David Chariandy is a Canadian novelist whose two novels explore the Afro-Caribbean experience in Toronto, and both have been listed for multiple awards and prizes. His first novel to be published in the U.S., Brother, tells the story of Michael and his older sibling, Francis, who live with their mother in a housing complex just outside of Toronto. Michael narrates the story of their childhood and adolescence, of their developing interests in girls and music—and of the act of violence that eventually tears their small family apart.
There is a 10-year gap between your first novel, Soucouyant: A Novel of Forgetting, and Brother. You have probably been asked this a lot, but why such a long time between books?
I’d like to think of myself as a very careful writer. I want each word to count, and that takes time. But the structure of Brother is additionally challenging in that it’s necessarily nonlinear. Writing it, I wanted each piece of the plot to be in the right place. Finally, I also felt that the issues confronted in the book needed to be respected and thought through very carefully.
Your visibility as a writer has really increased in the last year. Brother was short-listed for the Giller Prize and was chosen by the London Library for the One Book, One London read for 2018. What does this increased exposure mean for you?
I do feel very lucky about the increased exposure, especially internationally. For me, the most important opportunity offered by increased exposure is the chance to focus with greater faith and intensity upon the hard work of writing.
What was your inspiration for Brother?
I’m often inspired by the everyday beauty and resilience of black and brown families caught up in deeply challenging circumstances. I wanted to capture this ordinary beauty in its variations and intensity.
As you were writing Brother, the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were making headlines. Did those events impact the novel at all?
I feel it’s crucial to acknowledge that the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown only made headlines because black people, particularly activists, forced journalists and the broader public to notice. Such acts of state and police violence also have a woefully long legacy throughout the Americas, not just in the U.S. Brother is set in the Canada of the early ’90s, and I started writing it before the latest acts of injustice within the U.S. were brought to broader public consciousness. But of course, as an author of black and also brown heritage, I can’t help but be aware of, and influenced by, such high-profile injustices and brave social struggles.
Our readers are used to seeing bigotry and police brutality as very American problems. But Brother changes that. Not only is there an increased police presence in the housing complex as the boys grow up, but they are also mistreated by other adults in authority positions—not just police, but teachers and music promoters. What does Brother add to our understanding of these social issues?
I appreciate your question, but I’m also not sure if the sole point of literature is to illuminate or diagnose social maladies. As I’ve suggested, revealing beauty and enduring life—particularly the beauty and enduring life of those readily ignored—is another way of signaling the importance of literature. But I guess my novel might help to show how a broader racist gaze permeates society as a whole, and that this gaze has multiple and “stacked” consequences. It’s especially frightening realizing that those who have state-sanctioned authority to take your life may hold racist beliefs. But others with racist beliefs in positions of authority may also affect one’s life quite drastically.
Michael and Francis are raised by a single mother from Trinidad whom Michael refers to as “one of those Black mothers.” What does he mean?
The narrator is winking at the reader, I think. We all know “those Black mothers” who work incredibly hard not only to provide for their children but also to maintain dignity and cultivate hope in tough circumstances. “Those Black mothers” are everywhere—ordinary and absolutely extraordinary in our lives. My own mother, for instance.
The brothers often visit the Rouge Valley, a green oasis that serves as a respite, where they are free to imagine their futures. Did you have a place like that as a child?
Yes, I was lucky enough to have a similar green space in my childhood. I wish more kids did.
Music is an important part of the novel, and it’s a way that Francis connects to the wider Black Diaspora that reaches outside of Canada. If you were making a soundtrack for the book, what would it include?
That’s easy. A very talented artist named DJ Agile compiled a mixtape! You can check it out here. I’d also maybe throw in some Nina Simone for good measure.
Brother is about a biological family, but it is also about community and kinship. Without giving too much away, the resolution of the novel suggests that there is the possibility for the creation of a new family. How do you see literature’s place in exploring the connections between the microcosm of family and the larger issues of kinship?
I really like this question! I do think that kinship in the novel reveals itself as fluid, beginning with family, but expanding to include those with similar experiences, hopes and values.
Do you think this is a hopeful novel?
I honestly don’t know if novelists always need to provide hope. I think novelists need to provide art and deeper glimpses of truth. But I do, again, want to believe my novel is about the enduring beauty of life, especially among people who are discrepantly confronted with the prospect of death.
Were you a voracious reader as a child? What kinds of books did you like?
I began by reading a lot of fantasy. I also liked science, particularly astronomy. In both cases, through either wild fiction or cosmic facts, I think I was trying to find alternatives to the often dissatisfying realities the world seemed to present me as the child of working-class immigrant parents.
There is a rich history of Afro-Caribbean Canadian writers. Who are some of your favorites?
There certainly is! Austin Clarke was a beloved mentor who supported my writing a whole lot, but who passed away before I could publish Brother. I ended up dedicating my novel to him. Dionne Brand is also someone I’m so lucky to be close to. I consider her one of the greatest living writers. There are many talented newcomers too: Canisia Lubrin and Ian Williams, for instance. The list goes on . . .
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Brother.