André Alexis: the puzzle of “home” | Closeup

Born in Trinidad, brought up in Canada, writer André Alexis is a “Nowherian” — and that complicated identity, along with his passion for exploring big ideas, drives his philosophical and deeply literary novels. A recent string of awards has raised his international profile, but as Donna Yawching learns, it was no overnight success for one of the most original writers in both Caribbean and Canadian literature

  • AndrŽé Alexis, Trinidadian-Canadian author of Fifteen Dogs. Photo by Zoe Davidson
  • Fifteen Dogs
  • Other books by AndrŽé Alexis

It is fair to say that André Alexis is a writer like no other. Of course, one might argue that’s true of any writer worth his salt — but, with Alexis, there’s enough salt to flavour an ocean.

Name one other writer who has won a country’s highest literary prize with a book (ostensibly) about a pack of dogs, or one whose version of God appears to be a talking sheep. His short story about a young man’s obsessive desire for a soucouyant predates the Twilight series by at least a decade, and another in which all the characters have versions of his own name is just flat-out weird.

And yet Alexis is not a “novelty” writer, seeking out the outrageous in order to make a splash. On the contrary, he is a deeply philosophical, unfailingly literary author, whose passionate interest is the exploration of ideas. Big ideas: love, power, divinity, the concept of home — all of which show up in his works, twisting and turning into different forms, different visions. “I have a very small set of concerns,” he quips. “But I work them like crazy.”

Born in Trinidad in 1957, Alexis moved to Canada when he was three and a half. He grew up largely in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, with stints in small-town Ontario, before ending up in Toronto thirty years ago. Home, for him, is a conundrum, a constant search. “It’s one of the explorations of my lifetime,” he says. “I keep thinking about it and wondering about it and questioning what it is. Having lost it as a child, it’s very difficult to find it again.”

This is a theme that recurs in virtually all of his work. It runs like an undercurrent throughout his first novel, Childhood (1998) — a fictional autobiography that has very little to do with his actual life — and closes the narrative in several other works. In Asylum, the author, musing on his self-exile, writes: “I now think the hardest part of leaving home has been the loss of coherence.” A character at the end of Hidden Keys “wondered if home were people or a place. It was, of course, both and neither.” 

And in Fifteen Dogs (winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most coveted literary award), the last nanosecond of consciousness of the last dog alive — not coincidentally, the bard, the poet, the troubadour — is a flashback to “home,” and an awareness of love, which are perhaps the same thing.

With so many tantalising — and often contradictory — hints, it is impossible not to wonder where André Alexis considers to be home. Is he Trinidadian? Is he Canadian? Both? Neither? His answer, of course, is enigmatic: home, he declares, “is multiform; it’s not any one thing. It’s the sound of the chickens in the backyard, the sound of the sea; but also, it’s snow, pine trees, the silence that comes in winter.” (A conversation with Alexis is like this: ideas, images, walking on a cloud.)

His earliest experiences of separation and loss, dislocation not just physical but also emotional, may be responsible for his Nowherian identity (a term coined by St Lucia’s Nobel laureate Derek Walcott). When he was barely one year old, Alexis’s Trinidadian parents decided to migrate to Canada: his father to study medicine, his mother law. They left their two children — André and his baby sister Thecla — with separate sets of relatives. His mother Ena Borde now says, “André felt we should not have separated them. I think that affected him a lot when he was young.” Alexis lived with an uncle for two and a half years, until — pregnant with her third child — Ena reunited her family, bringing the children to Canada.

Alexis views this period of his life as “two breaches: there was the loss of my parents, and (subsequently) the loss of my home. It makes you re-examine what the world is, at a very basic level. And doing it at three or four, you don’t have the equipment; you have to invent the equipment to understand the world. And so Canada was the country to learn home in, not to be at home.”

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His books reflect this split: both cultural realities are overt in the narratives; neither is denied, neither is idealised. His description of a wedding or a wake is instantly recognisable by any West Indian, anywhere in the world. A costume parade in small-town Ontario is Trinidad’s Carnival in miniature. Alexis writes in pristine English, but the occasional Trini phrase slides slyly into the prose (“Oh lors!” wails one character, with not even a hint of explanation to the nonplussed non-Caribbean reader, who probably dismisses it as a typo). Alexis loves it when a fellow-Trinidadian catches these little winks, like a secret code.

“My work is the work of an immigrant,” he says, “and couldn’t not be. If you take a mango seedling and put it in Canada, what is it? It’s still a tropical plant, and always will be. I’m a tropical plant.”

Which would make perfect sense, if his works were overtly about transplant: the hackneyed immigrant story (stranger in a strange land, obstacles/triumphs/heartbreaks/redemption). But they’re not — his dislocations are more often mental than geographical. This mango seedling has been thoroughly naturalised: writing about Ottawa and Toronto, or the Ontario countryside, Alexis achieves a sense of place that is more vivid, more real, than the born-and-bred Canadian novelists, most of whom are still searching plaintively for “identity” (“We are nice, we are polite, we are not American”).

In an early interview with Canadian literature professor Branko Gorjup (published in Books in Canada, April 1998), Alexis declared: “I don’t feel myself particularly part of any branch of the Canadian literary tradition, but I don’t feel myself disconnected from it either. As to the West Indian heritage . . . yes, I am very much West Indian in the way I grew up . . . Trinidad is and always will be the first environment that I was exposed to. However, that doesn’t mean that I consider myself a West Indian writer. I couldn’t write as I write now had I stayed in Trinidad . . . It may be that alienation was necessary for my creativity.”

Alexis was drawn to writing early in life. “I wanted to be either a musician, or something artistic,” he recalls. He started playing guitar around age fourteen, and picked up writing shortly afterwards. He still plays the guitar, but clearly writing won the creativity derby. (Though not completely: at the time of our interview, he was working on the libretto for an opera.)

He studied English at Carlton University, but after a year “I realised I didn’t really want to do English,” he explains, with no apparent irony. Next he took a shot at Russian, lasting half a year. “That was the last time I was in university. I don’t have any degrees,” he reveals, almost proudly. His high-achieving parents were less than thrilled. Says Ena Borde: “As a parent you think, he has a good mind, why doesn’t he get a degree that would take him through life?” But she knew better than to press her shy, bookish son: “I always gave my children the freedom to make their own decisions.”

Abandoning academia, Alexis found a job in a bookshop — a way to be surrounded by books without having to fit them into the “completist” framework of formal education. He read widely and esoterically, but denies being erudite: “I just like ideas. Ideas are my natural subject, because I think the human mind is my natural subject.” Nevertheless, his books are studded with names and theories that the average reader would struggle to recognise.

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At thirty, Alexis moved to Toronto, where destiny patiently awaited him. His daughter Nicola was born a few years later — shortly before Alexis was fired from his job at Book City for refusing to work overtime at an event. (“Insubordination?” I suggest helpfully. “Yes, insubordination,” he exclaims. “I like that word, it makes me look like a rebel!”).

He was unemployed, with an infant daughter to support. “The proper thing,” he muses, “would have been to get a proper job. But I knew if I did, I would never be a writer.” Instead, he applied for unemployment insurance, and wrote. “It could have gone either way,” he shrugs.

Alexis’s work attracted notice right from the start: his first book of short stories, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and his first novel, Childhood (1998), took two Canadian awards. Pastoral (2014) was on another prestigious shortlist, and finally with Fifteen Dogs (2015) Alexis hit the jackpot, winning the C$100,000 Giller Prize as well as Canada’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

But it was a long, slow road, and rags were a very real possibility before riches finally appeared. “I would get up at 5 am and write,” he recalls. “I earned $50 here doing a book review, $50 there. I mean, you worked like a beast. It’s a life. It’s not a rich life.”

“The main thing that stands out with André is his stick-to-itiveness,” says his mother. “He was writing for almost forty years before getting recognition. There were some pretty dry years.”

 

The dry years are (probably) behind him. In March 2017, Alexis was shocked to receive the Windham Campbell Prize, administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Candidates are nominated secretly — they know about it only if they win. Awarded in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work, it is, at US$165,000, one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

Alexis’s closest friend, the poet Roo Borson, thinks the recognition is well deserved and long overdue. “He lived a very impoverished life for a long time,” she says. “Now he can live by his art. That’s incredibly important, that makes an enormous difference in a person’s life. He has more freedom — he’s just generally happier.”

Asked if he’s surprised at all this fame and fortune, Alexis doesn’t hesitate: “Yes. I never expect to do well. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good writer, or that I’m relentlessly self-deprecating; it’s that you don’t think about that.” He fully expects (he says) to sooner or later find himself back at his old $50-a-review life (“I think I’m going to go back to it. I’m sure”). But this seems unlikely. If nothing else, he is in high demand for literary juries and university writing residencies.

And for good reason. Alexis is an extraordinarily skilled writer, as well as an unusually thoughtful one. “André’s writing is gorgeous,” exclaims Borson. “It’s playful, the sentences are beautiful, I love reading them. It has an ingenuous charm. He’s one of the best writers out there today. He’s devoted to the aesthetics of writing.” His mother, less effusive but still his biggest fan, comments: “He can write a sentence — there’s no doubt about that.”

His writing “reflects the world, in a skewed way,” says Borson. “There is a philosophical basis, but his work is not academic. He’s not scholarly. He takes in a huge amount of information, then re-combines it in a way that is deeply thoughtful and yet playful at the same time.”

The best example of this might be his prizewinning novel Fifteen Dogs, Alexis’s most accessible work. As it opens, two ancient Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes, are drinking in a Toronto pub. (This is treated as a mundane event.) A drunken bet leads them to grant the gift of human consciousness to a group of dogs, in order to see if they end up any happier than humans. The implications are tremendous: the book is an extended rumination on power, violence, religion, love, language, and poetry — all while presenting the world from a canine point of view (sensuality, savagery, smells, food).

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“I’ve displaced the humans,” Alexis says. “So when you look at the dogs you’re not seeing them as humans, but you’re not seeing them as dogs either. It’s a trick of the light.” (Why dogs? Alexis’s stint babysitting a friend’s dogsledding operation in rural Ontario may have had something to do with that. As Borson says: real life, skewed.)

His books may be onion-like in their numerous layers, but in person, Alexis is straightforward and easy to talk to, with not a hint of pretentiousness. “I’m a very boring human being,” he insists. “I basically just sit around and write.” In Toronto, his sitting-around happens in a neighbourhood Starbucks café: “I take a corner and I stay there for five hours. I usually have my headphones in. I have a coffee, I have a sprouted grain bagel with cream cheese, and then I write. That’s it.”

When he can, though, he prefers to go far away and sequester himself: the book that gave him the most pleasure was Pastoral, which was written “every single day” for three months, in London, England. “It’s a city I love, a city that I’m a stranger in,” he explains. He also has fond memories of a three-month stint in Buccoo Village, Tobago: “It’s my kind of place because, think about it, nothing’s happening! It’s a writer’s paradise. I was five minutes from the sea and I never saw the sea! I’m a writer.”

 

And an ambitious one, at that. While most novelists are grateful to get one book done and (if they’re lucky) move on to the next, Alexis is currently working on a construct of five. He calls it a “quincunx,” which is technically the geometric pattern of five found on dice, playing cards, and dominoes: four points arranged in a square, with a fifth in the middle. Interpreting this as a kind of divine ordering, Alexis has written the first three books of the structure, and is working on the fourth — but, to complicate matters, the final book will actually be number three of the series, the dot in the middle, connecting and illuminating all the others. (“André needs to challenge himself continuously,” Borson muses.)

This massive project is not a series in the conventional sense: the first three books do not follow each other in chronology, storyline or form. Pastoral is structured to reflect Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony; Fifteen Dogs is a Greek apologue (a moral tale); Hidden Keys is a giant and pointless riddle, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The overlap is in the ideas being explored, the rocks being turned over.

Alexis says he had the entire structure in mind before starting on the first book: “They all came to me at once — so I know what the last one is. It’s convenient. But it’s also why I feel like I’ve been doing the same work for the last ten years.” When all five are written, he hopes to publish an omnibus edition, in the proper order, which, he says, “will reveal the ideas in different lights, and different depths.”

“The quincunx is probably the biggest project that André will write in his life,” says Borson. Maybe she’s right. But — Alexis being who he is — who knows? Maybe a sextet is percolating behind those owlish glasses, even as we speak.