André Alexis on Reality and Transformation

In your story “Consolation,” a Black Trinidadian doctor moves to Canada with his family in the late nineteen-sixties and develops a habit of sleeping with his female patients. The story is written from the point of view of his son, as an adult looking back after the deaths of both his parents. Why did you choose that voice and perspective for the narrative?

This is a surprisingly difficult question for me. I’m not someone who is all that interested in autofiction. Having been deeply influenced by the folktales of Trinidad, where I was born, and by folktales from around the world, I’m drawn to stories that transform or exaggerate the world. Not just fantastical ones. The “Circe”/Nighttown section of “Ulysses”—which I recently reread—is long and sometimes repulsive, but it plays with reality and fantasy in an exemplary way. So I began to wonder what it would be like to start from reality—which I rarely do—and deform it. The reality, in this case, was the death of my father, and talking about my father meant returning to a time when he was a source of fascination to me. The first draft of “Consolation” was a fairly straightforward account of my time in Petrolia, Ontario, where I grew up. But that first draft was unsatisfying because it relied on “the truth”—my young self’s version of the truth—and, to my mind, the truth as such is the opposite of transformative. It doesn’t provide the thrill I get from folktales or, say, manga or Manhwa. So, in shaping my narrator’s voice and perspective, I was driven by the need to infuse the narrative with storytelling, as well as with a sense of my other obsession: Canada, the land, its small towns, its dilapidated barns. Sam, the narrator of “Consolation,” is as matter-of-fact and un-judgmental as my favorite storytellers tend to be, even when what he’s telling you is heightened and emotionally over-the-top.

Sam feels some ambivalence toward both parents. He mentions that he was left with his grandmother for a year as a three-year-old, and when he was reunited with his parents they had become strangers; there was a mistrust that stayed with him. Why do you think that that year apart, at such an early age, would create such a lasting distance?

This being left behind is a personal detail. My parents left me in Trinidad when I was two, and I did not see them again until I was almost three and a half. It was a traumatic episode, as you’d expect, and it was probably the start of my fascination with transformation. I remember—or I think I do, anyway—feeling that the people I was supposed to feel something for, my parents, inspired no feelings in me at all, except maybe resentment. I didn’t know them, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know them. Moving from Trinidad to Canada was just as disorienting. The double shock of encountering the strangers who were my parents and a landscape that was so inexplicable—I mean, can anyone really explain snow to a three-year-old from San Juan?—was at the root of the alienation I felt from my parents and from Canada. It’s important to add, though, that I came to love both very deeply, to love them even more than I might otherwise have done, because I was aware of what could be lost.

Looking back on the small town where he grew up, Sam says that if he had been born in Canada he might have been happy there. Why does having spent the first four years of his life in Trinidad prevent him from being happy in Bellefeuille?

This goes back to my previous answer, I guess. Knowing the feel of the ocean, the taste of chenette, the smell of my grandfather’s sweet shop, how could I be happy in small-town Ontario? My narrator has inherited my childhood longing for Trinidad, a longing that was not (initially, anyway) assuaged by Canada. In a word, it’s the longing that short-circuits happiness.

As the only Black man in Bellefeuille, the father is frequently told that he looks like whatever other Black man is famous at the time—from Malcolm X to Richard Pryor—although he doesn’t actually resemble any of them. Do you think it’s possible for him to have a real connection with his white patients, in which they see him as an individual rather than as a skin color?

I do. I don’t believe race is an insurmountable barrier. And, in any case, familiarity tends to lessen the significance of skin color, when it comes to interactions with individuals, anyway. I mean, given sufficient time and acquaintance, I think it’s possible to dislike people for something other than their race. It’s also possible to love them and, of course, amor vincit omnia. So it could be that the father was genuinely seeking love—whatever he imagined “love” to be.

Like Sam, as you’ve said, you grew up in a Black Trinidadian family in southern Ontario at a time when that was a rarity. Do the ways in which the fictional family does or doesn’t encounter discrimination align with your own experience?

Yes-ish. I imagine my parents’ experiences were different from mine. My mother was much more resentful of the discrimination she encountered than my father was, in his position as a well-respected doctor. He wanted to stay, while my mother was impatient to leave. For me, Petrolia was a good place. My friends were the kind of friends one makes when one is young, and, for the most part, I didn’t experience the racism that might have been more common in a larger city. There is something about small towns that lessens the effect of differences without eradicating them. You become “the Black kid who lives on Grove Street,” while someone else is “the rich kid who lives on Princess” or “the Italian kid who lives on King.” There were few enough people in town that most of them could be labelled and, once labelled, accommodated. This doesn’t mean that racism didn’t exist for me, but racists were like vicious farm dogs: you knew where they lived, and you could mostly avoid them.

What is the consolation in “Consolation”?

I suppose the story should properly be called “Consolations,” in that the consolation on offer is different for each of the main characters. For the father, it is the possibility of love overcoming his doubt and fear. For the mother, it is the possibility of salvaging (and holding on to) something from the past: the joy she felt during her courtship. For the narrator, it is the possibility of recovering a kind of clarity about his parents, despite their deaths. That said, maybe the only consolation is love itself, though it has many forms.

I believe “Consolation” will be included in a story collection you’re compiling, as will your previous story in the magazine, “Houyhnhnm.” These two stories both describe the evolution of family relationships and both are informed by grief. Will the rest of the book follow these themes?

Yes, “Consolation” and “Houyhnhnm” are both from a forthcoming collection called “Other Worlds.” The stories in “Other Worlds” are all about parents and children. They were all inspired by the death of my father and my mother’s dementia. Under the circumstances, grief was probably unavoidable as a theme. But so was love. And, more surprisingly, the idea of parentage expanded to include literary parentage so that there are stories inspired by a number of writers I adore: Yasunari Kawabata, Tommaso Landolfi, Jane Austen, Witold Gombrowicz, Pu Songling. The sister of grief is gratitude, I suppose, and that gratitude is something that helped me through the writing of stories that all began with the feeling of loss and, mostly, ended with a sense of reconciliation. Not yet joy, but close enough to allow me to go on. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *