Shani Mootoo, writer, visual artist and video maker, was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1957 to Trinidadian parents. She grew up in Trinidad and relocated at age 24 to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She currently lives in Toronto, Canada.
At an early age Mootoo showed a talent for drawing, painting and writing, expressing at age of 10 the goal of becoming an artist. Her early efforts, and what were to prove to be a lifelong interest in food, cooking, and aesthetics in general, were encouraged by her mother Indra née Samaroo, while a sense of social responsibility and political activism, evident in the themes in her work, and in her work practice itself, can be said to have been inherited from her father Romesh Mootoo, medical family doctor and Trinidad politician, who held among other posts the positions of party leader, Mayor of San Fernando and Senator. As a child Mootoo has said that her short poems would terrify her parents because of the two closing lines that expressed love between two men, or love between two women. She has also said that her parents worried for what those themes might mean for her future, which is why she put her words away and chose to paint instead. She claims that she came back to writing accidentally and expressed a worry that she was not a writer but a painter first.
Mootoo’s visual art and video work have been exhibited internationally, and her fiction has been translated into 9 languages. Her paintings have been displayed at the New York Museum of Modern Art. On the topic of her visual work, Mootoo has said that as a victim of child abuse she found it safer to use pictures rather than words. She had been sexually abused by her uncle from the age of 2 to 13 and the theme of incest and sexual abuse is prevalent in her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night. Mootoo has spoken out against child abuse and in 1989 she addressed Sex Offenders at Stave Lake Correctional Centre about being a survival of child abuse and suffering. Mootoo uses her art as a way to deal with the trauma of her childhood and has discussed feelings of confusion as to why the universe would let child abuse happen, while also claiming that as a survivor, she and all those that have suffered at the hands of abusers must come to terms with the trauma and understand what to do with suffering.
Her novels are found on course lists in the Departments of English, Liberal Arts, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Studies at Universities in the Caribbean, Canada, The USA, England, Europe, India, and Australia. Her writing and art work have been extensively critically reviewed, and have been the subject of conferences, articles, journals and books. She has served as Writer in Residence at the University of Alberta, the University of Guelph and the University of the West Indies, as a Visiting Scholar at Mills College in California, USA, and is a frequent invitee on the international reading and speaking scene. In 2008, the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados, hosted a "Symposium on the Fictions of Shani Mootoo in the Context of Caribbean Women’s Writings".
Mootoo earned a Fine Arts BFA Degree at the University of Western Ontario in 1980 and an MA in English and Theatre from the University of Guelph, 2010. As a multimedia visual artist in Vancouver and New York City, where she lived from 1994 to 1999, she explored in her paintings, photographs and videos themes of gender, sexuality, and race. The themes of her work resonated with Mootoo's experiences as an adolescent in Trinidad and as an immigrant adult in Canada. Her visual art and video work have traveled and been acclaimed internationally. She is now teaching the Creative Writing Program at the University of Toronto.
Mootoo’s first literary publication, Out on Main Street, a collection of short stories, was solicited by the Vancouver-based feminist publishing house Press Gang in 1993 and was the beginning of her literary career. Her first full-length novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, published by Press Gang in 1996, was shortlisted for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize in 1997, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Chapters Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Set on a tropical island, Cereus Blooms and Night is written in a luminous, poetic style that evokes the duality of the Caribbean landscape, the simultaneously sublime and dangerous qualities of place. It has been published in 15 countries and has won the New England Book Sellers Award in 1998. The novel is narrated by a male nurse and caretaker, and explores trauma, madness and redemption, the legacies of sexual abuse, and the boundaries between heterosexual and homosexual desire.
In 2002, Mootoo followed up her largely successful first novel with a collection of poetry, The Predicament of Or.
Mootoo's most recent novel, Valmiki's Daughter (2009), depicts a father and daughter who struggle to come to terms with secrets. Mootoo has said that the story is about a father trying to help his daughter from leading the same kind of closeted life that he has led. Set in San Fernando, Trinidad, Viveka and her father's lives are each underpinned by the constraints of class and race, and most importantly by the sexual conventions of their society. Set against a strongly evoked backdrop of place, Valmiki's Daughter charts Viveka's coming to terms with the hard understanding that love faces society's obstacles, and her knowledge of her certain survival. Valmiki's Daughter was long-listed for 2009's Scotiabank Giller Prize. In an interview Mootoo has explained her realization that she had written about food on almost every page of Valmiki's Daughter without realizing so. She discusses the importance of food and entertaining people in Trinidadian Culture, as well as in her life and her other work.
Shani Mootoo's body of work has made a substantial contribution to literature, particularly with respect to her ability to weave sublimity of prose, and the natural world evoked by this, with individual trauma. In this way her work speaks to a larger experience, with the specificities of place, history and sexuality reflects a universal desire for truth, love and beauty. By foregrounding sexual difference in much of her work, Mootoo creates space for alternative experiences and in so doing challenges and undoes the dehumanizing conservatism of Caribbean society and elsewhere. By insisting on the truth of experience, Mootoo creates a world in which a kind of reconciliation is always possible, even in life's most contentious moments. Mootoo does not want to be seen as an Indo-Trinidadian-Irish-Canadian-lesbian writer, despite her diverse background, she appreciates just being known as Canadian writer.
Videos written, directed and filmed by Shani Mootoo
- And the Rest is Drag, 32 mins, 2010 with Melisa Brittain and Danielle Peers (KingCrip Productions)
- View, 8 mins, 2000
- Guerita and Prietita, 23 mins, 1999 with Kath High
- Her Sweetness Lingers, 18 mins,1998
- The Wild Woman in the Woods, 12 mins, 1992
- A Paddle and a Compass, 8 mins, 1992 with Wendy Oberlander
- English Lesson, 5 mins, 1990
- Lest I Burn, 8 mins, 1989
Selected visual art exhibitions and video screenings
- Topographies, The Vancouver Art Gallery, 1997
- Transculture, The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, 1995
- The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, New York, USA, 1994, 1995
- Queens Museum, New York, USA, 1995
- Solo Exhibition, The National Gallery, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1980
- Out on Main Street (1993)
- Cereus Blooms at Night (1996)
- The Predicament of or (2001)
- He Drown She in the Sea (2005)
- Valmiki's Daughter (2009)
- Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab (2014)
- "Shani Mootoo: 2012 Literature Award Winner".
- "Canadian Lit & Culture".
- "Writer's History".
- "Writers History".
- "UWA Publishing".
- Andrew Vowles, "A New Write of Passage", People at Guekph, Volume 53, No. 16, October 28, 2009.
- "Shani Mootoo", Sawnet Bookshelf.
- "An interview with Shani Mootoo".
- Maureen Phillips, "Book review: Valmiki's Daughter - Shani Mootoo crafts treacherous seas", November 25, 2008.
- "Shani Mootoo: A Brief Biography".
- "Code write". Xtra!, June 18, 2009.