David Chariandy, Soucouyant

(Barely a review: I get to the novel only eventually, after what's almost certainly an unhelpfully long prelude about race, BC vs Canada, and growing up where racial difference meant white vs Indigenous: and almost entirely Secwepemc/Shuswap, at that!)

Sometimes I forget how severely and purposefully I’ve limited (though softly) my sense of Canadianness.

Re-reading something like David Chariandy’s Soucouyant brings home, in all kinds of ways, the consequences and rhythms of this process. It’s a remarkable novel, deservedly celebrated, and I’m so pleased that it has been optioned for a possible film.

Growing up in various places on the west coast, here in British Columbia, I approached stories and facts about Canada (“Canada”) as if they were about a foreign land, because in most ways that mattered, they were. The already ancient schoolbooks that I pored over as a child (mostly from boxes of books that my grandfather bought in bulk at the auction) focused obsessively on discovery (“discovery”), early exploration (“exploration”), and the complicated prairie-centric story of voyageurs, Metis, and the North-West Mounted Police, long before it became the RCMP. BC didn’t join Canada at its confederation, either; BC and Vancouver Island were separate colonies until 1866, even.

All this “Canadian history” was all utterly foreign to me, as a result; I didn’t identify even a little. Heck, my fourth-generation perspective in BC told me that the North-West Mounted Police patrolled south-central Canada! (And Canada’s famous “Western alienation,” too, has long existed almost exclusively east of the Rocky Mountains that form the buld of our eastern border with Alberta.) If you people—you, you “Canadians”—can’t even name the place properly, who are you to me?

Don’t even get me started on the so-called “Pacific Northwest,” which lies entirely south of British Columbia, which is entirely south of Alaska. (By straight-line geography, Victoria BC is closer to Anchorage, in southern Alaska with almost all Alaska above it, than it is to San Diego, at the bottom of southern California.)

Anyway, over time, this sense of distance grew at first organically, then intentionally, into a distrust for and deliberate ignorance of many things Canadian that weren’t part of my BC world. Specifically, I worked hard to remain relatively uninformed about southern Ontario, treating it much the same way that I treated my studies of Spain and Mexico that shaped the Spanish minor I ended up getting, without every travelling to a Spanish-speaking location.

I was and remain, in other words, thoroughly provincial in all kinds of senses, for which, depending on the situation, I felt and feel both shame and pride.

On the positive side, all of this meant one brief shining moment in an undergrad class on Canadian poetry, a few years before the internet. Dr. Bryan Gooch, whose British-ish accent was deeply engrained in spite of his having spent (if I recall correctly) only a few university-aged years outside Canada, asked the class why A.M. Klein’s “The Rocking Chair” mentioned St. Malo. We were all quiet, until Gerald, hoping to trip up the class know-it-all, interjected with, “I bet Richard knows.” Without missing a beat, without anyone having even a precognition of smartphones, and without thanking my grandfather’s impulse auction buys, I could say immediately, “That’s the birthplace of Jacques Cartier.” (HIMYM-style voiceover: “And kids, that’s how I became an English professor.”)

On the negative side, well. So much, truly.

I’ll always be committed to the BC novels, nonfiction, and poetry that’s the great majority of what I read, but this personal history does inescapably mean that I’ve marginalized some of my feel for Canadian literature, Canadian culture, and even Canadian politics. Of course I can research my way into an understanding as needed, and to be frank, to some extent I don’t really care very much that I don’t have as intimate an understanding of all that as I otherwise might. One consequence, however, is absolutely that I have to struggle consciously with major, crucial cultural phenomena that need to be central, rather than marginal, to whatever version of Canadian cultures that I belong to.

Centrally, this means race.

Presumably this is one reason that I feel so intensely the need to deal properly with territorial acknowledgements, among other things. The fact is, race was barely visible while I was in elementary school, except in a kind of white/Indigenous binary where even someone whose parents were Greek, namely Effie Gregory in my sister’s class, stood out. (Effie’s parents ran the cafe in town. It was the first place I ever had a fried-egg sandwich, and it was amazing. Have I mentioned just HOW provincial I was?) There were several Shuswap kids in each class, but let’s be clear, demographically it was the kind of school, and the kind of small town, where even a name like “Sadorski” stood out.

When I got into elementary school and visited Kamloops for track meets in May, I was interested each time to see Erskine Forde run: he was by far the fastest person in our zone meets, in eastern Kamloops, so that’s why I was interested, and I never talked to him except at a starting line or finishing line. Still, he was also the first person with black skin I’d ever dealt with, so there’s no point pretending I didn’t notice race. (He’s a director now.)

High school was more multicultural, but also in complicatedly race-limiting ways. In essence, I was yanked from my small town as if via Star Trek transporter into a British-style boarding school my parents could afford only because of scholarships, so I got to meet wealthy students from Mexico, Japan, and Hong Kong, which…. A long story, in any case, and I’ve taken too long already.

But to David Chariandy, and Soucouyant. (Remember David Chariandy? This is a song about David Chariandy.)

Briefly: the novel depicts the lives of racialized immigrants to southern Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s. It focuses on one Trinidadian family, but as Soucouyant progresses, we come to meet a second family (that turns out also to be Trinidadian) whose experiences in Canada overlap with and run parallel to the lives of the unnamed narrator and his family. Our narrator’s mother suffers from dementia, enough so that much of the novel deals with the son’s attempts to live with her in his childhood home. The son and his mother live almost entirely without community, except for the mysterious young woman who has come to live with the mother during the two years that the overwhelmed son had left her abandoned. Already at the novel’s beginning, his father has died in an industrial accident, and his brother (his only sibling) has disappeared, so there’s very much a claustrophobic element to their lives, a claustrophobia that’s entirely appropriate to the story of immigrants to Canada who’ve lived through Canada’s specific forms of isolationist racism.

This all means, if you’ve read this far, that Soucouyant is a novel I have to work at, and that’s fine. (If you simply remain in your own culture, you remain simple.)

The novel’s structure has been off-putting for some readers, it’s true. A mostly negative review greeted Soucouyant in what was then the industry bible Quill & Quire (e.g., “Vancouverite David Chariandy’s debut novel works in spite of itself”), and I’d point to structure as the primary reason—sort of. Without calling out the reviewer, I just don’t think they trusted Chariandy enough to recognize what he was doing. Me, I’m comfortable saying that I need to work at understanding all KINDS of things about this novel, but this reviewer didn’t work at getting its structure.

Basically, the mother’s dementia links up with the son’s own PTSD-like relationship with his childhood, his family, and the family home, to mean that Chariandy’s novel withholds all kinds of information from the reader. It looks like we’re getting information, backstory, characterization, because Soucouyant seems to be all about the narrator’s attempts to ground himself in knowledge against the consequences of his mother’s dementia, but by the novel’s end, it should be clear to you that our narrator has had a wildly blinkered view of his own life.

By novel’s end, the narrator’s encountering all kinds of characters who know him but whom he doesn’t even recognize: he doesn’t have dementia, but his grasp on the world shows some of the weaknesses that came to define his mother’s. That’s not clear at the beginning, but the pieces all come together eventually, and as a result your sense of the novel needs to be reshaped in retrospect. Chariandy’s narrator isn’t exactly helpful, in that he’s neither genuinely informed nor, as a result, informative.

Does the book’s final quarter feel a bit like an info-dump? Absolutely, because that’s how long it takes for the narrator to get to the actual information that has defined his entire family’s existence in Canada. Everything before that is deeply felt, emotionally engaged, however you want to describe that, but it’s happening to the narrator—AND TO US AS READERS—without much information about what’s caused the feelings, the emotions, the psychological impacts, and so on. The info-dump should have the effect of making you reevaluate everything you’ve read to that point, everything you’ve thought or felt about the characters or about your reactions to them. If you don’t do that, well, yeah, the structure won’t work for you. But don’t pretend it doesn’t work: it didn’t work for you, because you weren’t paying attention.

David Chariandy’s Soucouyant is a gorgeous novel, prickly and enthralling at the same time. But you know what? I’m not giving you any quotations and I’m not making any grander pronouncements about Meaning than I’ve already made. I have to work too hard to read this novel, to want to have much authority when reviewing it. Read this review instead; even better, read this interview; or better yet, just read the novel. You won’t regret it.


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