A dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion

Mootoo’s lat­est elo­quently crosses borders, gen­ders

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Klassen

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.

GRA­HAM DAVIES PHOTO

Mootoo con­trasts lush de­scrip­tions of Trinidad with the frigid streets of Toronto.

Mov­ing For­ward Side­ways Like a Crab

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