an inside look at an outsider | OUTVisions for LGBT Professionals

an inside look at an outsider

writing has always been Shani Mootoo’s first passion

an inside look at an outsider
melinda cheevers

While she’s had success as a painter and earned acclaim for her video art installations, when she was a child she dreamed of being an author when she grew up. She would write all the time, jotting down notes and phrases, crafting her own poems. At the age of 10, her craft drew the attention of her parents.

“I wrote something that got me in good trouble with my parents,” she recalls.

It was a poem and the last few lines didn’t sit well with her Trinidadian parents.

“Man loves man. Man loves woman. Woman loves woman.”

Mootoo says at the time, she was excited about the idea of there being so much love in the world and the idea that anyone could love anybody. The idea of heterosexual coupling wasn’t yet a concept in her mind and proud of her work, she showed her parents.

“They called me into their room and said we needed to talk… I was very young and didn’t know what the problem was,” she says. “It wouldn’t be the first time my words got me in trouble.” 
After that incident, Mootoo stopped writing, putting away her words and turning to her other passion instead: painting.

With her painting, she could be more ambiguous about her themes, changing the focus depending on whom she was talking to, she says. It was a safer way for her to express herself. However, after being approached by one of her mentors about a dark presence in her work, Mootoo again turned to writing, this time as a way of confronting her feelings. As she began to work through her thoughts, a friend showed her writing to a small publishing house and they later contacted Mootoo about publishing her work.

“I told them I wasn’t a writer, I was a painter,” she says, but in the end she decided to give it a try. For her, it was a way to challenge herself and fulfill a childhood dream of being an author. While she started out doing it on a whim, Mootoo quickly rediscovered her love of the craft. With words, she could finally express all of those things she had been masking in her artwork.

“I was shocked at how much one could work words… I had stopped writing because I found it said too much, and I started painting because it was more ambiguous,” she says. “With writing, that’s not the case and I found the very thing I had been running away from was now so appealing. In my work with language, I could become as unequivocal and unambiguous as possible.”

In her first book, a collection of short stories entitled Out on Main Street, Mootoo says she was painting pictures with her words. After that came out, she began to delve deeper into the craft. Her second book, her first full-length novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, made a big splash on the literary scene, landing on the shortlist for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 1997 and the long list for the Man Booker Prize.

It was a tale of  trauma, madness and redemption, exploring the legacies of abuse and it all started as a single vignette, big enough to fill the back of a postcard. Mootoo had written a description of an elderly woman, with matted down hair, standing over a pot of boiling snails. 
“I wanted to explore it further,” she recalls. “I wanted to find out who that woman was and tell her story.”

Mootoo often finds inspiration in a single character, building the world up around them for her novels. Her 2014 release, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, started in her mind as an image of a man walking in the snow and she set out to write about that journey. The novel she is working on now was inspired by a man working in an orchid garden house she visited while at a writers’ retreat. While she knows nothing about the man other than information she gleaned from a short conversation in the gardens, her curiosity was piqued enough to want to write her own backstory for the man, to create her own character based on him.

Born in Dublin, raised in Trinidad before moving to Canada in her early 20s, Mootoo is intimately familiar with the idea of being an outsider. Not only did she experience that as an immigrant, but she says growing up a lesbian in a tight-knit conservative family, she has always felt like an outsider.

“It’s a bizarre sensation, growing up in a close-knit family that you are very, very much a part of, but at the same time knowing you are not like them, and then to also realize that they know it, too,” she says.

Mootoo draws on that outsider experience for many of her novels. It’s a theme that really resonates with many others within the LGTB community and immigrants as well. She’s also found a large audience in straight white people, something she admits was surprising to her at first.

“I have so many straight people come to me, at readings or signings, and say they didn’t understand it before,” she said, noting often times they’re referring to a sibling, family member or friend who had come out as gay, lesbian or transitioning and they had a hard time understanding what that was like for them. “Now, they said they understood it a bit more.” 

Now living in the country, outside of Toronto, she has returned to painting and is spending most of her time now writing and painting. She has also found great joy in teaching and sharing her knowledge of the craft with others.




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Authormelinda cheevers

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