Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab

by Shani Mootoo


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Long-listed for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award.

"Readers who enjoy rich details of place will find Mootoo's writing about her settings to be luxuriant; we are especially treated to abundant descriptions of Trinidad...[A] thoughtful exploration of place and identity."
Kirkus Reviews

"Mootoo's character-driven novel is rich in setting and slow in pace, inviting the reader to linger over its closely observed details. "

"Mootoo has produced a stunning meditation on story...[This novel] portrays the beautiful (yet often tense) bond between a parent and child, the complexities of immigration, the fluidity of gender, and provides a juxtaposition between two extreme climates, Toronto and Trinidad. It is a gorgeously written novel."
National Post (Canada)

"Jonathan Lewis-Adey's mother left when he was nine, but when he finds his estranged parent again, he is surprised to find that the person he knew as his mother has become a man named Sydney. Set in the Trinidad of her upbringing, Shani Mootoo's vivid writing explores the pain and confusion Jonathan experiences as a result of Sydney's choices."
World Literature Today, included in the Nota Bene section

"A fascinating premise that gives voice to the queer-identified...Mootoo's brilliant evocations of [Trinidad's] paradisiacal glow...are a real gift to the reader."
Globe and Mail (Canada)

"In rich and vivid descriptive prose, Mootoo portrays her characters' journeys between countries and toward greater selfhood."
Quill & Quire, starred review

"The novel's greatest triumph is its painfully poignant characterization of a privileged son, who cannot always embrace the transition that his mother—now father—has made."
Asian American Literature Fans

"Queer Canadian visual artist and writer Shani Mootoo's latest novel Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab follows the journey of writer Jonathan as he searches for the mother who left when his parents divorced."
Baltimore Out Loud

"A powerfully moving tribute to the lasting power of storytelling and the surprising and unpredictable nature of human emotion. It's truly an excellent literary feat and a great story to get lost in!"
Bookworm Shawn (blog)

Jonathan Lewis-Adey was nine when his parents separated, and his mother, Sid, vanished entirely from his life. It is not until he is a grown man that Jonathan finally reconnects with his beloved lost parent, only to find, to his shock and dismay, that the woman he knew as "Sid" in Toronto has become an elegant man named Sydney living in his native Trinidad. For nine years, Jonathan has paid regular visits to Sydney on his island retreat, trying with quiet desperation to rediscover the parent he adored inside this familiar stranger, and to overcome his lingering confusion and anger at the choices Sydney has made.

At the novel's opening, Jonathan is summoned urgently to Trinidad where Sydney, now aged and dying, seems at last to offer him the gift he longs for: a winding story that moves forward sideways as it reveals the truths of Sydney's life. But when and where the story will end is up to Jonathan, and it is he who must decide what to do with Sydney's haunting legacy of love, loss, and acceptance.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617755774
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland and grew up in Trinidad. Her novels include Valmiki's Daughter, long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; He Drown She in the Sea, long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and Cereus Blooms at Night. Mootoo divides her time between Grenada and Canada. Her latest novel, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt


It amuses me how the instant the fasten-seatbelts sign is turned off during the flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidadians get up and strut about. They seem to know one another; they congregate in the aisles unabashedly airing their business, telling jokes, heckling each other or reminiscing. Their anticipation is palpable. Some begin the journey as strangers, but through conversations struck up in the interminable lineups at the airport or during the five-hour flight itself, they inevitably learn that they know someone in common, or are even related. I have always envied their ease and willing camaraderie, and having been to their island numerous times over the past decade, have often wanted to contribute my penny's worth; but discretion — on account of being just a visitor to the island — has prevailed.

On the approach to Trinidad, as the plane comes in from the Caribbean Sea toward the dense blue of the Northern Range — where there is always the surprise of mountainside villages comprising three or four houses glimpsed through the clouds — another sign of anticipation occurs: passengers lower their voices and withdraw into more private preoccupations. Once the mountains are achieved, there is silence on board. The hub of Port of Spain suddenly appears and I take pleasure in being able to spot the Queen's Park Savannah, the NETT Building, and the Lapeyrouse Cemetery before the plane heads out over the sea again, over the Gulf of Paria, where it circles into position to glide in to the airport, first over the Caroni Swamp and then over the fertile belly of the Caroni Plains.

Is it already two months since that last flight down? Although I could not have imagined then the full extent of what lay in store for me, I sensed that my life was on the verge of another of its ruptures, and I feared that this was, perhaps, to be my final trip here. And so I did not merely observe the passengers, as had been my habit since my first trip here almost a decade ago (my first trip as an adult, that is; the very first happened some thirty years ago when I was a child), and neither did I merely watch the view from the plane window; this time I tried to ensnare in my mind every detail of all that went on around me and all that passed outside the window. As we headed over the plains to the airport, I savored the sight of the bamboo-lined, snaking Caroni River and, on either side of it, the farmers' houses sitting amidst remnants of cane fields, and the pigeon pea plots and the black-water rice paddies our reflection sailed across.

The usual pleasure of a visit to the island was tainted this time by apprehension, and so naturally I recalled the first time I had come here looking for Sid. After years without a clue as to Sid's whereabouts, Internet technology had put at my fingertips the means to realize my dream of finding the parent who had deserted my mother and me when I was ten years old. Resentment at having been dropped so flatly had plagued me since that time. In junior high school I had attempted to register my unhappiness: I'd failed at every subject save for art and English literature and composition, and had embarked on a path of delinquency that included smoking at home and on the school grounds, skipping school, not doing homework — to name the most benign of my transgressions. One might say that I had no imagination when, in order to escape being at home with my mother, I hid away in the reading booths at the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street. But there in the booths I lost myself in chronicling my longings and grievances in a notebook. The school psychologist, with whom I was now well acquainted, encouraged me to show him the notebook, and it was with his sustained provocation and encouragement that I began in earnest to turn the facts of my early life into short fictional narratives and poems.

For years, well past high school, I managed to keep from my mother any knowledge of this scribbling, or the fact that it had become a passion. I did not attend university, but found instead a job as a clerk in a health-food store on Bloor Street at Spadina. This seemed to both please and unsettle my mother, but still I kept from her what I thought of as my real work. When I eventually signed a contract for my first book with her publisher, it was without her knowledge. I will never be sure that the publisher was not simply doing her a favor when he took me on. Perhaps, too, he might have thought that investing in the work of the son of one of his most successful authors made good business sense. My mother received news of that first book's release with undisguised consternation. She read the novel in one sitting. I waited for her response, ostrich-like, hoping that she would ignore the autobiographical nature of the work and see only the craft. The instant I glimpsed her face, I knew that there would be little conversation about the book. I was right. "Oh, Joji, get over it, will you? Please," was all she said. Nevertheless, over the course of some years, two more books followed. On reading the second, India said, "You're not at all a bad writer, but you're repeating yourself."

I can't deny that with each book's publication I hoped that hype about them would attract Sid's attention. If Sid were to read any of my works, my thoughts went, she would surely find in them reflections of our past life together and my present longing, and would contact me and our reconciliation would happen. But no such thing occurred, and to make matters more unbearable, my books were not much of a success. Nevertheless, my publisher — my mother's publisher, I remind myself — maintained an interest in me. Pressed to present a new manuscript for his consideration, I tried for years, in vain, to come up with stories and themes that veered away from my personal experiences. When I realized I couldn't write anymore, or so it appeared, I sank into a long depression during which there were periods when I pointed squarely at Sid's cold-hearted departure for what I saw as my failures. I took to hiding out again at the reference library, my laptop, unused now for word processing, the gateway out of my morass. And it was in this way that my depression and bitterness were reshaped, at the computer, into the hope of reconciliation — if not between Sid and my mother, then at least between Sid and me — and my search became an obsession. I imagined daily what it would be like if and when Sid and I were reacquainted.

The reality was not quite so swift or easy. Over the course of several years I typed the name Sid Mahale into the Google search box and found that while there were quite a few Sid Mahales in the world, none jumped out as immediate possibilities. Images that appeared beside that name were interesting but useless: a book that did not have any clear relationship to the name; photos of parklands, flowers, dogs. There was one image of a pyramid-shaped bottle of perfume, one of a pile of burning car tires, and a few of the banks of the River Ganges.

I managed to find e-mail addresses for every Sid Mahale whose profile glancingly resembled that of my Sid's, and over time I wrote letters of inquiry to them all and kept my fingers crossed. To my surprise, all my letters received responses, but invariably they ended with the hope that I would soon find their namesake.

My Sid Mahale was Trinidadian, had immigrated to Toronto more than forty years ago, and was a visual artist — a painter. I eventually found an announcement on the Internet for an exhibition of paintings by a Sid Mahale at a gallery in Queens in New York, and bought a plane ticket there. As I recall this now, I am impressed by my own recklessness and the utter hope contained in that impulsive gesture. On the night of the opening I arrived at the so-called gallery, a narrow and claustrophobic living room, to find that this Sid Mahale was a thin young woman in her second year at art school. Her family was Ugandan and she knew no Trinidadians with the same surname. I bought one of her smaller paintings for a hundred and seventy-five dollars.

At the time I had no idea if my Sid had remained in Toronto, was still working as an artist, had gone elsewhere in Canada or to some other part of the world, or had returned to Trinidad. For some reason Trinidad was the last place I looked; it only occurred to me to do so when I didn't find her in Toronto, in New York, or elsewhere. I certainly didn't rush here. Hindsight suggests that in spite of my obsession with my search, I must have chosen to spin my wheels. Perhaps I knew in the depths of my being that it would be difficult, and possibly more painful than it was worth, to reconnect with a parent who had left me without word and had never made any attempt to be in touch. And so, after a while, the search degenerated into the idea of the search, and for a time it was my romance.

Sometimes there are elaborate calculations that lead to action, and sometimes there is no cognition, just action impetuously taken. For me, it was as simple as awakening one morning nine years ago and knowing instantly that I would go to Trinidad. There is no point in attempting to find a deeper understanding; I was simply and truly ready.

Thirty years or so ago, my mother, Sid, and I had visited Sid's parents' house in Trinidad. That was the true first visit to the island for me, and it had taken place one year before the dreadful split-up. On the morning nine years ago when I bolted awake with my new resolve, I remembered that the Mahale house was in a small town called San Fernando. In the Google search box I typed, Sid Mahale San Fernando, Trinidad, and a message came up asking if I meant Sydney Mahale San Fernando, Trinidad. I decided to try again. Sid's father was a doctor, but I didn't remember his first name, so I typed in Dr. Mahale followed by San Fernando and Trinidad, and up popped an obituary from a newspaper. And there in the obituary I found Sid's full name: Siddhani. My heart pounded in excitement. I wrote, Siddhani Mahale San Fernando Trinidad, and a message came up asking again, Did you mean Sydney Mahale San Fernando Trinidad? On the link for Sydney Mahale San Fernando Trinidad there was no image to search under, but knowing that Trinidad is a small country and remembering the joking between Sid and my mother that all Trinidadians were related or knew each other, I thought that this Sydney might know of my Sid. It crossed my mind that I might discover this Sydney Mahale was, like myself, one of Sid's sons. If so, he might be, I supposed, a real son. The real son. This caused some jealousy, I'll admit. But he'd be a brother of sorts too, I reasoned. I had liked the island as a child and I was already consumed by the idea of a trip. Perhaps I would be lucky, but if not, the trip would not be wasted; I had always felt an affinity for the place, and I could spend a week in Trinidad doing a bit of writing, hiking in the Northern Range, and looking for the places I'd visited during that long-ago childhood trip, and perhaps I could attach to this another week in Tobago snorkeling.

The telephone book in my San Fernando hotel room was not an inch thick, and included residential and business numbers. It could not have been easier; while there was no Sid Mahale, I did find Sydney Mahale. I picked up the receiver several times to make the phone call, but decided instead to take a taxi to the address in the phone book.

Sydney Mahale's house was not, as I had expected, in the south of the island, but in the northwest. A man I would later come to know as Lancelot met me at the gate and asked whom he might tell Mr. Sydney was there to see him. I gave him my name, Jonathan Lewis-Adey, but added that Mr. Mahale might very well not know of me. I waited for what seemed like an eternity before the same man, Lancelot, returned and unlocked the gate's three padlocks. He pulled open the gate and invited me in. Halfway up the yard an older gentleman with an unsteady gait approached. It dawned on me that this was Sydney Mahale, and I realized at once that a person of this age could not be a child of Sid. He and my Sid were very likely of the same age. The gentleman and I looked at each other and I made the gesture of offering my hand in greeting. But before I could understand what was happening, my heart heaved. The eyes. I knew them. The smile. It was not a resemblance. The smile was the same. I was overcome by a dreadful panic. I could hardly breathe. Sydney Mahale did not shake my extended hand, but pulled me to him. I went like a child, and although I was a great deal taller than I had been when I was ten, I pressed my head to the shoulder of this person, once a mother to me, and I cried like a child.

That was nine years ago. On finding Sydney Mahale, I had encountered not the parent who had from the first day of my life loved and understood me better than anyone else, including my mother, but a stranger who confounded and challenged me. Still, I came every year from then on to be with him, sometimes more than once a year. I would often stare at Sydney, baffled that inside this unfamiliar being resided the fullest picture, the fullest comprehension, of who I had been as a child. Sydney's voice — like that of a pubescent boy, incongruent in a person of his age — the angularity of his body, the thinned hair and receded hairline, the coarseness of a face whose skin I remembered from my childhood as being silky — there was stubble on it now from the shaving — and the pungency of his skin, were a wall between the person I remembered and once adored, and the relationship I had expected to reignite. It took time, desire, and patience on both our parts before I could see that while the material, the physical form of the past as I had known it, had changed utterly, the heart of it was steady and true.

* * *

Nine years later, all has changed.

It was reasonable, on this current visit, to expect that there would be no beach limes, no crab hunting on the east coast, no Scotch drinking in the thick and foamy surf late into the salty night, no evenings skimming the obsidian waters of the swamp, scarlet ibis drifting inkily against the slanted sky. As it turned out, lowering my expectations that this would be a visit without the glow of a vacation was the least that would be demanded of me.

Outside the airport's terminal building the humidity, the heat, the incessant percussive and tinny steel-drum music that welcomed visitors, the crowd of passengers and their waiting family and friends were suffocating. How I wished that time could be reversed, that this was my first trip looking for Sid.

Thankfully, I did not have to wait long for Sydney's chauffeur, Sankar. Out of the chaos he slid, taking the bag from my hand, ushering me through the drizzle toward the car. I knew the drive past the capital city to the northwestern arm of the island well, and was prepared for the near-hour's journey to the house in Scenery Hills; it would no doubt be riddled with drivers' abundant infractions and death-inviting maneuvers, traffic jams, and, fringing the entire route to the house, dangerously situated vendors' stands that offered everything from bundles of barely alive blue crabs to battery-run fly and mosquito swatters, to cell phone cases, to papayas and avocados the size of soccer balls. I was, by this time, no longer discombobulated by the constant chaos on the streets or the unfamiliar attitudes to time and to laws, by the unexpected politenesses and solicitations, the heat and the bugs, or the sugary, oily, and fiery foods. I had, after all, traveled here close to twenty times in almost a decade.

By the time Sankar reached the residential area of Scenery Hills the rain had eased and the sun come out. Sankar gestured to the tropical phenomenon of falling rain and brilliant sun — different in quality of light and even texture of the rain itself from the sun showers we in Canada know — and he said, as if it were a question, "The devil and his wife?" I felt like a child, but I knew it would please him if I finished his sentence. "Are quarreling," I said. We were both pleased that I had remembered the local saying.

* * *

Sydney was usually wheeled out into the garden by Lancelot at four thirty or so every afternoon, but this time he had waited for me to take him out. In the past, he would almost lift himself out of the chair, reaching his arms up around my neck in greeting, but today he remained sitting, his hands on his lap, turning them palms-up for me to rest mine inside. He had indeed deteriorated.


Excerpted from "Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Shani Mootoo.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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