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2006 03 13
Imagining Toronto: Essential Toronto Reads

There is a small but exalted Toronto canon, five novels which have achieved sufficient prominence to stay reliably in print. These are: Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown (1968), Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue (1985), Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (1988), and Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces (1996). These are all worthy books, deservingly well-known for their iconic depictions of Toronto.

But the city's fictions flow well beyond these pages, and it is an error to stop reading so soon. A complete library of published Toronto literature would fill many groaning shelves. And so, in the interest of expanding Toronto's literary canon, here are thirteen Toronto books -- seven novels, two poetry collections, and four short story anthologies -- that give further voice to the city's lives and longings and traverse more of its liminal and literary terrain.

Dionne Brand, What We All Long For (Knopf, 2005). A beautiful, moving novel about the lives and longings of the city. Told primarily through the eyes of five young Torontonians, the novel courses with their desires, the losses and dreams of their families, and the hopes of those they encounter in the city's dwellings, streets, and open spaces.

A companion piece is Thirsty (also by Dionne Brand; McClelland & Stewart, 2002), a paean to the city, at once aching and beautiful, murderous and giving.

Sarah Dearing's Courage My Love (Stoddart, 2001) and Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (Tor, 2005). Two novels set primarily in Kensington Market. Dearing takes on the tensions between neighbourhoods and lifestyles; her principal character seeks identity and belonging, renaming both herself and parts of her adopted neighbourhood in order to do so. Doctorow explores the difficulties and possibilities of communication across categories, experiences, and multiple identities. His disparate characters work on building a free, city-wide guerilla, wireless network built out of scavenged electronic parts. His identity-seeking (and thus ambivalently named) protagonist tries to rescue himself by saving others. Courage My Love won the 2002 City of Toronto Book Award; Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town (which should be a candidate for the 2006 Award) may be read online here.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner / Aspect, 1998). Ti-Jeanne lives with her new baby and spiritualist-healer grandmother on the old Riverdale Farm in a post-apocalyptic version of Toronto. In a city gutted and abandoned by the rich, gangs control the streets: the city's redemption relies upon Ti-Jeanne's ability to channel traditional African and Caribbean knowledge and her willingness to stand against darkness and graft. Urgent and powerfully told, Brown Girl in the Ring won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest.

bp Nichol, The Martyrology Book 5 (Coach House Press, 1982; reissued 1994). Part of bpNichol's long Martyrology series, Book 5 describes Toronto's downtown and Annex through the lens of a poetic mythology. Simultaneously concrete and etymologically de(con)structive, The Martyrology is sometimes medieval and at other times modern in tone. It is explicitly geographic, taking the reader on a tour of echoes and hidden intersections equally spatial and historical. Almost all Toronto fictions may be read with and against The Martyrology: it's a kind of guidebook, a skeleton key to the city.

Russell Smith, Noise (Porcupine's Quill, 1998). You wouldn't necessarily know it from his sharp and occasionally imperious columns in the Globe & Mail, but Russell Smith writes as sensitively as he does perceptively. Noise is about the search for coherence amid the city's thronging, chaotic currents. Its protagonist detests the chatter surrounding him but is also afraid of the kind of silence that might force him to confront where his avoidances are taking him. Noise is emblematic of the gritty-apartment-and-angst-filled-artist-writer trope in Toronto fiction, but also manages to transcend it (see How Insensitive, also by Smith, Katrina Onstad's How Happy to Be, Anne Denoon's Back Flip, and Jennifer Duncan's Sanctuary & Other Stories -- all excellent Toronto reads -- for more of this trope).

Antanas Sileika, Buying On Time (Porcupine's Quill, 1997) and David Bezmozgis' Natasha and Other Stories (2004) both illuminate the at once funny and frightening experiences of Eastern European newcomers to Toronto. Buying On Time is set in 1950s Weston, while Natasha and Other Stories begins near Finch and Bathurst circa 1980. Both, however, deal with similar difficulties of language and cultural nuance and clearly articulate the shock of plummeting into the city full grown but feeling naked. Further, M.G. Vassanji's No New Land (McClelland & Stewart, 1991) surveys similar terrain from the perspective of South Asian immigrants from Africa.

Finally, four edited anthologies of Toronto short stories provide a panoply of literary interpretations of the city and serve as ideal primers for readers hesitant about where to start. These are: Morris Wolfe and Douglas Daymond's Toronto Short Stories (Doubleday, 1977), Cary Fagan and Robert MacDonald's Streets of Attitude: Toronto Stories (Yonge & Bloor Publishing, 1990), Barry Callaghan's This Ain't No Healing Town (Exile Editions, 1995), and Hal Niedzviecki's Concrete Forest (primarily but not exclusively Toronto-focused; McClelland & Stewart, 1998).

And because one cannot quite keep up with new discoveries, here are four more excellent Toronto novels I'm currently reading: Howard Ackler's The City Man (Coach House Books, 2005), Ray Robertson's Gently Down the Stream (Cormorant, 2005), Bill Cameron's Cat's Crossing (Random House, 2003), and Austin Clarke's The Meeting Point (Macmillan, 1967).

If you are looking for more Toronto literature, visit the Imagining Toronto Library and the City of Toronto Book Awards website. Offline, Greg Gatenby's Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur, 1999) provides an encyclopaedic literary tour of Toronto places.

If you think some essential Toronto reads are missing from any of these lists, please suggest them.

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/13 at 07:57 AM

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