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2007 12 04
A Bridge to Elsewhere: Negotiating Culture and Difference in Toronto’s Literature

In this morning's Toronto Star there's a short article called "Bridging the Cultural Divide" exploring how "art and multiculturalism plays out in this city." Accompanying the article are interviews with four local artists: Trey Anthony (creator of Da Kink in my Hair), Soheil Parsa (artistic director of the Modern Times Stage Company), Jonathan Bunce (also known as Jonny Dovercourt, co-founder of the Wavelength music series), and Waleed Abdulhamid (whose band, Waleed Kush, plays at venues across the city). Each of these artists offers interesting perspectives on the challenges and opportunities for creative expression in this diverse city, but the article makes one surprising omission: it doesn't reference the city's literature or talk with any of Toronto's writers or poets.

In The Global Soul, a popular book exploring difference and dwelling in a transnational world, Pico Iyer calls Toronto "the city as anthology." Citing internationally regarded Toronto-based novelists including Rohinton Mistry, Shyam Selvadurai, Nino Ricci, Neil Bissoondath, and Anne Michaels, Iyer traces some of their visions of Toronto as an alternately welcoming or cold city where wounds of the past heal and bleed at the same time. Published in 2000 just before the era of the 'war on terror', Iyer's perspective might be considered quaintly optimistic, but in his 2006 'literary atlas of Canada, This is My Country, What's Yours?, Noah Richler inventories a similar literary landscape, where insular pockets of the old Family Compact are juxtaposed with streets vivid with the halal restaurants and storefront churches of the contemporary city. Richler cites Russell Smith, Richard Wright and Austin Clarke as chief interrogators of Toronto's colonial or postcolonial character, where both immigrants and the local-born struggle to navigate the city's shifting social and cultural rules.

The point here is not to suggest that a city like Toronto is successfully 'multicultural' because its population includes writers of so many 'ethnic' backgrounds, any more than raw census data can say anything meaningful about the kinds of differences it inventories. Rather, in my view evidence that Toronto succeeds at its multicultural project is found in the works of writers probing into the ways culture and difference are negotiated across the terrain of this city. Austin Clarke's 'Toronto Trilogy' (The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, The Bigger Light; published between 1967 and 1975), for example, which explores how Caribbean immigrants internalize and invert the gross and petty racisms of Toronto in the 1960s. Mobashir Qureshi's R.A.C.E. (Mercury Press, 2006), which satirizes racial profiling. The beautiful and gut-wrenching images in Dionne Brand's Thirsty (McClelland & Stewart, 2002), narrating the police killing of a black man. Farzana Doctor's Stealing Nasreen (Inanna, 2007), whose Gujarati protagonist Shaffiq, a hospital cleaner, seems wonderfully reminiscent of Nurdin Lalani in M.G. Vassanji's No New Land (M&S, 1991).

It is my view that 'multiculturalism' succeeds not when the rough edges of culture are eroded away but when we learn to find ways to bridge the gaps between them. And this means confronting the hardest truths about difference and the limits of tolerance. In this sense, it seems to me that it is hardly a descriptive coincidence that Toronto's ravines and viaducts recur so prominently in this city's literature. Toronto is not a flat, arid, monocultural landscape. Rather, Toronto's topography mirrors a cultural landscape riven with fissures, divides and upheavals. And bridges, some buried, some rickety or nearly forgotten, others squat and seeming to go nowhere. But if some evening at rush hour along the Don Valley Parkway you get out of your car and stand under the Bloor Viaduct, look up and you'll see the sinews of that great bridge yawning open like a mouth, straining with the effort to speak.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities. Her book, Imagining Toronto, will be published by Mansfield Press in the fall of 2008.]

[Multicultural Monument image by Addicted Eyes and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 12/04 at 12:28 PM

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