Broken Pencil - - Book Reviews -

Cather­ine Her­nan­dez, 254 pgs, Arse­nal Pulp Press, ar­se­, $17.95

Scar­bor­ough. The book’s ti­tle, named af­ter the mas­sive amal­ga­mated sub­urb to the east of Toronto’s down­town, will evoke a range of feel­ings in any Toron­to­nian reader when ut­tered. For some, Scar­bor­ough rep­re­sents an “out there,” a dis­tant land that is not quite Toronto — surely not as cos­mopoli­tan, want­ing for cul­ture, fine ea­ter­ies, and rapid tran­sit. A place many have never vis­ited. For oth­ers, it’s home — a place where you hear ten lan­guages in ten min­utes, where chaos is a sign of calm, where ev­ery­body’s his­to­ries, how­ever, dif­fer­ent, hun­grily in­ter­twine.

It’s this sec­ond Scar­bor­ough that is not sim­ply the back­ground, but in fact the re­fracted pro­tag­o­nist of the first ful­l­length fic­tion re­lease by play­wright, per­former, and ac­tivist Cather­ine Her­nan­dez. Told through the eyes of at least a dozen char­ac­ters, the novel ex­plodes stereo­types about Scar­bor­ough’s work­ing poor, dis­abled, and racial­ized folks by giv­ing the reader ac­cess to the psy­chic pain and hy­per­spe­cific log­ics of sur­vival that mo­ti­vate her char­ac­ters.

Al­though there are many lives that in­ter­sect through­out the novel, the ac­tion re­volves around the lit­er­acy cen­tre at Rouge Hill Se­condary School, where a young Mus­lim worker has to ne­go­ti­ate the ex­treme poverty, hunger, and vi­o­lence af­fect­ing the com­mu­nity she serves while man­ag­ing the cold, un­feel­ing de­mands of her su­per­vi­sors.

At this cen­tre for chil­dren and par­ents, ten­sions around race and cul­ture both harden or dis­si­pate. Par­ent­hood and fam­ily, al­ways rife with as much pain as love, emerge as the arena where dif­fer­ence is ham­mered out or reigned in. Friend­ships form be­tween the chil­dren of an over­worked Filip­ina cos­me­tol­o­gist and a stoic, re­source­ful In­dige­nous wo­man liv­ing in a nearby shel­ter — and thus, be­tween the mothers them­selves. An in­ca­pable dad re­fuses to ac­knowl­edge that the only peo­ple will­ing to help him and his daugh­ter are those he spent years ter­ror­iz­ing as a skin­head youth.

In­deed, Her­nan­dez goes deeper than most writ­ers dare when it comes to the com­plex­i­ties of racial and cul­tural vi­o­lences, un­afraid to un­pack the ex­plicit and im­plicit prej­u­dices that in­form her char­ac­ters’ be­hav­iors, white and racial­ized alike. Al­though there are many dis­heart­en­ing mo­ments in this book, where the odds are stacked against just about ev­ery­one, for ev­ery in­stance of un­nec­es­sary hos­til­ity or in­sti­tu­tional suf­fo­ca­tion, there are also slices of

sol­i­dar­ity across so­cial po­si­tion and back­ground, episodes of su­per­hu­man re­silience.

For a place so full of magic, cul­ture, and frenzy, it’s amaz­ing that no­body has put out a book about Scar­bor­ough yet — but in­deed, that’s telling of the way the sub-city is ex­cluded from the lit­er­ary and artis­tic power­bro­kers. Cather­ine Her­nan­dez takes painstak­ing care to do the place jus­tice, in­clud­ing thor­ough re­search and col­lab­o­ra­tion to en­sure cul­tural ac­cu­racy, an abid­ing com­mit­ment to nu­ance and a pa­tience with the lim­its of writ­ing to rep­re­sent the full­ness of ex­pe­ri­ence.

Most im­por­tantly, Her­nan­dez writes not from a van­tage of “them over there” but from “us” and “we.” “We, the brown kids with one and one-half par­ents, with sib­lings from dif­fer­ent dads we only see in photos; we who call our Grand­moth­ers mom; we who touch our Fa­ther’s hands through Plex­i­glas.”

This is a cru­cial book for Toronto and for writ­ers con­cerned with the cul­tural ten­sions of the now. (Jonathan Valelly)

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