Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize for Canadian literary criticism and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. She is a contributing editor with Spacing Magazine, where she writes about culture, nature, identity, and place. Her next book, Wild City, explores intersections of nature and culture in the contemporary city. She teaches in the Department of Geography at York University, and at the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place.
Interviewer’s Note: Imagining Toronto reconstructs the city’s neighbourhoods, ravines, icons, and history through the novels, poetry, and essays written about Toronto from its origins to the twenty-first century. Imagining Toronto is the first thematic engagement of the city’s literature ever to appear in print. It offers not only a literary genealogy, tracing the development of the city’s literature across the decades, but also examines our cultural myths—multiculturalism, the “city of neighbourhoods”—and preoccupations with work, class, sexuality, the ravines, our changing suburbs, iconic architecture, and so forth. Mansfield Press is a Toronto-based trade press specializing in poetry, fiction and city-building books.
As supplement co-editor, I interviewed Harris about her book, and the act of reading the city of Toronto. The following interview was conducted via email over June and July 2014.
Jason Freure: Toronto doesn’t have the same mythology as other cities, but it does have an expansive literature. Is Imagining Toronto an attempt to remedy this? Does that lack of a mythology make Toronto a more compelling ground for new work?
Amy Lavender Harris: I don’t agree at all that Toronto lacks a mythology, or that it has less well-developed mythologies than other cities. It’s just that we are accustomed to looking to the same old, increasingly staid narratives of other places: Dickens’ nineteenth-century London; Joyce’s Dublin; New York besieged by King Kong. These are less mythologies than unthoughtful cultural clichés that trap these places in narratives they have long outgrown.
Arguably, imaginative representations of Toronto fit into a different category, one also inhabited by depictions of Mumbai, Nairobi, Santiago: rapidly shifting, post-colonial cities whose populations, cultures, and literatures are highly mobile.
In Imagining Toronto I do cite literary scholar Germaine Warkentin’s claim that Toronto suffers from a kind of cultural amnesia rooted, in part, in city-building efforts geared toward becoming a “world class” city. I also invoke poet Gwendolyn MacEwen whose 1972 book Noman’s Land features an amnesic protagonist (the eponymous Noman) who hitchhikes to Toronto—the city without memory—to figure out who he is.
It’s my sense, though, that Toronto’s mythologies are rooted precisely in this amnesia—which is not an amnesia in the conventional sense but rather originates in our lack of shared history or a common cultural language. To most contemporary Torontonians, the War of 1812—culminating locally in the American invasion of York in 1813—has little historical resonance. Nor does the so-called Rebellion of 1837, when Mackenzie’s rebels marched uncertainly down Yonge Street in pursuit of a vague but firmly held set of democratic ideals. Contemporary Torontonians have living memories of contemporary struggles that have propelled them to this city where we are required constantly to reinvent ourselves out of a unique combination of loss and opportunity.
Contemporary Torontonians, I think, are conscious of a need to invent identity as we go along. It’s one reason I argue that multiculturalism is Toronto’s strongest cultural myth. The “myth of the multicultural city,” rooted in part in the widespread but untrue belief that the United Nations has declared Toronto the most multicultural city in the world, is our creation myth, in the anthropological sense. Multiculturalism is our most pointed story of collective origin or becoming. It’s at the core of so many Toronto-focused works, a preoccupation that recurs over and over and over. Concerns with difference (cultural, class, etc.) and how to negotiate across difference are the most widespread set of tropes in our literature. It appears in John Galt’s 1831 frontier novel Bogle Corbet, Patrick Slater’s The Yellow Briar about Irish immigrants in late 1840s Toronto, Dennis Lee’s Centennial-era cultural lament Civil Elegies, and Dionne Brand’s cultural invention in What We All Long For [Editors’ Note: read poet Peter Norman’s take on Lee’s “Civil Elegies” in this Supplement].
We have other myths, too. The “city of neighbourhoods” and our fixation with the ravines are two of them, but I see these myths as connecting in important ways to negotiations across culture, difference and identity.
In the conclusion to Imagining Toronto, I invoke the observation made by Erik Rutherford upon his return to Toronto after several years spent in Paris, that while everything in Paris is like a polished jewel, every lamp-post and patch of grass already symbolizing something else, Toronto is still “conducive to self-realization, brimming with opportunities to mould its malleable stuff in our own image.” Like other post-colonial cities, Toronto is exploding with new narratives and continually emergent mythologies.
JF: What was the first book you read that took place in your own Toronto neighbourhood?
ALH: Oddly enough, I have almost never encountered stories or poems engaging with the Toronto neighbourhoods where I have lived; among them Dundas and Parliament, Leslieville, the area around Jane & Finch, and now the Junction. This, though, has never struck me as a problem, given that one sure reality about life in Toronto is mobility. I have been struck most strongly, for example, by poems or narrative fragments in which the subway or a particular street corner figures prominently.
Right now, though, I am reading Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s novel All The Broken Things, [Editors’ Note: read an interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer in this Supplement’s parent issue, Issue 26: Summer 2014] which is set largely within a few blocks of my Junction neighbourhood. It is both jarring and amazing to see my neighbourhood rendered so effectively in this way. Glen Downie’s Junction-focused poems in Loyalty Management and Local News evoke a similar sense of dislocation and emplacement. The sense that there is much more going on along the streets I think I know.
JF: In Imagining Toronto there is a section dedicated to a great deal of unique neighbourhoods: the Annex, Parkdale, Cabbagetown, College Street. Is there a connection between a neighbourhood’s social or cultural status and the quantity of literature you found about that place? For example, are there more books about Kensington Market than Rexdale?
ALH: That there are more novels, poems and plays set in Kensington Market or Cabbagetown than Rexdale has a great deal to do with the passage of time as well as the persistence of social class.
Kensington Market is a very long-standing cultural space in Toronto that has occupied the city’s collective imagination in various ways for more than a century: the “Jewish Market,” the Market associated with Portuguese and West Indians, the Market of soon-to-be beheaded chickens and the smell of fish, the Market of the CBC television series King of Kensington, the contemporary Market of hipster consumerism and anti-Wal-Mart activism. Rexdale is a mid-century suburb turned immigrant intake area. Its stories are only beginning to emerge, in poetic fragments, short stories and spoken word pieces, reifying in many ways Dionne Brand’s observation that “the literature is still catching up with the city, with the city’s new stories.”
I will say one thing about Cabbagetown and class, though. The Cabbagetown we think we know—ye olde Cabbagetown, the Heritage Conservation District east of Parliament and north of Gerrard—is a recent invention. Regent Park is actually the real Cabbagetown—the slum Cabbagetown depicted in Hugh Garner’s Depression novel; the up-for-renewal district depicted in the 1953 propa-documentary Farewell Oak Street. If you read official histories of Cabbagetown (the neighbourhood north of Gerrard) you should note the careful and, I think, calculated, erasure of the original Cabbagetown, the public housing neighbourhood immediately to the south.
But if you read the novels, poems, and plays, you’ll encounter a far more nuanced story of Cabbagetown: Garner’s depiction of “the largest Anglo-Saxon slum in North America” in that area razed and rebuilt into Regent Park, the rooming houses and run-down conditions even north of Gerrard depicted in George Walker’s East End Plays, Juan Butler’s Cabbagetown Diary, and finally the white-painted, highly gentrified domiciles in Patricia Watson’s My Husband’s Wedding. The moment of transition is, I think, best rendered in Rose’s House, a largely forgotten 1977 NFB film depicting working-class residents of a Cabbagetown rooming house.
Regent Park has its own representations—Mark Thurman’s Cabbagetown Gang, Deborah Ellis’ Looking for X, Rabrindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy—These works, which depict, in nuanced ways, life in public housing, compete not only against the name-appropriating “Cabbagetowners” to the north but also with racial and class-based prejudice against their neighbourhood. I would guess that Rexdale—depicted in the popular media in terms of guns, thugs, and violence—faces a similar challenge.
JF: In one chapter of Imagining Toronto, you refer to Catherine Jurca’s White Diaspora, which criticizes representations of white and affluent suburbanites as culturally dispossessed. The other side of the “white diaspora” seems to play out as cultural entitlement to the city centre, where affluent whites claim downtown to the exclusion of everyone else. I’m thinking about the surprisingly common disdain for Scarborough or homeowners’ refusal to allow new developments in their historic neighbourhoods. How does that entitlement or elitism about downtown make it into Toronto’s literature?
ALH: David Hulchanski’s Three Cities Within Toronto study (2010) makes it clear that Toronto’s “inner suburbs” (the former cities of Etobicoke, North York, East York and Scarborough) are both culturally and socio-economically more diverse than most of the central city. Excellent work by Mohammad Qadeer (one of my old graduate school supervisors!) and others has shown that the outer suburbs like Markham, Richmond Hill, and Brampton are similarly diverse, housing pockets of ethnic concentrations that form, shift and absorb into the suburban sphere just as they did in decades past in the central city.
In short, Toronto’s suburbs are far more diverse, both ethnically and economically, than Jurca’s “white diaspora” thesis would suggest. In part, this reflects a difference with American urban and suburban growth, but in important ways it reflects important demographic and development shifts. Toronto’s inner suburbs are characterized, in particular, by groupings of mid-century high-rise communities that have become home to immigrant populations unable to afford rents downtown or home prices in the outer suburbs. These spaces are important cultural concentrators that will, I think, produce fascinating stories about high rise life. One early forerunner was, of course, M.G. Vassanji’s 1991 novel No New Land, set in a Muslim community in thinly fictionalized Thorncliffe Park.
Scarborough is a particularly good example of suburban envy and enmity. Middle-class white downtowners are likely to remember Scarborough in terms of, say, the Barenaked Ladies’ cover (and especially the video) of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” or comedian Mike Myers’ Scarborian-influenced role in the film Wayne’s World. More recently, they see Scarborough in terms of Malvern-associated gang violence as depicted in media reports.
But seen from the inside, Scarborough is far more interesting. Two good literary examples are V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage (2008), a haunting, powerful novel set among Scarborough’s Tamil community, and David Chariandry’s Soucouyant (2007), narrated by a young man whose dementia-prone, Trinidadian-born mother experiences ridicule and racism in a fictionalized version of the traditional part of Port Union.
JF: The “white diaspora” trope reveals another important cultural shift, something that happened maybe in the last twenty or thirty years. Downtowns across North America have become increasingly recognized as symbolically, culturally, and socially important. Now that ‘downtown’ is desirable, how can it be shared?
ALH: Good question, and one for which I don’t have an easy answer. Richard Florida’s now widely ridiculed “creative city” thesis proposed that vibrant downtowns were (or would become) centres of cultural, technological and economic innovation. While Toronto’s city centre houses plenty of start-ups, there has been a huge shift in employment toward the suburbs. Rush hour traffic is now as likely to move outward as toward downtown. Cultural life beyond the city centre is also increasingly rich—and becoming recognized as such.
I suspect that Toronto-area suburbs are as desirable as downtown, albeit sometimes to different demographics. I’d argue that there’s a need not just to share but to understand, experience, appreciate, and value all of these spaces. And I’ll argue, unsurprisingly, that one good way to do so is to read literature engaging Toronto’s many communities and cultures, and to engage actively in negotiations across all these differences.
JF: Have you encountered any resistance to these challenges you make to assumptions about multiculturalism and suburbanism in the GTA? Such as how the inner and outer suburbs are more diverse than the core, or how car owners are as likely to be working class as white collar?
ALH: It’s funny you should ask this. I have encountered two forms of resistance.
The first comes sometimes from students but more often from members of the general public when I do talks. At first people are resistant to the idea of diverse suburbs: they’ve inherited the “white picket fence” and “white flight” notions of suburbia as a middle-class area where primarily white people with means move when they can afford to do so.
I think that the downtown reaction to current Mayor Rob Ford’s 2010 election win in Toronto reflected this misapprehension. Many of the “downtown elites” I know raged at (inner-) suburban voters in the days and weeks after the election, insisting that SUV-driving, white picket-fencers had voted in Ford. Journalist Edward Keenan wrote a very good column in Eye Weekly/The Grid pointing out that the city/suburb divide was not as clear-cut as downtown folks so fervently believed it to be.
The reality is that the inner-suburbs—Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough in particular—are more ethno-culturally diverse than the central city, not to mention more socio-economically variable.
A great deal of this has to do with the presence of large blocks of mid-century high rises that have come to house large populations of immigrants who can no longer afford to rent in now gentrified former immigrant intake areas like Kensington Market and, to an extent, even Parkdale. There are census areas downtown with large immigrant populations—but they tend to be concentrated in those same mid-century high-rise communities that attract immigrants in the suburban areas.
If there is a cultural or racial divide in Toronto, it is, literally, a vertical one; “white” Torontonians are more likely to live in houses, while racialized Torontonians (especially relatively recent immigrants) are more likely to live in high rises.
The folks who voted for Ford have been shown, demographically at least, to be poorer and more likely to be racialized than the downtown folks who voted against Ford. This reality seems to be an odd inversion—(after all, Ford is wealthy and white)—but his popularity reflects a longstanding divide between city and suburb.
I find downtown folks highly resistant to this reality, and I suppose it is because we “downtown elites” tend to consider ourselves progressive. It’s challenging to be told that we live, essentially, in enclaves of privilege.
I have also encountered another form of resistance to my ideas about multiculturalism. This resistance tends to come from academics and has less to do with my observations about the ethnic composition of suburbs (which are not actually original to me but rather are well grounded in research by folks like Mohammad Qadeer, Sandeep Agrawal and others) than about the meanings and implications of multiculturalism itself.
In my view, multiculturalism—especially the kind of multiculturalism we encounter in the greater Toronto area—requires that we be honest about our differences and the limits of our capacities to bridge them. I argue, in short, that tolerance (rather than, say, acceptance, as most advocates have it) may be a more realistic minimum standard for civility, and one that allows us to be honest about the discomfort we have with one another.
In almost every class of students I have, folks represent various sides of unresolved (and possibly irresolvable) conflicts: Muslims and Jews, Tamils and Sinhalese, Greeks and Macedonians, folks from all parts of the former Yugoslavia, even (most recently) Russians and Ukrainians. These folks sit in uncomfortable silence together, and it is naive and even dangerous to pretend that their sitting together does not involve conflict, or at least the memory of it.
JF: Can you explain why you consider mainstream versions of multiculturalism to be dangerous?
ALH: Popular conceptions in multiculturalism fixate on the ‘heritage’ dimension–the arenas of cooking and costume and cultural festivals that cultural critic Stanley Fish has aptly summed up as “boutique multiculturalism.” The reality, as Fish and numerous other commentators have pointed out, is that cultural difference is not all about togetherness: it’s also about conflict and, as Fish puts it, “learning to live together without coming to blows.” In an era arguably characterized by cultural conflict, pretending cultural difference doesn’t require considerable negotiation is potentially harmful.
My view of multiculturalism is that it must be a thing we negotiate and renegotiate every day. It requires that we admit our discomfort with one another. It requires, often, an admission that we may still have things to argue about. This, in my view, is how tolerance works. It’s more honest than the model of “acceptance.”
I’ve received considerable blowback from fellow academics pushing versions of multicultural togetherness rooted in class-consciousness and criticisms of postcolonial conditions in Canada. There is merit to these approaches, but in assuming that all differences come down ultimately to economic disparity, the contradictions of late capitalism, neoliberalism or the legacies of European colonialism, they ignore the lived-in realities people in cities like Toronto encounter every day. People need to sit beside one another on the subway, in classrooms, in adjacent cubicles at work. They have to smell each others’ cooking, they’re confronted with everyone else’s religious dress and observances, they cheer for opposing teams during the World Cup or international cricket matches, et cetera and so on.
Geographer David Ley has an excellent essay called “Multiculturalism: A Canadian Defense.” In it, he invokes fellow geographer Audrey Kobayashi’s argument that multiculturalism in Canada has three dimensions. The first, which might be called demographic multiculturalism, is a descriptive account of ethnicity. The second, heritage-based multiculturalism, focuses on material (and often historical) aspects of culture such as costume and food. The third, and most vital, dimension of multiculturalism has to do with its ability to foster civic engagement. The greatest strength of multiculturalism, Ley argues, is that it makes room for a negotiation over what culture is and means, and carries in it a template for ensuring all Canadians, regardless of background or status, are able to participate in discussions about what Canada should be.
JF: You write, “It is only on foot that we are able to find our way into the city within the city, because its guideposts … are discernible only at the speed of walking.” How does driving change our relationship to the city? Or transit, for that matter?
ALH: My observations about walking are informed greatly by American essayist Rebecca Solnit (e.g., Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost) and French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life). Both argue, Solnit somewhat phenomenologically and de Certeau very much politically, that walking grants us access to what literary scholar Sidney Bremer calls “life at street level.” At the speed of walking, we encounter the city not as it is designed and planned but as it is actually lived. Walking, being largely self-directed, grants us an unusual autonomy over the character of our own movements.
Spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre argues convincingly in The Production of Space that of three potential “modalities” of space, only in what he calls “spaces of representation” are ordinary citizens able to inscribe and reinscribe meanings and practices upon space, rather than passively internalizing and obeying the highly programmed and commodified spaces constructed for us by politicians, planners, and corporations. De Certeau picks up very much where Lefebvre leaves off, arguing that walking in the city amounts to a kind of spatial poetics, and the crafting of an authentic urban narrative. Solnit, to me, shows how this plays out in practice in both urban and rural spaces. We walk because we are curious, and walking makes us more so; by walking we map and remap the world, and make it over actively in our image.
It’s no secret or surprise that the retail arms of multi-national corporations have sought to emulate the experience of walking in their arcade-like shopping centres, nor that street-level retail companies like Starbucks have strained to attract walk-by traffic. Even though big box-style retail complexes (which have largely replaced malls) do away ostensibly with any concern for walking, their front window displays continue to cater somewhat atavistically to consumers moving at the speed of walking, and often enough they are designed architecturally to abut the arterial roads they front, as if to mimic main-street-style districts, while consumers park in giant lagoons behind them. This may reflect a desperation on the part of municipal planners to retain some vestige of the “local” in the retail project approval process, but it suggests to me that walking remains an important architectural, even primordial, default. We may drive everywhere, but on some level we remember the advantages of walking.
The frustrations of driving are legion and well documented, and there is no denying the environmental, health, social, and sometimes economic costs to cities whose populations are overly dependent on cars.
Alternatively, I think that transit, when well designed and complete, offers all the advantages of speed as well as the urban intimacy of walking. Good transit gives people a chance to know their city at face value while simultaneously having a map of its overall essence. This is one reason I love streetcars (or LRTs, where they work well): you are part of the passing scene of people and movement and life, and you can get on and off wherever you like. A streetcar, like a bridge, knits the parts of a city together. Buses could achieve a similar thing if only they were not stuck perpetually in traffic, which is one of many reasons I believe all transit should run on dedicated lines. But at this point I have veered rather far from the question.
But the solution, in my view, is not to punish people for needing to drive cars; it is to provide meaningful, accessible, practicable alternatives. And having spent a lot of time on the TTC, especially while my daughter was very young, I will say very clearly that at present Toronto’s transit system does not provide any sort of reasonable or practicable alternative to driving.
But, to set these serious problems aside for a moment, cars connect cities to other cities and to regions. In Canada—a giant, sprawling landmass whose highly urbanized population is nonetheless widely dispersed across the regions—driving is a vital thing. Travelling to other cities, or to “Cottage Country,” or to other places, connects us to one another, and helps us get over the somewhat legendary myopia and conceit of life in a big city.
To sum up: I think walking (or cycling) is the best way to get to know a city and its neighbourhoods, people, moods, and problems. Walking and cycling also represent mobility alternatives to what geographer Anne Cronin calls the “commodity rhythms” of cities, where we are trained to think of our lives, including our spatial lives, in terms of production and consumption. In a car, we rarely do or think about anything other than consumption, mainly because our roads and highways have been designed explicitly to move people efficiently between spaces of production and consumption, between working and shopping. Recreational, political, social and even moral uses are not just secondary; they have been almost entirely overlooked.
JF: In the “Class Fictions” section of Imagining Toronto, you deal with the working lives of Torontonians in fiction, from cubicle jobs to twentieth-century labour struggles. I find Toronto is often discussed in terms of what you can buy, eat, or watch. Neighbourhoods that were in the past defined by a type of industry are now known for their bars and restaurants. Is work still part of the imagined Toronto?
ALH: The most current local example of a working, or perhaps a “working class” neighbourhood converted to a space of consumption is probably the Ossington strip between Dundas West and Queen. Similarly, too, that stretch of recently built condos near King and Dufferin abutting a slaughterhouse operation is now in receivership.
The urban core of Toronto is no longer a “working” city, in the sense of having factories located anywhere near the city centre. Such places of work once played important roles in the city’s literature, for example Hugh Garner’s Depression-era depiction of the now-shuttered Lever soap factory near the bottom of the Don Valley Parkway, or portrayals of garment factories on Spadina Avenue in Steven Hayward’s The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, and Judi Coburn’s The Shacklands.
There are plenty of self-styled “start-ups,” as well as banking and finance headquarters located in the core, but they give rise to different narratives of work in which the actual labour is marginal to narratives focused much more pointedly on consumption and competition. John McFetridge’s very excellent thrillers (Dirty Sweet, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, Swap) capture this shift, and its seamy underside, very well.
Toronto still produces important narratives of work, but increasingly they are focused on suburban areas, where almost all GTA manufacturing now occurs. I’d recommend, for example, Rabindranath Maharaj’s novel Homer in Flight, which depicts a Trinidadian immigrant struggling to make a life for himself in suburban Etobicoke, living in a run-down mid-century high-rise and commuting by bus to another suburb where he works at a factory.
JF: You make some interesting observations in your book on the subject of the CN Tower. You conclude that “This is the tower’s central enigma: it can stand for anything—or perhaps nothing at all.” In the novels and poems you cite, the CN Tower figures as a pencil that redraws the city’s map, a southern pole that stands opposite to Don Mills’ northern high rises, an inarticulate Tower of Babel, and also Daniel Jones’s giant dildo. Is it possible to interpret the city’s structures and concrete without the words written about them? Does the city as a text mean anything until a poet or a novelist (re)writes it?
ALH: It’s funny you should mention the CN Tower. Ever since Dubai’s Burj Khalifa exceeded the CN Tower in height and took away our long-coveted Guinness Book of Records title, people have asked me how I think Torontonians should “deal” with the loss of our most visible status symbol.
My answer is that Dubai, like other emergent global cities, needs these towers more than Toronto does. We have, in many ways, grown out of needing the CN Tower as a (somewhat inchoate) source of identity. We like having it around; it’s a kind of reminder, as poet Pier Giorgio di Cicco suggests, “of what it takes up place for/ an absence/ something to occupy us.”
What this suggests to me is the obvious: that places change, and that their meanings also change. Writers, (novelists, poets, playwrights,) and artists record their meanings, translate them, and sometimes even create them, but it’s always an iterative process.
Michael Ondaatje observes in his famous (and only) Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion that: “before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting.” I agree with Ondaatje, but would add that workers, and walkers, are also engaged in acts of imagination and place-making. There are so many ways of writing the city’s stories. Media reports, too, interpret neighbourhoods. Why else would non-Scarberians have such strong feelings about Malvern when they may never have set foot there? Imaginative literature, however, transcribes these meanings and sets them down in ways that their changes may be noted and challenged.
JF: Your section on gay literature in Toronto, “A Gay Old Town,” doesn’t mention Church Street at all, which I found strange given how closely the literature you survey is tied to geography. Was it missing from the books you read? Were there other gaps in your reading for Imagining Toronto, places or subjects you thought you would find but didn’t?
ALH: I’ll begin by pointing out a larger omission in that section of the Imagining Toronto book: almost any mention of lesbian desire or, indeed, other forms of sexuality. I do mention Farzana Doctor’s novel Stealing Nasreen, which has lesbian protagonists, and Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For As Long As Possible, which engages with transgender experience, but those references are made essentially in passing.
These omissions are in part factors of time and space (many important subjects and locations did not make it into the published version of the book due to these limitations of both time) and partly of reading. I am not an expert on literary representations of queer experience, but did notice an obvious preponderance of gay male stories and poetry over lesbian ones. Elizabeth Ruth’s excellent anthology Bent on Writing: Contemporary Queer Tales (2002) corrects that balance, but I have to admit to reading that book late in the process of writing my own book, and I was not able to incorporate, for example, a very good fictional engagement with the 2000 “Pussy Palace” police raids. I suspect, too, that lesbian experiences have tended to fly under the radar in Canadian writing, and in my own reading, because many were written (or at least read) as platonic friendships rather than fully engaged or even sexual relationships.
In a future edition of the Imagining Toronto book, this is something I will correct, but for the moment I’ll admit to the lapse.
As for queer spatiality in “A Gay Old Town,” I wanted specifically to avoid clichéd references to the “Gaybourhood,” Church and Yonge, especially in the latter part of the book. This is the part of the book that engages less with the ideographically mappable city and more directly with such critical aspects as race, class, and sexuality.
To me, it’s important to note that space in a city isn’t always about things that can be mapped. It’s one reason I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with efforts to “map” Toronto’s literary spaces. I think such maps are very useful entry points to reading (about) places, but I have a feeling that this is also where people stop, as if the description of a particular street corner or subway station is the sum total of a literary reference. This is one reason why I’ve never produced a literary map of my own, despite many, many requests to do so. I guess I’ll confess here that I’m not that kind of geographer.
To return to queer spaces, queer Toronto is about so much more than a street corner, and as many folks have pointed out, queer folk live and renovate and drink margaritas and raise kids and drive their cars all over the city. Yonge and Church Streets, for their historical associations with cruising bars, peep shows, parkettes, bathhouses, police raids, and pride, do deserve special attention, and it is possible to map the growth of queer Toronto from Church to Queen West to High Park. I recall reading a newspaper article some years ago observing with some wonder that gay couples were even living in suburbia! However, I think plenty of folks have already historicized these spaces at least as well as I could manage. I wanted to focus on experiences that are somehow larger than the physical spaces where they occur.
Anyone who does want to read a novel emphasizing the Yonge-Church-Wellesley area, especially from the 1970s forward should get a copy of Gordon Stewart Anderson’s (posthumously published) novel The Toronto You Are Leaving. Anderson writes sensitively and evocatively of these spaces, and I think really wonderfully captures the beauty and tragedy of gay Toronto’s very long “coming out.”
JF: In other interviews you’ve said that when you teach non-canonized works like Vassanji’s No New Land or Chariandry’s Soucouyant, works within which your students are more likely to recognize their own worlds than in a Robertson Davies novel, they understandably become far more engaged. Are these books at all being added to university reading lists? What’s keeping educators from adopting these texts?
ALH: I’m not sure what is covered in high school curricula these days, although articles like Michael Lapointe’s in The Literary Review of Canada—make me suspect it’s not much. Susan Swan also wrote a very good essay for the Globe and Mail in 2010 engaging with this same question, albeit with less “literary nationalism” and flag waving. My students tend to look at me blankly when I invoke the Canadian canon of yore (Atwood, Davies, Purdy, MacEwen, Munro, etc.), so perhaps they are not getting much of that either.
The reality, of course, is that increasing numbers of students receive their early schooling outside of Canada and as a result are not inculcated into the wilderness-rural-heartbreak tropes we older folks encountered in high school or university. It makes very good sense to introduce them to it, but in my view it needs to be done with an awareness of urban, transnational, and racialised experiences.
In 2007 the Toronto Star reported on the results of a large-scale Toronto District School Board study that found, among many other things, that higher dropout rates had much to do with a sense of cultural alienation. The headline was “Teach us about us.”
This is why I think it’s vital to expose high school and undergraduate students to local literatures that are relevant to their own experiences. No New Land is actually a superb example. Set in a thinly fictionalized version of Thorncliffe Park, the high-rise community perched above the Don Valley and home to what is probably Canada’s largest and densest Muslim population, it deals with racism, community and exclusion. Vassanji’s novel, alongside, say, Eric Walter’s young adult novel Bifocal, is a very good literary entry point to discussions of Muslim-Toronto identity in the age of global terrorism.
Chariandy’s Soucouyant, alongside V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage, offers a culturally engaged, transnational depiction of contemporary Scarborough.
This is not to say that the old-school Canadian canon is without continued merit or relevance. I have a small geographer’s part in helping the Art Gallery of Ontario put together its upcoming Alex Colville exhibition. Colville is quintessentially Canadian in terms of his emphasis on recognizable, often rural, Canadian tropes, but a repeated focus of his work is the tension between place and displacement, and dwelling and detachment. These are themes that transcend culture and continent, and probably help explain why Colville’s work is so valued internationally—especially, I am told, in China. A similar thing is true of Alice Munro’s work, which seems endlessly fascinating to Europeans.
What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that hyper-local literature is a really good tool for introducing students, general readers, academics, and even bureaucrats to place not because it replaces broader or more canonical representations, but because in important ways it connects readers to deeper themes of culture, displacement, and even globalization.
JF: What is it about Toronto or its literature that compelled you to spend five years reading and writing about it?
ALH: I was motivated by a desire to rebut the claim that Toronto doesn’t have a meaningful or important literature, but by this time, I think that perspective has long been exhausted. Now I am motivated by a desire to help translate what poet Erín Moure calls “transliterations”: of space and life, nature and culture, into ways of reading the meanings of urban space itself.
Most of my life has been lived at the intersection of place and text. I have, since early childhood, conducted my own “wandering of the semantic” (as de Certeau calls it) in the ravines and fields and streets where I have lived. For years I lived away from Toronto, and when I returned as an adult, it seemed natural that I would relearn this city of my birth through its stories. I have since wandered through many of its neighbourhoods. When I was writing Imagining Toronto I also pored over maps and Google Street View images. I wanted to get inside those streets and those stories. And here I will close with essayist Jonathan Raban’s observation that “the city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps.”
Jason Freure has published poems in Vallum, ditch,, and The Hart House Review. He was a contributor to The Show Thieves Anthology of Contemporary Montreal Poetry and wrote the short play The Castration of Apollo. He currently lives in Toronto.