Shani Mootoo will publish her sixth full-length work of fiction, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab (Doubleday), in 2014, and this year marks the twentieth anniversary of her first book, the short story collection Out on Main Street, with the subversive, independent and now-defunct Press Gang Publishers. BWS caught up with Shani recently, and lured her into our time machine.
BWS: Tell us about publishing your first book. Did you (or your agent) submit to many publishing houses? Did you try the majors, or did you know from the outset that you wanted to work with a small press?
Shani: In a sense, my first book came about despite me. I had been living in Vancouver, working as a painter, exhibiting my acrylic and mixed media work quite seriously. It is true that even then I was writing, as I always had been. But being a writer was a childhood dream that I had given up by the time I went to university to study art. I had continued to write, but in a sense this writing I was doing was about trying to work out things about my life in my head and on paper. It was never meant to be published. By chance, and without my knowledge or permission, Press Gang Publishers became aware of some of these bits and pieces I was writing and they approached me to work on a book for them. I several times declined their very tempting offer, but was provoked further when they sent me a sample contract on which was pinned a little yellow sticker on which was written something to the effect that they just wanted to show me what a contract looked like. On the sample contract they had written in pen “a book of short stories and or a novel.” It worked. I asked a cousin who is a novelist what he thought about this move on their part and he advised me that if I was truly tempted, I should at least test their seriousness by asking for an advance. I did, and was told by Barbara Khuen at Press Gang that they didn’t usually give advances, but they would indeed make an offer. I saw the whole thing as a game and a challenge, an opportunity to travel one more road, so I said I would sign a contract with them for a book of short stories, which I foolishly thought would be easier, quicker to write than a novel. They offered me an advance of $500 — which to me, a struggling artist, seemed like an enormous amount of money. So, there was at that time no agent, no shopping around of manuscripts, and absolutely no understanding of publishing or the writer’s life. I didn’t realize it at first, but Press Gang and that person who showed them my scribblings without my knowledge gave me perhaps the greatest gift — my writing life.
BWS: But it does sound like you completed the book rather fast. In the acknowledgments in Out on Main Street, you mention that the title story and “The Upside-downness of the World as it Unfolds” were written at the Banff Centre in 1992… and at the time of the book’s publication, only one story, (“Lemon Scent”), had been previously published (in a special supplement from the erstwhile literary magazine, absinthe). Do you remember it that way?
Shani: The book did come together quite rapidly. Once I decided to do it, it was all I did. It’s often like that with me – all, or nothing. I am a bit less obsessive now, but I used to begin a project and would work nonstop until it was done, eating and sleeping only when I had already become like a zombie and could no longer think.
BWS: In the opening story’s title, “A Garden of her Own,” it’s impossible not to hear Virginia Woolf or Voltaire’s Candide echoing, and many of your first stories seem to share a similar theme of finding one’s own space. What did it mean to you as a new writer, (and as a writer from any position you wish to identify – nationality, race, gender, sexuality, etc.), to “claim your own space”? And if not these writers, who were your influences early on?
Shani: The question presumes that I had arrived with a sense of myself as a writer, but from the previous answers you can see that I hadn’t come to writing this way. It really did come about as an experiment, a challenge, an opportunity to dabble in a new field, for one time only. That said, in high school in Trinidad I was introduced to Virginia Woolf, and read all of her books, and then her diaries. For years, she and Vincent Van Gogh were my idols. I never wanted to paint like Van Gogh, or to write like Woolf, but was inspired by their passion for life and for their creative work. They were so passionate, and yet they both took their own lives.
BWS: The performance of identity is another theme evident in “Out on Main Street,” particularly in Janet — “so femme dat she redundant” — and in the “two white dykes,” Meghan and Virginia, who, in “Upside-downness,” have adopted the narrator’s (lapsed) religion and are, we could say, “out-performing” her in that regard. Both stories also speak to the idea of mixing, and of learning one’s new or changed roles; in the former, the social pecking order becomes clear (freezing the out lesbian couple, Sandy and Lise, the recipients of the most aggression) and you use the phrase “cultural bastards,” while in the latter, you give us this beautiful detail: “Nothing in Mrs. Ramsey’s garden was mongrel, everything was trophy- and certificate-winning, deeper in colour, bigger, contorted or shaped or variegated hybrids; everything was straightened and tied with plant wire and trained with trellises.” What does performed identity mean to you and your work? Has it changed in 20 years?
Shani: I often begin writing with a very small idea — a picture in my head, or something that is nagging me, that isn’t yet in formed sentences. Something that is puzzling me. Something I don’t know, but want to find out. I begin with little stabs in the dark, and in time sentences are formed, and then paragraphs and then a plot emerges, a story, and I see only then — quite late in the process — what has been nagging or puzzling me. I don’t start, I mean to say, with an already developed sense of an identity to be performed in the work and for which I must find a vehicle to show this identity off. But, at the end of six books, it is possible to say, I suppose, that there are positions that I, the writer, naturally write from. Topics that I, the writer, am naturally drawn to. Identities from which the works spring, and towards which they travel.
Whenever I approach a work with an agenda — political, personal, activist — the work inevitably fails, falls flat. I’ve come to trust that as long as I reach for some higher ground — not in the story telling, but in the approach to work — the work will do something more than just be a story for a reader’s pleasure. It is difficult, very difficult to have this higher ground in one’s personal life. The state of creating — the creative state, that is — exists long before the story does. I think the higher ground exists in that act of creativity, and can seep into one’s work, sort of naturally. If you force it, it comes out like a lie — and readers can detect lies at half a glance.
BWS: “Nocturnals” is a bit of an odd one out in the group, a gripping and affecting story, but more about family relationships and distance between relatives than anything capital-P political. It blurs dreams, memory and reality, and presents relatively minor or quotidian real-life scenarios (i.e., learning of the death of a friend the narrator hasn’t seen since her childhood in another country) as more horrifying than even the ghastliest nightmares. It seems like a hard story to write, from both a technical and a personal standpoint. Do you remember it being challenging, or was it a story that came out of you more or less naturally? Are there any elements of your own or your family’s immigration experience(s) that inspired the story?
Shani: All the stories in that first book were challenging. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was learning as I wrote. But, remember, I came out of a long visual arts background, and so I relied on what I knew from making paintings and other forms of visual art. The layers upon layers that build a scene or a work. Why do this, why do that? These questions lead to the end product of a painting, just as they lead to understanding why people behave in certain ways, why we do what we do. What drives us is often dictated by what scares us. And then, once you have the questions down, the answers down, the layers upon layers down, then you chip away, chip back to reveal the work. It’s hard work. That’s all there is to it. Hard work. But, at the same time, there is no other work that is so pleasurable, is there?
BWS: Press Gang was a feminist publisher known for highly political books, (fiction and non-). How did it feel as a first-time author to step into such a legacy? And how do you feel about that legacy today?
Shani: I didn’t at the time understand what I was getting into, who they were, etc. It was after that first book of short stories came out and I began to meet other people who were published by them, like Chrystos, Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland, that I understood Press Gang’s importance. After that first one, I thought to myself that I really enjoyed the writing, the whole experience, but that I was first and foremost a visual artist. I continued to write, but did not see any future in it. If it weren’t for Barbara calling me up again, and asking to see more of my writing, there likely wouldn’t have been a second book. I believe they were actively trying, then, to encourage an opening up of the feminist publishing world, to publish works by more people of colour. But they didn’t just publish whatever I wrote — they helped me to understand so much about the novel, about the craft, about the publishing world, and for the second book, Cereus Blooms at Night, they hired one of mainstream publishing’s most revered editors, Jennifer Glossop, who is known for being one of Margaret Atwood’s editors. They really went all out for me. They really did give me my start, and an incredible start, too.
BWS: You’ve just finished your newest book. Tell us a bit about it. Will any elements look familiar to your earliest readers? Are any completely different? And has your writing process changed over the years? If so, how?
Shani: The book is called Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab. What is different for me about this one is that the narrator is a young, white, straight man, Jonathan. He was brought up in Toronto in a lesbian family, but one of his mothers — not his birth mother — leaves the family when he is a boy. As an adult he goes looking for this once much-loved parent only to find that she has become a man and lives in the Caribbean. This parent tells Jonathan the story of his gender change, and Jonathan tries to tell back the story as faithfully as he can.
The book was about six years in the making. I still tend to write from a small idea, discovering as I go along what the story is, but the main difference with this book is that I really had to challenge myself to imagine, to feel, to empathize from points of view that were not easy or natural for me. I think it encouraged me to expand, to grow as a writer. It comes out in Spring, 2014.
Booker, Giller and IMPAC prize nominee Shani Mootoo visits the Brockton Writers Series July 10, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Lydia Perović, Brian Francis and Rose Cullis.
Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!