Review of Sweet Like Saltwater

from The Caribbean Writer

Volume 15, 2001

by Harald Leusmann
Muncie, Indiana

Psst, here comes a young writer, crossing your path almost noiselessly, who tells stories in such an unpretentious fashion that one is left wondering about the unbearable lightness of his craftsman-ship and his ability to uphold the reader’s attention over the course of the sixteen short stories presented here. Some of them may be called short stories with an emphasis on stories, while others are only moments carved out of a character's life in order to be revealed for nothing longer than the duration of a shooting star. One can indulge in the rare occasion of witnessing a shoot-ing star in the night sky and lament its far too quick disappearance; however, the stories here can be read again and again.

Raywat Deonandan is always doing something different and refutes expectations one may have, especially with his biography in mind. Born in Guyana, of Indian descent, and brought up in Toronto where he currently resides, one can almost smell the spices, hear steel-bands playing calypso, and taste the lush salty waters of the Caribbean seeping from between the covers of this slim volume. Sweet Like Saltwater, though, is more than this reiteration of preconceptions, and Deonandan is more than happy to share his vision of a modern cosmopolitan who happens to live in a country he has accepted as home despite the difficulties he has encountered there. It has to be said that he is one of the lucky and outstanding among those immigrants from the Caribbean to Canada. Provided with a good education (a Ph.D. in epidemiology and working in that field), a wide variety of interests (biotechnology, karate and space exploration among them), and a passion for writing, he represents a “displaced” person with a multiplicity of characteristics that constitute the source for good storytelling.

A recurring image of Sweet Like Saltwater is that of water – Indians came across the water to Guyana, Deonandan’s family emigrated from the Caribbean to Canada, and he is close to water now in Toronto with Lake Ontario in close proximity. In the intro-duction he reveals the mixed feelings he, as a representative of the Indian diaspora in Canada, has about the aspect of belonging and identity: “[F]or we displaced Indian children of the Caribbean, as distant as our birth from that realm may seem, the taste of our blood’s history is as sweet as the saltwater of that warm sea” (ix).

Recalling those bittersweet moments, Deonandan’s first few stories start out in Guyana, where the colonizers are still present in the form of a genie unleashed from a bottle (“Children of the Melange”). Colonialism’s legacy is the topic of “Nataraj,” formi-dably outlined and told with the aforementioned lightness. Located on the very top on a scale from one to ten, this story is about a boy who grows up in rural Guyana, becomes aware of his darker skin that distinguishes him from other Indians, and gets initiated into Indian community life, experiencing love, death, and rebirth, with his father being “returned to the cycle” (11). In the village Deonandan grew up in, he remembers that there was Bungy, who was maybe “a little sick in the head, like North American big-city people who holler at phantoms and direct imaginary traffic” (“King Rice” 16). Bungy became so dangerously obsessed and violent during cricket matches that his behaviour “was something we gave to the English...many decades before British football hooliganism” (17).

From there on Deonandan moves the settings of the stories further away from Guyana – first to Trinidad (“Far From Family”) and then beyond the Caribbean to Singapore (“Son of Caine”) and finally to Canada (“Sanjay and Allison,” and “In Flight”). In between, one comes across colourful stories about competing storytellers, one of whom “exuded such sly and quixotic subtlety that the ear was bathed in allegory” (“The Rhymer” 37), post-cataclysmic science-fiction eco-thrillers (“The Reef”), one-night stands (“Camel’s Lips”), a failed journey to fame, glory, and rich-es (“El Dorado”) and an ironic as well as mocking tale about why the British went on imperial adventures in North Africa where “even the camels held stiff upper lips” (“The Ten Thousand and One Directions” 76).

Finally, Deonandan arrives in Canada where he is confronted with stereotypes concerning himself and seems to quarrel about how comfortably he can live with multiculturalism (“While I Drink My Mochacino”) which leads to contemplations on his imaginary twin brother who died in the womb (“Motherland”). Because he knows nothing of the history of his motherland and yet lives io Canada, he identifies with neither place. Rather, when he thinks of “‘back home,’ [his] visions are of swirling sweet prenatal fluids, a miasma through which a pair of semi developed eyes can be made out. They appeal to me in their lifeless way, and I am unable to reach them because my feet are already protruding through into the cold world” (113), thereby stressing his unwillingness to adopt either side completely.

The stories in Sweet Like Saltwater have appeared in various magazines over the course of the past years. By having them col-lected here, they follow Deonandan’s way from Guyana through a period of disorientation to where he is now. Through their wide range of topics and the author’s vivid imagination, these collect-ed stories reveal Deonandan’s convincing literary efforts and raise expectations for the novel he is currently working on.