You have to wonder what this year's Governor-General's Literary Awards shortlist would have looked like, had David Chariandy's parents listened to a guidance counsellor in Scarborough, Ont., almost 25 years ago.
As the young Chariandy prepared to enter high school, it was recommended that he attend technical school instead, learn a trade.
"I don't think he has what it takes," Chariandy remembers the guidance counsellor saying.
That was fine with the Chariandys, fairly recent immigrants who thought it would be great for their son to get practical training that would lead to a good, steady job. But the plan was called off when a more astute guidance counsellor, who bothered to check young David's records, discovered he had above-average math skills and was reading at a level several grades above his own.
Chariandy, 38, now teaches English at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and his debut book, Soucouyant, is nominated for the Governor-General's Award. It also made the Giller Prize long list.
The accolades have stunned the first-time novelist. He calls Soucouyant an intensely personal story, a book he never expected would attract a wide audience. "It was a personal meditation," he says. He figured it would sell 100 copies at best - mostly to family, friends and some fellow writers. And he was fine with that. But then came the Giller and G-G nods. "It's been truly, truly overwhelming," he says. "I never ever ever would have predicted any of this."
Soucouyant is the story of an immigrant family from Trinidad, living in "a good part of Scarborough" where they are among the very few people of colour. Mother has dementia and her two sons have left. The story begins when one of them, the younger son, comes back.
The family, in many ways, mimics Chariandy's own. His parents are from Trinidad, his father worked in factories, his mother worked as a nanny.
He has one brother. Many of the events in the story are based on things that happened to his family: He and his brother were taunted by racist schoolmates; his parents' apartment was robbed and vandalized in what today would have been considered a hate crime; his mother was denied a seat at a pie shop because of her skin colour; his grandmother told him a story about a soucouyant - an evil spirit in Caribbean lore. There is one main difference between story and life: Chariandy's mother doesn't suffer from dementia (but a great-aunt did).
Soucouyant was first written as a short story 12 years ago, when Chariandy was a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Chariandy wanted to write poetry and fiction, but says he lacked the courage to do so - so he pursued a career in academia instead. His short story was published in the student newspaper, The Charlatan. "That's how I felt as a writer," he says.
Chariandy still appears to be afflicted with imposter syndrome. He can't believe his novel has done so well, that there is so much interest in the book - and in him as a writer. He floats into a Granville Island coffee shop, on air, because he's just heard from yet another publishing house - the biggest one yet - that wants to sign him.
(A week or two later, McClelland & Stewart bought the rights to his second novel, now in the works, and a planned third book.) There is an air of disbelief about him. He struggles with the potential impact of this kind of recognition, this kind of deal. What will it mean to him as a writer, a professor, a person?
It is rather refreshing, this glee. It is easy to imagine the high-school David being told by a guidance counsellor: You can be something more. He still can't quite believe his good fortune. He gets to read and write for a living.
Chariandy figures this feeling of disbelief at his own achievements and talents is partially the legacy of his child-of-immigrants background. He did not grow up with any sort of sense of entitlement. He could never have imagined having well-regarded publishing houses courting him. "It's both wonderfully surprising and also it seems so bizarre," he says. "I hope it won't paralyze me."
That seems unlikely; Chariandy isn't one to sit still. He began writing his novel five years ago, "moonlighting" as he says, while starting his career as an assistant professor at SFU. He wrote in the evenings, on weekends, whenever he could find an hour or two to spare. In the meantime, he started a family (he has a child who's almost 4, and another one who is seven months old). He's been busy.
Now, he's formulating ideas for his next novel. He'd like to write about the relationship between a man charged with murder and his younger brother, an effeminate, aspiring poet. He is fascinated by the emphasis placed on masculinity by young, black males. Brother, he'd like to call it.
For a guy who should be in major self-congratulatory mode, Chariandy is intensely hard on himself. When he heard Soucouyant was going into second printing, he was thrilled - not because the development reflected the book's success, but because he saw it as an opportunity to do yet another rewrite (he completed about 15 drafts of the novel). His publisher, Arsenal, dissuaded him from doing so.
Chariandy is also consumed with self-doubt over his portrayal of his characters' handling of the racism they face. While it is an accurate reflection of what happened at his school, where he and others quietly accepted the racist taunting and did not fight back, Chariandy feels a desire to rewrite history, to make his characters stand up to their tormentors and show them what's what. Chariandy the boy didn't do that; Chariandy the adult feels he had a chance to make things right with his writing - and didn't.
"At the end of the novel, having written that story and not the story of clearly combatting the wrongs, I had this real crisis and I thought, what have I done?" he says. "I finished it, thinking have I released harm into the world by writing this novel [with]the type of character I portrayed?" Chariandy is still questioning his decision to go with truth over triumphant historical revision.
While Chariandy beats himself up, his parents burst with pride. They sacrificed everything for him, and it is paying off. "They tell me this now," Chariandy says of his trip up to university. "They dropped me off in Ottawa and they were driving back and saying, 'How are we going to do this? We don't have the money to do this.' " They went to church to pray for a miracle, so they could pay for their son's education. They got their miracle - in the form of extra jobs.
Soucouyant has been a great reward for them - but also a surprise. They read the book and were shocked to find their own personal history reflected in the novel. They forgot that they had shared these stories with their son. "Both of them came up to me and said 'how did you know this?' " Chariandy says.
He marvels at the irony, at the real-life mirroring of one of the major themes in the novel: Not only is the story about memory and loss of memory, it's also about how much children absorb from their parents' experiences, and the ways in which those experiences seep through to the next generation.
Chariandy has been able to retell these stories in a way that has impressed readers and literary judges. For someone who says he lacked the courage to be a writer when he was young, it is a wonderful twist of an ending; it is a new beginning.
The Governor-General's Literary Awards will be presented in Montreal on Nov. 27.