Community & Current Events

Interview with author David Chariandy

Photo by Glen Lowry Image by: Photo by Glen Lowry Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Interview with author David Chariandy

The Canadian Living Book Club pick for March 2008 is Soucouyant by David Chariandy. We spoke with the author about his experience with dementia, the value of history and memory and the nature of being Canadian.

Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for this novel?

David Chariandy:
My grand-aunt suffered from dementia during the last few years of her life. She had been a sharp and fiercely independent person in earlier times, and I watched her decline, her relentless unbecoming, with enormous sadness, but also with something akin to awe or wonder. Even in the latest stage of her condition, my grand-aunt would occasionally remember details of her upbringing in Trinidad, although she was now living in Canada. She would utter the lyrics of a pre-WW2 calypso, or the names of people who had attended a party, or even some embarrassing detail about a relative’s life that she normally wouldn’t have revealed.

The irony was that my grand-aunt was both forgetting and remembering. She was forgetting how to perform the most ordinary of daily tasks; but she was also remembering, sometimes in astonishing detail, an "elsewhere past" that was both fascinating and mysterious to me, particularly as someone who had been born and wholly raised in Canada. My grand-aunt’s passing forced me to confront not only the sorrow one feels for the death of a loved one, but also the responsibility one might feel towards another’s personal memories. What, if anything, do we owe to the memories of others? This question seemed especially acute to me because I wasn’t sure if I could properly decipher my grand-aunt’s memories, or if, in the end, they were truly relevant to me. I wasn’t even sure if some of my grand-aunt’s memories might, in fact, be best forgotten.

I don’t think that the situation that I faced is at all unique. I’ve always felt profoundly humbled when I’ve heard stories about the courage and fortitude and everyday creativity of those who have cared for a loved one afflicted with dementia. (And I should admit, right now, that my aunt and parents were my grand-aunt’s primary caregivers, not me.) Also, I know that many children of immigrants have wondered about the relevance or even plain meaning of their own "elsewhere pasts," and what, if anything, they might owe to the cultural legacies or historical experiences of their ancestors. I guess Soucouyant was my own very personal effort to address these concerns, although I’ve always known that my goal was not to settle these matters, but to dramatize just how difficult it is to arrive at any clear answers in the midst of the complexities of our everyday lives. I also wanted a good part of my novel to be about the relationship between immigrant mothers and their sons, and so I decided to represent the main relationship in the novel as that between a Caribbean-born mother with dementia and her Canadian-born son.

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CL: What is a soucouyant and what is its significance as the title?

DC:
A soucouyant is a vampire-like spirit in the folklore of certain islands in the Caribbean, particularly, in this case, of Trinidad. A soucouyant is female. She sometimes disguises herself in the skin of an old woman, but she sheds this in the night to fly as a ball of fire in the air, and to suck the blood of her victims while they sleep. They say that if you awake with a tired feeling and a strange bruise upon your skin, you might have been visited by a soucouyant.

In my novel, the mother reports that she saw a soucouyant, but the meaning of this event or story is only revealed gradually and perhaps never with absolute clarity. For the most part, the soucouyant functions as a symbol of the pasts that each of the main characters have struggled to forget – pasts that continue to haunt these characters in shadowy or spectral forms. Also, a soucouyant, from the son’s perspective at least, is a word that is simultaneously familiar and strange. It’s a word, among many, that the son has heard his mother utter throughout his life, but that he doesn’t completely understand; and his relationship to his cultural history is similarly doubled or ironic. (I should perhaps confess that my own parents oftentimes remind me that I myself don’t always pronounce the word "soucouyant" properly -- with the ‘t’ at the end of the word left silent.)

CL: How did you do your research into dementia?

DC:
I absorbed a great deal from watching my grand-aunt and talking with my aunt and parents. I also read a great many books on various forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s. Finally, I asked a specialist to read over my novel to make sure that circumstances depicted were at least plausible.

CL: Typically, patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's are older than Adele and have older children to care for them. What is the significance of the son in your novel being too young to take responsibility?

DC:
It’s true that Adele’s is a rather unusual case of pre-senile dementia, as a medical specialist in the novel explicitly points out. Here, I took a bit of poetic license because I wanted to tell a story not only about someone with dementia, but also about the ways in which youths deal with their parent’s cultural pasts. I also felt that a youth might be more prone to committing the obviously very shocking act of abandoning one’s mother in such a condition – although I should point out that the main character in the novel does this in a state of genuine despair, and only after he tries to convince himself (perhaps half-heartedly) that he has provided for her wellbeing in some way. The novel begins with his return home and his effort to make amends and to reveal the terms of his initial flight.

CL: What is the role of history, and especially the history of immigrants to Canada, in your novel?

DC:
History is such a fiendishly complex term; but I’ve always felt that it suggests a story of the past that has become officially sanctioned and endorsed, a story rendered in institutionally acceptable forms and language. History, of course, is tremendously important to write, study, and preserve; however, I suppose I’m more interested in the question of memory, rather than of history, in my novel. Memory suggests to me those stories of the past that haven’t found official or institutional endorsement, but which may exist, nevertheless, in the minds or voices of those whom we don’t always consult when we go about writing or studying history. Memory also suggests to me its own peculiar language and narrative forms. We know the typical "style" of history – the clear or transparent language of facts and events that we oftentimes encounter in schools. But we also know that the "style" of memory is oftentimes very different, and sometimes very difficult. Memories rarely abide by the rules of linear storytelling. Memories are often vague and uncanny and triggered by obscure experiences, symbols, or words. In my opinion, a novel of memory would have to structure itself appropriately and take risks with plot and language in order to adequately evoke the dynamics involved.

Page 2 of 3CL: Where do you find your characters?

DC:
I guess I find them in everyday life, but I’m honestly not sure. Certainly, the main characters in Soucouyant are close to me in terms of their personal experiences. Nevertheless, I like approaching character as a problem or question, rather than as something based on a clear answer or identity (if that makes any sense). I guess I like discovering my characters as I write. Also, I really like it when a character does something completely "out of character," leaving me with the task of trying to explain why or how he or she ever managed to do such a thing.

CL: What, if anything, do you think makes Soucouyant Canadian?
 
DC:
That’s a really interesting question. I guess that all depends on what we mean by "Canadian," or "a Canadian novel." I was born and raised entirely in Canada. Also, most of my novel is set in Canada. The narrator and the other main character of his age, Meera, were both born and raised in Canada; and even a good half of the mother’s stories have to do with her experiences in Canada as a new immigrant in the early sixties. At the same time, I’ll admit that the novel does have a title that not every Canadian is going to recognize. I suppose that I could have tried to title the novel something "neutral" such as The Well of Forgetting, but, happily, I didn’t do this – partly, I must confess, because my extremely wise publisher, Brian Lam, urged me to stick to my original vision for the title. I’m not an authority on Caribbean culture per se, but the "Caribbean-ness" of my novel was deeply important to me, and I needed to mark this in some clear way. Maybe my novel is fully Canadian and Caribbean, but in ways that all of us haven’t quite yet been able to recognize.

CL: If you were organizing a book club meeting about Soucouyant, what would you ask people to discuss?

DC:
That’s a really tough question. I teach literature, and I’m normally used to formulating questions about books, but I find this difficult to do with respect to my own writing. I’ve always wondered if authors are truly in the best position to interpret or guide discussions on their own work. Nevertheless, I’m genuinely intrigued about the question of whether or not Soucouyant is a Canadian novel, and what any answer to this question might imply about our individual understandings of Canada and its culture(s). I guess another discussions could take shape around the various issues that I’ve tried to represent: history and memory; the psychological toll of dementia on families and caregivers; the relationships between immigrant parents and their sons or daughters; the legacies and ongoing realities of colonialism and of bigotry; the ways we interpret or misinterpret monsters and monstrous acts. Also, I’m one of those writers who are very invested not only in what a story represents, but precisely how it represents something -- and so I’m usually quite eager to talk about the specific formal or stylistic choices that a particular writer makes.

I guess I’d like to end by stating how deeply honoured but also surprised I am that my first book is being read at all. And that it’s being read by people with very different backgrounds and interests is perhaps the biggest surprise of all. After all, Soucouyant arose out of concerns that I assumed were highly personal and obscure. It’s so nice to find a little bit of unexpected company.

Buy this book online
Read an excerpt from Soucouyant

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Interview with author David Chariandy

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