Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab

Posted on Feb 29, 2016

Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab
photoIt took me forever to finally read Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab partly because of school commitments and partly because of writing commitments. I sat down with it this weekend and basically gobbled it down over two days. Mootoo’s voice is like silk, people. It wraps around one and feels so damn good in there.

This novel is about a young man’s search for his Trinidadian parent. The prose is elegiac, lyrical, elegant. What is most entrancing is Mootoo’s attention to detail, to particular moments, as they shift, and alter a scene’s meaning, and the exquisite texture of that movement as it accumulates. The novel, about a transitioned female-to-male character, and the beauty and suffering of a single lifetime, is most seriously about transformation — about becoming other than what you are, in order to become more closely what you are meant to be.

The form the novel takes — as the young man listens to his parent, and reads letters to and from this man, and then re-animates in his own writing the energetic impulse inherent in this man’s story, is also concerned with the alchemy of artistic transformation, and how story emerges from its various places — memory, self-narration, the community, loved ones, and ones who do not love one. The magic of Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is that the prose itself, as it mysteriously runs along a current in the reader’s brain, latching there — well, for me at least! — begins its own transformative work.

“Your black hair in this photo is pulled back, but looks as if it has been freshly groomed, with deep grooves that could only have been caused by the teeth of a large comb. Because of all this, and because the water spraying out of the shower tap hasn’t disturbed your hair, and the mascara and the kohl that thickly outline your large bright eyes haven’t run, the photo seems staged. The water from the shower hits your hair and each drop, or rather dash, each smart dash, shatters like fireworks”

I want so badly to spoil the novel by quoting at length from its final scene. I won’t, of course, but the temptation is huge. The scene runs pages and pages, and in it, we witness a gorgeous shock alongside the young man. He can’t have imagined himself in this scene, and even as he tried, he failed so badly, the scene becomes almost a joke in its insistence of being NOT that thing he thought it would be. We also — or certainly most of us — can’t begin to imagine this scene that Mootoo painstakingly delivers to us, in tiny, shifting new knowledge, so that in the end, we are the young man, being wrought anew. It’s one of the most beautiful, smart pieces of writing I’ve come across in a while.

I probably should disclose to you that I know and love Shani Mootoo and that this should not diminish in the least what I’ve just written. You should read this gorgeous book because it is that good AND because I adore its author.

Shani started out her adult life as a visual artist and has been painting again. I bought this diptych from her this summer — a swing on the left and a lantern on the right. These images helped keep me moving and inspired while I wrote the first draft of a new novel this past summer: