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The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - DAVID CHAR­IANDY > ALEXAN­DER VARTY

In his slim but per­fectly pro­por­tioned 2 sec­ond novel, Brother, David Char­iandy has ac­com­plished a kind of lit­er­ary alchemy, cre­at­ing a be­liev­able world in just 180 pages. Or “worlds”, one could say. Look be­hind the re­al­ism of the ini­tial premise and you’ll find suc­ces­sive lay­ers of other worlds—each, para­dox­i­cally, larger than the first.

The world we’re ini­tially in­tro­duced to bears re­sem­blances to that of Char­iandy’s first ef­fort, the uni­ver­sally praised 2007 novel Soucouyant. A pair of brothers, dif­fer­ent but sim­i­lar, fea­ture in both works; in each, the nar­ra­tor is book­ish and ob­ser­vant where his sib­ling is streetwise and im­pul­sive. In Soucouyant, their mother is suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia; in Brother, she’s par­a­lyzed by the even more com­mon mal­adies of over­work and grief. In both, the brothers’ father is an ab­sent, shad­owy fig­ure; in both, the father is South Asian and the mother is of Afro-caribbean de­scent; both are set in Toronto’s Scar­bor­ough neigh­bour­hood.

There are enough sim­i­lar­i­ties to Char­iandy’s own story that it seems nat­u­ral to ask if his writ­ing is es­sen­tially au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal—but the au­thor, in­ter­viewed by tele­phone while tak­ing a break in a Fairview Slopes park, cau­tions not to read too much into the par­al­lels.

“There is an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ment, but it’s very com­pli­cated, I think,” he says. “It’s first and fore­most a work of fic­tion, both nov­els. But like the pro­tag­o­nist in Brother, I grew up in a work­ing-class im­mi­grant fam­ily; like the pro­tag­o­nist, I have a South Asian father and a black mother, and I grew up iden­ti­fy­ing and be­ing read as black. But my house­hold was a lov­ing house­hold, with two par­ents, and they were, at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, able to pro­vide the ba­sics for both me and my brother.

“So I guess one im­pulse in writ­ing the novel was to imag­ine ‘What if cir­cum­stances were just slightly dif­fer­ent, so in­stead of hav­ing two par­ents, I had one?’ My brother and I faced cer­tain prob­lems in the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem at times, and these were wide­spread prob­lems for men of colour or young boys of colour. What if those prob­lems we faced were pushed to a point where we couldn’t com­plete high school? What kind of fu­ture would we have? What if we had an en­counter with fig­ures of author­ity—fig­ures of state author­ity—that went ter­ri­bly side­ways, and a cir­cum­stance that we per­haps feared ac­tu­ally came to re­al­iza­tion? So what is that, re­ally? Is that au­to­bi­og­ra­phy? No, be­cause we didn’t ex­actly live that, but we were think­ing about that, and see­ing that, and feel­ing those pos­si­bil­i­ties all the time. We were prox­i­mate, we felt, to an ugly fate.”

It’s also tempt­ing to read Brother as a novel of im­mi­gra­tion: the older fig­ures in Michael and Francis’s world are im­mi­grants, al­though they them­selves are Cana­di­an­born. But the cen­tral theme in the nar­ra­tive is not for­eign­ness, but loss. Loss of home, yes—and there is a painful scene in which the brothers visit their par­ents’ na­tive land, Trinidad, only to discover that they’re even more es­tranged from their stay-at-home rel­a­tives than they are from the Cana­dian main­stream—but also the loss of a par­ent, of pos­si­bil­ity, of hope.

But coun­ter­act­ing this, beau­ti­fully, is a third layer: mu­sic. The world of sound is a heal­ing thread run­ning through Brother: the bar­ber­shop where the sib­lings hang out, De­sirae’s, is a meet­ing place for as­pir­ing DJS and MCS, while dusty soul and jazz LPS pro­vide a sense of gen­er­a­tional con­ti­nu­ity along­side a use­ful model of how to chan­nel the anger that, in our cul­ture, can go along with be­ing young, gifted, and black.

“Mu­sic is the space in which safety and a sense of home can be cre­ated,” Char­iandy says. “And mu­sic also be­comes a way for the boys to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and moods of the past; to be able to ac­cess and feel what Nina Si­mone was feel­ing and singing about; to be able to ac­cess and feel what a blues or a soul singer was cod­ing into the mu­sic—and that’s so im­por­tant. What’s also im­por­tant, I guess, is that through turntab­lism, this tech­nol­ogy of sound, the boys are able to not only lis­ten to the old songs and sounds, but to make them new, as some­thing that speaks di­rectly to their own ex­pe­ri­ence.”

And to Char­iandy’s own, as well: the writer says that, like most of his peers, he was fas­ci­nated by hip-hop cul­ture be­fore re­al­iz­ing that his tal­ents lay else­where. Writ­ing, for him, pro­vides the so­lace that mu­sic brings to his char­ac­ters.

“Ev­ery act of writ­ing lit­er­a­ture is an act of hope, be­cause even if it is ex­press­ing pain and grief, it is with the hope that pain and grief will be at­tended to, and with the hope that pain and grief will be ar­tis­ti­cally framed—and thereby, in a sense, con­trolled,” he says. “Maybe. But just think­ing of my novel specif­i­cally, I feel it is a very hope­ful novel, as it’s about the pro­found re­silience of com­mu­ni­ties and in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies.…and it’s also about find­ing beauty and joy in the midst of hard­ship and loss.” David Char­iandy will be part of two events at this year’s Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fest, both on Oc­to­ber 21. See writ­ers­fest.bc.ca/ for de­tails.

David Char­iandy’s Brother has a heart full of mu­sic; Or­a­cle Bone by Ly­dia Kwa riffs on cen­turies-old ghost sto­ries.

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