Published March 1998
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In Childhood, André Alexis finds meaning in absence, belonging, and place
Sometime during the late 1950s, Andre Alexis's parents left Trinidad for Canada. Emboldened by the promise of the new, but unsure about their prospective home, the young couple travelled alone, leaving their young son and his baby sister with the children's grandmother in Port of Spain. Although he couldn't have been more than two or three at the time, Alexis, now 41, can still remember the trauma of an absence, and the perplexity of his family's reunion in Ottawa in 1961 when he was four years old.
"It was hurtful in the sense that I was old enough to know that my parents were gone and not conscious enough to know mere was a good reason for it," says Alexis, whose first novel Childhood-will be published this spring by McClelland & Stewart. "By the time I came to meet them I didn't know them anymore. I remember the panic of trying to figure out the difference between one place (Trinidad) and another (Canada) and asking myself' What is this place? What does it smell like? How am I supposed to behave here, now, doing this?' That kind of violent effort to figure out where you are is, on a personal level, pretty important to me."
Consequently, much of Alexis's published work reveals a writer preoccupied with the idea of making this country his own.
In Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, published by Coach House Press in 1994, Alexis impressed critics with a surreal and macabre depiction of the nation's capital. His 1995 play Lambton, Kent and Other Vistas surveyed the southern Ontario landscape through the eyes of a Nigerian anthropologist. The action takes the form of an often-amusing lecture in which Dr. M'tubu shares information about the peculiar folk rituals of the area and his own bizarre archeological findings. The play received mixed reviews but there was no dismissing Alexis's compelling interpretation of a landscape generally perceived by Canadians as painfully unexotic.
As in his story collection and play, Alexis embraces his environment in Childhood, but this time he digs deeper, melding the themes of absence, displacement, and belonging in away that imbues the Ontario landscape with personal meaning.
His protagonist is Thomas MacMillan, an illegitimate child growing up in Petrolia, Ontario in the 1960s under the guardianship of his miserable and inebrious Trinidadian grandmother. As a youngster Thomas understands that not only is he an outsider in his grandmother's house, he is also an outsider in his hometown. Thomas senses that the neighbours' friendly distance has something to do with his mother's absence, his grandmother's temper, and in some indefinable way, his brown skin, for which a handful of vicious little boys call him nigger.
When Thomas's grandmother dies, his mother, the headstrong Katarina, appears. She takes him to Ottawa where they move in with a learned, Trinidad-born amateur scientist named Henry Wing. Henry spends a great deal of time experimenting with chemicals. In fact, Henry, the scientist, reminds me a little of Alexis, the author, who transmutes disparate elements of his own experience into a powerful artistic work.
However, Alexis downplays suggestions that the new novel bears a strong autobiographical streak (even though he's given the central character his own birth date, January 15,1957, and set the novel in a town where he actually lived). "Obviously, there are events in the novel which are too far-fetched to be true," he says, vaguely irked. "Childhood is more of an emotional autobiography."
Sitting with me in a busy Toronto diner on a bright Sunday afternoon, Alexis confesses to having some difficulty accessing the emotions he drew upon so poignantly for his novel. Although almost four decades have passed since he came to Canada, and he now has a five-year-old girl of his own, his inner child continues to struggle though the trauma of immigration. His conscious mind permits only disjointed memories to splinter into our conversation: the plane ride, the shock of first snow.
"Right now we are in a restaurant," he explains. "Too many things are interfering to allow me to retrieve my memories. The impulses and dreams and smells and touch only come back to me when I am writing and I am dreaming up whatever it is that I'm dreaming up. They don't come back outside of the moment.
"The physical ritual [of writing] is really important to getting myself into a state of free-floating. My first story collection, Despair, was very much the process of learning how to dream on paper; of learning to let myself go from state to state so that the language doesn't get in the way."
This is an unusual comment from someone so obviously enamoured of words - Alexis's passion for literature is easily discernible in Childhoods range of allusions. Here, one catches intimations of Tolstoy, his favourite author, Dickens, and James. Not surprisingly, he also speaks with great fondness of Proust.
Aside from the mention of a few native West Indian dishes, however, and the vernacular of Henry's housekeeper, very little African or Caribbean culture finds its way into Childhood, which is to say that Alexis is something of a rare bird: a black author who attempts to tackle issues like displacement and unbelonging without placing the major emphasis upon racism or race. Philosophically, Childhood remains true to the somewhat controversial positions Alexis has articulated in various magazine articles. In those pieces he states that black Canadian writers ought to treat race as only one aspect of a multifarious existence, that writers would do better to focus on where they are now rather than where they hail from, hi a much-quoted article, "Borrowed Blackness," published in This Magazine in 1995, Alexis wishes for "a black Canadian writing that is conscious of Canada, writing that speaks not just of situation, or about the earth, but from the earth..."
When it comes to the formation of his artistic career, Alexis credits the influence of women over racial experience. His editor, Ellen Seligman, provides the most recent example. "I will say publicly on as many occasions as possible that Ellen Seligman is a fantastic editor," Alexis pronounces. "The process was rigorous, but wonderful."
Childhood was originally to be published by Coach House Press in fall 1996, but was delayed when the press went out of business in the summer of that year. Despite the initial frustration, Alexis says the extra year to publication - M&S acquired the book last August - has clearly benefited the novel. "It was a long way from being finished," he confesses. "This timing was much better for the book. I mean, it's my first novel. I'm filled with fear." (That Childhood has sold in seven territories, including to Bloomsbury in the U.K. and Henry Holt in the U.S., suggests that the only fear Alexis need feel is the fear of success.)
As for the women who have helped shape his career, Alexis also acknowledges a debt to his mother, whom he describes as perfectly remarkable ("She's the type of person who read Beckett and Proust just to find out what I was on about"), and Linda Watson, the visual artist he lived with for 10 years: "She taught me to perceive the world with an artist's eye." Finally, he mentions his daughter Nicola, whose birth coincided with the birth of his book: "Thinking about Nicola I automatically began thinking about my own childhood."
"But more than that," he continues, "becoming a parent yourself, you become less uncertain about your own parents' love for you. I now know that when my parents left me behind in Trinidad there was good reason for it. And not only was there good reason for it, it was one of the best things my parents did for me. They did absolutely right."