unrequited love, Rose, the daughter of a wealthy man and the wife of a prominent Guanagasparian politician. The two begin a misguided and impossible affair that both liberates and ties them even more strongly to their past.
It’s a beautiful, doomed and, mostly, maddening relationship. Despite their ultimate incompatibility, Harry and Rose are drawn to each other as a kind of rebellion. Rose gets to free herself from her narrow role of dutiful wife and Harry can finally prove that he has risen above his humble roots.
When I say how frustrated I was by the relationship, Mootoo laughs. “Yes, I am, too. I’m always surprised when people read it as a nice love story. I wanted to examine the near impossibility of overcoming how we’ve been defined and how our desires are defined. I think that most of us spend our entire lives responding to what we’ve been told we can’t have.
“I think that love seldom has to do with the object of one’s desire, but more with the struggle with one’s own demons.”
He Drown She In The Sea is a straight-up straight love story, another departure from the genderbending sexuality of Cereus Blooms At Night. But when asked if she consciously avoided writing another queer book, Mootoo says that that would be impossible. “Everything I do is queer. I can’t help but have a queer vision. I think in Harry I’ve created a very queer character. Even though his desire is for a woman, like queer people he’s been told his entire life that his desire isn’t normal or valid.
“One of the funniest stories to come out of this book is a review of He Drown She In The Sea that was sent to me from the US. The writer said that, ‘His greatest achievement is the portrayal of Harry.’ It’s so interesting that the reviewer assumed I was a man because he could relate to Harry. I suppose it was a compliment of sorts.
“In creating Harry, I wanted to create a straight man that I would feel comfortable with. He’s my ideal woman. I guess that’s my way of queering the straight world.”