“Polar Vortex” by Shani Mootoo— Identity, Gender, Desire, and Immigration

Mootoo, Shani. “Polar Vortex”, Akashic, 2020.

Identity, Gender, Desire, and Immigration

Amos Lassen

WhenPriya and Alexandra move from the city to a country town, we learn what Alex doesn’t know— that with the move, Priya is running from her past and from a relationship Prakesh, an old friend, who pursued her for many years, both online and off. With the passage of time Priya feels certain that her ties to Prakash are over and so she figures that it is okay now to reestablish herself online. However, it did not take long before Prakash finds Priya online and contacts her. For no reason and almost impulsively, Priya invites him to visit her and Alex in the country. She had never shared that she was once in this relationship to Alex or how it ended. With Prakash’s arrival at their home, Priya and Alex’s relationship shows a struggle and Alex questions Priya’s true intentions. “Polar Vortex” is a story of secrets, deceptions, and revenge and as we read, we question whether we are ever free from our pasts.

Set in a small town in the countryside of Ontario, we meet lesbian couple Priya and Alex who have been together for a long time. Priya is originally from Trinidad and Tobago but came to college and found her way to Ontario to pursue a career as an artist. It was then that she met and fell in love with Alex, a writer. Priya decides that is time for her and Alex to leave everything behind and move to a countryside and doff those aspects of society that they can live without— social media, their friends, contacts and acquaintances and move forward in a new life with just close friends and family. 

Everything seems to be going fine at first but things change when Prakash finds Priya online and Priya invites him for a visit. Alex and Priya’s relationship begins to come apart because of questions and concerns that Priya is evasive about. She is conflicted and wants to cancel the visit and Alex is angry, insecure and feeling she doesn’t really know who Priya really is.

The story is tense and on every page tension rises. Yet even while sitting on the edge of my chair, I could not stop reading. In fact, I am still thinking about what I read a week later. Mootoo mixes two genres— psychological thriller and literary fiction as she delves into the nature of queer sexuality and identity, immigrant experiences and the results of sexism, racism, and homophobia on LGBT women of color. Here are the complexities of human relationships, the illusions of memory, and the power of denial. Mootoo examines lust, shame, regret, and how we identify as well as sexual identity. As we read, we find ourselves suspended between betrayal and love.

Or course, the writers prose creates a situation that honestly and sensitively explores intimacy. Priya’s secret about her on-again, off-again relationship with a man, Prakash becomes destructive to the couple even though Priya sees Prakash as just an old friend, but there is so much more to it. If that were the case, why did she never shares this with her lover, Alex?  With Prakash visiting, his own agenda forces the three of them to face the consequences of their choices.

The action takes place on a single day, but the results of what happens will last a very long time. We are pulled in with questions and suspense as well as a feeling of unease that propels us to keep turning pages as quickly as possible.