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Forgotten Son: David Chariandy on 'Soucouyant'

Recent fame and Wiki-anemia.

By Charles Demers 17 Oct 2007 |

Charles Demers is a regular Tyee contributor and comedian.

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On memory, dementia, race and family.
  • Soucouyant
  • David Chariandy
  • Arsenal Pulp Press (2007)

Before this author profile begins, let's get one thing out of the way. One of the favoured pastimes of the self-styled cultural vanguard is to claim a space on the "ground-floor" of a particular artistic sensation; it's the logic whereby, to take an example, the cognoscenti who loved Feist before the Lacoste commercial are cooler than those who dug her afterwards (though the latter group is still hipper than the bougie suburban followers who discovered her via the Feist iPod ad).

But for all its cachet, the ground floor is ill-defined, which is why I'm now proposing what I consider to be fair grounds, in these digital times, for claiming you've been in it from the get-go: If you were a fan before the band/painter/director/author in question had a Wikipedia entry devoted to them, then you were essentially there from the start. Fair, no?

Let's hope so, because if you get through this article fast enough then, by my new golden standard, you will have known about David Chariandy -- the author of Soucouyant, a novel from Vancouver's Arsenal Pulp Press -- right from the beginning. And that way a year from now, when he's a household name, you can roll your eyes at the latest bandwagon jumper and reminisce about how "Chariandy moved me to tears way back when...." Of course, I'll have an even better story -- I'll be able to say that I reviewed him way back when he used to earnestly sign e-mails to his interviewer, "Thank you so much ... for taking my work seriously." As though I had any kind of choice.

Full disclosure: Chariandy and I have been friends for a little over a year. And given his dedication to history, and to independent black media, it seems appropriate that I first met him when he was the external advisor on my friend's history thesis defense, a study of Freedomways, a progressive black periodical stateside. I was immediately drawn to him because -- despite being a professor of English (at Simon Fraser University), rather than History -- his excitement about my friend's historical study was palpable. And now, that historiographical bent permeates every chapter of his novel.

Soucouyant is about memory and dislocation, class, race and family. Set against the Scarborough bluffs outside Toronto, the story follows a son's return to care for his immigrant mother, Adele, who has long suffered from dementia (Chariandy captures the terrible cadence of this illness so well that after reading Soucouyant before bed one night I had dreams about my grandmother). While Adele's loss of her faculties seems at first glance to signal the family's definitive fissure from it's own past, we come to see that these are people with deeps roots in deracination, as well as in an intergenerational strife tempered by affection and need.

Despite his current Wiki-anemia, Chariandy's name does come up in the Wikipedia entry for Commodore Books (the first and only black-owned press in Western Canada, of which Chariandy is one of three founders); the one about Wayde Compton (the most important B.C. poet of his generation and Chariandy's publishing partner, along with Karina Vernon, at Commodore Books); and the one on the Giller Prize (for which Soucouyant was longlisted, an Arsenal Pulp first). As of yesterday morning, Chariandy was also the only Arsenal author ever to garner a Governor General's award nomination.

What follows are excerpts from our recent e-mail conversation about memory, forgetting and Vancouver.

On unbecoming

"Soucouyant began with my personal effort to imagine a woman suffering with pre-senile dementia; and I should state here that the dementia itself, as a medical condition, awed, terrified, and humbled me in ways that I still find difficult to express. I have developed such enormous respect for those who experience or have to witness, in intimate terms, this particularly devastating process of unbecoming.

"But dementia also became, for me, a way to explore the fragility of cultural memory, and how difficult it can be for us to know the past. The main themes and style of my novel reflects all of this. Soucouyant is about a mother who is forgetting the past, and her son who finds himself rather reluctantly piecing it all together. As such, the novel progresses in a non-linear and associative fashion -- through seemingly random evocations of feeling, touch, memory and official history. Admittedly, this is a risky way of structuring a novel; but to structure it differently would likely have missed the point entirely."

On how the past is up for grabs

"I believe that one of the most urgent responsibilities of the writer today is not simply in connecting people with their pasts, but in foregrounding the very struggle for the past itself. This is not to suggest that the past is entirely up for grabs, that historical events can be dismissed or else dreamt up out of thin air. But we do, I think, have an urgent responsibility to rethink what the past means, to read 'history' more carefully or 'against the grain,' and to attend, most rigorously, to what may have been omitted from official records -- oftentimes very deliberately by those who stand to benefit from such amnesia.

"I was interested not only in establishing a connection with the past, but in foregrounding the oftentimes very difficult process of establishing that connection, particularly for historically disenfranchised peoples."

On Vancouver

"I feel a very strong connection to Anne Stone's work, and particularly to Delible, an enormously moving and intelligent novel about loss and our efforts to imagine the missing. And it's indeed very interesting to note, in retrospect, that both of our novels set in Ontario have emerged from our lives in Vancouver. I myself have benefited so deeply from a whole community of writers and critics who live here. And I've also been inspired (and, indeed, at times rather daunted) by Vancouver's legacy of producing formally and politically challenging art of all sorts."

On all the attention

"I felt very surprised and pleased to receive both honours [the Giller prize nomination and inclusion in the Vancouver International Writer's Festival, as well as the GG shortlisting, which was just announced today, and is another first for Arsenal). As I've explained elsewhere, I did work very hard on my novel for several years, and whatever one may think of the final form, it didn't emerge accidentally. Nevertheless, I assumed, for several reasons, that few readers would be willing to open my book or else take me seriously, and I honestly was OK with that. Now, of course, I've received much more attention than I ever anticipated, and I'd be lying if I pretended that it wasn't very encouraging. More than anything else, I want to continue working as a writer."

David Chariandy will be appearing at the Vancouver International Writers' and Readers' Festival on Thursday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m. at "Gawk" (along with Jenn Farrell, Catherine Kidd, Jen Sookfong Lee, Brendan McLeod, Steven Price, Nick Thran and Andrew Wedderburn) and again on Friday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. at "The Fresh Face of Fiction" (along with Jen Sookfong Lee, Ameen Merchant and Neil Smith).