Quill and Quire

Shani Mootoo

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Shani Mootoo’s return to poetry reimagines her family history and journeys across continents

“My mother was an Anglican / My father was a priest / Together they prayed real hard,” writes Shani Mootoo in the opening poem of her long-awaited new collection. “When spring came (and the Pitch Lake overflowed) / They reaped the smoothest stones you’ve ever seen.” In Cane | Fire – published in March by Book*hug Press, more than 20 years after her 2001 poetry debut, The Predicament of Or – Mootoo returns to the themes of family, migration, and diaspora that define her multi-disciplinary body of work, this time with a boundary-breaking dynamism that crosses oceans and genres.

Best known for her novels – such as 1996’s Cereus Blooms at Night and 2020’s Polar Vortex, both of which were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – Mootoo continues to reinvent herself. Indeed, given the international success of works like Cereus Blooms at Night, (also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and He Drown She in the Sea (longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Award), it might surprise many to know that Mootoo came to fiction accidentally.

Before she was a fiction writer and visual artist, Mootoo considered herself a poet, and says she “never stopped” writing poetry. “Novel writing for me was a bit of a happy accident. To write a novel and then undertake all the publicity and selling of the book that is expected of you eats time and energy. All the while I yearned for my art-making life again, and indeed for the art-making in poetry.” 

Born in Dublin, the Trinidadian-Canadian has lived in southern Ontario for over a decade. After leaving Toronto for Prince Edward County she found the quiet and slower pace conducive to a wider range of artistic creation. “I began painting and doing photography again. It was only natural that a time would come when all of me would be screaming for a project like Cane | Fire.” 

The whole of Mootoo’s artistic output informs and ripples through Cane | Fire. Employing the glittering detail and a mythic tone that characterizes her fiction, Mootoo has crafted a poetic memoir that reimagines her family histories, including journeys from Ireland to Trinidad and Canada. Mootoo immerses her reader in Caribbean registers, layering text and family photographs with artwork featuring Hindu goddesses and gods. Making the quotidian sacred, she transports us to a Trinidad where the “sitar hunts” and “blind birds flew through cane-fire sweetened air.” Her poetic gift is to teach us how to read anew, trusting the “image-language” of art and poetry to speak of grief, family, and displacement, but also joy and renewal.

“One can exist on so many planes while engaging in creative writing. When it’s approaching memoir, all the planes careen into one another,” Mootoo says. “When your witnesses don’t live in the same country as you, or have passed on, the many planes of the past must be constructed. There is the constant construction of the ‘I,’ the first person, who one is/was/wishes to be seen to be. You end up being your own very unreliable narrator/witness. It’s an opportunity, then, to reimagine.”

In Cane | Fire, Mootoo excavates her lyric subject so granularly that poetry itself is remade. Her approach includes melding different artistic styles – visual and linguistic – on the page. In “The Smoothest Stones,” Mootoo rips, overlays, and collages a photo of her own face with that of a man. Lines of text frame this collage, which is set in the middle of the poem, but the text is disrupted at each corner of the photo: “unconscious desirability of leaving an entire leg behind / … when to do otherwise would bring the wrath of a wedlock into.” Interrupting the linearity of narrative and meaning is second nature to Mootoo.

She has been a rebel, both as an artist and a human being. “For most of my life I have been an outsider, not playing by the rules of society,” she says. “Being, for one, lesbian – which is not simply about which gender one loves, but can be an entire way of life that does not include the markers of ‘progress’ as a human being in the way traditional societies see it. One is always deviant. Art-making, and I include poetry in this, has always been a way for me to become myself.”

The active nature of becoming – the constant reinvention through art – is at the core of Mootoo’s work. Her return to poetry in Cane | Fire marks what may be an apotheosis in this regard. “I think my best attempt at reinvention has been this poetry book – taking the chance to do something I’d dreamt of but didn’t have the courage to put out before,” she says. “As tiring as always forging one’s own path is, it is survival to refuse being disciplined. And, yes, this refusal spills out all over.”