Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Leaving in the Blank Spaces

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Leaving in the Blank Spaces

It's a truth universally held by veterans of the Grade 9 English exam that a work of fiction requires a "strong sense of place" to come alive in the reader's mind. Those of us who answered the bonus question may also remember that the attitudes, goals and manners of characters in a work of fiction are very much determined by their place of origin and residence, and that characters in a Canadian novel have a special relationship to a vague, brooding entity known as The North. Beyond that, most readers, if they consider place in fiction at all, do so with an affection for the fictional settings of their favourite novels and stories.

Place, then, is a subject for authors to fret over. Believe me, they do.

Deciding on the setting for a story or novel is a largely intuitive matter determined by the author's personal history and literary bent. Some authors range across the globe (and across the centuries) in search of suitable locations for their fictions, while others enact a broad range of stories in the same place over and over again. Regardless of sensibility, authors eventually come up against the same intimidating challenge: how to construct a believable setting for their work – be it small-town Ontario in the 1960s, Vancouver at the beginning of the new millennium, or the planet Xarxon in the year 3099 – with a cohesive set of cultural, social, political and historical norms and a clear sense of the penalties inflicted on those citizens reckless enough to challenge convention.

As outlined in Amy Lavender Harris's excellent essay, "Six Cures for Literary Amnesia" in the Fall 2007 issue of Open Book Magazine, Toronto presents a number of unique challenges for authors trying to capture its particular "placeness" in their work. Beginning life as an isolated garrison town surveyed and laid out by British army engineers in the late 18th century, Toronto rapidly expanded from the pressure of wave after wave of immigrant groups, each with its own distinct cultural identity. Yet Toronto's civic culture remained distinctly British and Presbyterian well into the 1960s, rarely referencing either the city's unique geography and history or the displaced indigenous populations and the various ethnic groups crowding its streets. What little architectural and geographical unity and character the city could lay claim to was often bulldozed and built over by ambitious but short-sighted politicians and business men with a hunger for a quick buck.

These and many other forces have conspired to create a prolonged case of what Lavender Harris calls "literary amnesia," a lack of a cohesive literary (and historical) tradition for Toronto authors to draw and expand upon in their work. For poet and novelist Gwendolyn MacEwan, Lavender Harris writes, "Toronto's amnesia was not merely a local problem but a national one rooted in the absence of a shared or at least communicable cultural mythology," a cultural-historical lack that MacEwan confronted by bringing the same degree of intensity and vision to the city's often drab landmarks and tamed geography as other artists have brought to the Parthenon in Greece and the medieval streets of Paris. Other authors have adopted a broad range of narrative and aesthetic strategies to put the city on the world's literary map, but the suspicion remains that Toronto still lacks a distinct literature and culture.

This phenomenon of literary amnesia was brought home to me in a big way while writing my first book, The Long Slide, a collection of short stories that either take place in North York or feature characters who came of age in that seemingly nebulous land mass just north of downtown Toronto. As I soon discovered, North York is a place that presents an author with all the literary pitfalls and roadblocks of its cooler parent city to the south as well as a number of challenges all its own, the most formidable being a history that is even shorter and more invisible than Toronto's.

For those of you who missed the parade and fireworks, North York, formerly a Toronto borough cobbled together from a scattering of 19th-century farming communities and railway villages in 1922, became an independent city in 1979. With a population just over a half million, it was one of Canada's ten largest cities for almost twenty years before being dissolved back into Metropolitan Toronto during the forced amalgamation of 1998. Its two decades of cityhood witnessed the construction of a gaudy city centre, arts complex and central library just north of Yonge and Sheppard, serviced by a subway station that few people ever used. Otherwise life went on as before, until mayor-for-life Mel Lastman left his perch in North York to briefly reign as mayor of Metro Toronto, leaving many downtowners scratching their heads and asking themselves, Where did that strange little man come from?

Where indeed? Where is North York, and what is it doing there and why? How is North York different from Toronto and from the rest of Canada – or the world for that matter? And how do North York's citizens experience the place in their daily lives and memories? These questions kept coming up as I fleshed out the stories for the collection, but answers were initially few and far between.

The Long Slide

I began to reflect on my childhood and adolescence in two distinct North York neighbourhoods, the area around Keele and Sheppard, where I lived from age six until eleven, and the more densely populated intersection of Bathurst and Wilson which acted as kind of town square for my Junior and Senior High School years. I also began to search for stories and novels set in North York and Toronto that might offer literary models for my own work.

I quickly discovered that there isn't a lot of fiction set in North York, and what little I could find often focused on immigrants establishing a life in the midst of a largely alien culture and landscape. Immigrant literature is, on one level, the fiction of estrangement and discovery, dramatizing the collision and cross-pollination of two relatively fixed communities, that of the immigrants and their children and the more established "Canadian" populations they encounter. Other literary models presented themselves, such as historical novels set in Toronto or its surrounding communities and literary works set in contemporary Toronto that encompass a range of narrative techniques from the satirical to the naturalistic, the gothic to the deliberately mundane. Several non-Toronto authors, including Flannery O'Connor, V.S. Pritchett, Henry Green and Alice Munro, provided more examples of fictional characters whose inner and outer lives are enriched and limited by their attachment to a particular time and place.

As much as these works of fiction inspired and guided me, I was still lacking place-specific literary reference points for the gallery of characters I was creating, most of whom were first- or second-generation Canadians who came of age in North York in the 1980s.

The question remained: how do I write North York?

My first breakthrough came in the form of a realization that, if I couldn't adequately define North York for myself then I was certainly up to the task of defining what North York isn't. By asking myself that simple question – What isn't North York? – I opened up my work to a series of interconnected narrative possibilities that helped the stories' settings come alive in my imagination and later on the page.

I began to compile my list of isn'ts, the first of which was, North York, in spite of the protests of its civic boosters, isn't and never was a city. There is no neighbourhood or intersection that North Yorkers would define as an organic city centre, and the area's history and development has been so entwined with Toronto's that most of its citizenry define themselves as Torontonians. North York may occupy an impressive chunk of the map of Toronto, but it had failed to colonize a comparable space in the consciousness of the city. I couldn't remember a single conversation in my life or in the media about what it meant to be a North Yorker. And North York, since its inception, had always been too large to be considered a town.

North York isn't exactly a suburb either. The population density is generally higher than that of traditional suburbs, and the majority of the area's residential houses, though not as architecturally diverse or finely crafted as comparable homes in the downtown core, lack the numbing repetition of design that defines so many suburban subdivisions. North York is older than most suburbs and expanded in a more haphazard fashion, with century-old farming plots gradually giving way to clusters of house-lined side streets, massive apartment buildings and strip malls, as well as schools, rec centres and other government buildings. Because of North York’s age and varied neighbourhoods, and because downtown Toronto was just a short bus or subway ride away, my friends and I missed out on the chance to wallow in classic suburban ennui. Most of us dreamed of leaving North York for a more exotic, suitably urban location for our staggering future successes, but the burning need to escape a stifling community that defines so much suburban and small-town fiction was mostly absent.

Reflecting on North York’s lack of particulars eventually brought home the realization that the entire notion of cities, towns, regions and countries possessing a unique "sense of place" is being increasingly challenged by the global nature of culture. Most of us draw from the same well of TV shows and movies and albums, meaning that local slang, references, and dialect are absorbed into or replaced by a constantly changing global patois that transcends municipal and national borders. With each new generation, personal, familial and community loyalties once defined by place, ethnicity, gender roles, political allegiance and venerated traditions are weakened and eclipsed by individual media and lifestyle choices largely defined by an overarching global culture.

So how, then, was I going to write about North York? I had found the blank spaces for my canvas, my isn'ts, but my stories needed something more than a bunch of characters sitting in anonymous rooms watching TV and speaking in global slang. I wanted to evoke the culture and unique associations and perceptions generated by this no-place, with its lack of local traditions and ancient social loyalties and conflicts. Where to begin?

The answer, when it came, was as obvious as it was simple: I would begin with the bizarre, self-referential culture of the friends I had grown up with in North York. Though I wasn't interested in writing overtly autobiographical fiction, I realized that my friends and acquaintances (and enemies for that matter), severed from many traditional extended-family and community loyalties, were a kind of human microcosm for the sort-of-city/sort-of-suburb of contemporary North York. I decided to let the culture of North York that I'd experienced stand in for the actual physical place wherever possible, and to immerse the reader directly in the drug-and-TV-addled, attention-challenged sensibilities of my characters and their bizarre group mythologies and loyalties. I would make the reader experience this narcissistic, smart-alec, pop-culture-saturated world, with its rounds of parties, donut-shop gossip sessions and romances, from the inside, and by doing so dramatize the limitations of those group bonds as they are challenged by the demands of adulthood and the lure of a more cosmopolitan world beyond North York.

I'd found the breakthrough I'd been looking for, and the stories began mutating and cross-pollinating in exciting and unanticipated ways. I saw that, although my characters were as rooted in their time and place as their fictional counterparts in the works of Faulkner, Doestoyevsky and Alice Munro, their lived experience of North York would be largely defined by a temporal, geographic and social disconnect from a traditional understanding of physical place and community.

This all sounds much more abstract and cerebral than it actually is and is probably better illustrated by including a few samples of the fiction that these reflections generated. The first example is from the third story in The Long Slide, "A Gap in His Teeth," which takes place in an attic apartment in downtown Toronto where a group of old friends have gotten together to help one of their members move his few belongings to another apartment. The young men all met as teenagers in North York, and although they have since moved downtown, their friendship is still very much defined by those formative years:

They were veterans at twenty-two, though they had never worked together at a job that any of them cared about or played on the same amateur sports team or gone into business together. None had been the other’s best man because none of them were married, and none had fathered a child to complain or brag about. They had never pooled skills passed down from fathers to fix up a car or a piece of property, and no one close to them had died or moved to another city, leaving the others to bond over an absence. But they had all met in their final days of sobriety and virginity, and they had taken turns driving each other’s lingering enthusiasms out from the sheltering closets of private bedrooms, where these last ties to childhood were stomped to death with comedy routines that extended over an entire summer. There was Craig’s impersonation of Jerome at his telescope: 'Look, I’ve discovered a new constellation – Meps! – shaped just like my sister’s vaginer!' Jerome went after John’s heavy-metal record collection with a shrieking falsetto: 'Hello, North York! Do you want to rock and roll all night!?' The five friends remembered that summer as one long game of Gophers, where the carny gives you a pillowed stick and you have to clobber the stuffed gophers that pop their heads out of their holes for a split second, only here the stick had spikes on the end and the gophers were like children, slow and trusting, and when you smashed them they stayed dead.

I tried to give the reader a sense of how the absence of cultural and social traditions has simply been filled with a unique subculture of in-jokes, pop-culture references, repeated anecdotes and personal and group mythologies generated and perpetuated by each of the group's individual members. Humans can't but help generate culture and history and experience – when one set of traditions and norms disappear, they simply create new ones from the materials at hand.

In the story "My God, Richard Is Beautiful," a young man in bed with his friend's girlfriend looks out from a haze of lust and guilt at his lover's bedroom in a drab, rent-controlled housing complex near Yorkdale subway station:

Paul catalogues everything in the bedroom. A particle-board dresser with a couple of missing drawer handles topped with a mirror shaped like a cartoon crown. A queen-sized bed the sisters share. A little rickety table beside the bed.... Theresa and Lisa have stuck little photos and ticket stubs in the crack between the mirror and the frame. The mementos remind him of amendments scribbled in the margins of an official document – the lease to a midsize car or an announcement to change the zonage of a four-storey building. Paul has never seen one of these documents, but there must be millions of them in drawers all over Toronto.

Paul knows that there is a larger world outside of the rounds of parties and sex that has defined his post-pubescent life in North York, but he has only begun to experience that world and is still overwhelmed by its sheer size and complexity, expressed here in his strange fixation on official Toronto documents. Home may be predictable and impoverished at times, but it has its familiar rewards and consolations.

In the collection's title story, I included a scene in which a character is confronted by a culture living by strict codes of dress and morality dating back hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. Here, the protagonist, stoned on a Friday afternoon, bored with his life and his girlfriend and his own tired cynicism, looks forward to sundown when the local Hassidic population will make their way to their synagogues:

the [Hassidim] seemed to rise from the mists of Friday dusks and drift up to Lawrence in black overcoats and wide round hats that were all rim, like the mechanism of a top waiting to be spun by the hand of God. Patrick would be waiting for the sun to go down and a party to start somewhere and the Hassidim would suddenly appear and he would shadow their pace from the other side of the street, feeding on the reigned-in excitement of the little beardless boys, feeling that together they were following parallel treks to ecstasy, the Hassidim walking the path of devotion and ritual, he of suffering and worldliness.

Besides showing the reader a small sample of the worlds that co-exist in North York (or in just about any Canadian urban and suburban space), the scene dramatizes Patrick's romanticized longing for a fixed ethnic identity and the guidance of a traditional community to rescue him from the perpetual cultural flux of the late 20th century.

These are three examples of my own particular take on North York’s many isn’ts, but throughout the stories, and in my yet-to-be-published novel In Jokes, I also began to look past North York’s blank spaces to what is uniquely there: the almost pristine ravine systems, estate-sized parks (and the surreal park parties held beneath the sheltering canopies of trees), the homely, squat bungalows, basement rec rooms, crushingly depressing public housing complexes, the high schools, cliques, three-story apartment buildings, video arcades (remember those?), delicatessens and hobby shops. There were many little worlds to bring to life, and even more worlds beyond my personal experience that other authors had explored (such as North York's Russian-Jewish immigrant community, vividly evoked in David Bezmozgis's Natasha and Other Stories).

The task of tackling the textures and blank spaces of North York certainly freed me of a dismissive attitude still espoused by many cultural commentators and authors, namely that Toronto (and by extension, North York) is, in the words of Bert Archer, "a city that exists in no one's imagination." To say that Toronto exists in no one's imagination and is therefore incapable of generating works that are place-specific is to buy into a nexus of cultural insecurities that date back to colonial times, when Canadians believed that real art and culture were generated in the Empire's Imperial heart, London, or in other equally cultured European centres. This insecurity still permeates literary debate in Toronto, expressing itself in a self-defeating complaint that goes something like this: If only Toronto were more interesting, more cultural and vibrant, then we could all get down to the business of writing the great Toronto novel. Such assertions are easily disputed by the history of literature, which has demonstrated time and time again that cities and places do not create literature, authors do. What was Joyce's Dublin but a colonial backwater suffocating under the rule of an oppressive colonial hierarchy? Yet its dirty crowded streets provided Joyce with the raw material for some of the finest passages in the English language. Saul Bellow's Chicago was an inferno of crude capitalist lust, Alice Munro's southern Ontario a gothic landscape of small towns ruled by Byzantine codes of hypocritical social observances, yet these most unliterary of places, in the hands of skilled, dedicated authors, were transformed into unique literary worlds.

If those authors could grow their accomplished works from such modest native soil, why shouldn't we? After all, there is no place unworthy of an artist's loving attention.

James Grainger

James Grainger is a books columnist for the Toronto Star and Quill & Quire magazine. His first work of fiction, The Long Slide (ECW Press, 2004), won the 2005 ReLit Award for short fiction and he is concurrently finishing two novels, one of which takes place in a North York basement apartment in 1986.

Archer, Bert. “Making a Toronto of the Imagination.” In uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, ed. Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox. Toronto: Coach House, 2005, 220-228.

Grainger, James. The Long Slide. Toronto: ECW Press, 2004.

Lavender Harris, Amy. “Six Cures for Literary Amnesia.” Open Book Magazine, Fall 2007.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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