Guess where I am calling you from?” I ask author David Chariandy, who is on the phone from his home in Vancouver, where he teaches at Simon Fraser University.
David jokingly asks back, “Is it a few blocks away from where I grew up?” During our initial icebreaking conversation we realize that the answer to his question is a literal yes. I am calling just blocks from the Scarborough townhome complex where he grew up, which happens to be the same complex where my parents recently resided. To our mutual surprise, we discover our parents lived a mere five doors apart.
Despite never crossing paths, there is something between us that feels warm and familiar. We are both from Toronto’s notorious east end. There are no famous monuments that dot this suburban landscape, just shared stories around shared meals in humble homes. Having just launched my first novel, Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press), about the impact of a literacy program in our area, I was curious to know if David shared my experience of our community and its difficult truths. I wondered whether it was the urge to document this experience that earned him both critical acclaim and 11 award nominations, including the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, for his 2007 debut novel, Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp).
Ten years later, David has delivered his second book, Brother (McClelland & Stewart), a novel about police brutality toward Black bodies, and how a family living in low-income housing navigates the unfamiliar terrain of forgiveness. The novel is set in 1991, when a young man named Michael and his mother are in mourning following the violent death of his brother, Francis. But mourning means healing, and sometimes healing comes when one is not prepared. Brother is a bittersweet homage to the danger of hope and the awkwardness of grief.
Catherine Hernandez: Can I just clarify the setting where Brother takes place? Is it that housing unit just west of Lawrence Avenue Bridge?
David Chariandy: Yes, that’s exactly it.
Hernandez: I knew it! I still remember back in the ’80s when I was a kid living on Beechgrove Drive, there were flyers handed out by our neighbours warning us that if that apartment complex was built, it would mean disaster for the area because the market value would go down with all of “those people” moving in. Chariandy: It’s a curious thing, both of us growing up in Scarborough but being subjected to these ways of representing our area that were so problematic and hurtful. In a sense, we formed our identity around those narratives that surrounded us all the time. Hernandez: When people ask me, “Why write about Scarborough?” I tell them that in this area, people are keepers of stories. Do you feel the same?
Chariandy: It’s a community that has been misrepresented because of the many Black and Brown families moving there in the 1970s and onward. The reason I’m so drawn to thinking and writing about Scarborough is because I have always been aware of the other stories of that area: the extraordinary resilience of the working families and individuals, the stories of everyday tenderness between young Black and Brown men, when oftentimes the fictions about Scarborough were about violence and crime. I felt I had to confront those narratives and portray the vitality of the life there.
Hernandez: You’re probably going to be asked this question a lot, but why the long wait between books?
Chariandy: I guess, maybe in the first place, I am a slow writer. I like to think of myself as a careful writer. I also was concerned about getting it right. I know that’s a complex idea, “getting it right,” because in the context of art that means a great many things. It’s not simply about getting it historically right. It’s about getting the right words down, evoking the right consciousness, trying to get a sense of authenticity in the writing. I felt like I was addressing a difficult and perhaps even dangerous set of topics. It really did force me to slow down, and at least three times radically rewrite a novel I had finished but could not ultimately bring to completion.
Hernandez: In your foreword to Brother, you write, “I am inspired by a new generation of youth boldly announcing their creativity against the renewed forces of prejudice and despair.” Now that we are in a time in history where we have no choice but to fervently uncover and examine race relations, do you think that urgency was what was needed for you to complete this story?
Chariandy: I’ve been thinking of race and literature for decades. The work that I teach explores Caribbean literature and Black global literature. This reflects an extraordinary and rich legacy of thinking about race, about Blackness. I would situate myself in the burning urgency of this present moment of race relations and anti-Blackness. But I really would insist that my work also be connected to a longer history of Black writing – of Caribbean writing – that my work draws from. My work draws from the legacies of older Black writers who have supported and encouraged me. I would say that there are two things to think about simultaneously: the brilliance and creativity regarding cultural politics being practised by today’s Black and Brown artists, and the legacy of thought and artistic representation. I see my work as connected to both.
Hernandez: Armed with that legacy, where will you go from here as a writer?
Chariandy: I’d like to write some sort of text for my daughter regarding the question of race at this particular moment. It would be a great challenge to write such a letter, to write across gender, across generational differences, to understand that the world she lives in now could be different from the one I lived in, or terribly the same. And with all that in mind, what would I say to this individual whom I love so deeply? I want her to understand the history behind her, embodied in me and embodied in her grandparents.
Hernandez: When I was in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown, I interviewed a lot of Black folks who told me about the need to teach fear to their children in an effort to keep them safe from police brutality. I felt that this theme was particularly present in Brother.
Chariandy: Fear is a terrible price to pay. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which is a letter to his son, he describes being a Black kid in Baltimore, and his entire life was saturated with fear. And fear manifested itself in the violence inflicted on their children in the desire to keep them safe. It’s either I beat you, or the police beat you, is a paraphrase of a particular passage in that book. There’s a cost to living in fear. Coates mentions that there are people who splendidly live without fear and gain great advantage.
To write a book is an act that kills me with fear. That’s maybe one reason why I’m a slow writer. I know in part it’s because I am working a project into being through form and language, and that requires time. But it’s also an act of courage that does not come easily to me. I know that speaks to how I was raised. I was conditioned by my parents to be safe.
Hernandez: I think that’s what was so bittersweet about Brother. The unfurling of the characters from fearful and grieving to present and brave; where Black folks can be as big, as small, as loud and as quiet as they want to be. Do you feel transformed by writing the book? Do you feel brave and strong?
Chariandy: I’ve got to say, I feel honoured that you can see that the ability to be loud, to be embodied, and to enact desire are powerful themes in the book that I sought to explore. I can only be the person I have been conditioned to be. Those conditions were not my fault. Writing a book is an act of bravery. Putting myself out there in the eyes of the public, would have been unimaginable for me growing up. And yet I’ve done it. My hope is that this will inspire others who are equally feeling the fear to imagine ways that haven’t been imagined before.