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Shani Mootoo explores identity with 'Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab'

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TORONTO - Celebrated Canadian writer Shani Mootoo says she always knew she would leave her native Trinidad.

An aspiring artist from a young age, the island didn't offer the higher levels of classes she knew she would need to take to pursue her career goal. Then as she grew older, she didn't see herself being reflected in the country, feeling that as a woman she "was maybe too adventurous, too curious to be happy in a place like Trinidad."

"Then of course as I began to come out as lesbian, I realized I would have to live an incredibly closeted life," she said in a recent interview at the offices of Random House of Canada.

"When I came here to Canada, this was like 30 years ago, it's not as if I stepped into a new country where I could be free. There were a lot of struggles, but in Trinidad, I never met gay or lesbian people at that time."

Mootoo explores that urge to leave one's native country in order to find a sense of belonging or permission to be oneself with her new novel, "Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab" (Doubleday Canada).

The story unfolds in the form of a memoir written by Jonathan Lewis-Adey, a Toronto writer who went to Trinidad nine years ago in search of his estranged parent, Sid. To Jonathan's surprise, he discovered Sid had transitioned from female to male and was living as Sydney.

As Jonathan reconnects with an ailing Sydney, he tries to understand why he left him and his mother back in Toronto decades earlier, and why he went through his gender reassignment.

Jonathan also attempts to piece together the relationship between Sydney and close friend Zain. He does this through conversations and his writing.

The book contains rich descriptions of the landscape and culture of Trinidad, a country Mootoo has written about in her previous novels, which include "Cereus Blooms at Night." That book was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist and made the long list for the Man Booker Prize.

Like Sid, Mootoo also left Trinidad for Canada solo, and she drew on her own experience of immigration as she crafted the novel.

"I think for people who immigrate on their own, without the armature of family to support them, I think it can be very, very lonely," she said. "Nobody knows who you are, nobody knows your history and, in a case like a person who is gay like Sid, there would've been more isolation.

"Because even if she attached herself to people who were not family but to people who were other Caribbean people, the Trinidadian people and so on, the homophobia within those communities would further alienate her."

The Trinidad Mootoo describes in this novel is one with a bad economy and a high rate of crime, which she said reflects its current status.

"It was once a very lovely, safe place. It is now a dangerous place," said Mootoo, who is also a filmmaker and lives in the countryside outside of Toronto.

"It is a place that means a great deal to me, a place that I love that holds my earliest memories and has formed me in a lot of ways. I am profoundly disappointed with what has happened to Trinidad, and it's not as if the land disintegrated and people are standing on top of it and looking at it disintegrate and thinking, 'What's happening?' It's the people there who have allowed it to fall apart like that."

Mootoo said one of the things she was trying to get at with the novel is "that the falling apart doesn't only hurt the land but it hurts people in a number of ways."

"It's a place that, for all its carnival — how it likes to present itself to the rest of the world as a fun-loving, every creed and race finds an equal place, that's one of the lines in the national anthem — that's all fantasy. It's kind of hard to speak about a place that you love so much in these negative ways, but it's as if you want them to hear, you want them to hear that this is what they have become."

Mootoo focuses more on Sid's journey toward gender transition than on the medical process behind it — an approach she said was influenced by Virginia Woolf's "Orlando."

"It's exquisite because there wasn't the medical journey, therefore there wasn't the medical language. But it was about passion and love and how to use language to move between genders."

Mootoo said she wanted to show the reader the consequences of changing the body, one of which is "what you leave behind, who you leave behind, who suffers because of this."

"The other thing that I cannot get my head around — and this is what this novel was, really, to try to help me to find a way through, was — is it really the person who has to do the gender reassignment or is it society that needs to change to make room, to allow there to be room for people who want to be any way they want to be?

"What business is it of anybody else's? Why can't we just be more open to the diversity and the fun challenges, and to difference? I don't know what the agenda really is to try to keep people in these narrow paths, and I think if anything needs surgery it's society, really."

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