Catherine Hernandez says she wrote her latest novel, The Story Of Us, as a way to give her readers something that felt like a “nice hug” during the pandemic.
She dug into the story, about a Filipino personal support worker’s bond with an elderly trans woman, in 2020, as the prolonged lockdown and uncertainty made so many people feel like our world was coming to an end. She had just published Crosshairs, a dystopian fiction set in the near future about the containment and oppression of marginalized communities that felt all too real. Moving onto something new, she decided that, after serving up a prophetic doomsday scenario, she would hole up in the Scarborough, Ont., townhome she was renting, and pivot toward a narrative about human connection that is full of warmth and hope.
“I sat in my room, imagined myself to be like Lady Edith in Downton Abbey, stuck in my estate, writing my lovers,” a spritely Hernandez says over the phone.
Her home, or at least hometown, plays a prominent role in the playwright and author’s literary debut – the award-winning Scarborough, which was about a community of people in difficult circumstances finding support at an underfunded drop-in centre. That novel, which has since been turned into a feature film, is partly responsible for a local renaissance putting the long-misrepresented Toronto suburb on the pop-cultural map; others contributions include Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You and David Chariandy’s Brother, the latter also recently been turned into a film. Beyond writers, Brother lead Lamar Johnson, recording artist the Weeknd and John Wick 4 actor Shamier Anderson fill out those who are repping the east end to the world.
The Story Of Us, which is largely set in a Rouge River bungalow close to where Hernandez wrote it, now joins the canon. Scarborough is never far from Hernandez’s heart, even though she’s currently living pretty far from it.
She is among the latest to exit the overpriced city, moving just more than a year ago with her spouse Nazbah Tom to Napanee, Ont. If you browse Hernandez’s Instagram posts, you’ll see she’s gone full farmhand, sporting overalls or coveralls, wielding chainsaws, hacksaws and even a bow and arrow that she fires into her own straw bales.
The couple’s decision to leave Scarborough began with the 2019 flooding of the Rouge River, which resulted in park benches along the marsh engulfed under water. Hernandez saw that as a sign the environmental collapse would be hitting close to home sooner than later.
She and Tom began developing a green thumb as a way to become self-sufficient should basic supply structures collapse. “I was like, ‘Oh, I think we’d better get ready for some harder times to come,’ ” she says, acknowledging that she was leaning into her inner doomsayer. “Do I want to get ready now and look completely silly to everyone around me? Or do I not care about what people think, be prepared now and be pleasantly surprised if things turn around? And then the pandemic happened.”
What began with growing onions, leeks and bok choy in pots near their window grew into urban farming on their veranda and then a search for more space to expand their farming, which Scarborough could not accommodate. That’s how they ended up in Napanee, a rural community where a QTBIPOC couple like Hernandez and Tom stand out. Despite that, Hernandez says the neighbours have been great, sharing their experience with the land and often lending a helping hand.
“Obviously they have to educate themselves about what it’s like to be around people who are like us,” says Hernandez. But she adds that the learning goes both ways when the cultural divide is so wide. “We also have some privilege. We’re coming from the city. We work from home. We have an income. We’re not relying on the land at this point. So we really do have to meet in the middle.”
Building connections and growing community is Hernandez’s whole vibe. Wherever she goes, she’s always that glowing and inviting presence, finding common ground where people least expect it. That’s also a common thread in her published work, including The Story Of Us.
The new novel, which in an amusing gambit is narrated by a newborn, follows Mary Grace Conception, or MG as she’s referred to by others. MG, a woman in her 30s, leaves behind her husband in the Philippines to work as a nanny in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada through our Live-in Caregiver Program. She longs for home while looking after other people’s children and waits patiently to have her own.
Hernandez is returning to familiar territory. Once a child-care provider herself, she also worked with the Sulong Theatre Collective alongside Karen Ancheta, Romeo Candido and Aura Carcueva on the 2010 play Future Folk, which was based on interviews with Filipino caregivers. That material helps fill out MG’s story as she moves from employer to employer. The narrative paints in vivid and striking detail a child-care provider’s daily grind, and the oppressiveness of being forced to sleep in the same home as an exploitative employer.
The bulk of the new novel is set at a neglected bungalow in Rouge River, where MG cares for Liz, the elderly trans woman whose memories of a storied past are slowly slipping away owing to dementia. Hernandez describes recent interviews she conducted with personal support workers, which deepened her understanding when it came to the responsibility of caring for trans elders. “They are the protector of that identity,” says Hernandez. “You have a person who might not be able to advocate for themselves. It demands a beautiful level of care.”
For MG, Hernandez takes her time in letting the character develop that protector identity. MG comes from a conservative religious upbringing after all. There’s caution and even some hostility in the dynamic between MG and Liz before a tender bond is formed. In their relationship, Hernandez forges common ground between the immigrant and queer experience. Both, for Hernandez, are made beautiful by the effort and love put in to finding chosen families.
“The reality of a diaspora is that you have to reconfigure what family and love means,” she says, describing those immigrants separated from their biological families but building new ones to enjoy weekend barbecues with. “And so, too, do queer folks who are orphaned or disconnected from our families. We’ve had to reconfigure who are our siblings, who are our parents and who are the elders in our lives.”
“It’s been such a joy in my life to do that,” she adds. “It’s such an empowering thing to say, ‘I can still be loved. I can still be cared for.’ ”