I remember the first time I read words on a page that mirrored my experiences as a second generation Filipina in Canada. I was disillusioned by many readings of Canadian history and literature that did not venture outside the perspectives of the white, Anglo-Saxon majority. Then, one day I came across a short essay written by a young black woman who was questioning her experiences as she was positioned in Canadian society. Though we did not share the same racial or cultural background, her words resonated many days after, filling me with excitement for explicating thoughts I did not understand and caressing me with eloquent words that awakened feelings I so wanted to express. Ten years later, this foray into "otherness" has become almost commonplace in North America, with the sentiments of displacement and alienation at times regurgitated to the point of blasť. And so it was with pleasant surprise that upon reading Sweet Like Saltwater I was transported back to the time when I read that initial essay, charmed by words that brought breath to some of my experiences.
Sweet Like Saltwater is a fresh and innovative offering to the Canadian literary landscape by promising new writer Raywat Deonandan. Through a potpourri of short stories, Deonandan covers a multi-varied terrain encompassing science, first love and historical fiction. From an imaginary underwater journey that signals a yearning for freedom to an unfolding of the detrimental impact of colonialism, Deonandan's broad scope of encounters and adventures is sometimes serious and often tinged with quirky humour.
A number of Deonandan's stories explore the themes of displacement and the formation of diasporic identity. "We grasp in the food we eat, the tales we tell, and the dreams we concoct in uneasy slumber. In these ways we contemplate the Indianness of our new societies..." writes Deonandan, who is of Indian descent and Guyanese origin. By examining human relations in the past and present as well as the recesses of his imagination, he pieces together a sense of home and belonging amidst external influences that can lead to personal and social alienation. Indeed, Deonandan succeeds in developing stories that discern with perspicacity the sensibilities and complexities underlying this grasping for identity.
For the most part, Sweet Like Saltwater is a lucid and compelling read. A couple of Deonandan's stories, however, appear rough around the edges, with some sentences seemingly lost among others of stellar constructions. These same stories swim for anchor amidst more powerful contributions. A too sudden snipping of these snapshots leaves the reader less than satisfied - expecting more storytelling and exploration of the provocative ideas that have been introduced. An example of the latter occurs when Deonandan touches on the fascination with whiteness but does not engage the idea and its consequences to full fruition.
At the same time, concise gems shine through the pages of his collection, notably "The Reef", "El Dorado" and "Motherland". In these instances, Deonandan binds the reader to his careful attention to detail, thoughtful sensibility and candid storytelling, with a number of beautifully constructed sentences leaving a lasting impression. It is clear that Deonandan is in his element when articulating profound sentiments or in capturing vivid and sensual imagery: "The powdery clouds belched forth from the coral heads, expanding in white spheres of rapidly dissipating consistency."
Sweet Like Saltwater is refreshing in its originality, but a first outing nonetheless, enticing the reader for what is to come from the author's wide repertoire. Deonandan's collection portends an endless fountain of fertile imagination that bodes well for engaging storytelling.
- Loreli C. Buenaventura