The Everyday Genius of Black Life: An Interview with David Chariandy

David Chariandy’s Brother (Bloomsbury, July) chronicles two brothers’ coming-of-age in Toronto in the 1990s.

You grew up in Toronto. How did your experiences there inform and shape your novel?

Ultimately, Brother is a work of fiction. But, in a deeper way, the novel is an exercise in what if. What if the economic and social vulnerabilities I felt growing up in Toronto from the 1970s and into the 1990s escalated into outright poverty and despair? What if an encounter with a figure of authority took a sharply tragic turn? I fear that I’m not too original in this regard. Many youths of my background are frequently compelled to imagine such what ifs.

Francis and Michael are the sons of a poor single mother from Trinidad who is trying to give them a better life in Canada. She is a fierce character. Is it accurate to say that Brother is about the struggle to find one’s place in a city or country that is hostile toward immigrants?

She certainly is fierce, particularly with respect to her faith that her children can (and will) experience a better life in her adoptive country of Canada. But her faith comes into conflict with her children’s experiences and resultant doubts. I’d say that the novel is indeed about the struggles of black working class immigrants in lands that are oftentimes hostile toward them. But I’d argue my book is even more squarely about the children of these immigrants—born here, yet still powerfully marked and treated as “foreign.”

Brother explores the different ways in which men of color interact with the world. Can you expand on this idea of masculinity in the novel in terms of internal and external selves?

I honestly believe that some of the men in the novel can be forgiven for their assumption that if the world is demonstrably tough to them, they need to be tough right back and also carefully guarded about their dreams and feelings. But my novel tries to show how black youths, adopting even conventional scripts and faces of masculinity, can nevertheless brave great acts of tenderness and love.

Francis’s and Michael’s experiences reflect the ways in which boys and men of color often become unwilling targets throughout their lives. What prompted you to explore this idea?

I wanted to give a sense of the wide range of individuals and institutions that automatically read very negatively the youths in the story, who, in the case of Michael and his brother, Francis, are of both black and brown ancestry. I think their specific struggle, like ongoing struggles of black youth today, is to find some means of contesting this negative “reading”—perhaps by creating and sharing a more livable story of self.

Is there hope in this novel?

I’m not really sure if it’s the responsibility of the writer to inspire “hope,” ordinarily understood. But I think I know what you’re getting at. James Baldwin once wrote that “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life.” And in thinking through the serious themes of my novel, including grief and mourning, I did feel the need to affirm the diversity, beauty, joy, and everyday genius of black life.

Originally published in Publishers Weekly (May 11, 2018)

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