The setting of Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night on the imaginary island of Lantanacamara is assumedly a fictional one. Mootoo presents Lantanacamara in an almost mystical light, its realities often seeming so far removed from any real geographical place that one cannot doubt the novel is thoroughly fiction. Despite this veneer of fiction, however, many aspects of the events and setting of the novel are autobiographical, as Mootoo infuses characters and places with her own history.
The fictitious setting of Paradise, Lantanacamara for Mootoo's novels echoes in many respects the colonial past of Trinidad, the island on which Mootoo grew up. Lantanacamara , in which everybody "wish they could be somebody or something else" (238) is steeped with remnants of colonialism. Mala's own grandfather was recruited as a servant laborer to the island, and Reverend Thoroughly, the white minister from the Shivering Northern Wetlands sent to convert the island's inhabitants to Christianity, are characters rife with colonial implications. Such references echo the colonial past of Mootoo's Trinidad and her experience as a non-native Indian within it.
Parallels exist not only between the setting of the novel and Mootoo's own geographical history, but also between Mootoo's personal history and the stories of the characters. Mootoo crafts the character of Mala, in particular, to parallel portions of her own history. Like Mala in the novel, Mootoo was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Mala, as a result of the trauma of her father's abuse, eventually "all but rid herself of her words" (126). This rejection of verbalization also mirrors Mootoo's own life, in which, after Mootoo's grandparents failed to acknowledge her claim that her uncle had sexually abused her, abandoned spoken word altogether as a means of communication. Although the specific circumstances and outcome of the fictitious Mala's abuse and abandonment of language and Mootoo's own differ, Mala's character and her similarities to Mootoo again emphasize the autobiographical presence in the novel.
To what extent Cereus Blooms at Night is fiction infused with autobiography or autobiography infused with fiction and fantasy is debatable, but the interplay of these two modes of writing pervade the text. Although one can read the text successfully without any prior knowledge of Mootoo's personal history, this added knowledge reveals to the reader an undeniably autobiographical aspect of the text. Mootoo is able to describe Mala's life and surroundings with such impeccable detail and vividness partially because of her autobiographical connection to the text. Mootoo's ability to meld both fact and fiction into one narrative infused with life and so delicately woven yields a masterpiece, indeed.
Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Pais, Arthur J. "Writing to Forget Child Abuse." India Today. 2 November 1998:77
Last modified: 5 December 2003