Welcome to this month’s edition of Jules’ Tools for Social Change, a column that features a book, author or publisher whose work deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, colonialism, economic justice, or other social justice topics.
This month's feature is Scarborough, the debut novel from Catherine Hernandez, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Scarborough was long-listed for Canada Reads 2018, was named a Globe 100 Best Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the 2017 City of Toronto Book Award.
This book gutted me. It's honest, unflinching, unsentimental. There are characters to love and ones to hate. Realities of poverty are portrayed as matter-of-fact: of homelessness, of dirtiness, of children being helped by neighbours until the neighbours discover lice and the doors close. Of racism, of long work days that don't pay the bills, of exhaustion, of hopelessness. And of people who care for one another, and of forgiveness so pure that I cried (more than once).
I can't say much more. Just read this book.
'Til next time,
The following Q&A is excerpted, with thanks, from a press package provided to All Lit Up by Arsenal Pulp Press.
Q: Why was it important to write about Scarborough, specifically? (As opposed to say, creating a fictional community.)
Every time I would tell a Scarberian I was writing a novel about Scarborough, their reaction would move from disbelief to complete elation. I would often hear things like “Us? You wrote a novel about us?” as if there is nothing worthwhile to say about their lives. This is indicative of how people in lower income suburbs are treated. Scarborough lies on the eastern edge of the mega city that is Toronto. While tourists flock to the CN Tower or the Distillery District and hipsters crowd swank bars along Queen West, Scarborough is considered by more central people as a place to just live and survive. It’s where mostly brown and Black lower working-class folks can afford housing, travelling by transit for one to two hours downtown to work. Our communities are often an after-thought of political decisions. We are the butt of many jokes. We are the New Jersey of Toronto. But like most outcast communities, the act of erasing us as an embarrassment to the city has created a more subversive flavour to our art. We have some of this nation’s most talented spoken word poets, visual artists, photographers, and musicians.
What has been externalized in monuments like the Air Canada Centre or Royal York downtown has been internalized in Scarberians. Our east-end pride manifests in our vibrant immigrant culture, a strong tradition of community gatherings to share art, and an authentic working-class way of life.
My hope in writing this novel is to amplify these voices and present to the world a community that refuses to be invisible and silenced.
Q: You were born in Toronto and have lived much of your life in Scarborough. With that in mind, is it fair to say this novel is based on a true story? Or true stories?
I am turning 40 years old this year, and I moved to Scarborough when I was almost 10. I interviewed dozens of people about their lives in the making of this novel. Since Scarborough is this beautiful mess of immigrant and Indigenous cultures, I wanted to be as respectful as possible to the characters I portrayed. I had to be open to being called out on inaccuracies, and I had to acknowledge my privilege in telling their stories at all times.
It’s a very important journey as a writer to both be truthful to the realities that this community faces while understanding that the way I could be the most respectful to them all is to ensure that the characters I portray live and breathe on their own and create their own storyline. So you’re reading a combination of nuances and reality generously contributed by my interviewees, but the story arc was created by me, the writer.
Funny enough, the most outrageous tales in the novel, such as the dollar store fist fight and the waxing story, actually happened to me. Scarborough is the kind of place where things like that happen all the time. It really didn’t take much to commit to paper the tragedy and comedy of this place I call home.
Q: Multiple narrators in the novel are children. Why was it important to you to write from the perspective of children as well as adults?
I am currently the owner of a home daycare in Scarborough. I care for children ages one to four. Writing from a child’s perspective is such a joy as an author. Writing from a child’s perspective as a caregiver who happens to be an author is an even greater gift. You see, in the first three years, children are learning more than they will ever learn in their lifetime. They are learning a great deal through observation and experimentation. When you write from a child’s perspective, it brings the reader along on that accelerated journey of learning. Without the flourish of flowery language and through simple, uncomplicated observation, the reader understands complex characters, relationships, and plot.
Q: One unconventional voice in the novel is that of the Ontario Reads Literacy Program which takes the form of letters to the facilitator. Can you say more about this aspect of the novel?
This fictional organization portrays all that is a boil on the body of social work administration these days: micro-management, blatant racism and disconnection with the communities they are meant to serve.
Creating the Ontario Reads Literacy Program was important to me since I work very closely with a large number of frontline workers. I have watched the majority of these workers falter under bad management. I know that may seem harsh, but someone has to say it. In my opinion, frontline workers are the blood and breath of social work. It breaks my heart to see hardworking folks who are the first contact for care for at-risk communities being underpaid due to their lack of fancy letters after their name. It’s not a surprise to me to see a majority of frontline workers being Black, Indigenous, or of-colour and management being white. It’s good for us all to consider who has access to post-grad education. It’s also good for us to consider the importance of accreditation in theoretical knowledge versus actual hands-on experience dealing with the street-involved, the disabled, the users, and the abused. Ask any of these populations who they’d rather deal with, and the choice would be clear.
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