Award-winning female poet presents 'Bodies, Boundaries and Borders' at Rutgers
The Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies (RAICCS) held an event last night that gave an in-depth look at Indo-Caribbean literature.
"Bodies, Boundaries and Borders" took place at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus and focused on the multimedia work of award-winning poet, novelist and visual artist Shani Mootoo.
With a specific focus on her Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, "Cereus Blooms at Night," the event began with a reading from her novel followed by a visual presentation of her latest project integrating photography with writing and ending with a Q&A session.
Krystal Ghisyawan, a postdoctoral research fellow for the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies, said the event was organized in an attempt to bring Caribbean literature to the forefront of the Rutgers community as it had not been done in years.
As one of the most prominent current female writers, Shani Mootoo takes a look at Indo-Caribbean women, along with same-sex desire and complicated discussions of the diaspora making her a great guest for this event, Ghisyawan said.
Her discussions focused on a wide array of topics from sexuality and gender to feelings of home — all-encompassing aspects of the Caribbean studies program here, Ghisyawan said. While some students, such as Ghisyawan, focus on subject matter like LGBT rights in Trinidad, others focus on different conceptions of space and belonging.
“The RAICCS has a lot of ongoing projects such as this. We constantly have scholars and professors visiting along with a multitude of events in our department. Just today we had a professor, Patricia Mohammed, visit from the University of the West Indies and Trinidad that discussed mapping with myself and another professor,” she said.
Anjali Nerlekar, associate professor of Indo-Caribbean literature, said that in teaching courses on Indo-Caribbean literature she was exposed to "Cereus Blooms at Night" as the most consistently requested novel among all of her classes. With assistance from Ghisyawan, the two were able to connect with Mootoo and have her present for students.
Mootoo has managed to complicate the idea of the Indo-Caribbean identity by integrating it with queer identities — something very few writers have been able to accomplish, Nerlekar said.
Her presentation was originally anticipated as a reading, but also showcased visual elements from her latest writing as an added surprise.
The use of multi-media platforms throughout her work has especially helped highlight this notion of hybridity when discussing post-colonial literature, Ghisyawan said. It gains a new resonance when she talks about moving across new genres, media and genders.
“We were talking before and she said how she didn’t want to settle into these notions of a post-colonial Trinidadian writer that settles into a story about being displaced and then gets acclimated for something that has been done before. She wants to destabilize herself and not to get comfortably being ghettoized by moving onto new media,” she said.
The concepts discussed by Mootoo find success in the hopeful undertone to an otherwise dark story about violence and devastation, Ghisyawan said. It is these topics about the world and human life that resonate with students and gives her writing that young appeal.
When reading her novel one can only feel the situations endured by the characters are impossible to come away from, yet in the end, there is a full circle moment where you feel as though everything is alright. She writes these horrors in a way that rounds off all ills into something that still valorizes life, Ghisyawan said.
It is important that students see the novel as something unique to itself, as gender fluidity is equally foreign to Indo-Caribbean culture. The feelings are real, Ghisyawan said. Students should keep the environment in mind as they read these human connections and the involvement in their social and personal interactions.
“I think that’s what resonates with people the most is that you don’t have to share the gender anxieties of the author, you don’t have to share the background or ethnicity. There is a certain thematic core to her work that can speak to many different ages and backgrounds of students,” Ghisyawan said.
Christian Zapata is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.