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2006 07 28
Imagining Toronto: The City’s Most Perplexing Literary Myth
A two-part roundtable discussion on Toronto literature coordinated by Toronto Life editor Mark Pupo is available online at Torontolife.com. It's an interesting discussion for several reasons, not least of which is its reinforcement of the tediously incorrect claim that Toronto lacks a literary presence. Andrew Pyper (author of Lost Girls and The Wildfire Season) laments, "I think there's a reluctance in our fiction to engage Toronto as a place." Trampoline Hall founder and Ticknor writer Sheila Heti agrees and adds that Toronto is "not an easily mythologized place." Shyam Selvadurai (well known for Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens and whose Swimming in the Monsoon Sea won a Lambda Literary Award in 2006) observes that "eighty per cent of us live in cities ... there's lots of multicultural stuff going on ..." and then sighs, "But nobody really writes about that." The three panelists chuckle over the thought that they are "probably having the same conversation that Atwood and Ondaatje had in the '70s." This may be true, but it's not funny at all. It's sad, and undoubtedly costly to Toronto's literary culture.

I'm not entirely sure where Toronto's literary inferiority complex comes from. Sometimes I'm tempted to think it's writers themselves projecting their angst upon the city. But Toronto's literary gatekeepers are guilty, too. Indeed, Sheila Heti asks the Toronto Life literary panel, "Are you sure those books aren't being written? Or are they just not being reviewed?" There's truth to this, too. Too many of the city's cultural arbiters have decided that there's nothing interesting fictional going on in Toronto, and it seems almost too difficult to convince them otherwise. A few examples of this literary prejudice. In an essay published in the otherwise largely upbeat uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto (Coach House Books, 2005), journalist Bert Archer describes Toronto as "a city that exists in no one's imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world." He adds, "Toronto is a place people live, not a place where things happen, or, at least, not where the sorts of things happen that forge a place for the city in the imagination." In a 2005 Vanity Fair article, American critic Anderson Tepper acknowledges that "a vision of modern Toronto gradually took shape before our eyes" through the city's fiction, but suggests this literary unveiling has occurred only since the 1987 publication of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. Tepper does quote celebrated Toronto novelist and poet Dionne Brand averring that "the literature is still catching up with the city, with its new stories." Writing in the Globe & Mail, Toronto author Stephen Marche (whose novel Raymond and Hannah, is nominated for the 2006 Toronto Book Award) describes Toronto's "flourishing bookishness" almost breathlessly, asserting that "Toronto may be the only city where novels are integral to high art, the alternative scene and mainstream culture all at the same time," but describes the city as "unimaginative to the extreme" and its fiction as "insular" and focused on "interior rather than public spaces." With friends like these, who needs literary enemies?

I spend a lot of time reading Toronto literature for the Imagining Toronto project, and am perplexed at the persistence of the claim that Toronto lacks a significant body of fiction or a well-developed literary culture. I disagree even with Sheila Heti's belief that the city does not lend itself to easy mythologizing. Indeed, some of Toronto's most exciting recent novels -- Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town (Tor, 2005), Darren O'Donnell's Your Secrets Sleep With Me (Coach House Books, 2004), and Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl In The Ring (Warner/Aspect, 1998) pair familiar Toronto spaces (Kensington Market, the subway, Riverdale Farm, the CN Tower) with the surreal and make the city archetypal in the same way that King Kong made New York's Empire State Building into a cultural icon. And if Heti, Pyper, and Selvadurai are amused to be repeating the same conversation they imagine Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje having two decades ago, then they might read some of the same literature those writers encountered then, such as pbNichol's Martyrology series (issued in nine volumes by Coach House Books between 1967 and 1992), which describes Toronto's downtown and Annex through the lens of a poetic pilgrimage alternately medieval and modern in tone, serving as a kind of guidebook, a skeleton key to the city and its parables. Or they might recall Gwendolyn MacEwen's Noman (Oberon, 1972) and Noman's Land (Coach House, 1985), which explored how ancestral mythologies might be lost, rediscovered, and rewritten among the city's towers and ravines. MacEwen, whose stories and poems about Toronto are iconic, was known as the city's 'mythopoeic poet' (a label she reportedly hated). Atwood and Ondaatje might similarly have lamented the city's habit of overlooking its own literature, but they would not likely have described it as unimaginative (as Stephen Marche does) or difficult to render as myth.

Similarly, too, it is unfair to claim Toronto's literature fails entirely to reflect the city's multicultural diversity. While many of the city's stories remain untold, Heti, Pyper, and Selvadurai themselves reflect the city's diversity. And if I were to suggest a culturally inclusive reading list, it would include Karen Richardson and Steven Green's edited anthology T-Dot Griots: An Anthology of Toronto's Black Storytellers (Trafford, 2004), Dionne Brand's novel, In Another Place, Not Here (Knopf, 1996), or the work of Althea Prince, Austin Clarke, Neil Bissoondath, M.G. Vassanji, or Pat Capponi's narratives of poverty and psychiatric survival on the streets of Toronto. And if these and other writers fail to satisfy, then I'd recommend sitting down and writing your own stories and poems. It's as hard to get published in this city as any other, but gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and even genre are no longer impenetrable barriers to reaching an audience.

On the whole, it is my view that if Toronto lacks a well-defined literary character it is not because there are too few writers and too few works but because there are so many. Please go out and read some of them.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/28 at 11:09 AM

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