David Chariandy on parenting and the politics of feeling

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Image: Flickr/SFU library

I've Been Meaning to Tell You is about one second generation Canadian parent passing on his story to the next. Award-winning author David Chariandy writes to his daughter about his past, his ancestral and parental histories, and about his fraught relations with the world and country he and his daughter inhabit. Tavleen Purewal, a former student of David's from Simon Fraser University, met up with him in Toronto to discuss these entangled stories.

The book is written like a letter to your daughter. What kind of reader did you find her to be?

I did show my daughter, chapter by chapter, the book as it was being written. In fact, she was the first reader for every single chapter, with the exception of one. In that last case, I was getting close to a deadline and I nervously sent the chapter to my editor hours before I sent it to my daughter. She was not happy with that at all. (Laughs). "This is my book," she warned me. 

I must admit that she’s truly been a very generous reader, possibly because I haven’t tried, in my book, to "preach" or "school." I just wanted to pass on to my loved one a very personal story. The book says, "This is how I lived and came to view the politics of race;" and it was written with the conscious understanding that my daughter will likely have experiences and viewpoints very different from mine.  

There is a racialized tradition of the epistolary form, with James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which the letter is a tale of precaution and education. However, these authors speak along gender lines. How did you envision speaking across gender lines?

I did in fact, all the way through the process, consider and even doubt my ability to address this book to my daughter. I do profoundly believe that girls of colour, and Black girls specifically, live out the politics of race in ways significantly different from how boys and men live it out.

But I also wonder if speaking across gender lines helps cultivate a special kind of ethical awareness that isn’t always quite as obvious when, say, a father speaks to his son. I wonder if, in that case, the father might subtly be inviting his son to be like him -- providing a model of "manhood" -- either deliberately or unconsciously. Or else the assumption might be that "since you identify with me, here’s my story and, thereby, your story too." I wonder if one advantage in attempting to write critically across gender lines is that there might not be the same presumption of sameness. Instead, there must be an overt and substantial acknowledgement of difference. 

At the same time, I think there is continuity in the experience of being racialized among people of different genders. Black and brown people can oftentimes see and "get" other Black and brown experiences, even across the divides of gender.  Also, since my daughter’s mother is white, I have ended up being the visible minority parent in my daughter’s life. I felt a responsibility to share with her my particular story of being Black.

With this hyper-awareness that you are not living the conditions in which she is living, did you think of inheritance?

I’m far from an expert, but I suspect that 13 (and now 14) is a difficult age for both children and parents. In many ways, my daughter is leaving both home and childhood behind. She’s finding her own way in the world. So maybe 13 is a good time to be presented with a book. You can take a book with you on your own personal journey. You can choose when and how you wish to engage with it. It’s a parting gift in a certain way.  

I guess my book to my daughter also serves to remind us both not only of challenges that we will continue to face, but also certain harsh experiences of our ancestors. And, for me, the point of remembering these harsh experiences is to grow newly sensitive to others in desperate circumstances today, not only our direct "kin."

You describe many emotions and feelings in sites of solidarity that emerge in the book, something that is not quite empathy but also not quite anger.

I do clearly recognize the importance of anger among the oppressed and marginalized -- of ethically channeling and mobilizing that strong and fully justified feeling towards positive social change. But in addressing my daughter, I ultimately felt that anger alone would be insufficient.

I’m also now thinking of the way I began the book. I described an ordinary racist incident that I experience with my daughter when she was very young. A white woman treated me rudely while adding the justification, "I was born here.  I belong here." But my daughter either didn’t quite understand what any of this meant, and I needed to decide, in that moment, what to do. I could legitimately have expressed anger at what the woman had said to me. But I was also enjoying a precious moment together with my daughter and I wanted to protect her from the minor, but still hurtful, realities of racism. I ended up turning away from the woman, and pretending as if nothing had happened. But as I go on to explain in the book, my daughter saw through my act, and asked me, point blank, "What happened?" She read my silence and it concerned her. In a way, my book is an effort to confront silence, both personal and of the generations before me.

But I also think I need to indicate something very specific here about the availability of anger -- or really the possibilities and dangers in the public expression of anger -- for me as a Black man. I remember how, once, an acquaintance tried to advise me that when encountering border officials who are being needlessly difficult, I should raise my voice and adopt an angry tone. This worked for her, she suggested; and she felt that might for me too. The fact, however, was that she was white, able-bodied, very attractive in conventional terms. And I know all too well that my own expression of anger in that sort of situation would entail certain serious risks. It’s as much a story of courage and resilience as it is about everyday fallibilities and limitations.

My mom would sometimes say, "Don’t learn from me right now" when she knows she’s handling a situation in a way she would want me to handle differently.

I hear her. That's powerfully honest.

I did a close reading of your son’s poem that you include in the book. He writes, "I had found a beautiful day." Suddenly, to me, to find a beautiful day becomes to found a beautiful day, to craft it much like the crafting of the poem itself.

I love that reading. In that chapter of the book, I describe how he was called a brutally anti-Black term, and I compare this incident with a poem conveniently entitled "Incident" by the American writer Countee Cullen. Cullen’s poem is spare and powerful because it evokes how, through the casual trauma of being racialized, you risk seeing and remembering nothing of the interest and beauty of the world around you. You remember only how you're disturbingly and even violently seen, and you thereby fail to see the world. 

So it was really wonderful for me when my son, after his own bitter experience, managed in his poetry to see or "found" "at last" his own beautiful day.

Like joy and beauty, belonging is also complicated. Are you passing down to your children a skepticism of belonging in all contexts? How similar is your sentiment to what Dionne Brand says in A Map to the Door of No Return, that she is not interested in belonging?

I do consider Dionne one of the most important living writers. I can't possibly express how much I've learned from her writing and mentorship. I do think I’m also, in my own way, highly skeptical when historically displaced peoples proclaim their belonging in conventional clichéd terms to nation states. What is the surreptitious price of such proclaimed belonging? What do we need to forget? And who are the old and new "others" who inevitably need to be excluded? Perhaps the deepest cultural, political, and aesthetic insight of Black people is that, through the very condition of continually being denied belonging, they have imagined radically new ways of pursuing ethical human relations.

My daughter and I are Canadian. But for me, being Canadian means being responsible for some very difficult situated knowledge. I’ve felt so fortunate that my daughter has grown up knowing that we live on Indigenous land: upon the unceded lands of the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and ʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.

In my book, I felt it important to invoke what Indigenous peoples once called our neighborhood -- Snauq -- and thereby begin to offer a deeper and closer sense of where we live. Of course, I still have much to learn from Indigenous people and their own cultural, political, and aesthetic insights.  I’m just so happy that my daughter has been able to learn so much at a relatively young age -- that her own sense of belonging can emerge from careful acts of listening to all sorts of people.

At some point close to the end of the book you say "I held you and listened" when you recount the moment of your daughter’s birth. Why this lingering image of holding and listening?

I wonder if it’s for me the ideal image of parenting, which actually is less about offering crystal-clear instruction, and more about providing love and support. Less about providing idealized models, and more about having the courage to reveal weakness, to indicate that you’re also, as an adult, trying to figure stuff out. I sometimes fear that the world of politics that my daughter stands to inherit today has made nuance, including admissions of vulnerability, very risky to articulate. 

I want to pass on to my daughter, as best I can, a sense of tenderness, even in our failures. For generations, we held each other. We listened, we added beauty to the world, we resisted and spoke out for what we believed in, and we found friends and allies and whole different ways of imagining life. Achingly, we made ourselves human. What greater legacy could a parent ever hope to pass on? 

I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You is published by McClelland & Stewart and is available wherever books are sold.

Image: Flickr/SFU library

Tavleen Purewal is in the Doctoral Program in English at the University of Toronto, where she works on Black Canadian and Indigenous literatures. ​

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