Shani Mootoo Reads


I’m glad I went. I didn’t have to go in till 2 pm, but I saved the date in my calendar and went in early.

Brilliantly unassuming, is my summation of the entire reading, since in my view Shani Mootoo chose to sidestep the politics of sexuality and gender, and give a broader more inclusive notion to positive space and queer to include wider discussions of oppression and brutality.

I sense that her reading and answers to the questions that followed flat-footed the audience, since she refused to be corralled. And so innocuously!

In the elevator ride I took afterwards, some didn’t know what to think of the event, while some, more plain-spoken, said that the reading was boring. In fact, one young lady yawned into her hand, while her friend said with a laugh, we’ll have a lot to talk about, when we get back upstairs.

They would probably speak about how Mootoo dealt with the question about queer in her writing, and how she dealt with the question about her opinion on queer sometimes portrayed as monsters, and how that factored into the story that she read.

In fact, the answers were thought-provoking, or should have been, for Mootoo spread her definition of queer and positive space into broader territory, without saying how far she would extend it, but mentioning race and immigration as other relevant concerns.

Questions soon dried up; they were going nowhere. For me, I felt – all kudos to her as a writer refusing to be pigeonholed or limited to walking around with a political name-plate on her back. I was also impressed by her ability to mention the word race, with reference to populations, without any sense of self-consciousness or taboo, or hesitation about whether she was being politically correct.

Most of all, I applaud her effrontery to read a story about the Trinidadian artist and a silk cotton jumbie at any event, however small, put on by a positive space group in Downtown Toronto.

From this point on, I digress. For me, the story itself (which meant perhaps more to me than to most of the audience) evoked one of my bad habits – my sometimes reductive/simplistic teacher-ese. The story was a call to mind that not even the artist is absolved from helping to find a solution to the recurring “casual brutality” (as she quipped) and deliberate savage brutality that take place in Trinidad. The jumbie of the Bonnaire silk cotton tree sets the self-absorbed (who distance themselves until it touches them because it touches everybody) a task: To give him space on her canvas to shine a light so that the violence can be ferreted out. Trade off, for trade off – is the jumbie’s ultimatum. This is the deal for any kind of progress – public or personal.

Mootoo also lauded the Man Booker success of Jamaican Marlon James, and how his work shines a light on unknown histories (Is that what she said? … my condensation of a side-bar articulation of joy and praise). Now, there is book that one should read if one is serious about any wider positive space inclusion.

Thanks Shani! Our first time meeting was not at any writerly or Caribbean or Trinidadian event, but it was positive space – good!


©Cynthia James – October 2015

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