Catherine Hernandez’s novel brings a spotlight to a Toronto neighbourhood often left in the wings

By Catherine Hernandez
Arsenal Pulp Press
264 pp; $17.95

Scarberia. Having been born and raised in the generally lower-income east-end Toronto neighbourhood, this is how my friends and I have always referred to Scarborough, stamping it with the same doom and gloom our central and west-end neighbours did. For so many of us, it is a place to escape, to grow out of, the small town to the city’s bright lights. For others, it’s home, period. Often because, while something bigger may be our destination, for our immigrant parents, Scarborough was the destination.

This is a place established by the brown and black working class and a multicultural artistic community, proudly held up even while disregarded by the rest of Toronto. There is an authenticity to it, one well captured by activist and writer Catherine Hernandez in her new novel, titled – what else – Scarborough. It’s unusual to read about the streets I’ve been raised on, the parks where I used to play, the roads I still drive down now. Because for many Scarberians, this is a story never told and often considered not worth telling, and one that makes me want to relinquish that Scarberia moniker once and for all.

The novel follows the interconnected stories of three children living around the Kingston/Galloway area, each with their own battles. There is Bing, who is struggling with his sexual identity and his father’s mental illness; Laura, who has bounced from her mother to her unstable, neglectful father’s care; and Sylvie, who spends her days with her family in a shelter.

Arsenal Pulp Press

The three, along with their parents, build a community in their Scarborough school, where they are brought together by Hina, a literacy program coordinator who makes it her mission to not only better these children’s language skills, but to offer a place of refuge and safety in an environment where drugs, crime, poverty and racism run rampant.

The way Hernandez refers to the suburban non-white experience, layered by class difference, makes Scarborough not only a topical read, but an evergreen one. Victor, a young black artist who is beloved in the community, at one point recalls being ostracized (even by his own neighbours) after he is admonished by police for painting a mural for which he was given a grant. His fear is palpable in Hernandez’s writing: “I was told by so many, and trained by so many to protect myself, that the act of stiffening in the presence of hatred toward black men became, and still is, as routine as putting on a shoe. Rabbit ears through the loop. Pull the laces.”

Similarly, Hina associates the way one white parent looks at her hijab – venom in his eyes and words as he drags his daughter away from a moment of affection between teacher and student – to a time she was laying on a hospital bed for an emergency appendectomy. The foreboding and fear is painfully familiar. She thinks, “Something about it made me remember my subconscious understanding that I was being cut open. I was being dissected. Then I was being sewn up, with something missing inside. Something about that moment. It made me remember the scalpels. The bright lights. The blood.”

It’s the plight of the other, alive in everyday conversation, in everyday contempt, even within her own community.

But Hina serves as a caregiver, and there is a keen, incredibly moving familiarity in the way the novel’s mothers and mother-figures love their children – something I associate with my own, but thanks to Hernandez, now see as the unique touch of the immigrant mother: the soft caressing, the arms a wrap-around “fence,” “fierce kisses” that are “more a smell than a smooch.”

After being harshly bullied by his schoolmates, Bing’s mother holds him tight, a barrier from the outside world. He repeats to himself the mantra her arms remind him of: “I am loved. I will be loved. I am loved. I will be loved. I am perfect just the way I am. … I practically suffocated under her loving grasp, but I dared not escape. … I languished in the sheer size of me. I was forced to rejoice in every fingernail, every hair on my head, the dimples on my cheek.”

This rare intimacy is strong in Hernandez’s dedication to a child she once taught in a Scarborough community centre when she was only 15 and the child was four. “Wherever you are, I hope you are safe,” she writes, a notion that lingers throughout the book, not only a message to outsiders of what it means to live in this neighbourhood, but that we are in it together. It’s sentimental, but I couldn’t help but feel profoundly moved in these small moments. We are a community that is not often lent a megaphone, falling off at the edge of the city, but one that is very much alive, through art, music, food and family. We are more than what makes the 6 p.m. news.

As a story that touches on problems accustomed to a neighbourhood plagued by its poverty, however, at times Scarborough verges on after-school special, a Degrassi for the more troubled set. But the melodrama hinges on the interplay between its three sets of young eyes – elementary school children who don’t know any better, but are beginning to discover that their lives are not quite as privileged as some of their classmates’ and those they see on TV. It’s a heartbreaking realization to read as it unwraps, but it’s a worthy reminder that there are many versions of one community and this is just a spotlight onto one rarely seen.

From the Rouge Hill waterfront via the 54 bus route, to the little strip mall on Lawson and Centennial to the National Thrift on Lawrence and Kingston, to the mural on the Warden Station underpass (Jamaican patty in hand), this is a town coloured by its people, brutal when it’s rough, comfortably home when it feels like it or when it doesn’t. And this is a story on the reckoning of privilege and the acceptance of difference. Simply put, it’s a lot.

As one character reminisces while working at a family-owned restaurant serving dishes from back home, “People here want home. They want home because it is so darn cold outside, and all they want is their mom and dad or kids back where it’s warm. And green. They want it how it is back home. Looks ugly and tastes pretty. Simple. Served with a big spoon on a big plate. No fuss. No thinking about texture and height and taste journey or whatever. They just want home.”

Because if Scarborough is anything, it’s an amalgamation of culture, connected by families who have immigrated from warmer climates with spicier palates, who have left behind their own parents and siblings and friends to find a better place for their children. And in Toronto, that place is Scarborough – a home away from home.

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