“Worthy of Representation and Art”: An Interview with David Chariandy

David Chariandy grew up in Toronto and lives and teaches in Vancouver. His debut novel, Soucouyant, received stunning reviews and recognition from eleven literary awards juries, including a Governor General’s Literary Award shortlisting, a Gold Independent Publisher Award for Best Novel, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. His second novel, Brother, was published in 2017 and won the Rogers Trust award for fiction.

Kathryn Stagg is a writer and researcher based in Toronto. She is the Marketing and Advertising Coordinator for The Puritan. Her work has appeared in the Town Crier and the Hamilton Review of Books.

This interview took place on the afternoon of November 14th, 2017. That night, Chariandy was awarded the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize for his second novel, Brother. Set in Scarborough, Brother is an evocative examination of brotherhood, love, and community. In what has been a busy year for both writer and book, I was grateful for the opportunity to talk to Chariandy about his work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kathryn Stagg: When I was considering who to interview for an issue about the suburbs, I immediately thought of this book.

David Chariandy: I’m excited to hear that. There’s so many different suburbs, but there are a couple of authors that I’d love to chat with about their work, actually: Catherine Hernandez and Carrianne Leung. Catherine Hernandez wrote Scarborough, and people have been giving some nice attention to that book, and Carrianne Leung is publishing a book with Harper Collins called That Time I Loved You. [An excerpt of That Time I Loved You is included in this supplement—Eds.].

KS: You not only write about Scarborough, but you grew up in Scarborough as well. How has that influenced your writing, or influenced you as a writer?

DC: I guess at first I didn’t understand exactly how it had influenced me as a writer, in that Scarborough, for me, was at times the most uninteresting place you could possibly ever live. Thinking about what I was reading—and that’s an important part of being a writer—I was reading books to escape Scarborough, to not think about that particular place. Only later, I suppose, I began to appreciate and understand that the people I grew up around, the circumstances that I experienced growing up, were worthy of representation and worthy of art. And so only later did I come to the realization that there were complex stories to tell and things to represent in literary form.

KS: Scarborough is the setting of both Brother and your first novel, Soucouyant. What about Scarborough, in particular, makes it a compelling setting for your work?

DC: I think one of the things is that there are many different Scarboroughs. In Soucouyant, the invented neighbourhood, Port Junction, is the “good” part of Scarborough; it’s a very white, middle-class Scarborough of detached homes, kind of quaint or functional two-stories, and manicured lawns. That’s one aspect of Scarborough and in that first novel, I wrote a bit about a particular family of black and brown immigrants and their children, what it is like growing up in that particular Scarborough, in that particular environment in Canada, I guess. And how to think about cultural memory in a broader sense—the access to stories from the Caribbean, stories of indenture, stories of slavery, stories of struggle. That was one story of Scarborough that I was really interested in—how do we represent that particular, often-hidden aspect of Scarborough?

My second novel is set a few blocks away—or it was inspired, I should say, by a neighbourhood quite a few blocks away, but not very far—still southeast Scarborough. And it’s a very different environment: working class, sometimes working poor, visible minorities, many of whom are from the Caribbean. That was the demographic of the ’80s and ’90s, when the novel is set. That story, again, is the same sort of story of resilience and of experiences, difficult experiences, that are carried by characters that are struggling to come to terms with hard experiences, and struggling to figure out how to tell and share those experiences with others.

KS: I’ve been thinking a lot about the representations of suburban spaces that we’re familiar with in literature, and those that that get left out of literary representations. How do you see Scarborough—or the way we talk and write about Scarborough—fitting into the suburban literary landscape?

DC: For me, the most important thing is what suburb we’re picking up. Even just imaginatively, even just in terms of stereotypes. If it’s the US suburb, then that’s a very different thing from the European suburb. And so a kind of stereotype—and really I’m just talking about it, but maybe there’s a degree of social reality behind it—is that the US suburb is a place of . . . the term I’ve heard is “white flight.” Generally, white people migrating out of the cities to neighbourhoods that are sometimes all-but-gated, with this understanding that “only here can we be safe and can we raise our children”—away from the social problems of the inner city.

I’m no expert, but my sense is that one stereotype of the suburbs in the European context, I’m thinking of Paris, is that it’s a bit of the opposite. And I would say that holds . . . certainly in Vancouver, except that there’s a tremendous amount of poverty in the downtown east side. But . . . you can only live in a city if you’re quite wealthy, quite privileged, and people who are recent immigrants, people who are historically disenfranchised, are living at the edges of cities where it’s more affordable and where the complexion of faces is quite different than in the city proper.

What interested me about Scarborough is that they are two different versions of the suburbs.

What interested me about Scarborough is that they are two different versions of the suburbs. One is that suburbs of privilege in which—imaginatively and also spatially—there is a distance from the troubling “them,” the troubling Others who are newcomers, visible minorities, poor, working class. That’s one version of Scarborough, and that was my first novel. In the second novel, it’s the other version of the suburbs, which is comprised of an astonishing diversity of people who have enormous integrity, enormous resilience, but are also facing tremendous troubles and challenges as newcomers, being disenfranchised in various ways.

I do need to say, however, that while I appreciate getting the chance to talk about Scarborough and the broader issue or theme of the suburbs, there’s a sense that I have—even in offering answers to the questions—that the work of producing art doesn’t always line up evenly with the idea of truthfully or adequately representing a social state. There’s always a kind of tension or a sense in which I want—and definitely did writing this book—to be faithful to experiences and social realities. But at the same time, of course, that isn’t always my primary objective as a writer, but to do other things as well.

KS: I was very interested in the distinction, the conscious distinction, between “good” and “bad” neighbourhoods in Brother. There is this really interesting scene where Michael and Francis—who are from a “bad” neighbourhood—have an interaction with an older man from a “good” neighbourhood, and the interaction is quite troubling. In this scene and in others, it feels like the distinction, while very real in the ways in which it impacts these characters, is also somewhat arbitrary. How did you see this distinction working in the novel?

DC: I think that distinction is code for a way of speaking about individuals, so that growing up, and I don’t think it was just me, but notions of a “good” neighbourhood were highly racialized. It was a way of kind of saying what you need to say without actually saying you need to say. That’s, I think, primarily how people in the book are understanding these terms. We know—wink-wink, nudge-nudge—what a “good” neighbourhood looks like. Because we never imagine ourselves to be prejudiced in any way, we can simply get away with using that term and be confident that the people we’re talking with will also understand what that term means. I guess when I invoke it in the novel, it is with a measure of irony; these characters are kind of mimicking or voicing, self-consciously, what is ironic about that term or what it says without explicitly saying.

KS: There’s also this sense of ongoing policing in the novel. There’s the overt interactions between Michael and Francis and law enforcement, and more insidious examples as well: Michael’s manager at Easy Buy has people in the community keep track of Michael; there are neighbours who act as witnesses to what they consider undesirable behaviour. The sense of constantly being watched or policed—even internally, within the community—pervades the novel.

DC: That was very deliberate. If there is a gaze upon these young men and young women of colour—particularly black men, black women, black youth—then I think it’s actually really, really important to recognize that its coming from all kinds of different sources, all of which are representing a kind of racialized gaze and with it a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racialized violence. The boys are feeling that. I would hesitate to describe all of these instances as forms of policing, because I’d like to restrict that term to a specific gaze that emanates from the power of the state and the power of the state to, under certain circumstances, kill. That’s where I would back away from the metaphorization of, for instance, neighbours as also policing. I would say that the neighbours are also kind of internalizing the certain kind of pressures that the boys are feeling and that have real effects, and shopkeepers and ordinary people are looking at these boys in ways different from the way they look at other boys, and all of these have lasting effects. But I would say that policing is a very specific thing, in which it’s the arm of the state—that’s another thing the boys might be facing.

KS: This sense of being watched—whether by law enforcement or by people who know you and are aware of your movements—made the novel feel, in some ways, close-circuited. Michael never leaves home. Francis never leaves. Aisha leaves, but she comes back. This community feels very small and everyone knows each other’s business, but, at the same time, there is this emphasis on opportunity and the implication that opportunities might allow you to transcend the present circumstances. I was interested in the tension between the two in the novel.

DC: Yeah, I’ve heard—and again, I’m no sociologist—specific suburban neighbourhoods are characterized as arrival points. When you are a newcomer to Canada—newcomers of a particular sort: working class, vulnerable, working poor, visible minorities—there are certain neighbourhoods that they can afford, and they’re often neighbourhoods that are characterized by lack of social services, poor housing, this sort of stuff. These places actually become transfer points, where often people land and then, if they can, move away, which is one of the obstacles to building community. I mean, people are constantly landing and then moving away and the kind of long-standing communities where community spirit is based . . . it’s just different.

I think there is a tension, in that Michael sometimes imagines freedom as the ability to get away—I would hope not from Scarborough, but rather from the people that he lives around. It’s a very specific feeling that comes from people young. I mean, it doesn’t matter where we’re from; at some point, I think most youths and young adults want to get away. But Michael has never had that opportunity to go away, even though he’s seen Aisha go away. The other challenge is that Michael is—in loving ways, in ways that demonstrate profound love but also, necessarily, degrees of ambivalence—tied to a grieving mother who is debilitated by her grief, and that’s completely understandable. And so freedom for him looks like freedom from the home. Then it’s further complicated, because the neighbourhood he’s living in is a neighbourhood in which certain negative experiences have happened; in subtle ways, it continues to be wounding to live in that same neighbourhood. The neighbours looking at him in a particular way, knowing that he bears a certain kind of story—even being outright wary of approaching him and his mother, because of the ironic and bitter stigma attached to their loss.

There is a push-pull: imagining freedom as getting away, but learning that precious thing of being able to tell a story and have others sympathetically share the story and depending on people coming back to the scene.

It felt fair to have Michael imagining freedom as the freedom to move away. Ultimately, the novel suggests that, if not freedom, then the context in which the stories of the past can be voiced and heard depends on people remaining in or returning to Scarborough. And so there’s the return of Aisha and the return of Jelly; people who never directly experienced the trauma—the youths and artists and activists—congregate in this space. They inhabit the scene and Scarborough. I think there is a push-pull: imagining freedom as getting away, but learning that precious thing of being able to tell a story and have others sympathetically share the story and depending on people coming back to the scene.

KS: There are different kinds of dangers or threats present in Brother. Early on, Michael talks about the more recognizable dangers that are “gangs” and “predators,” and then the more insidious dangers, which are the lack of opportunities for residents of The Park. There’s a beautiful line where Michael talks about, “A mother lecturing you about arrival and opportunity while her breath stinks of the tooth she can’t just for the moment afford the time or money to fix.” On the one hand, overt violence plays a dramatic role in the novel, but I’m interested in the ways in which that secondary threat, recognized by Michael, contains its own tragedy. Just as there are different kinds of danger in the novel, it feels like there are different kinds of tragedies, too.

DC: I think that may be, for me, one of the most important things to represent in the novel. Because growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Scarborough had a reputation for danger and crime and this sort of stuff. And again, I think sociologists could easily demonstrate how it was so deeply racialized. It was not that these were just realities about Scarborough, but it was also about how people talked about real racialized communities. And then you can also talk about opportunity and despair caused by all kinds of factors: poverty, racism, misogyny, the ways in which women—and I’m thinking of mothers—face special challenges in finding employment.

In writing a novel about particular neighborhoods in Scarborough, I was aware of this discourse of threat and violence and crime and social deviance and danger—and that’s of course what people of the “good” parts of Scarborough are all so worried about; that’s what people in other parts of metropolitan Toronto would fear and maybe themselves promulgate in certain ways. But I think one of the great things about art—I might even say art from the Caribbean, Black art—is that it situates that discourse in a deeper historical awareness. So that the threat is the deeper threat of history and the way history continues to throw its shadow over particular people. If you think the problem is simply about guns and gangs, divorced from the context in which people live their lives and the ways in which people are made to feel about themselves, then you’ve missed the point. But the boys themselves know that. They know it to different degrees, but I think it’s important to represent how the boys could have access to that understanding.

KS: We’ve talked a little bit about Catherine Hernandez and Carrianne Leung and their books, which both represent Scarborough in different ways. There’s so much amazing work and so many amazing artists coming out of Scarborough right now. What do you think it might say about how the literary community is thinking about Scarborough?

DC: I think there’s an interesting trajectory in literature, in that I imagine some older Canadian authors—prominent Canadian authors—were told by their international publishers or whatnot not to set their books in Canada, because its not a space that would resonate. As soon as there’s a bit of geographical pollution of Canada, then it won’t resonate with the people that matter, i.e. people in the US or the UK. And yet people did it, and then people were probably told the same thing about the city of Toronto: “Don’t make it about Toronto or Montreal, because that will limit the ways in which the work resonates.” But people did that, too. And I guess that’s one way of looking at it—people now are setting their stories not simply in Toronto, but very specifically in Scarborough, in specific neighborhoods in Scarborough. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

I do think there’s still a double standard around how and when people are cautioned against setting their books in specific locales. So much of the great—or what is understood to be great—literature comes from very specific locales that are not interesting in and of themselves. Like what is interesting about Alice Munro country, really? And they like the work of Alice Munro, but there’s nothing inherently interesting about the spaces that she represents, at least not to me. What she does is—for some readers—make those spaces interesting. I think that’s what some really talented Scarborough writers—and you’ve mentioned two of them—are doing. They have the courage to write about those spaces that their imaginations turn to, those spaces that they know, those spaces that they think ought to be represented more accurately or more beautifully or with an eye to their strangeness. And I just think that’s a really great thing; it’s one of the most important forms of bravery in writing that newer authors are demonstrating.