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Author Shani Mootoo on struggling with the classics: ‘You don’t have to read it’

Author Shani Mootoo

Born in Dublin, raised in Trinidad, novelist Shani Mootoo now calls Canada home. She has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Her newest novel is Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab.

Why did you write your new book?

The reason for writing it changed with each new draft. At first, I found myself expanding on one small scene, because I love making pictures with words. Soon there was a man in his 40s, and one of his parents, a woman who'd changed her gender and who was, in the present time of the novel, on his deathbed. The book finally came together because I wanted to know what the relationship between my protagonist and his parent would be. As always, my characters took on lives of their own, and I was curious to see if love, compassion and loyalty would prevail.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

I am particularly drawn to J.M. Coetzee. Within a single sentence, word by word, a picture unfolds, like a map being opened out, on which eventually appears an entire story of

society. Coetzee arranges words to form poetic sentences, the meaning in them all the more terrifying and powerful for

that. I am drawn to Proust and Virginia Woolf because you don't know what will come next. And I adore Earl Lovelace for the urgent beat and Garcia Marquez for the rambling rhythms, colour and density in each of their fantastical utterances. This list is partial, of course.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

The best writing advice was from Vidya Naipaul. I've extrapolated the advice from a curmudgeonly rant that I won't get into here, but the gist goes like this: make a leap as a writer by writing outside of the familiar, beyond personal experience. Such advice goes against the common teaching that one should write what one knows, but is in keeping with my own sense that a good novel uncovers questions, explores possible answers and isn't necessarily uncomfortable with ones that are inconclusive.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

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Somehow I don't think living in another time would have been fun for me. It's hard to imagine a scenario when and where, in order to survive happily, I could move about as I am. So many periods had rigid social rules, and if you weren't one of the lords, you would have been a serf, or at the least at the mercy of someone in power. I can't imagine being a ruler of have-nots, or being subservient and oppressed. I am happy to be right here, now, doing what I can to make a difference, and taking pleasure in all that has been fought for by so many throughout history. And I can't wait to see what is going to happen…tomorrow.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

The pebble in the question is "and then forgotten." Had this not been a caveat, I'd have said – why do I have to choose? Why not be successful during my lifetime and legendary after death? Choosing one, rather than inviting both, seems to tempt the joker gods. But that pesky clause – do you mind taking it out, please?

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Midnight's Children. It has always seemed too self-conscious, over-written, smart-alecky even. I'd tried on and off for 10 years to read it. It was on my bedside table that long. Then a friend said, "Just give it up, Shani. You don't have to read it." I don't have to read Midnight's Children? It was terribly liberating.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Characters that are interesting tend to be immensely flawed or troubled. But there's one character I admire, and envy: Moby-Dick, the whale. Moby-Dick's character is built slowly throughout the novel, and by contrast, so is the horror of whaling and of Ahab. By the time we actually meet Moby-Dick we know of his qualities and are rooting for him. He is grander than anything. Everything and everyone else is diminished. Best of all, barbs don't seem to have slowed him down one bit!

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?


What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask).

What in your life creates an atmosphere conducive to writing?

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