In his slim but perfectly proportioned second novel, Brother, David Chariandy has accomplished a kind of literary alchemy, creating a believable world in just 180 pages. Or “worlds”, one could say. Look behind the realism of the initial premise and you’ll find successive layers of other worlds—each, paradoxically, larger than the first.
The world we’re initially introduced to bears resemblances to that of Chariandy’s first effort, the universally praised 2007 novel Soucouyant. A pair of brothers, different but similar, feature in both works; in each, the narrator is bookish and observant where his sibling is streetwise and impulsive. In Soucouyant, their mother is suffering from dementia; in Brother, she’s paralyzed by the even more common maladies of overwork and grief. In both, the brothers’ father is an absent, shadowy figure; in both, the father is South Asian and the mother is of Afro-Caribbean descent; both are set in Toronto’s Scarborough neighbourhood.
There are enough similarities to Chariandy’s own story that it seems natural to ask if his writing is essentially autobiographical—but the author, interviewed by telephone while taking a break in a Fairview Slopes park, cautions not to read too much into the parallels.
“There is an autobiographical element, but it’s very complicated, I think,” he says. “It’s first and foremost a work of fiction, both novels. But like the protagonist in Brother, I grew up in a working-class immigrant family; like the protagonist, I have a South Asian father and a black mother, and I grew up identifying and being read as black. But my household was a loving household, with two parents, and they were, at that particular moment, able to provide the basics for both me and my brother.
“So I guess one impulse in writing the novel was to imagine ‘What if circumstances were just slightly different, so instead of having two parents, I had one?’ My brother and I faced certain problems in the educational system at times, and these were widespread problems for men of colour or young boys of colour. What if those problems we faced were pushed to a point where we couldn’t complete high school? What kind of future would we have? What if we had an encounter with figures of authority—figures of state authority—that went terribly sideways, and a circumstance that we perhaps feared actually came to realization? So what is that, really? Is that autobiography? No, because we didn’t exactly live that, but we were thinking about that, and seeing that, and feeling those possibilities all the time. We were proximate, we felt, to an ugly fate.”
It’s also tempting to read Brother as a novel of immigration: the older figures in Michael and Francis’s world are immigrants, although they themselves are Canadian-born. But the central theme in the narrative is not foreignness, but loss. Loss of home, yes—and there is a painful scene in which the brothers visit their parents’ native land, Trinidad, only to discover that they’re even more estranged from their stay-at-home relatives than they are from the Canadian mainstream—but also the loss of a parent, of possibility, of hope.
But counteracting this, beautifully, is a third layer: music. The world of sound is a healing thread running through Brother: the barbershop where the siblings hang out, Desirae’s, is a meeting place for aspiring DJs and MCs, while dusty soul and jazz LPs provide a sense of generational continuity alongside a useful model of how to channel the anger that, in our culture, can go along with being young, gifted, and black.
“Music is the space in which safety and a sense of home can be created,” Chariandy says. “And music also becomes a way for the boys to access information and moods of the past; to be able to access and feel what Nina Simone was feeling and singing about; to be able to access and feel what a blues or a soul singer was coding into the music—and that’s so important. What’s also important, I guess, is that through turntablism, this technology of sound, the boys are able to not only listen to the old songs and sounds, but to make them new, as something that speaks directly to their own experience.”
And to Chariandy’s own, as well: the writer says that, like most of his peers, he was fascinated by hip-hop culture before realizing that his talents lay elsewhere. Writing, for him, provides the solace that music brings to his characters.
“Every act of writing literature is an act of hope, because even if it is expressing pain and grief, it is with the hope that pain and grief will be attended to, and with the hope that pain and grief will be artistically framed—and thereby, in a sense, controlled,” he says. “Maybe. But just thinking of my novel specifically, I feel it is a very hopeful novel, as it’s about the profound resilience of communities and individuals and families.…And it’s also about finding beauty and joy in the midst of hardship and loss.”
David Chariandy will be part of two events at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest, both on October 21. See writersfest.bc.ca/ for details.