David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter (2018)
Inevitably this book is being compared to Te-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), which was written in the form of a letter to his son, whereas David Chariandy is ostensibly writing a letter to his daughter. And there are similarities: both can be read in a single sitting, both feel almost painfully tender in their parent-y-ness, and both reach backwards to ancestors and forwards to future dreams.
But I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You stems from an incident in a Toronto eatery, when the author was sharing a meal with his then-three-year-old daughter, and confronted by a kindly-but-cruelly expressed racist comment, to which he responded – in that moment – with silence. The impetus for Coates’ and Chariandry seem quite different, one -seemingly a response to overt American violence and the other to a peculiarly subtle but vicious Canadian racism – but both books address the kind of hatred which puts the children of these fathers at risk.
Chariandy also discusses his discovery of James Baldwin in the library: “I didn’t even find myself a chair; I sat right there on the worn carpet in the stacks, mesmerized by what and how he wrote.” And his gratitude at having been able to mend some earlier silences with language and literature: “In modest ways, through my efforts both as a teacher and especially as a writer, I have managed, at least at times, to answer back in terms of my choosing to the voices that once paralyzed me with doubt.”
He also observes parallels with the treatment of his ancestors and his family members with the experienced of other maligned groups, including indigenous peoples, which expands the reach of this volume in a simple but powerful way, recognizing those “people who were violently exploited and never offered the illusion of automatic belonging here, but who have survived all the same, and have come to sing and love profoundly and to contribute immeasurably to the very nations that have failed to see them.”
Initially when I picked up this book, I picked it up with the idea that it was a story I should read and understand; upon reading, I discovered it was a beautifully crafted piece, and I read on with pleasure (often smiling and, once, even laughing aloud).