David Chariandy brings powerful cultural perspectives to campus

Kyle Howe

On Monday, Whitman students had a chance to hear acclaimed Canadian writer David Chariandy read the first chapter of his novel, “Soucouyant.” Chariandy, who teaches at Simon Fraser University, was nominated for numerous prestigious awards with the novel’s publication, including the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Credit: Allie Felt

“Soucouyant” focuses on the life of a young second-generation immigrant growing up in Canada, who must endure the trials that come with his mother’s dementia. The Soucouyant is a malicious, blood-sucking spirit that exists within Caribbean lore; it evokes the idea of attempting to maintain one’s cultural identity.

According to Chariandy, the title of this novel was incredibly important because of what it embodies.

“One of the challenges of the book is to represent a cultural past that is being forgotten . . . the son’s cultural past is the mother’s, who was born in the Caribbean, and he  doesn’t  know what is being forgotten of the mother’s past. The word ‘Soucouyant,’ which is foreign to him, in a sense, evokes the decipherability of indecipherability,” said Chariandy.

Chariandy was brought to the subject of dementia through personal experiences in his life.

“I had an aunt who suffered from dementia. I was so saddened by her death, and I was puzzled and, in a sense, awed by dementia . . . The novel arises from watching someone unbecome as a person through dementia. I also wanted to do some justice of cultural. . . when someone forgets their cultural past.”

To write a novel involving dementia, Chariandy thoroughly studied the mental illness.

“I read many books; I spoke with doctors and people working with patients with dementia . . . I got a specialist who works exclusively on dementia to read the entire book, to evaluate it. This is a work of fiction, with a very peculiar case of dementia,” said Chariandy.

Whitman’s Assistant Professor of English and General Studies Sharon Alker was intrigued by the novel, which she is teaching in her class this year, and sought to book the writer to visit Whitman.

“[Soucouyant was] different from the others . . . focusing on second-generation migrants then looking back . . . captured the experience of the second generation . . . using the trope of early onset dementia to try to explain the experience of trying to pass down a culture,” said Alker.

Alker, who advises Whitman’s Canadian Association, is also involved in an ongoing effort to integrate Canadian perspectives into Whitman’s cultural offerings.

“[The Canadian Association] tries to increase the number of Canadian writers and scholars that [they] bring to campus, because Canada is seen to be just like us: having the same objectives, goals and culture, but is in fact surprisingly different. But in many ways we are similar. Cultural problems from a Canadian perspective enlighten the campus with different ideas,” said Alker.

Currently Chariandy is hard at work with another novel that centers on the relationship between two brothers, which will extend a concept explored in “Soucouyant.”