Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Launch of Valmiki's Daughter by Shani Mootoo

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The Launch of Valmiki's Daughter by Shani Mootoo

By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

The launch of Shani Mootoo’s latest novel, Valmiki’s Daughter (House of Anansi Press, 2008), was celebrated at This Is Not A Reading Series on Tuesday, December 2. Mootoo's work has been recognized internationally — her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night (McClelland & Stewart, 1998), is an international bestseller and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Her novel He Drown She in the Sea (McClelland & Stewart, 2006) was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Set in Trinidad, Valmiki’s Daughter tells the story of a well-to-do doctor, Valmiki Krishnu, whose sexual secrets have wide-ranging effects on his family. His daughter, Viveka, the central character of the novel, struggles to form her own sexual identity amidst the complex pulls of class, race and tradition.

The launch featured Mootoo in conversation with Shyam Selvadurai, author of Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (McClelland & Stewart, 2005), Cinnamon Gardens (McClelland & Stewart, 1999) and Funny Boy (McClelland & Stewart, 1997). Held on the second floor of the Gladstone Hotel, the event was filled to capacity, with people stretched out on the floor after the chairs had been filled. Pages Books & Magazines proprietor, Marc Glassman, introduced the event and announced that TINARS had reached its 137th event of 2008. He took a moment to describe the philosophy of the series — the presentation of literature outside of the traditional format of author readings, instead using interviews, slide shows and other inventive presentation methods to examine the creative process.

Selvadurai and Mootoo began their conversation seated and relaxed on the stage. The two revealed they had known each other for some time, which made for comfortable banter, filled with laughter and jokes. Selvadurai first asked Mootoo to discuss the way the book is structured, with its chapters titled after places and seemingly abstract increments of time (e.g. "San Fernando, 24 Hours" or "Chayu, 24 Weeks"). Mootoo explained that the book involves a fairly complicated timeline and the chapters were an attempt to structure the novel. She credited Anansi’s publisher Lynn Henry with the idea, explaining it was Henry who first noticed the different time lapses taking place in the novel and suggested using the times to delineate the chapters. Another interesting moment happened when Selvadurai asked Mootoo how she began creating the complex fabric of the novel. She said the novel began with writing the sentence: “So, it was on the north coast of the island, on a strip of sand too slim to label a beach, that he lay on top of her.” Mootoo laughed, and went on to say that the sentence could be found on page 387 of her novel, giving the audience an insight into how non-linear the writing process had been. She described writing the sentence with no idea of where it would lead: “Something about this incident was compelling, and I just had to find the left and right side of it.”

When asked about how the book’s focus on cocoa production developed, she explained that her aunt had owned a great deal of cocoa land in Trinidad, which may have been an inspiration. She described an experience of tasting French Valrhona chocolate made with beans from Trinidad, and she was shocked at how beautiful the chocolate was in comparison to the sweeter, less refined chocolate available in Trinidad (I can attest to the exquisiteness of Valrhona’s “Caraibe” chocolate!). Mootoo then brought up the very poignant point that people in developing countries may never get to experience the pleasure of the products made from the fruits of their own land.

Selvadurai questioned Mootoo about the presence of V.S. Naipaul in the novel, drawing attention to a line where a character is looking around at modern day Trinidad, wondering what Naipaul would think of it. Mootoo responded that it would be impossible to write about the Indian experience in Trinidad without acknowledging Trinidadian-born Naipaul, and she had felt the need to reference him on some level in her work. Incidentally, Mootoo’s father is a distant cousin of Naipaul’s, and she shared a story about meeting Naipaul that involved an elderly relative mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair. Mootoo gently made the point of separating her views on Trinidad from Naipaul’s well-known criticisms of the country. She added that as strongly as Naipaul voiced his disapproval toward Trinidad, the strength of his feelings could likely not exist if he didn’t also possess a strong love for the country.

Several questions centred on the difficult sexualities of Valmiki and his daughter, Viveka. Selvadurai recalled a quote from the novel that described Valmiki as a man with one leg trapped in a cement block and the other dangling uselessly, and Mootoo explained that was how she saw Valmiki. He is trapped and unable to act, yet there is an illusion of free will and choice about him. Selvadurai described Viveka’s difficult choice in the novel between sexual freedom and acceptance or repression, that is, to remain “Valmiki’s daughter.” Without wanting to reveal the novel’s outcome, he expressed his surprise at how rational and wise Viveka’s decision in the novel was, joking that he didn’t see Mootoo as inclined to make that type of choice herself. Mootoo replied that she thinks people are more noble and sensitive in their creative work than they are in their real life. When asked by an audience member how she thought the book would be received in Trinidad, she replied that we often anticipate reactions to be far greater than they really are, but she imagines people will probably see themselves in the characters and the way that they live. "There's a lot of sex in it, so that's uncomfortable for people to know what's going on in your head!" she added, laughing with the audience.

The event, which was a lively and pleasant, came to a close with audience members queuing to buy copies of Mootoo’s novel. A comment of Selvadurai’s stayed with me when I returned home to continue reading Valmiki’s Daughter. He had compared the experience of reading her novel quite perfectly to that of eating dark chocolate—you break off a small piece, savour it and feel satisfied, go away, but then feel compelled to go back again for more.

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