Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Tyler in Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night

Annie Lee, English 365, Northwestern University

Among the characters of Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler exhibits a clear sense of diasporic Otherness. As a native Lantanacamaran and a newcomer to the town of Paradise, Tyler states that he was, is, and may always be an "outsider" (6). This sense of alienation is especially apparent during his first few weeks at the Paradise Alms House. Not only is he the only man in the profession of nursing, but the staff makes an effort to keep him in the periphery of Paradise Alms House affairs. For example, despite all his formal training abroad, the matron is reluctant to assign him any task besides errands and menial chores (6). In addition, the other nurses often mock him in a "condescending tone," conveying the "malice in their words" (15). Although the Alms House is his residence, he is treated as an unwelcome stranger.

This sense of Otherness can also be perceived through the alienation he feels from his own body and identity. Not quite fitting the hegemonic gender role of heterosexual male, Tyler "pondered the gender and sex roles that seemed available to people, and the rules that went with them" (47). For years, he was preoccupied with understanding "what was natural and what perverse, and who said so and who" (48). After much reflection, he leaves the shores of Lantanacamara in hopes of being somewhere where his "perversion" which he "tried diligently to shake might be either invisible or of no consequence to people" (47-48). This is not surprising, given his admittance of loathing his "unusual femininity" (71). Clearly, Tyler feels lost even when it comes to understanding himself.

The character of Mala, however, reduces Tyler's sense of estrangement and Otherness. Fancying that they share "a common reception from the rest of the world," the nurse straightforwardly states that "[s]he knows [his] nature" (20, 76). The aged but powerful woman prods Tyler in ways that give him the courage to feel more at ease with himself. This is best demonstrated by the diasporic moment in which Tyler changes into the dress that Mala steals for him. Instantly, he imagines himself as being in a female body, excited by the metamorphosis. Yet, Mala's lack of response and attention eventually makes him feel "flat-footed and clumsy," like someone who is "[n]ot a man and not ever able to be a woman, suspended nameless in the limbo state between existence and nonexistence" (77). However, he soon realizes that rather than trying to make a spectacle of him, Mala was simply "permitting [his nature] its freedo." (77). After this experience, Tyler declares that he "had never felt so extremely ordinary, and [he] quite loved it" (78). In this manner, Mala helps Tyler discover who he really is.

A close reading of Tyler's "transformation" reveals that the passage employs a particular narrative gaze. To elucidate, here is a portion of the passage:

My body felt as if it were metamorphosing. It was as though I had suddenly become plump and less rigid. My behind felt fleshy and rounded. I had thighs, a small mound of belly, rounded full breasts and a cavernous tunnel singing between my legs. [76]

To put it simply, there seems to be a sexualized heterosexual gaze of womanhood implicit in this passage. Why did Mootoo depict femininity in terms of the biological, sexualized female body? How does the author seem to depict femininity and masculinity?

Lastly, it is interesting to note that Tyler continually justifies slipping his own stories into Mala's narrative. From the very beginning of the novel, Tyler asks readers to "forgive the lapse" (3). He states, "I must be strict with myself and stay with my intention to relate Mala Ramchandin's story" (15). However, it seems as though he is not strict enough. For example, even though he purports that the significance of including the story about himself and Mr. Hector is not to "dwell on issues about [himself]," this is highly questionable because he elaborates on it at length (74). Furthermore, despite the fact that he begins part II with an avowal to "exercise restraint" in terms of including his own narrative (105), he ultimately ends the book with the triumphant love story between himself and Otoh (with many of his other stories fraught in-between). To what extent could it be said that Cereus is a book about Tyler?

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Last modified 7 January 2005