Pg 158 “Cereus Blooms At Night”, Shani Mootoo
“Her eyes brightened with triumph as she stood at the entrance to the living room. Across it was her destination – the front entrance. She headed straight for the door. There was a long mirror, the largest she had ever seen, in a carved gold frame on the wall, and as she hurried by she saw a tiny, ragged girl.
Pohpoh stopped. She never had really thought of herself as tiny or mangy before. Her confidence slackened. She looked closely at sunken eyes. She had never noticed that they were so large and set so far back in her skull, shadowed in comparison to the rest of her features. Pohpoh wondered which was her true self – the timid, gaunt, unremarkable girl staring at her, or the one who dared to spend nights doing what no one else ever dared to do. The image of her father about to lower himself on her body charged at her suddenly, complete with smells and nauseating tastes. She gasped loud enough to startle herself and pinched her arm hard, an admonishment that she dare not lose her concentration.”
As Mala relives her journey into the terrible, haunted and disturbing house, she’s forced to come face to face with her own reflection in a mirror, and we as an audience see her perceptions about herself get questioned in a new way.
Mala dissociates frequently in this book due to her past trauma. Her dissociation is a neurological coping mechanism to compartmentalize the memories from her childhood, and the way she pinches herself, or eats chili paste, is a way of staying grounded and not getting ‘lost’ in her dissociated state. However, in her ‘two state’ mindset, where she exists both as Pohpoh, the young and helpless child, and Mala, the one attempting to act as a protector, she continues to perceive herself from her own mind. She is, quite literally, watching her younger self in her mind, but also as a social pariah, she has not been aware of how others see her. The moment when she runs by the mirror and is forced to confront that she not only exists outside of her own head, but also that the idea of herself (and how she should look) does not match up with how she physically appears.
Mootoo frequently explores ideas of perception and identity in relation to gender identity for characters like Otoh or Tyler, but I think it’s especially telling that Mala (a cisgender woman, who frequently appears as an ally for Tyler to explore gender nonconforming expressions) has a very common queer experience. “…Which was her true self…” she wonders, and it feels remarkably similar to Tyler’s questions around what is true to him. Mala already stands in rejection of certain norms, such as language and communication, as she chooses to communicate in her own unique ways, but this moment of disconnect between the self and the mirror felt profound. Mala’s rejection of societal norms goes beyond a colonial institution like language. This instant with the mirror of being brought back to reality causes her to lose focus of guiding her dissociative state in a safe way.
It is fitting for the story to end with Tyler feeling confident in their identity, though doing so without sharing with the reader. Much the same way as Mala’s internal perception of her self becomes both a coping mechanism, and the most accurate way for her to consider her past, Tyler does not need to disclose any specific identities or labels because he’s come to terms with his own perception of himself.