For many of us who descend from immigrant backgrounds, we had to deal with a lot more baggage than the label of “multiculturalism” can truly define our families. We had to deal with: racism, ethnic traditions and stereotypes, untold stories and whispers of events that our elders may not what us to know about, etc. etc. Those hardships become more acute as our parents become older and depend on our care for their well-being. And it is that element of the human condition that David Chariandy documents in his novel Soucouyant.
I stay with Mother, though I haven’t truly been invited to stay. On that first evening of my return, Mother walks suddenly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. I hear the low grate of a deadbolt. later, i make my way up to the other bedroom on the second floor. The bunk bed that I once shared with my brother is still made, though the sheets and pillows smell of dampness.
My bedroom window looks out over the weathered edge of the bluffs to a great lake touched by the dying light of the city. Below, some forty feet down, a few trees lean about on a shore of sand and waterlogged litter. Dancing leaves and the tumble of an empty potato chip bag. Despite the view and the fact that many consider the surrounding neighbourhood ‘a good part of Scarborough,’ our place is difficult to boast of. We are alone in a cul-de-sac once used as a dump for real-estate developers. The house is old and bracing now for the final assaults of erosion. Even in summer, all windows facing south are kept shut. Because of the railway track, scarcely ten feet away.
Chariandy has written an insightful bit of literature here. Readers glide into the thoughts of a son who returns after a two-year absence to his Caribbean-born mother suffering from dementia. Upon his arrival at his childhood home, he not only finds the easily-confused individual who is his mother but also a young woman who also occupies the house. As the son continues his stay at the home, he is forced to confront memories and hidden secrets of his mother and his family.
Please, Mother. Please.
There are the ironies, of course. Mother can string together a litany of names and places from the distant past. She can remember the countless varieties of a fruit that doesn’t even grow in this land, but she can’t accomplish the most everyday of tasks. She can’t dress herself or remember to turn off taps and lights. Increasingly, she can’t even remember the meaning of the word ‘on,’ or the function of a toothbrush, or the simple fact that a waste-paper basket isn’t a toilet.
‘It happen . . .’ she tries again. ‘It happen on fore-day morning when the sun just a stain on the sky. When the moon not under as yet. Me, I was a young girl running . . .’
‘I know, Mother. It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’
‘You’re here now . . .?’
‘You arrived, Mother. You told me the story, remember? There were lights . . .’
She had trouble arriving. The plane banked around the airport for almost an hour and the pilot had announced that an ice storm was hitting the city and the ground crews were clearing the runway. An ice storm, she thought. What on earth could that be like? What fearsome beauty, falling jewels of ice? When the plane banked a last time for the approach, she looked out of the wind to see the city once more. No buildings at all, only countless dazzling lights. A land of lights.
She came here as a domestic, through a scheme that offered landed status to single women from the Caribbean after a year of household work. This was in the early sixties, before the complexion of the cities and suburbs of this land looked anything like it does today. The administrators of the domestic scheme set her up in a small apartment above a building housing a butcher’s shop and a Negro hair-cutting salon, hope that she would feel at home., realizing that no other person would be willing to put her up. It was smelly and the cockroaches ran and ran when the overhead bulb was turned on, but she didn’t mind. Everything seemed wonderful to her, even the scraggly trees and slushy sidewalks. The snow-accented trees.
While the details that Chariandy documents in the story are unique to immigrants from the Caribbean region, the experiences his Canadian-born and residing protagonist endures are universal to any descendant of any immigrant of any background. The attempts of trying to fit into the mainstream society, the questions of past experiences of one’s parents, the embarrassment of old mores and customs from an old culture that no longer fit in our modern society. And Chariandy documents the situation of a child trying to deal with an elderly parent whose actions are not proper in any situation.
Later in the evening, I stumble upon her in the kitchen spilling sugar from a large sack over wedges of lemon and then eating away, rind and all. There’s a grainy stickiness all over the linoleum and white streaks on the rug leading out of the kitchen. Mother winces with each of her mouthfuls. ‘Like eating lightning,’ she says. She looks at the leaking bag of sugar and explains it is broken would some please call the . . . electrician. She insists that the whole house deserves a good sweeping, and starts calling for the girl to give her a bath.
‘I can bathe you.’
‘You can . . .?’
‘I can do it too. I’m your son.’
She nods warily at this. I accept the bag of sugar from her and guide her upstairs to the bathroom. I make sure the water in the tub is just right, and I add the salts. I help her out of her clothes, her hands balancing on my shoulders while I slip her underwear off. Her private skin so pale and unwrinkled, even childlike. Her elbows pressed tight against her sides.
‘Don’t get my head wet,’ she says.
David Chariandy has documented an important and delicate element about the human condition in his novel Soucouyant. The book is lyrically and well-crafted and is certainly a great read. One worthy of any serious reader’s time and thoughts.