This year’s Luminato festival comes to a close this weekend, but the closing day is a buffet for the bookish. Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park will be overtaken by dozens of writers reading on three stages, while elsewhere, authors will offer guided walking tours of literary Toronto. It’s all themed around the idea of the “Unseen” Toronto. To mark the occasion, we asked five participants which book, for them, captures Toronto best.
Fauna, by Alissa York
I recently saw a set of photos of abandoned houses in Detroit that someone had found on Google Street View. There were “before” shots, taken when the houses were occupied, put beside “after” shots, taken around five years later. The caption on the photos talked of decay, but all I could see was growth. It was incredible to see how the wild had claimed back the land in such a short span of time. Sidewalks were almost lost in weeds, bushes spread across porches and the trees looked to be swallowing a few of the houses. The best description that I’ve ever read of this idea, that the wild lurks unseen under the pavement waiting for its time, appears in the first few pages of Alissa York’s stunning novel, Fauna: “Given half a chance, the land would revert, clawing back through time, tearing holes in the city’s thin coat.” Claire Cameron is the author of The Bear.
Alligator Pie, written by Dennis Lee, illustrated by Frank Newfeld
In Grade 4, a bunch of us neighbourhood kids with our plastic-bladed hockey sticks would gather, after school, behind the South Korean convenience store to create NHL history. Borje Salming, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark had nothing on us. Echoes of slap shots, “offside,” wrist shots, “I’m open,” “car” bounced off the red brick wall, over the fence into the apartment building balconies surrounding us. Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Italian, Portuguese, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Macedonian, French-Canadian … and that was just one team. After dinner, we’d come out again til the street lights went on, then return home for good. After a snack, a shower, an hour of TV and 20 minutes of bugging my older sisters, I’d open up Alligator Pie and be drawn into another playful world. That’s my Toronto. Ins Choi is the author of Kim’s Convenience.
Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels
For me, the book that best reveals Toronto is Fugitive Pieces – perhaps not the most obvious choice, given that the protagonist, Jakob Beer, doesn’t set foot in the city until page 89. Once she gets him here, however, Michaels doesn’t waste any time: “It’s a city where almost everyone has come from elsewhere … bringing with them their different ways of dying and marrying, their kitchens and songs. A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell. It’s a city of ravines. Remnants of wilderness have been left behind. Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in the treetops.” Two beautiful ideas, as true of today’s Toronto as they are of the post-war city they describe. Forsaken worlds, sunken gardens – all that is subterranean, essential, enduring. This is the Toronto I love. Alissa York is the author of Fauna.
The Toronto Trilogy, by Austin Clarke
I cannot begin to think of Toronto the Unseen without acknowledging the extraordinary canon of Austin Clarke, who arrived here from Barbados in 1955. Toronto, then, was a stodgy mire of “Massey culture,” says Clarke, who portrays it brilliantly both in his stories and his “Toronto Trilogy” of novels – The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973) and The Bigger Light (1975). The trilogy is the Upstairs, Downstairs of this country. It tells the story of Bajun Bernice Leach, who works as a maid in a wealthy Jewish-Canadian Rosedale household, but also those of the great coterie of West Indian characters that inhabit his superb short stories: West Indians confused by the new country (and its racism) and striving … to get ahead, to show off their fine clothes, their dandy cars and their calypso, even as they are halted by condescending clerks at the banks and oppressed in the bachelors’ rooming houses that were once the signature of this much-altered city. This horrid rule of class – of oppressive, white and Anglican Toronto – is being erased as condos shove aside the rooming houses and as the neglected mansions are replaced by bigger, monster homes. But it existed, and recently. Clarke’s witness to these times is about far more than history. It is great literature. Noah Richler is Luminato’s literary co-ordinator, and author of What We Talk About When We Talk About War.
Thirsty, by Dionne Brand
Thirsty maps a Toronto seething with barely repressed conflicts – between men and women, business and workers, commuters and the homeless, and, signally, between presumably WASP police and West Indian citizens. Brand’s poem – her catalogues of visual nouns and unusual adjectives – illuminates contradictions and cleavages: the Sunday-preaching, fundamentalist Alan, shouting down Babylon, but oppressive to his wife, is shot down in his own home, in front of his family, by police (quickly exonerated) who view him as a threat. Dionne Brand’s Toronto is rife with ravines of class divisions and rivulets of culture clashes, and yet is hauntingly beautiful. Her poem is a Group of Seven, neon-lit, urban canvas. George Elliott Clarke is the author of Illicit Sonnets.