Fourth-year English major Manahil Bandukwala talks Carleton, writing, and the humanities with the celebrated author and 2019 Munro Beattie lecturer
For over thirty years, the Munro Beattie lecture has been the English Department’s most important annual event, and it is always a particularly special occasion when the lecturer is someone with a personal connection to the Carleton community.
On Thursday, January 31, novelist and academic David Chariandy will join the ranks of other Carleton alumni, such as writers Lynn Coady and Christian Bök, who have delivered the Munro Beattie; he will also break new ground by being the first to deliver it at the newly-named Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre since Carleton acquired the majestic church building to serve as a lecture and performance space in the heart of Ottawa.
Entitled “The First Semester,” Chariandy’s lecture will explore how his time at Carleton shaped his identity and commitment as a writer.
After completing a B.A. and an M.A. in English at Carleton, Chariandy headed to York University to earn his PhD by writing one of the first dissertations on the subject of Black Canadian writing. Now a professor of literature in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University, Chariandy is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, Soucouyant (2007) and Brother (2017), as well as the non-fiction work I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter (2018). His academic and creative work engages with intersections of racism, class, and belonging in contemporary Canadian culture.
Fourth-year English major and published poet Manahil Bandukwala recently spoke with David Chariandy about his work, his memories of Carleton, and the future of the humanities.
MB: You talk about discovering “the open magic of literature” at university in I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You. Could you tell us about your time at in English Carleton?
DC: I vividly remember attending my first English lecture. It was by Dr. Wurtele, a medievalist, and he concluded the lecture by reciting a part of The Canterbury Tales as it would have sounded in Chaucer’s own time. I was mesmerized by the language — an English at once alien and familiar, a ‘common tongue’ only beginning to be recognized in official contexts and by the social elite. I wonder if the magic I felt in hearing this relatively early version of English owed something to the fact that I had heard my own parents speak a vernacular all of my life — an English likewise understood to be ‘common,’ and yet possessing its own complexity and incantatory power.
Other early influences upon me were Professor Christopher Levenson, a poet who liked a brief non-fiction assignment I submitted, and Professor Ian Cameron, a Shakespearian who seemed to think I had promise with essay writing. During lectures, Professor Cameron would sometimes call upon me to recite passages aloud, perhaps as a way of helping me overcome my shyness with public speaking. But an essential turn in my studies happened when I began to discover literature that spoke to me in more intimate ways. At first, I had to discover these writings on my own — the essays of James Baldwin, for instance. But when I reached the upper years of my degree, I had the chance to take courses with professors like Enoch Padolsky, Parker Duchemin, and Jack Healy. They taught writings by Austin Clarke, Joy Kogawa, Maria Campbell, N. Scott Momaday and others. These writings shook and inspired me in profound ways.
MB: The English department now offers a Creative Writing concentration that is very popular with students not just in English, but from across the University. Was creative writing something that you were hoping to pursue as a student at Carleton?
DC: I arrived at Carleton earnestly hoping to become a writer, although I wasn’t at all sure how, or what that really meant. Years before, when I was twelve or younger, I told my mother that all I wanted to do was live alone in the woods and write. But that was joke, if you know anything about me. I actually have no sincere desire to “live in the woods,” or to imagine myself “roughing it” in “nature.” I think my fantasy revealed something about the discomfort I often felt as a child in schools and in society as a whole. I think I imagined that being a writer meant discovering a new language and new stories, new terms for life and social being—but that all of this, ironically, meant also withdrawing from the world. It’s just a ‘romantic’ and threadbare assumption about ‘being a writer,’ of course. But I do remember, all the same, being a very lonely figure during my first semester at university.
I did pursue creative writing during my first years at Carleton, but secretly, and even a bit shamefully. It was only during my third year of studies when I enrolled in a creative writing course — the only one the department then offered, as far as I recall. It was taught by Professor Tom Henighan. I wrote a short story that he felt I should attempt to publish; and I managed to do so, in the student newspaper The Charlatan, a place where I suspect other writers got their precious first chance to publish. Interestingly, the title of my story, “Soucouyant,” become the title of my debut novel some twelve years later. I guess that’s also my experience of ‘creative writing’— something that doesn’t happen all at once, but over a long period of time, and through a lot of hard work.
MB: You grew up in Scarborough, studied in Ottawa and Toronto, and now teach in Vancouver. Your writing is mostly situated in Scarborough and Vancouver. I’m curious about how your experiences at Carleton and in Ottawa found their way into your work. What communities were you a part of in the city?
DC: I don’t think I would have become a writer without the experience of Ottawa. The city gave me my first real chance to get distance from the place where I grew up. Maybe, in general, artists need such distance in order to represent their homes with a newly critical and creative eye. I’m thinking here about James Joyce for Ireland, James Baldwin for the US, Jamaica Kincaid for Antigua, and so on.
An absolutely crucial factor in my educational experience at Carleton was the development of relationships with youths who were like me — Black, post-immigrant kids, oftentimes from the working-class suburbs of cities and with parents who likewise hadn’t had the chance to go to university. I could laugh easily with these youths. I could share fears and hopes that I knew they would ‘get.’ Some of the students most influential upon me were active in university organizations like the West Indian Students Association, the International Students Centre, and the Women’s Centre. These friendships and sensibilities animated in essential ways the overall critical knowledge I was building at university.
MB: You are now a professor in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. Do your experiences as a student shape how and what you teach?
I’m still learning how to teach, and I know I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life. If I do have any ability or positive effect as a teacher, it’s certainly not because I’ve felt lifelong comfort in, and connection to, the academy—but quite the opposite. I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider within a discipline that nevertheless offers you the only real chance to pursue a passion. In my teaching, I try my best to keep in mind that other students may be feeling the same way I did, knowing, of course, that I still have a lot of listening and learning to do in order to appreciate different challenges.
I suppose I could add something else. I was trained as a critic. I have a tremendous respect for the insights of contemporary criticism and cultural theory, and the ways in which they have forced us to reexamine many tired and naïve assumptions about literature. But as a creative writer, I’m also profoundly committed to the category ‘literature.’ I think complex fiction, for instance, contains its own generative and critical power. You can only understand that power if you take it seriously, if you’re prepared to read closely and generously, and to resist the temptation to complete your assessment through a masterful articulation of ‘theory’ long before you’ve even glanced at the novel or poem.
MB: As a professor of literature with three books under your belt, how do you view the “impracticality of the humanities” that you mention in I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You? Do you have anything to say to students about the future of the arts and humanities at a time when they are increasingly under attack?
DC: As you know, I’m speaking sarcastically here when describing the “impracticality” of the humanities. There are many studies that demonstrate the clear practical value of a humanities degree in terms of long-term earning power, or one’s chances at successive promotions within a job or institution. I also haven’t yet encountered a person who, later in life, regretted pursuing a humanities degree. Moreover, it’s clear that the humanities are essential for society as a whole. How else can we collectively imagine and pursue a genuinely just society except by knowing history, by learning how to think critically and imaginatively, and by fully grasping the power of language and story? To me, it makes perfect sense for those seeking to preserve or advance a fundamentally unjust society to attack and defame the humanities, or to pretend that we somehow can’t afford to support them. This seems to me nothing but an excellent strategy.
But I think it’s possible to make other cases for the humanities. Perhaps ‘the humanities’ is an especially powerful ideal when, historically, your own humanity has been violently denied. Perhaps reading is especially valuable when your ancestors were forbidden to read, or when, even as a child, you were unfairly singled out by those in authority to be ‘practical,’ and to allow others the task of complex thinking and imagining. Perhaps the matter is simpler still—that, alive to the mystery of existence, you simply wish to reflect upon it, and to explore what others have thought and felt about this question.
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