The shortlist for the Toronto Book Award nearly always introduces me to the work of one writer whose work I did not know. (This year, I “discovered” Kevin Irie’s poetry.)
• Kamal Al-Solaylee, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (HarperCollins Canada)
Much of this memoir speaks of confinement but even in unexpected places, Kamal Al-Solaylee manages to find a certain kind of escape even while feeling imprisoned. In Yeman, as a young man, he turns to literature for a glimpse of freedom.
“My English was improving and I was able to read about homosexuality in the reference library of the British Council, where I began to make the association between being gay and the need to get out of the Middle East. But I was still a high-school student and had no means of making that happen. What I wouldn’t have done to be in London or New York at the time.”
Through fiction, including the work of writers as seemingly unlikely as Wilkie Collins, he finds a sense of release, and his lifelong love of print (he once pored over western music magazines as compulsively as novels) solidifies.
His perspective, having been closer with the female members of his family than the male members who seemed to intuit that he was different somehow, provides an interesting understanding of the changing roles of women in the areas his family inhabits. (Chapters are devoted to Aden, Beirut, Cairo, Sana’a, England and Toronto.)
“The Safia who’d walked up and down Cairo’s markets, bargaining down fruit and vegetable sellers and chatting with clerks in the haberdashery shop, was gone. To me it was like watching the life drain out of one woman after another in the family.”
He also manages to summarize major shifts and events in the region clearly and succinctly, so that the information is accessible for readers who are completely unfamiliar with the occurrences.
Towards the end of the memoir, he moves permanently to Toronto. “Toronto? I had vague recollections of reading some travel stories about the city in the weekend papers. The word ‘dull’ always crept into the copy.” Here, he finds a home.
“I’d reached my final destination after three decades of travelling and relocating, with my family and alone. Not only that, but I was settling into a city that had given me so much in such a short time – a home, a social life, a partner and above all a place to be who I was, without fear, shame or risk of life.”
He is in love with this city, dedicates Intolerable to it, and readers who share that affection will wish he was writing those travel stories for publications abroad to overturn this idea of it being dull and lifeless.
• Shawn Micallef, Full Frontal T.O. Patrick Cummins, photos (Coach House Books)
A love of Toronto is certainly prominent in Shawn Micallef’s writing. (Stroll is a favourite of mine.) Full Frontal T.O. examines the kind of buildings that do not make the postcards.
Micallef argues, convincingly, that the energy of the city is contained in ordinary buildings that evolve and adapt, more so than in landmarks like the C.N. Tower, which are static and unaltered.
“Ugly? Maybe. Boring? Certainly not. Every change to the building is attached to a human narrative, small or large, and while we can only infer what those stories are, there is something here.”
He seeks to uncover that “something”, to read the narratives that lurk beneath the architectural shifts.
“The city is never the same from day to day or decade to decade. Yet most of us don’t notice the shifts because they happen in tiny increments on the periphery of our lives.”
Full Frontal T.O. displays these tiny increments. A small Ontario cottage (at 636-642 Gerrard Street East) appears in four images, two amongst them dated 1997 and 2010, so that viewers can recognize the details that change (e.g. staircases, railings, windows, trim, shingles, chimneys).
“The photos in Full Frontal T.O. do that, let us look backwards and forwards and along the streets that we know casually, and force us to look a little deeper, read the landscape a little more carefully. Some change is so slight that before-and-after photos become like that old Spot the Differences game.”
The photographs are strangely mesmerizing, if only because the layout encourages a curious interaction between them. The double-page spreads of buildings which share certain characteristics (for instance, that of small variety stores in cramped street-level sections of houses) are particularly interesting.
“Rough-and-tumble Toronto has Patrick Cummins, who has also wandered the city, in this case for decades, with camera in hand, first film and later digital. The human bodies that appear in his photos are incidental; the focus here is on the stories people in Toronto tell with the buildings they build.”
Full Frontal T.O. holds everyday images of Toronto in his pages so effectively that you might think you could smell the city in its binding.
• Kevin Irie, Viewing Tom Thomson, A Minority Report (Frontenac House Poetry)
The poems in this collection begin with a consideration of the works of Tom Thomson, whose death in Algonquin Park is almost as well known as his art and membership in the Group of Seven.
At first glance, there seems little connection to the city of Toronto. There is a mention of one of his paintings having hung in a bank downtown, talk of a photograph Thomson once snapped of the view from The Needles on the Scarborough Bluffs. Details.
And, yet, the collection culminates in a series of poems which consider various parks and wild spaces in the city, in such detail that one imagines the poet channelling his inner-Thomson.
What the painter did with his brush, Kevin Irie does with his words. The experiences described are universal, accessible, recognizable.
Specific places are named: walking in winter on a path in the ravine, the walker can see smoke from the chimneys of the homes on Avondale Road, a canoe is discovered in the Humber Marshes, shadows fall on the East Don River, Thomson’s work hangs on the walls of the AGO.
And there is, certainly, a sense of Toronto on-the-page as the reader turns the pages of this collection. It is, perhaps, a lesser-known aspect of the city, but a vital one nonetheless.
“In the century between
his time and this moment,
these bluffs still rise, the years
unable to topple such height.
Look where a painter once stood –
ruined towers still falling,
all art, any artist.
Our lives the grains of their collapse.”
Viewing Tom Thomson: A Minority Report muses on questions of art and identity, wilderness and culture, and reminds readers of the mystery inherent in solitude.
• Aga Maksimowska, Giant (Pedlar Press)
When Giant begins, Gosia is living with Dziadek and Babcia in Poland, while mother is working in Toronto. As a coming-of-age story, her experiences are complicated by the fact that because of her unusual size she appears to be much older than she is.
She is also expected to handle very difficult situations with a maturity that she does not possess, so she is at odds with the world around her in many ways. The characters of Dziadek and Babcia are solid and supportive, however, and what might have been a bleak portion of the story is rich and detailed.
When Gosia finally travels to Canada to be with her mother again, she must wrestle with another layer of feeling marginalized. She views the world differently not only because of her size but because she is from somewhere else. For the most part, she longs for the familiar, for acceptance and ease.
“I wish we could stop talking about Poland and go back to slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement, the Iroquois Confederacy, or longhouses, canoes, or finally start Wolfe and Cartier, for Christ’s sake. Something more normal, something more Canadian, something that would let me blend into this library, like my classmates do.”
Readers are wholly immersed in Gosia’s perspective, so while this story of newcomer-to-Canada might take a different arc with a more inherently reflective character, Giant reads quickly, almost as though it is a series of scenes rather than a tightly knit narrative. By the end of the novel, however, Gosia’s experiences are accumulating and she is beginning to consider her own place in the world.
“Humans are like fish that change the colour of their scales to escape predators; we choose to forget certain things in order to make our lives more manageable. […] You can’t have your feet in two different places: one in Poland, one in Canada, because that’s a massive step that will likely rip you in two. You have to pick one, forget the other. If you do that, you won’t miss what you’ve left.”
Toronto does appear on the novel’s pages: Gosia’s mother buys her red patent leather shoes and a matching purse downtown at Honest Ed’s, they walk together on Bloor West, Gosia begs to attend North York Central Collegiate, and she goes to the 6-floor North York Central Library to borrow books on basketball.
And, yet, Gosia’s world is smaller than Samuel’s in Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy and Shivan’s in Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts; Gosia is more concerned with shifting emotional territory than the geography of her concrete surroundings.
Having previously read Katrina Onstad’s novel following its Giller-prize nomination in 2012, I opted to refresh my reader’s memory by re-listening to her interview on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, now available in podcast from September 24, 2012.
She addresses the fact that although many years have passed since suffragettes went on hunger-strikes, in 2012 we are still evaluating women’s life successes based on their decision to have children and their domestic achievements.
Her character is struggling with this reality, and although Onstad says that she is “not the easiest character” she has ever written, the novel also unfolds in a period of great stress for the characters therein, so matters are understandably pressing and the reader can expect to experience some of that discomfort as well.
When it comes to discussing the significance of the book’s Toronto setting, Onstad explains that the city “can function as another character”. It operates as a motivator and it provides a context for decisions the characters make.
One of her goals in writing the novel was to depict the loneliness of the urban experience that can exist, but she goes on to say that, although it is set in Toronto, the level of isolation amidst the affluence could be set in the gentrification of Vancouver, Montreal or New York
Any one of these cities can grow urban orphans, where family is not based on blood but choosing, where circles narrow and characters are left to grapple alone with overwhelming demands and stresses.
(Shortly after reading this novel, I wandered the streets around The Grange downtown, imagining that this was the neighbourhood that Ana and James inhabited, but I could not find a house that I thought would be theirs. Then again, it was during the day, Ana would have been at work.)
Some years, the nominees for this award truly feel Toronto-soaked. That is not the case this year, and because I love seeing the city that I inhabit make a vibrant appearance on the pages of the books that I read, I was a little disappointed to find that Toronto feels a little more like a late-arrival or a backdrop in some of these scenes.
I feel as though I could draw maps from some of the characters’/writers’ experiences of other books with Toronto settings, and this is the kind of book that I imagine being nominated for this award. In my recent reading, I think of books like these:
Cary Fagan’s A Bird’s Eye
Don Gillmor’s Mount Pleasant
Lydia Perovic’s Incidental Music
Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts
Lynn Crosbie’s Life is about Losing Everything
Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky
and Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World
(she, too, is in interview with Shelagh Rogers in the podcast linked above).
Nonetheless, I am a reader, not a juror: I do not have to follow eligibility rules and check publication dates. And I am only a single reader: I realize not everybody craves specificity in their Toronto stories.
And that is not to detract from the quality of the works that have been shortlisted for this year’s award. Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable is illuminating. Full Frontal T.O. inspires me to walk off the beaten path. Aga Maksimowska’s characterization in Giant is resonant. Kevin Irie’s Viewing Tom Thomson is beautiful and provocative. (It also has me searching keenly for his other collections; I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened for me as a prose-focussed reader.) And Katrina Onstad takes an important question and wrestles with it skillfully in well-crafted prose.
The winner of this year’s Toronto Book Award is announced October 9, 2013.
[Edited to add that Kamal Al-Solaylee's book won: many bookish congratulations!]