Author taps local roots

Author David Chariandy

West Hill born David Chariandy’s debut novel was
nominated for this year’s Governor General’s
award for fiction.
Photo credit: Glen Lowry

In his debut novel about a boy growing up as a second-generation immigrant in Scarborough, author David Chariandy combined Caribbean folklore with his own childhood to produce Soucouyant.

Born in West Hill, Chariandy, 38, always knew he wanted to be a writer and after working on it for five years, he has received much praise including being short listed for the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s award for fiction.

Those unfamiliar with the folklore might find the title somewhat odd. But that is what Chariandy wants from his readers, even after they finish it.

“The story is about not quite understanding all the time but also having the desire to try to understand,” said Chariandy, whose parents are of Trinidadian and South Asian descent. “It was important not to give a full answer of what it means.”

A soucouyant is similar to a female vampire who disguises herself in the skin of an elderly woman. At night, she travels across the sky as a big ball of fire looking for her next victim.

She will leave a mark on your skin from where she sucked your blood. And when you wake up, you will feel increasingly tired.

Chariandy remembers when his mother first told him about when his grandmother saw a soucouyant.

“I didn’t understand what it all meant. I asked myself, ’What relevance is that to me here?’ And that’s what I wanted to capture in the story.

“This (Canada) is the land I know best. I don’t know the stories entirely and yet they haunt me in a certain way, just like a soucouyant might haunt you.”

The narrator, who remains nameless throughout, tells the story from the perspective of a immigrant mother’s son. She is suffering from dementia, a mental disorder.

One by one, the father, the son, and his brother are each driven out of the home. But the narrator is the only one to return.

Chariandy’s story takes place near the Scarborough Bluffs, but his descriptions in the novel reflect closer to where he grew up; the area he knew best.

Even though the book is fictional, there is some truth that mirrors Chariandy’s life. He was able to write so accurately about dementia because his great-aunt suffered from the illness.

“Capturing that terrifying experience for me was something I wanted to capture in the novel too.”

But the character of the mother represented more than a tragic figure to him.

“She meant a heroism of confronting feelings of being unwelcomed … especially in the past when Toronto was not as ethnically diverse as it is now,” Chariandy said. “She represents … people that have gone through the same but have survived nonetheless and made a home for themselves here.”

Now a professor in the English department at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Chariandy said he’s going to keep on writing. Currently, he’s working on another novel.