Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab by Shani Mootoo

“I asked Sydney what he meant by the phrase “someone like Zain.”  He paused, then said: Someone who hadn’t tried to make him into who he wasn’t, but rather helped him to become who he already was.”

That night Sydney told Jonathan more about his thirty years in Canada:  “Living in Canada,Moving Forward Sideways Sydney said, with its complicated protocols and rules of conduct, is a test indeed to the mettle of anyone who arrives there from a tropical country, indeed anyone from anywhere who lands there with more determination than credentials. Being able to survive in a country like that is a recommendation of all who arrive with the earnest intention to become a grander person than would have been possible had they remained elsewhere, of all who come despite the fear that it will be a feat to achieve anything at all without the structure of culture and family, without the armour of one’s connections. You found out in no time, Sydney said, that the clout your good name carried back home in the village, or on the entire island of Trinidad – an island that could easily be tucked into a bay in Lake Ontario – was useless there.”

It could be said that the book is the story of Jonathan and Sid but then it must be said that it is so much more. Jonathan was Sid’s mother and father. Sid was Jonathan’s mother India’s lover. Sid was absent for several years from Jonathan’s life and Jonathan, during those years, was constantly drawn to his memories of Sid. India and Sid and Jonathan lived in a house in the annex in Toronto where India wrote. India and Sid had met in a bar in a building where India was “reading at the launch of an anthology in which her work appeared, and Sid was attending a marathon video screening”. India gave Sid her number and she told Jonathan many years later that “there was instant attraction between them”.  Sid left the home and his relationships with India and Jonathan when Jonathan was ten years old.

Jonathan’s high school years were rather unhappy ones: “…I’d failed at every subject save for Art and English Literature and Composition, and had embarked on a path of delinquency that included smoking at home and on the school grounds, skipping school, not doing homework – to name the most benign of my transgressions. One might say that I had no imagination when, in order to escape being at home with my mother, I hid away in the reading booths at the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street. But there in the booths I lost myself in chronicling my longings and grievances in a notebook. The school psychologist, with whom I was now well acquainted, encouraged me to show him the notebook, and it was with his sustained provocation and encouragement that I began in earnest to turn the facts of my early life into short fictional narratives and poems.”

He did publish some work (with his mother’s publisher) and he continued to hope that Sid might see these books and contact him. This did not happen. Then the internet provided a means to find Sid but it was a long search. Eventually he came across an announcement for an exhibition of paintings by a Sid Mahale in New York and he went to the gallery for opening night. The painter turned out to be Ugandan and knew of no other Mahales who were from Trinidad. And so the search went on. Jonathan began searching for the name and the location in Trinidad of Sid’s parents’ home. This got better results.

The reunion is important, of course, but the stories through which Jonathan discovers who Sid is and has been are the things which compel the book forward and which provide a wealth of relational insights.

The story which provides the title is one about Sid and her friend Zain. Sid has fallen asleep in a car on the way to her parents’ home and is awakened by her father:

“I had come reluctantly out of sleep, wanting to stay in the place I had gone to, where I had just said to Zain, “Look at the crabs,” and she answered, “That’s you, Sid, that’s just how you move.” I had heard her correctly, but I responded lightly, “Did you say stealthy, like a cat?”
“No, you fool,” she said.  “Sideways. Sideways, like a crab.””

More teasing and chiding and Zain says: “You move like a crab, is what I said. But learn to walk like me. Like a cat. On foot in front of the other.”

In a deft touch later in the book, Jonathan speaks of how he misses the crabs. He has spoken with his Toronto girlfriend and thinks of telling her that if he missed anything “it was the crabs, and I began to tell her about the crabs that were caught in the swamps and sold roadside in neatly tied up bundles.” Jonathan has learned much about Sydney at this point and so has the reader.

I found the ending sad and very beautiful: I didn’t want it to end but there was a peacefulness which the author had created. There was also a satisfying feeling of resolution. Have you read any of Shani Mootoo’s work? I have not read one that I did not thoroughly enjoy.