Conflict in conservative society

Shani Mootoo crafts a luscious novel set in Trinidad

Shani Mootoo’s newest novel Valmiki’s Daughter starts slowly but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a detailed rich description of San Fernando in Trinidad. I wondered why I should care about all the details — until she brought me right down to the centre of the story ensuring the surroundings descend upon the tormented characters. It is sensual and it is humid.

But the rich setting doesn’t define this story of repressed sexual identity. “It’s so funny because people often think of the tropics as a place where sexuality sort of runs as rampant as the vines in the trees and the vegetation and so on” Mootoo says from Toronto. “I don’t know I think there’s a general repressed sexuality all around even here in spite of the amount of attention paid to sex especially amongst young people. I think there’s still something repressed about it and that’s why it’s such an issue.”

The story follows Valmiki a successful doctor who hides his homosexuality from his wife family and friends. And of course there’s Valmiki’s daugher Viveka herself struggling with sexual identity in a small conservative country.

What’s striking about this book is the level of engagement with each character. There is no chafe everyone brings something to the table driving the story forward. “I feel that even the character with the smallest part in any work really should be strong and I like strong characters” says Mootoo. “I don’t see that they need to compete with each other but they need to bring something…. They’re there for a really good reason.”

Mootoo was born in Trinidad but has called Canada home for the last 15 years. The setting of the novel in her homeland is more a question of the ease of understanding rather than a steamy setting for a book about sexuality. “I don’t know but I find it hard here. There’s so many pockets of difference here that it’s really hard to say any one thing about Canada and have it be a statement for all of Canada” she says.

Mootoo writes to understand the world around her and feels physically compelled to express her ideas. Reading Valmiki’s Daughter it would appear that she has done an incredible job of achieving just that but it has left her unsatisfied. “I’m afraid you’ll see this book again in another form. When I’m writing it I feel as if ‘Yes! That’s exactly what I want to say.’ Then afterwards I realize that’s only such a small part of the whole story. I just got a small part of it and there’s so much more that I want to say but you kind of have to be selective of course” she says.

Just as in her other novels Valmiki’s Daughter leaves the reader without a rudder at the end. We are left to determine whether things will work out or not. Is it hopeful? Is there a happy life to come?

“I don’t like the feeling of the need for something to be wrapped up and understood fully” says Mootoo.

“There are small hopes. I suppose you could use that phrase that there’s a glimmer of hope but they’re small hopes.”

She pauses for a moment before coming to a realization. “I guess I’m not the most optimistic.”