Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Imagining Home at a Snail's Pace in Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Imagining Home at a Snail's Pace in Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night

Article excerpt

In her novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), Shani Mootoo creates characters that simultaneously inhabit both the centre and margins of her text. As part of the colonised nation of Lantanacamara, both Tyler and Mala are rendered homeless at the start of the novel, and not only do they find themselves swept to the side of their current residence at the Paradise Alms House, they are alienated by its inhabitants and rebuffed by its current cluster of employees. Similarly, despite the ultimate centrality of their narratives, at first glance, the personal voices of these characters seem difficult to locate within the larger context of the novel. Tyler has consciously written himself into the margins of the text, while Mala, unable to speak, is left completely voiceless, though, interestingly, not altogether silent. In fact, I would argue it is the story of Chandin Ramchandin that threatens to overtake this text, for just as the novel centres itself around his mudra house, so too does his narrative seem to centre itself within the novel. As colonised people, the characters in Mootoo's novel find themselves dispossessed and marginalised upon their native soil. When Chandin deliberately chooses to build himself a house in Lantanacamara, he becomes a coloniser in his own right on a microcosmic level, making his home and its surroundings the seat of oppression and tyranny. Mala, as a result, is rendered doubly homeless, and because the reality of home does not exist for her either culturally or personally, she must imagine and create it in alternative ways. When Chandin is killed and his narrative accordingly silenced, Mala slowly redefines what home means to her, first by moving its focus into the garden spaces and ultimately by relocating it within her own imagination and memory. Furthermore, because Mala no longer has the ability to tell her own story at the novel's end, she must rely on others such as Tyler to tell it for her. Thus, in the same way her home is decentralised, so too is her story, for it is the interweaving of her story, along with the stories of several other characters, that creates a narrative that not only lacks 'a centre' but ultimately defies it.

Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, the novel opens with the character of Mala, who arrives at the Paradise Alms House as an ostensibly mad woman, unfit to stand trial for the alleged murder of her father, Chandin Ramchandin. In fact, Mala has become almost like the flora and fauna that surround her, imitating the parrots' calls (rather than vice versa) and closely associated with the cereus plant clipping, given to her soon after her admission to the alms house. Tyler, a cross-dressing and sexually ambiguous male nurse, shares with Mala a kind of sexual hybridity that draws him towards her.1 Throughout the course of the novel, Tyler unravels Mala's story and within it, that of her sexually abusive father, Chandin. Tyler learns that Mala's mother had unwillingly left both she and her sister, Asha, for another woman, the same woman her own father had been in love with years earlier. In the wake of this abandonment, Mala and Asha become victims of Chandin's despotic and, I argue later, colonial rule over their home that included incest and isolation. Despite this trauma, however, Mala does not leave home, but rather becomes its protector and guardian, ultimately rebuilding her house in her own imagination.

In his phenomenological exploration, The Poetics of Space, it is the house that Gaston Bachelard is most interested in. In this work, Bachelard explores the house as a creator of memories and daydreams, and he is particularly interested in the imprint the home has on one's imagination. According to Bachelard, the oneiric house, one's first home, is a kind of first universe, asserting that 'all really inhabited space bears the essence of the notion of home'. As a child, one experiences a sense of intimacy and memory in the home that precedes knowledge and conscious thought. …

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