Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo

This book was long listed for 2009 Giller Prize and it is easy to see why.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 410 pages.
Read from June 19, 2017 to June 23, 2017.

It’s always nice when a rewards program actually provides you with a reward you actually like! I signed up for the VIP program with Kobo since I figured I buy enough ebooks through out the year that the discount would be worth the small fee I paid to sign up. When you sign up you have the option of selecting a free book from a narrow list that they provide.  I initially browsed the list once and was thoroughly unimpressed with my options as it contained a bunch of shitty romances or self-published novels with little repute.  I left my discount code to rot in my inbox until it nearly expired. For whatever reason, I decided to give the list another look before I let it expire and it was then that I discovered this nice surprise.

Set in Trinidad and Tobago, Valmiki is a doctor and well-respected family man. He has two young daughters whom he loves deeply despite his inability to connect with them on an emotional level. The root of Valmiki’s family problems stems from his deepest secret which, is the inability to admit to himself that he is gay.  A sexuality that is still, unfortunately, seriously frowned upon in his culture. Valmiki is so confused that he actually purposely has affairs outside of his marriage with other women to try and convince and enforce his fragile masculinity. His affairs include ones with men as well but he is deeply afraid of getting too close to them despite yearning to.

Valmiki also fears for his daughter, Viveka, whom he suspects is also being gay. Viveka is an intelligent, highly independent, frustrated young woman. She is tired of being stifled by her family and societal ideas of what she should be. She wants to play volleyball and be free to wear and do what she pleases. Viveka becomes aware of her own sexuality with the arrival of Anick; a French woman who has recently come to regret her recent marriage to a local man, who also happens to be a friend to Valmiki and his family. Will Viveka follow the same torturous lifestyle as her father or will she embrace her identity and disgrace her and her family?

This book was long listed for 2009 Giller Prize and it is easy to see why.  Remarkable, yet ordinary characters in a lovely and descriptive landscape with writing that is rife with commentary on race, gender, class, and sexuality. The relationships between certain characters are stunningly beautiful and easy to get lost and wound up in. The story is highly empathetic, romantic, heartbreaking and frustrating at times, especially, if as a reader you have grown up in a culture that is more liberal with homosexuality.  While the book is a bit of slow starter, once the groundwork has been laid, this is a story that you will fully immerse yourself in and not want to put down.

I would highly recommend this book the anyone in the LGBTQ community and for those that support them.  I would also recommend this book to anyone looking for a great plot in a setting outside of Western culture or for those looking for a surprising story that will stay with you long after the book is closed.

When Everything Feels Like The Movies by Raziel Reid

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 176 pages.
Read from February 19 to 20, 2015.

This is now the second book I’ve been able to get through in this year’s Canada Reads 2015 shortlist. This book was not what I was expecting and based on the controversy surrounding the novel, it sounds like it wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting, especially for a Governor General’s award in Children’s Literature. The author, Raziel Reid, is one of the youngest recipients of the award at the age of 24.

Jude is a teenage boy who happens to like other boys, he also prefers to wear dresses, massive heels and outrageous make-up. In his head, he pretends he is a famous celebrity. In fact, he pictures his whole life like it’s some kind a movie. His every action is just another scene while his stripper mother, promiscuous best-friend, and the boys, including his crush, Luke, who bully him are his co-stars. Even in the darkest parts of this book he masks his pain with glamour. Jude has an over-the-top personality that covers up his noxious up bringing and daily life which, make the tragic ending that much more unbearable. Jude just wants to be loved and when he asks his crush to be his valentine, there are horrible and unnecessary consequences.

Sadly, I can see people who would struggle with just Jude’s character alone, which, in this day and age shouldn’t be an issue. However, the real controversy isn’t so much that Jude is a gender bender, it’s the graphic language, sexual references and sex scenes. To be fair, the content is very crude at times but it fits with the novel and with characters.  Barbara Kay, of the National Post was particularly outraged with the book’s content and wanted it to have its Governor General’s award stripped, claiming that the award “wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel“. For a book that’s labeled as a young adult, I suppose I can see why people might get a bit heated about it but I don’t think the sexual content is abnormal and shouldn’t be treated as if it is.  Jude lives a tragic life, but sadly it is the norm for many homosexual teenagers and it’s a demographic that needs attention. So it shouldn’t be wrong to write about something that’s true, regardless of how awful it can be. If you don’t believe that a story like this could have any truth, than read Emily M. Keeler’s article,  which is a counter piece to Barbara Kay’s. It discusses how the plot of this novel mirrors the tragic and real life murder of a Larry Fobes King, a young gay teen who was killed in 2008 after asking his crush if he wanted to be his valentine. The author, Raziel, was obviously aware of this horrible and tragic event and was inspired to write a story that reflected what it may have been life living as Larry before he died.

“It’s sickening to me that the moral panic surrounding the book regards teens reading about blow jobs and not its painfully, stylishly wrought portrayal of kids being bullied to death, or growing up with fear because it’s not safe for them to be who they are.” – Emily M. Keeler

I also think that the author, Raziel Reid, purposely made the content graphic for that extra shock factor. This book is supposed to be outrageous and the sexual content helped deliver that. Additionally, I think the author was also making a point that gay sex is something that everyone needs to be more comfortable with. Just as we don’t shutter with all the very graphic and straight media content that teenagers are exposed to, homosexual love needs to be the same. The problem is that a lot of adults don’t want their kids reading content like this, even if their kids are already thinking it or doing it, parents still don’t want their kids exposed to anything that might encourage it. Especially homosexual content or anything that they might perceive as out of the ordinary. Personally, I believe that more novels need to describe the homosexual or gender bender experience so that in the future nothing about a character like Jude will ever be questioned, made fun of or undermined. If Barbara was able to get past her own gag-reflexes in terms of the sexual content of this novel, she might have been able to see a young and troubled gay youth dealing with hate the only way he knew how, with love. That there are more values in this novel than she has her whole miserable article. 

Thank you to Raziel Reid for bravely writing this piece and for writer’s like Emily that say it like it is. This piece is worthy of its award and its novels like this that are truly breaking barriers in a still very conservative society. With the two books I’ve read so far for Canada Reads 2015, this one has my vote at the moment.  Barriers smashed.