Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez
To the average Torontonian, Scarborough is neither here nor there. A crime-plagued eastern fringe, it’s contemplated only in light of its proximity—or lack thereof—to Toronto. Not a destination, but a place to pass through en route to something better. Queer creator and long-time Scarborian Catherine Hernandez challenges these notions in Scarborough, a novel that quickly secured its spot on the Toronto Book Awards shortlist, the Canada Reads longlist, and several best book lists in 2017.
Fearless in its depiction of cultural and racial tensions, Scarborough is a revelation in both its form and its content. Told in short bursts by a sizeable cast of characters, this profile of a culturally diverse low-income neighbourhood revolves around a government-funded literacy centre run by a community outreach worker named Hina Hassani. Hina’s email exchanges with her boss, who doles out passive-aggressive
advice and Oprah quotes from the comfort of her downtown office, highlight the shortcomings of well-meaning social programs. Faced with a community whose basic physical and emotional needs are going unmet, Hina is cautioned to focus on “family literacy, not social work.”
The centre becomes a point of intersection for the children and parents who voice their own stories over the course of the novel. Among them is Cory, a white supremacist and failing father to Laura, who siphons hope from Hina. Meanwhile, Marie Beaudoin, an Indigenous mother, spends precious hours in waiting rooms and on crosstown buses as she comes to the difficult decision to seek a diagnosis for her young son. Her ordeal leaves little time for her daughter Sylvie, who finds company in the motley characters she encounters at the shelter where they live, and forges a close friendship with her schoolmate Bing, the novel’s resident charmer. A precocious Filipino whose mother toils in a Vietnamese nail salon, Bing is growing into his queerness. While Laura, Sylvie, and Bing are at the heart of this novel, other voices come and go, creating a lifelike mosaic.
With other recent novels set in Scarborough, this eastern fringe might be having a moment in CanLit. But Hernandez’s Scarborough is also a new kind of novel in which voices come together to claim a place as their own. Dollar store fights break out, a Black artist is wrongfully arrested, a puppy mill owner ushers a new life into the world. A community grows together. As Sylvie puts it, it’s “just another day in Scarborough.”