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For author David Chariandy, it’s not a matter of whether to discuss race with children, but how

Canadian author David Chariandy.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

  • Title: I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter
  • Author: David Chariandy
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
  • Pages: 128

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David Chariandy and his family have no interest in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

On a sunny afternoon about a month before the mad, multimillion-dollar wedding, I ask the novelist, his wife and their two children what they thought about Markle, a biracial black woman, marrying into one of the world’s most aristocratic white families.

“I’m tempted to say … so what?” he replies.

“I don’t really follow the Royal Family,” adds his 13-year-old daughter. Chariandy’s wife and 10-year-old son similarly shrug.

The question was stirred by Chariandy’s new book, I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You, a memoir about his experiences with race that is written as a letter to his daughter. In it, he notes that his children’s ancestry combines a variety of genealogies that have historically been kept divided: on his side, they are descended from enslaved Africans and indentured South Asian labourers in the Caribbean. Through their white mother, their lineage includes Sir William Mackenzie, who, in the 19th century, made his fortune in railways, an industry that was known to often exploit Chinese labourers.

In making this observation, Chariandy rejects the idea that combining disparate families could homogenize us all into one happy, beige-skinned world. It’s a sentiment I’ve come across in celebrations of Harry and Meghan – the idea that all is forgiven and forgotten now that a man whose ancestors were slavers is marrying a woman whose ancestors were enslaved.

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“Even if he has married this person of colour, it doesn’t mean racism is over or anything,” Chariandy’s daughter observes. Or, as her father puts it in his memoir, “The future I yearn for is not one in which we will all be clothed in sameness, but is one in which we will finally learn to both read and respectfully discuss our differences.”

Chariandy’s two novels, Soucouyant and Brother, both draw on his Trinidadian heritage and centre on fragile family ties. This is his first work of non-fiction, which he was compelled to write after his daughter began asking hard questions about Donald Trump’s racist speeches and policies, as well the realities and politics of race in Canada. “She was asking very explicit questions,” said Chariandy, who grew up in Scarborough, Ont., and now lives in Vancouver.

In attempting to answer those questions thoroughly and honestly, Chariandy is endorsing a contemporary parenting philosophy – that it’s better to be honest when tackling difficult subjects with children rather than duck their questions or give dissatisfying answers. It’s a different approach than that usually taken by older generations, especially immigrants who came here expecting a multicultural Canadian dream.

“‘We just simply want to be Canadian, we don’t want to talk about questions of race,’” Chariandy imagines his own parents thinking. “Perhaps they wanted to protect their children against a difficult truth about the past. I understand that – at the same time I think one has to arm one’s children against the realities that surround them.” For him, the question isn’t whether to discuss race and racism, but how: how to explain prejudice, but keep his children feeling safe, and how to respect that they’re of a new generation, and will experience the world differently than him no matter what.

The result is poetic and moving, a slim but weighty book that excavates things often left unsaid. Chariandy shares the anxiety-inducing experience of meeting his wife’s learned, established family, (“That was a Get Out moment,” he says, and they both laugh) and the internal conflicts that arise visiting Trinidad as a moneyed Westerner. He details the parental heartbreak that comes with watching one’s children experience prejudice: the rush of anger and despair, and the attempt to soothe their pain while simultaneously treating reopened wounds from one’s own youth.

The book is endearingly intimate and full of love, and the author says he’s much more tentative about releasing it into the world than his previous work.

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“I’ve written two books and I’ve never found this degree of profound vulnerability,” he says. “The only thing I say to myself is, we live out the politics of race. From the very beginning, it is a public encounter. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have a choice but to be public, because that’s how the game is played.”

This memoir comes three years after African-American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, an equally unflinching passing-on of an unwanted inheritance written as a letter to his son. Both Coates and Chariandy were inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 work The Fire Next Time, written in part as a letter to his nephew, which criticizes not just white Americans but Christianity and helped cement Baldwin as a revolutionary thinker and civil rights activist.

It’s a heady legacy, but Chariandy doesn’t see himself as following in other footsteps as much as contributing another voice to an important chorus. “I actually think there must be many, many more books like this,” he says. “I think that this exercise ought to be done many, many, many more times.” Each family’s history and present is particular, after all, and each choice to create a new one is an attempt to weave together scattered threads into something whole and secure, with a future.

Which is why Prince Harry’s personal mission is only beginning, should he choose to accept it. “Does Prince Harry do his homework?” Chariandy asks. “Has he made an effort, a genuine effort to understand things that may correspond to the person he loves or purports to love? That to me is the more interesting question.” Not that interesting though: He and his family are much more engaged in writing their own story, a fresh one for them, Canada and the world.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Sir William Mackenzie employed Chinese workers treated as substandard citizens to lay down his railway lines. In fact, he financed railway projects, but didn’t have say over who was hired.
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