Comment: These roots were made for talking

Born in one country, raised in another, living in a third - where is Shani Mootoo 'from'?
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I am asked where I am from, I am thrown into confusion. I live in Canada, but don't look Canadian. I was born in Ireland, but grew up in Trinidad. My name is Indian. So: what do questioners want to know? Are they curious about the colour of my skin, or my accent? Do people want to know where I was born, or where in Canada I live? Usually I by- pass the incidental fact that I was born in Ireland, and say that I am "from" Trinidad, that being the country where I grew up and from which my earliest memories come; it is the place where my parents live in the house that still has my childhood bedroom fully intact. Many years have passed since I emigrated to Canada, yet when I return to our house in Trinidad my past catches right up with me. It lurks in the tiles in the parquet floor that I once dug up and which to this day remain loose or missing.

Thinking of myself as Trinidadian, I was surprised recently when I went there and checked into a beach hotel. There was a preferential price for locals and a higher one for tourists, and I was charged the tourist rate. I struggled to see myself as a tourist in the place where I grew up, where my family still live.

The first job I had in Canada was telephone selling for a magazine company. I was the only new immigrant in the phone room, and the only one with a distinctly un-Canadian accent. This seemed to elicit excess conversation from the people I called up. They invariably pointed out to me that I had an accent, and when I joked back that so did they, we would engage in lengthy conversations that had no bearing at all on the job at hand. They often wanted to know where I was from. When I mentioned Trinidad, they wanted to tell me about their own trips to foreign and exotic places and how nice the people were. By the end of our conversations such people would often be willing to buy a package of magazines from me.

I was quite young when I learned the power of accents. I was with my brothers and sisters on holiday in England with our parents. I was about 14 and they were younger. One day, scouting around on our own, we found ourselves the only children on a busy street corner, very much aware of our difference in skin colour and clothing. Grey and cream coloured public buildings surrounded us. I remember feeling small, almost invisible. It seemed to us that we were failing the expectations of those going by, not matching up to the promise our skin-colour held. So we spontaneously broke into a language we invented there and then, a language made up mostly of nouns strung together, words brought to Trinidad by its immigrants from India and parts of Africa. These were sewn into a patois that included Spanish and French elements. We wanted it to turn us into birds of paradise, like the ones in our Trinidad rain forests, like the ones prized in the flower shops we had walked by on the streets of London.

In Canada, on hearing that I am Trinidadian, I am sometimes asked: "So what was it like to grow up in Tahiti?" And I have been told: "Oh! I know someone from Jamaica. Winston. A nice fellow. I wonder if you might know him?" More than once, someone has burst into a little skip of a walk, imitating what they consider to be a typically West Indian call: "Hey Mon! Gimme five!"

Some people recognise the origins of my name. My family emigrated from India to Trinidad five generations ago. I know little of India, and that little only from second- or third-hand sources. India seldom crosses my mind. But in Canada I meet Indians who have come directly from India, and was told by one of them that, knowing nothing of India and having only a scant knowledge of Hinduism, I was in fact a bastardised Indian. This might be true, but as it happens I am often mistaken for being an Indian from India. The colour and texture of my skin and hair brand me with a nationality I barely have. I once wrote a poem about it. It was called "All the Hindi I know". It wasn't long.

Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Midnight is published by Granta.

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