Published in 1993. This Edition: Raincoast Books, 2002.
Out on Main Street, the first short fiction publication of Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian writer Shani Mootoo, is a collection of nine stories with origins that are both Caribbean and Canadian, diasporic and contintental, here and there. Work like this represents nothing so much as it does a bridge, symbolizing, representing and contextualizing histories and customs only guessed-at or generalized. Mootoo’s epigraph (unattributed, presumably her own quotation) to the collection admonishes gently against the broad sweep of nostalgic generalization:
Which of us, here, can possibly know the intimacies of each other’s cupboards “back-home”, or in which hard-to-reach corners dust balls used to collect?
One’s interpretation of fact is another’s fiction, and one’s fiction is someone else’s bafflement.
There is no apparent taint of pomposity in Mootoo’s prose… no setting forth of her fiction as canonical or authoritative on any section of the Indo-Trinidadian diasporic experience. Perhaps she is writing strongly from remembrance, as do many Caribbean writers no longer living in the Caribbean. It seems more likely that her remembrances of Trinidadian rituals, customs and rites, specifically those pertinent to religious and cultural Indo-Trinidadian minutiae, are infused with the startling (though not unwelcome) presence and immediacy of Canada.
The narrator of Mootoo’s titular tale speaks straight from the Trinidadian streets. Her language is familiar, her manner inviting, her story foreign, but she, you feel instinctively, is someone you know. She might be the person whose presence you loathe, crushed against her chest in stifling City Gate crowds—and yet to overhear her tale in a crowded Vancouver bar might induce comfort, a sense of place and easy familiarity you do not reject, despite your homegrown aversions.
The unnamed narrator is simultaneously uncomfortable and fiercely protective of her brownness. She parries encounters with ‘legitimate’ Indians from India, hostilely, but not without cost to her shakily complex characterization of herself. It is confusion that she seems intent on avoiding, as she bitterly comments to her aesthetically feminine girlfriend, Janet.
“Yuh know, one time a fella from India who living up here call me a bastardized Indian because I didn’t know Hindi. And now look at dis, nah! De thing is: all a we in Trinidad is cultural bastards, Janet, all a we. Toutes bagailles! Chinese people, Black people, White people. Syrian. Lebanese. I looking forward to de day I find out dat place inside me where I am nothing else but Trinidadian, whatever dat could turn out to be.”
Janet’s lover is simultaneously proud and wary of her crew-cut, non-heteronormative status, of her implicit possessiveness over her prettier mate who catches the attention of men, when she does not. Mootoo stands the Trinidadian-Canadian pair apart from the more obvious, militantly open couple of Sandy and Lise, who wear their “blatant penchant fuh women” as comfortably as they do their Birkenstocks. In a society that is, by comparison, thought to be far more sexually progressive than that of the Caribbean islands, it remains no less tricky for the narrator and Janet to navigate access routes to being free and comfortable in their brown, queer identity.
The other stories of Out on Main Street are no less concerned with the sometimes-rewarding, sometimes-damning navigation toward finding reliable pieces of oneself. In “Sushila’s Bhakti”, the titular character, a Trinidadian-Canadian artist who struggles with her skewered self-perception as “a goodBrahmingirl”, seeks out a path to prayer that does not contradict her unwillingness to bow before a patriarchal, omnipotent God. Sushila wrestles with the notion of where she really comes from, the precise marker by which she might measure the authenticity of her origins.
“I want to connect with my point of origin. Not the point of origin as in “Who-made-me-God-made-me,” nor the point at which we are said to have flipped over from animal to human, but rather the origin of Indian-ness. … What is my point of origin? How far back do I need to go to feel properly rooted?”
Sushila uses saffron for her art, colouring her hands deep orange, obliterating traces of white or pink from her fingernails. She claims the art of mehendi from its unused place in her early Trinidadian memories, channels it into her work, imbues her canvas with purpose until, exultantly, she begins to see herself in the work. Her saffron-mehendi creations feel far more organically connected to her than her pitiable attempts to fuse herself to a Canadian artistic identity through attempted landscapes and still life. Mootoo seems to be advocating using the tools of a multi-cultural identity to transcend the need to be rigidly defined. The message is implicit: that the search can be its own reward, and that it can be devoid of heartache. Ultimately, Sushila realizes that her identity need not conform to any documented or storied history—that it only need be her story.
In these stories live women who adore women, uncertainly but helplessly. There are wives who love and fear their somnolent husbands, and stir in the dark while their men snore, coaxing mysteries from the earth. There are terrified girlfriends who learn exactly on which side of abuse lies vengeance. There are families who honour and hurt each other as best they can.
In the swirl of diaspora, where Hindi alphabets meld into modern art galleries, there are stories in this collection that read like home.