SFU’s David Chariandy shares insight into his latest book, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and more

Chariandy talks racial politics, the SFU community, and writing

Courtney Miller / The Peak

Written by: Courtney Miller

When David Chariandy reached the door to the coffee shop, we made awkward eye contact and dithered between going for a hug or a handshake because, while this was a professional meeting, Chariandy and I had the pleasure of working together as writers just last year in his creative writing classes.

     At the time, he was working on the book we’re here to discuss: I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter. The book is a deeply personal letter written to his 13-year-old daughter, “to communicate to my daughter my story about how I’ve interpreted my own experience, and perhaps, in part, [. . .] the experiences of my parents.” He confirmed that his daughter had read the book, and in fact had been integral to the process, providing notes and feedback on individual chapters as well as the whole.

     This then begged the question as to why he chose to publish it as a book. After all, her reading it did not require everyone else to be able to read it, too. His response, thought out between bites of sandwich, is that “I think it’s because of the subject matter, honestly.”

     He speaks, of course, about the current political climate, with racial tensions running high most notably in the US, but also in Canada. His book’s opening scene focuses on Chariandy and his daughter experiencing racism right here in Vancouver, when a woman pushes in front of him, stating, “I was born here. I belong here.”

     After that encounter, Chariandy set out to explain the situation to his daughter, because “within the home, I’m not a ‘visible minority.’” That racial experience would not happen in his own home, to him or his children. “It’s only when I step out into the public eye that I become this thing called a ‘visible minority,’” he explains.

     “We live out the politics of race and belonging in the public eye; this is how these matters operate,” he states. “It simply makes sense to have this message in a public experience as well.”

     Chariandy is no stranger to the discussion of racial politics. His two previous novels, Soucouyant and Brother, “most definitely do draw in very complicated ways from [his] experiences and what [he’s] felt and observed” in terms of race. But he agrees that this book “is really my first effort of this kind of platform to address real life.”

     You can tell that Chariandy took this effort seriously. The gap between Soucouyant and Brother was 10 years, but I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You followed Brother in about a year. “I could not have taken the time with this book as I did with the other books simply because it is very much of the moment. It’s about a moment in a person’s life, my daughter’s life — this book wouldn’t make sense at a later moment.” He jokes lightly about how he couldn’t exactly wait a few years again and publish the letter to his 13-year-old daughter when she was 18 or 30.

     Despite the racial commentary in the book, Chariandy is quick to say that “I don’t know if it’s a moment-in-history kind of reach; that’s not what this book is about. It’s not making grand claims about history or digressing about this social landscape.” He reiterates that the book is about his and his family’s experience; it’s not about the world, but just their place within it.

     He was influenced by the history of black writers, and wrote it to engage with “a legacy of black people writing to their loved ones and attempting to convey what it means to live in a particular moment and what they had learned from living in this particular moment. And then they are able to pass on those lessons.”

     When asked if SFU has influenced his writing, paying particular attention to the time he devotes later on in the book to Indigenous peoples, he needs a minute to think it over.

     “My awareness of how much I, as a non-Indigenous person, had to learn about Indigenous culture, Indigenous struggle, Indigenous art, is shaped by my presence here on the unceded ancestral territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam people. And so I don’t think it’s so much SFU, it’s really being here when there’s a powerful presence because of Indigenous people.”

     But he turns it around to explore SFU not as some learning hub but as a community. “I would have to say that even ordinary encounters [. . .] are also sometimes very extraordinary encounters with students and colleagues and people who [ask], ‘What are you working on?’ and we’ve shared words about our writing projects,” he explains. “That’s been inspiring.” So while SFU isn’t really to thank for Chariandy’s growing understanding of Indigenous racial politics, the community that SFU has given him has been “kind and generous” and a “positive influence on the writing.”

     Looking to pass on the positivity, I asked him about any advice he has for budding writers. He’s been asked this before, even in the classes I’ve had with him, and he’s excited to answer it. “I’ve thought about it a lot because I want to offer something meaningful,” he says, but cautions that he can only speak from his own career.

     “If you truly wish to be a writer, then maybe claim that identity and say, ‘OK, well that means that this is my job.’ It’s not something I’m doing kind of in my free time, when I’m not too tired, and also when I’m in a particular mood, waiting for inspiration to hit.” He acknowledges that it’s hard to see and have writing as a profession, because it can be hard to make it or even define what making it really means.

     He says that for himself, “it’s a vocation, a very deep, serious one. Maybe that’s something to reflect upon too: what does it mean to possess that vocation as a writer?” What does it mean to diligently return to the screen or the page, day after day, and power through the work, whether it’s a whole draft within a month, or just a couple of sentences? How do you keep doing it, forcing yourself to do it?

     But Chariandy lands on the crux of the situation almost immediately. “I guess every writer wonders if his or her story matters. If their story matters.” His answer follows quickly, “tell yourself that it does matter . . . hold that in your head during the very difficult process of keeping faith in a project when maybe, at times, you’re not sure.”

     Chariandy is a professor as well as a writer, and he can’t help but ask me about my own writing since I’ve left his classroom behind. I tell him that’s not really part of the interview, but it doesn’t matter. He wants to know, writer to writer, how the vocation is going, if the project I started on is still in the realm of possibility.

     I tell him I can’t be just a writer right now. I can’t claim that identity while I’m up to my nose in homework and jobs that pay an hourly wage. But I tell him I want to keep working at it. Like the sage professor he is, he nods and gives me some encouragements, surprising me with the detail in which he can recall my project from last year.

     He’s not teaching in the fall semester, but he says he’ll be back in January 2019 for anyone who’s looking for a teacher who cares about both the students and the subject. He’s a very thoughtful man, and if you won’t take my word for it, you’ll see the care and attention he devotes to every sentence in I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.