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2006 08 22
Imagining Toronto: Images of Suburbia
As I finalize materials and readings for Imagining Toronto. a literary geography course I'll be teaching at York University in September after having spent a year reading and researching the city's literature for the Imagining Toronto project, I remain struck by the curious absence of suburban narratives from this otherwise rich and diverse body of work. Toronto's downtown is depicted in all its grotty, lurid, or hidden splendour. Readers of Toronto literature encounter punk-rock poets, streetcar philosophers, bums, bureaurcrats, and housewives mingling among the viaducts, valleys, and neighbourhoods that give form to the imagined city. A fictional telephone book of Toronto would list thousands of invented names, its literary atlas hundreds of real or surreal neighbourhoods given life in the city's novels. But there are huge gaps in Toronto's literary terrain: one of the largest is the relative paucity of suburban narratives. As Canadian literary scholar Paul Milton writes in an essay on suburban fiction published in Downtown Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2005), "[m]y suburban life was not a factor in Canadian literature. 'Where is here,' you ask? 'Somewhere else,' I would respond."

Milton's essay explores the "suburban myth" of the homogenous, faceless, white, middle-class suburban landscape, stultifying, banal, and alienating to residents and visitors alike. At the same time, Milton exposes the origins of this myth in late twentieth-century urban critiques of suburbs which, while strongly influencing research and public perception, were primarily aesthetic and vastly oversimplified the realities of the suburban experience. Milton cites Unplanned Suburbs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), historian Richard Harris' groundbreaking study of early Toronto suburbs developed by working-class owner-builders buying the cheapest avilable land at the urban fringe, a phenomenon still evident in the architecturally eclectic residential neighbourhoods that grew between the urban core and the mass suburbs of the century's later decades. In Toronto, excellent examples of such self-built suburbs are visible along side streets near Keele north of St. Clair and along Weston Road into Etobicoke (Anatanas Sileikas' Buying On Time (Porcupine's Quill, 1997) gives fictional voice to these latter suburbs); they are also characteristic of older parts of Scarborough. Demographically and architecturally speaking, suburbs became homogenized only gradually, a trend which seems to have reversed itself considerably if the last decade of Census data is any indication. John Bentley Mays' article in last week's Globe & Mail on Cathedraltown, a New Urbanist suburb near Markham, seems to confirm this shift, as does the presence of the growing Sikh community around Mississauga's Khalasa Darbar Gurdwara, large Chinese communities in Markham and Richmond Hill, and other ethnic and multi-ethnic suburbs in the Greater Toronto Area. The character of Toronto's suburbs has shifted sharply throughout their century-long existence; it would seem that our narratives of them should shift accordingly. The odd thing is not so much that the narratives have shifted so little, but that there are so few of them.

The first suburban Toronto novel I read was Hugh Garner's Death in Don Mills (1975, Ryerson), a novel riddled with drugs, derelicts, detectives, and a dead woman, written about the neighbourhood John Sewell described in The Shape of the City (University of Toronto Press, 1993) as "Canada's first corporate suburb." But Hugh Garner was an anomaly among Canadian writers, well known for his willingness to write about the seamy underside of urban and suburban life. And if his depiction of Don Mills was shocking when it was first published, it seems a prosaic rendering of Don Mills now, a mish-mash of residential, corporate, and industrial structures in the city's north-east quadrant.

Since reading Death in Don Mills, I have come across novels depicting Toronto (or at least southern Ontario) suburbs, but finding them has required some concerted digging and a very flexible notion of the extent of Toronto's suburban reach. Many are set too far away, even if their depictions of suburbia are instructive to Toronto readers. Paul Milton's examples, Joan Barfoot's 1982 novel, Dancing in the Dark, and Gerald Lynch's Troutstream (1995) describe suburbs of London and Ottawa respectively. Kerri Sakamoto's haunting novel, The Electrical Field (Norton, 1998), describes an unnamed suburb that strikes me as further west or north than Toronto. Emily Schultz's Joyland (ECW, 2006) is set in fictional South Wakefield, a rustbelt community seeming to describe the landscape and people nearer to Hamilton or even Windsor than Toronto. Sakamoto and Schultz's invented suburbs are one step away from the explicitly unnamed suburbs of Michelle Berry's scathing Blind Crescent (Penguin, 2005) and Barbara Gowdy's Falling Angels (Random House, 1989). Notwithstanding real or fictional distance, I have sought to integrate these novels into the Imagining Toronto course because there are few more obviously 'GTA' representations of suburban life. The two good examples I do know about are Toronto Star columnist Linwood Barclay's darkly funny Bad Move (Bantam, 2004), about murder and mayhem in north Oakville (which explicitly ties themes of escape and ennui to suburban life); and Lawrence Hill's fluid, lyrical Any Known Blood, a fictionalized history of five generations of the Crane family, descendents of an escaped slave who settled in Oakville. Other novels, including Russell Smith's Noise (Porcupine's Quill, 1998) and Ray Robertson's Gently Down the Stream (Cormorant, 2005) incorporate long descriptions of visits to parents' and friends homes in the suburbs, but the protagonists themselves live in the city. Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (Tor, 2005) describes a garbage-night dumpster search for electronic and computer parts extending into the suburbs north of North York. And then there's Bail Papadimos' surly postindustrial landscape in The Hook of it Is (Emergency Press, 1989):
Walking south on Weston Road or Jane Street or who knows. No cars, no cabs. Wide streets, looking like dormant runways, lined with gray apartment towers. Broken only by futuristic gas bars and silent, screaming mall signs. McDeathburgers and Jonny Mufflerface and Factory Wholesale Discount Bargain Outlet.
And so. what do these depictions of suburban life tell us about Toronto? Most pointedly they show that the suburbs are darker and more diverse than one might think. Far from being bland, faceless, homogenous no-places, the suburbs practically seethe with drama and pathos. Certainly they give credence to the stereotypical tropes, especially of escape, entrapmnent, boredom, and alienation, but they also portray communities as interesting and deserving of a place in the imagination as the city itself.

I am still looking to add to the list of suburban Toronto literature. If you know of additional novels, stories, poems, or other works, please about them.

(The above aerial photograph of Markham was taken by Ian Duke and used, via Wikipedia, under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 08/22 at 07:30 AM

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