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Stories as Roadmaps: How Settings Shape Us (and Our Characters) by Emily Pohl-Weary
I’m sitting on my couch, posting nice reviews that have been written about my new young adult novel How to Be Found. Meanwhile, my social feed is crammed with horror. Israel indiscriminately bombs residential areas, hospitals, and refugee camps in Palestine. There were more mass shootings in the U.S. than days in 2023, but Americans still can’t decide whether they want stronger laws to regulate gun ownership. The Stó:lō Nation in British Columbia (where I live) recently dug up the bodies of 158 children who died at residential school. The climate crisis regularly manifests as unforeseen heat waves, droughts, and flooding. Plus, the global pandemic that has already killed so many keeps threatening to resurge.
In contrast, my novel is an intimate story with autobiographical elements about chosen sisters who come of age in downtown Toronto while a serial killer targets girls their age. I’m proud of the story, which took me a decade to finish to my satisfaction, and believe it deserves to be read by teenagers and adults who want to understand the teens in their lives. It tackles some big issues, like sexism, gendered violence, mental and physical health, and addiction in a highly personal way. And anyone who reads All Lit Up knows how difficult it is for indie Canadian presses to reach a book’s readership. Still, my posts feel, well, insensitive.
But maybe, as we live through the death throes of colonialist destruction, we actually need stories more than ever? Most of my friends and family love books, at the University of British Columbia (where I work) about 5,000 seats in creative writing classes fill up each year, and I myself read about a novel a day. Stories not only allow us to escape, but to empathize, understand views that are different from our own, and create roadmaps for processing trauma. We tell stories to claim space, offer alternative perspectives, and even sometimes to shape what’s going on around us. Imposing a narrative (or poetic) structure to chaotic thoughts and feelings can help make sense of experiences that seem, at first, to be incomprehensible.
When I teach a class like Writing the Young Adult Novel, I’m fully conscious of how overwhelming my students’ lives are, and aim to share knowledge, but also to create a calm and safe space where people can take risks and learn from mistakes. More than ever, I find myself encouraging students to slow down and ground their stories in their unique perspectives on our troubled world. Sometimes emerging writers focus so much on fancy stylistics and tricks that they forget to bring their stories to life through specific details. They need to share where their characters are located in space and time, what they look like, what power dynamics are at play in their communities, and how they feel about what they’re doing at any given moment.
In the most compelling stories, readers enter a lucid dream. Reality disappears and they see, feel, hear, smell, and possibly even taste the imagined world. They empathize with the characters. This is the same reason we are overcome watching a news segment (or story) that tells us that Israel has just obliterated a hospital and shows images of people who emerge waving white flags being killed. Then, when the camera focuses on a small injured child asking what happened to his missing parents, for a short time, we are utterly immersed in that child’s reality.
Like that Palestinian child’s, there are so many important stories that need to be told. This leads me to think about what stories I’m compelled to write and how my own setting impacts them. How to Be Found takes place almost entirely in Parkdale, the neighbourhood in Toronto’s southwest-end where I grew up in the 1980s. It’s a somewhat seedy but increasingly gentrified chunk of downtown that’s bordered to the south by a highway and polluted Lake Ontario, to the north and east by noisy train tracks, and to the west by criss-crossing electrical wires that block out the sky and bring streetcars to the Roncesvalles Carhouse where they sleep and undergo maintenance. It’s not a pretty place, but I would go so far as to call it the home of my heart and the most fertile setting I can access in my stories.
Parkdale has quite a history. Long before I lived there, it was home to wealthy landowners who built huge brick manors and bathed in the cool lake on hot days. After the Gardiner Expressway separated the city from the shores of Lake Ontario, and the water got progressively more polluted, the area became particularly bleak. Anyone with enough money moved away and the manor homes were chopped up into small apartments, halfway houses, and supported living units. A few high-rises were built. By the time my family moved there, in the late 1970s, Parkdale was populated by lower-working class people, newcomers to Canada, and outpatients from the Queen Street West mental health hospital which has a hauntingly shameful history.
My childhood happened just before the Internet made the world feel small. At one point in time, I made jokes about how going east of Yonge Street or west of High Park was like crossing a border into another country. It was nearly impossible for me to picture how people lived outside the utilitarian city that had polished my rough edges to smoothness with its energy, friction, and diversity.
Parkdale was a wild place to grow up, but it wasn’t idyllic. Like everyone, I have happy and unhappy memories. My family consists of settlers who came from elsewhere—Argentina, Hong Kong, New York City, Montreal—and Indigenous ancestral claims to the land mean that we are, first and foremost, uninvited guests. As a child, teen, and young adult, I saw my fair share of tragedies, some of which were mine, and others which were experienced by loved ones. I spent years facilitating a writing group for young people who lived in Parkdale because I wanted them to tell their stories. We met at the Parkdale Library Branch because one of the people who was most influential in my life worked as the children’s librarian. Rita Cox developed a massive Caribbean literature collection, remembered the names of all the kids who joined her programs, and saved up child-sized costumes so she could take us to participate in the local Caribana parade each summer.
Decades later, I got divorced from a man I’d known since I was a child. Remaining in the place where I’d lived my whole life was suddenly unbearable. I wanted to know the rest of the vast country I’d largely ignored up until that point. Thanks to being a published writer and middle class, I was able to take on short-term jobs—writing residencies and teaching gigs—in a range of places that had once seemed nearly fictional to this Toronto girl.
For instance, if I imagined The Yukon based solely on stories read in school, I’d believe that the only reason people lived there was to mine for gold nuggets and strike it rich. Turns out, there’s so much more than those tired old settler Klondike narratives. I got to be a writer-in-residence at the Pierre Berton House in Dawson City for three months, during mid-summer, which meant experiencing twenty-four hours of sunlight. At first, Dawson seemed a little like a Parks Canada theme park, but that was all superfiction: the people who lived there year-round were creative, hardy, creative, resourceful, and forward-thinking. Trondek Gwich’in culture vastly predated the gold rush (which was really only an environmentally destructive blip in history) and remained a powerful force in the territory. The Danoja Zho Cultural Centre was the most beautiful and important building in town. While I lived there, I mostly wrote poetry, short fragmentary work about grief, change, and being awe-struck by natural beauty.
Next, I had a four-month residency at Queen’s University, in picturesque Kingston, Ontario, where I worked with students two days a week. Before arriving, I was aware that six of the country’s fifty-three federal prisons were located in the municipality—I’d had people I cared about institutionalized there. On top of those institutions, the notorious Kingston Pen closed in 2013, and Bath Institution (formerly Millhaven) was only twenty-five minutes away. Bath now houses many of Canada’s most dangerous offenders. Most of Penitentiary City’s residents work for the universities, the military, the penal system…or someone they love is in prison. So I ran a community writing group for people affected by incarceration once a week and surrounded myself with people who made me feel at home. It also helped me process the death of a young family friend, a shooting my brother survived in Parkdale, and the way our un-justice system so callously tosses young BIPOC men behind bars.
When I went west to British Columbia, I got addicted to watching the sun set over the expansive Fraser Valley. I was shocked to discover that a good portion of that fertile farmland was created by draining Sumas Lake in the early 20th Century. Still, the region was incredibly beautiful and during the four months I was the University of the Fraser Valley’s writer-in-residence, I made sure to pause in the evenings to look out across the valley while the sky was streaked orange and red and purple. Since it was a liminal period of my life, those few minutes when day turned to night and my body prepared to rest brought me comfort. That spring was a time of loneliness and healing, during which I barely wrote anything, but read a lot and discovered how much I loved teaching.
Around that time, I made the decision to sell my house in Toronto, and then headed as far east as possible to teach a couple of classes at Dalhousie University. I leased an apartment in downtown Halifax, a stone’s throw from the harbour, and met a man who felt like home. He introduced me to coastal Nova Scotia’s understated drama, explained the local distrust of anyone “from away,” and the region’s violent history. The Maritimes have experienced colonialism longer than anywhere else in the country and the ravages are evident. Holding all of that in my heart, I constantly marvelled at the harsh beauty, five-foot-high snow drifts, and slushy rain that somehow slanted upward into eyes and nostrils. I struggled to feel creative again and slowly worked on a novel, but mostly made progress on my doctoral dissertation for the first time in several years.
Seven years ago, I was offered a job in Vancouver and moved here permanently. My Haligonian partner and his eerily intelligent border collie crossed the continent with me, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Salish Sea, first in a cramped, unreliable 20-year-old Volkswagen Jetta, and then in a tiny Via train cabin. We chose to cross the country on ground, rather than in a plane, so our brains could absorb how far we were moving and how the geography changed. As I soaked in the changing landscape outside the window, I thought about the fact that to my child self in Parkdale, this move would be no different than travelling to outer space.
When we arrived in Vancouver, on December 24, 2016, it was ten years to the day from when my young family friend had been murdered five blocks from where I grew up, and I discovered that my feelings about Parkdale had begun to shift in ways I still have trouble fully comprehending. It was the middle of a snowstorm. Well, a Vancouver snow storm, which meant there was an inch of slush covering the roads, sidewalks, and giant green sword ferns. Mystifyingly, the city had completely shut down. Buses couldn’t make it up hills. People shoveled their sidewalks with brooms and large spoons! One neighbour even watered the slush off his sidewalk each morning with a hose.
Looking back, I was experiencing a kind of culture shock. Everywhere I looked, there were luxury vehicles, twenty-foot high privacy hedges enclosing mansions, plants and animals on steroids, and extreme poverty. I still have no clue how to make small talk in Vancouver—a skill I used like a pro in other places—and it takes me several minutes to figure out when I’m insulted because people are more passive-aggressive than outright aggressive. The climate is mild, but there’s almost an hour more darkness at the winter solstice because we’re further north. No one seems prepared for increasing climatic extremes and shifting tectonic plates.
Despite all of this, I had a dissertation to finish and felt vastly unqualified for my new position as a professor at the well-endowed UBC. The university has its own haunting history, as its massive “endowment land” is actually unceded Musqueam territory. In particular, I found the city’s economic disparity unbearable. If you had enough money, you could live in a bubble and pretend the Downtown East-Side just didn’t exist. People could willfully purchase ignorance. Where I grew up, it felt like everyone—rich, poor, in-between—lived on top of each other.
All these years later, I still have trouble explaining where exactly I live because Vancouver has three wests: the west-end, the west side, and West Vancouver. In Toronto, Yonge Street delineated the middle and the lake was always south. If you were walking uphill, you could be reasonably sure you were going north. Here in the temperate rainforest, water moves around (sometimes it’s even overhead—there are a fair number of atmospheric rivers each year), so when you need a landmark, you search through the tall trees and buildings for a glimpse of the mountains north of the city.
After a couple of years, I’ve relaxed into the west-coast lifestyle. I’ll never be a new age yoga health buff, but I’ve made friends and figured out how to get around. My family visits regularly. My life does feel smaller, though. Most of my time is devoted to UBC work, writing, hanging out with my partner and tiny new dog, and dealing with my chronic illness.
When I get really lost in my imagination and that sense of calm I try to share with students spreads through my brain, I still find that my characters need to be doing their deeds in Parkdale. My heart is back amongst Toronto’s squat brick houses, mismatched skyscrapers, brutal climate, stubby trees, and abrasive people. My head knows that the area has changed and none of my family members live there anymore. It’s artsy and quaint on the surface.
It is so easy to shut my eyes and recall the graffitied alleyways and dirty corners, the single men and police in cars who followed me home at night, flashing their high beams to let me know they were interested in me. If I have a keyring in my hand, I might slip one key between each knuckle and make a fist. There’s almost no crime on the well-to-do university campus where I live, but it’s the Parkdale in me. That self-preservation instinct may not serve me well in my new life, but is going to be part of me and my stories for the foreseeable future.
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Emily Pohl-Weary’s latest teen novel, How to Be Found, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in fall 2023. Her dramatic retelling of a Baba Yaga folktale, The Witch’s Circle, can be streamed online. Previous books include Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl (young adult), Ghost Sick (poetry), and the Hugo Award-winning Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (non-fiction). She lives in Vancouver, on Musqueam Territory, where she teaches writing for young adults and speculative fiction at the University of British Columbia. Visit her online at emilypohlweary.com