Louisa Onomé's excellent debut young-adult novel Like Home (HarperCollins Canada, 416 pages, ages 12-17) focuses on a teenaged girl and the neighbourhood she loves. Born in Canada to Nigerian immigrant parents, Chinelo doesn’t lose faith in the (fictional) Toronto-area community of Ginger East even after there’s a shooting at the arcade she and her friends frequent. One by one these pals move away, but at least her best friend, whose parents own the local mom-and-pop store, is still around. But then a brick is hurled through the store’s window, and it seems likely that family will also skip town. Nelo turns detective to figure out who vandalized the shop, which doubles as an informal community centre, and also helps plan what she hopes will be a peaceful protest against the nearby opening of a big chain competitor. Alas, the best laid plans …
You’ve drawn a vivid picture of Ginger East.
I based it a little bit on the neighbourhood I grew up in, in Mississauga. I mean it’s like a 50-50 split. Half is fictional, but in my mind the layout of the neighbourhood is pretty similar. It was not primarily an immigrant neighbourhood, but there were a lot of new immigrants there and kids of immigrants like me.
Did you always want to write?
From the time that I was very young, I wanted to write fiction. People always said to me, “Maybe you should do something more lucrative, be a journalist, an editor.” And so I went to York, did a degree in professional writing. I was hyper-focused on this idea of what a writer should be, that they needed to be older, more mature. This is a bit of an aside, but it seems like now, in the young-adult space, there are so many writers who are getting published young, getting all these accolades, it’s so inspiring.
How did Chinelo come into you?
She’s the kind of girl I’m familiar with, headstrong, stubborn, passionate, very loyal. When I was writing her, I knew full well that some people might not find her very likable. I thought of myself as a 16-year-old, and also my friends. You have these feelings and you don’t have much of filter. You’re angry about stuff, and you’re happy, you’re processing it all from, I would say, a much more authentic place.
Like Home has strands of a romance and a whodunnit in it. How was it you came to mix these genres in one book?
The romance aspect, as I wrote the story, built itself. When Nelo’s best friend starts dating one of her other friends, of course she feels left out. So all that just happened. The mystery element came in the later drafts. At first, I just wanted to get all the characters right. Also, early on, the neighbourhood took a back seat – but then it became a book about what healing would look like for the people who lived there.
The title, Like Home, gets a mention in the book when Nelo kisses a friend and it feels that way. Why else did you choose it as your title?
Nelo goes through this journey in the story. She is looking at Ginger East through rose-coloured glasses in the beginning. She’s aware that things aren’t completely perfect, but she absolutely does not care. No, this is my home, this is where we live. That changes for her.
When her mother suggests she should get a job at the chain store coming into the neighborhood, Nelo balks at the idea. How does she think about what she can and cannot change?
Kids don’t have any say in the world we created for them. I was writing about what that means, especially in a place like Ginger East where you can see the changes around you that are negatively affecting the people you love. You recognize that the system, the society, the neighbourhood. You know full well that maybe the reason one of your friends no longer lives in the area is because they’re building this new condo and people can’t afford to live there any more. It’s not a feeling of helplessness, it’s not quite that. I guess it’s saying it is what it is. I recognize this is my reality, but that doesn’t mean I have to wholeheartedly go with it.
There’s a debate in the book, within Nelo and outside her, about whether things are getting better or worse in Ginger East. The protest you write about could have been on the news today, yesterday, many times this year – and before. As you look around, do you see things getting better or worse in North America on the issues you’re writing about – race relations, gentrification?
There’s a heightened sense of visibility around these issues, but I’m not sure, or I’m not seeing, if that visibility is leading to anything. Awareness is very important, but then, on a tangible level, I can’t say that I personally have seen a whole lot of change.
The journalist who covers the vandalism and protests comes across poorly. What could journalists parachuting into such situations do better?
I am very much of the mindset that people should approach things with a level of compassion and humility. The journalist in the book, he’s seeing it like this is a story. It’s something that happened in this poor neighbourhood, like “This is the second major tragedy that has rocked this area.” It’s important to remember that there are real people behind these stories. They have families; they have dreams; they have motivations.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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