I still struggle with acclimatizing to the varying degrees of the Arctic chill. I grew up in the tropics, just like Priya — Shani Mootoo’s perplexed protagonist in Polar Vortex. A successful painter in Toronto for several years, Priya has recently moved to a small town with her white partner, Alexandra. Leaving their bustling city and past lives behind, they look forward to a quiet future together in the country.
That tranquility is soon threatened by Priya’s old friend Prakash. When Prakash makes a surprise visit to the lovers’ exclusive space, Alex learns about parts of Priya’s life that she has omitted from their relationship, and what seems to be a warm social call soon becomes a cold snap of secrets and omissions.
From page one, Mootoo introduces us to Priya’s unreliable voice. Her thoughts are disorganized and seem to reflect her anxiety, frequently breaking off into flashbacks and tangents. Prakash’s appearance brings on a lot of stress for Priya: she overthinks aspects of him, and even her own memories become unreliable as each probing question from Alex sends her off into a defensive line of thinking.
Providing Alex with a quick anthropological lesson on Trinidadians of South Asian descent, Priya explains: “Women from families like mine remained girls in their family’s care until they were married. You were so sheltered, so watched in my kind of family…that unless you were wayward or just stupidly brave, you didn’t get to flirt or experience sexual intimacy with another person until you were married.”
Moving to Toronto for university, Priya became friends with Prakash, whose family was part of the Indian diaspora in Uganda expelled by dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. Prakash develops romantic feelings for Priya and insists that their relationship eventually lead to marriage. But as a queer woman who came out when she moved to Canada, Priya maintains her feelings for Prakash were “only ever sisterly.” Nevertheless, she considers a relationship with Prakash to appease her family back in Trinidad.
We soon learn that, when starting out as a painter, Priya relied on financial support from Prakash, who proposed to “sponsor” Priya’s budding career by buying her first painting. Without Prakash, it would have been difficult to survive the way she did.
But the two have little in common aside their South Asian backgrounds. Given that she’s clearly established her boundaries with him, Prakash continually inserts himself into her life through unfair economic leverage. Priya vows that she will use Prakash’s visit to finally clear up that he should move on because Priya has found her life partner in Alex.
Mootoo establishes Priya’s narrative voice as someone who embodies the voice of the majority, but she also subverts that expectation by putting Priya in the position of the ethnic “Other.” Much of Priya’s story relates to the immigrant experience of assimilating heavily in order to be accepted by the mainstream.
This becomes even more true when Priya moves from multicultural Toronto to a town where seeing two “brown people” from “the tropics” is “cause for excitement” — and a place whose residents fail to understand the differences between immigrant communities.
This ignorance is illustrated through Priya and Alex’s friend Skye. She initially appears sympathetic toward immigrant communities, saying of Prakash: “Ugandan Indian. I remember that era. Nobody wanted them. Good old Pierre, though,” referring to the first Trudeau government’s decision to accept thousands of Ugandan refugees in the 1970s.
The limits of Skye’s sympathy become apparent, however, when she suggests that Priya may have romantic feelings for Prakash because “culturally you have more in common with him.” Priya has already established that the only link between her and Prakash is their ethnicity. Skye, who’s also queer herself, should by now at least give Priya the benefit of the doubt that she has more in common “culturally” with her and Alex because of their collective queerness.
At its core, Polar Vortex is a psychological drama that tests a vulnerable relationship where two lovers who seemingly know each other are challenged by secrets omitted to keep the relationship working. The story gradually gets complicated as we navigate Priya’s tumultuous consciousness. Mootoo presents Priya’s mind as a well-constructed hedge maze that reveals nuggets of insight and harrowing secrets that continually change the narrative’s trajectory.
The thematic cold snap that descends on the characters is temporary, but has permanent consequences, just as with a real polar vortex where frostbite can happen within minutes of exposure. It is an emotional mystery that gradually intensifies as more of the secrets are unveiled, which takes the reader for an unsettling but cathartic ride.
Vincent Ternida’s pieces have appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and rabble.ca. His short story “Elevator Lady” was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize and his personal essay, “Southeast by Southwest” is forthcoming on the Write to Move anthology. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Author image: Ramesh Pooran