A difficult transition
Mootoo’s latest eloquently crosses borders, genders
SHANI Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is an intensely moving story of a young man’s search to understand why the woman who raised him left so abruptly when he was nine. Born in Ireland and having grown up in Trinidad, Mootoo immigrated to Vancouver more than three decades ago, and now lives just outside of Toronto. She is a writer, filmmaker and visual artist. After years trying to track down his mother, Sidhanni, the Toronto-based Jonathan finally finds her living in her native Trinidad, having transitioned from female to male — specifically, to a man named Sydney. Jonathan visits Sydney regularly for nearly a decade in an attempt to figure out why events unfolded as they did. On the verge of death, Sydney feels compelled to explain the decisions he made to Jonathan, the only person he believes will understand. “One more chance is all I ask for. But time is against me, and there is so much to tell.” Female, black and a lesbian, Jonathan’s mother always felt like an outsider. As a lesbian, Sidhanni’s mannish muscularity made her stick out on her home island of Trinidad. Life wasn’t much better in Toronto, where her lover accused her of using her race to purposely not blend. As a man in Trinidad, Sydney finally finds some happiness, but it’s tempered by being back in the same place where he lost his first love. Sydney’s life unfolds through flashbacks and diary entries. At the heart of the tale is Sydney’s unrequited crush on his girlhood friend, Zain. The scenes between the two women crackle with electricity and sexual tension, despite the fact that Sydney’s true feelings are never spoken. The dynamic comes to a climax in an episode where they drive to a beach at sunset. “It was frightfully liberating, the two of us driving on that road alone, through pastures and fields, at that time of evening. But we weren’t alone; we were together, and when Zain and I were together we were, or so we imagined, invincible, carefree, daring.” Zain pulls over in the dark, turns off the car, with Sid hoping for intimacy. Instead, Zain tells her friend about a new male lover, and Sid quietly internalizes her heartbreak. Mootoo writes of death and loss with an equally heartbreaking poignancy. “How dare a day without Zain be so radiant,” she says upon her first return to Trinidad. Later, Jonathan’s scrupulous preparations to deliver a eulogy are beautifully rendered; when the moment arrives, not a single word comes out of his mouth. As in Mootoo’s 1996 debut novel Cereus Blooms at Night, the author’s descriptions of Trinidad are full of wonder and lush, poetic brilliance. “Rosettes of bromeliads and delicate orchids clustered around the trunks and branches of the trees, and Spanish moss clumped and hung like wet lace curtain.” The landscape is teeming with life and in stark contrast to the frigid, snowfilled streets of Toronto. Woven throughout the narrative is Sydney’s winter walk to a Toronto “sex change clinic.” This haunting trek leaves Sydney’s deep solitude exposed. It’s a journey with no reward; while Sydney is desperate to belong, he faces a future where this is virtually impossible. Mootoo raises questions on issues of race, sexual orientation, and most of all of gender identity. The author clearly believes in a world more tolerant of fluid and multifaceted gender roles, essentially saying that the Sydneys of this world shouldn’t have to do all of the changing — that society needs to evolve as well. Mootoo’s three other novels have been nominated for various book prizes, including the Giller and Man Booker. This book could be the one that finally wins. As the lyrical title Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab indicates, the story of Sydney’s life unravels in a completely nonlinear manner. By the end, Jonathan’s story has taken centre stage, as the knowledge of what happened to his mother finally allows him to move on with his own life. Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg writer and marketer, with a passion for tropical gardens.
Mootoo contrasts lush descriptions of Trinidad with the frigid streets of Toronto.
Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab