Most of Giller Prize-shortlisted novelist Shani Mootoo’s latest book Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is beholden to silence. The characters in this new novel, Mootoo’s third, keep most of their thoughts to themselves. Fear is the culprit – fear of vulnerability and reprisal – but also ambivalence, trepidation, and deference. This book is about many things – specifically gender, racism, identity, family, and escape – but it is also a rumination on the things that we do not say. Writing about a conservative Indo-Caribbean community in Trinidad and a small cluster of individualistic, bougie Torontonians, Mootoo draws this conclusion: people are assholes, no matter where they live.
For Moving Forward, the Toronto-based novelist returns to her native Trinidad to explore the fraught tangle of identities that marginalize people – women and queer-identified, in particular – in certain communities. Relocating to seemingly more tolerant cities, like Toronto, doesn’t change much: these places practice their own forms of social exclusion. This time around, Mootoo commits a white Canadian male protagonist to the messy task of unpacking these ideas – a canny technique in an age when the Donald Sterlings of the world are finally being called out.
Jonathan Lewis-Adey grew up in Toronto knowing two mothers, one of whom is his adoptive parent Sid Mahale. When the couple eventually parts ways, Sid leaves without saying goodbye and Jonathan, nine years old at the time, grows into adulthood struggling with feelings of abandonment. His birth mother Caroline – a moderately successful and self-absorbed novelist from an upper-crusty British family – callously does nothing to assuage these feelings and so, after years apart, Jonathan finds himself knocking on the door of a sleepy compound near Chaguaramas in Trinidad’s northwest. This is where he learns that Sid is now living as a man named Sydney, having undergone gender reassignment surgery before leaving Toronto.
Over the course of a near-decade, the two work at re-establishing a relationship. Jonathan’s regular trips to the island allow him to very slowly understand Trinidad, leading to a better understanding of Sydney. But it’s not until Sydney is on his deathbed that he finally opens up about a lifetime of isolation and discrimination, from family and friends at home, in the arts community in Toronto, and even in his relationship with Jonathan’s mother. Ultimately we learn that Sydney’s departure, gender reassignment and return to Trinidad are linked to something much more complicated – something that has nothing to do with Jonathan. Mootoo excels at writing through this disconnect, allowing each traces of selfishness and guilt without letting a sentiment settle for too long. She sparsely populates this novel, letting Jonathan’s silent frustrations and Sydney’s debilitating fears echo. With the exception of Zain, Sydney’s long-time friend and unrealized love, the secondary voices that exist –family, peripheral love interests, the household help – do so only to bring the two protagonists out of their thoughts.
Nature is a supporting character as well. Mootoo has a longstanding obsession with the Trinidadian wilderness – the title of her first novel is an homage, The Cereus Blooms At Night – and her brilliant evocations of the country’s paradisiacal glow, intended to weld the foreigner Jonathan to Sydney’s island, are a real gift to the reader. “Rosettes of bromeliads and delicate orchids clustered around the trunks and branches of the trees, and Spanish moss clumped and hung like wet lace curtains,” she surveys her home country, occasionally slipping, awed, into genus classifications. “The philodendron as large as a living room in a downtown Toronto apartment, the dracaena reaching up as high as a billboard.” Monkeys howl, bellbirds tock, little things jump in the bushes.
And like most elderly folks and people unsure of what to say, Sydney talks about the weather – in Toronto, that is. “Had a person never experienced such temperature, such wind, she or he would have a hard time imagining it,” he says to Jonathan, stalling, riffing on a story he’s been starting and never finishing since the two reunited. Everything that happens in the story swirls around the day that Sid shuffled through a frigid Toronto snowstorm to commit to the surgery and process that would make her Sydney. Jonathan sees this story as the mere ramblings of an aged person, but by the tidy end he learns that Sid wasn’t abandoning him so much as escaping herself.
Moving Forward has a fascinating premise, one that emboldens Mootoo’s ongoing literary project of giving voice to sexual minorities with brown faces from hot countries. These narratives exist in desperately small numbers, though there are some authors out there who have adopted the post-postcolonial writer’s task of embracing “shame,” like Tamil-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai, India’s Jeet Thayil, and Binyavanga Wainaina from Kenya. They are stories that can no longer be silenced.
Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto and writes about the arts.