Writings / Reviews

Fiction & Poetry Reviews: The City as Text

Rena Klisouris

TOK: Writing the New Toronto Book 5
Helen Walsh (ed.)
Toronto, ON: Zephyr Press, 2010
208 pp. $ 19:95

Although we understand that a city’s soul is its people, the frenetic pace of our lives often precludes deep understanding of our neighbours, our streets, and even ourselves. The urban experience and the fragility of identity are themes at the core of the new collection of Diaspora Dialogues’ Writing the New Toronto: Book 5, which brings together stories and poems from a wide variety of voices, both local and international. The writers are inspired not only by the physical Toronto – its hooligan pigeons, its grey architecture, its omnipresent streetcar clang, its colourful neighbourhoods – but by the search for meaning in a city constantly reinventing itself. Many of the stories and poems deal with fractured identities, and illuminate the points of view of the dispossessed, the marginal, the naïve, and the wandering. It is in the collision of place and emotional space where these characters find, if not redemption, then at least true expression.

Toronto’s reputation as one of the most multicultural cities in the world adds a distinctive element to the pieces in this collection, and the insistent issues of place and its influence on identity come to the fore. The Sri Lankan narrator of Shyam Selvadurai’s Gauguin’s Chair is torn not only between two cultures but between the value systems engendered in two opposing sexualities; finding connection neither in the gay bars of Isabella street nor the crowded York campus, he considers the possibility of simply following the expectations laid out for him by his culture: “I wondered what it would be like to be married to Anoma, to be in love with a woman so beautiful, poised and graceful.” The speaker in Chang Liu’s poems longs for the scents and locales of love remembered from his native Thailand; in “Homecoming”, he exclaims: “For the languid thrill/ of shouting in a language not of this soil: Meet me where/ the flame-trees bloom!” The nostalgia of place is further explored in the depiction of the not-quite up to par cuisine of a Thai restaurant in Toronto in “The Menu in my Heart is All Wrong”: “I pass a photo round to somehow prove/ what real tom yum soup looks like”. The plaintive question at the end of “Homecoming”-- “here/ where lovers are only briefly/ in season june-july-august/ what if I were to shout again?” -- calls to mind a third space, one of new discovery. This thread is taken up again in Karishma Kripalani’s A Change of Seasons, in which a young woman allows herself to symbolically slip out of her reality; by doffing her traditional Indian garb and wearing her brother’s clothing -- “She tucks the shirt into the waistband and shuts the mirrored door of the wardrobe. She looks at the person in the mirror who winds her long braid behind her head and pins it up” – she enters an exciting space of possibility.

The city mirrors an inner topography to be explored, and the innocence of this experience is represented in the focalization of child narrators. The small daughter of Portuguese parents who is the protagonist of Anthony De Sa’s story Words, Dancing on My Skin, is initiated into the world of the abject through her friendship with faded Swedish beauty queen, Kiki. The young girl gains access to everything under the surface of her narrow life, for Kiki shows her the physical dirt – “She pointed to the sewer grate. I squatted and heard the hollow gurgling of water and the stink of rotting something. The sun was pouring through the steel slates of the grate and I could see the beautiful colours of the rainbow swirling in the dark pool- oil and water” – as well as the cracked façade of her emotionally repressive immigrant household.

The landscape of home is another important preoccupation of the writers included in this collection. Landscape, environment and inhabitant meet in Chelsea Gamble’s poems: “our eyes glaze over/ in survival and/ do not meet each other’s/ gazes/ on gelid streets as/ hair tenses on the limbs of/ trees”; the interaction is spare yet vital, and allows a full portrait of the living city. Linea, the protagonist and single mother in Allyson Blood’s story Saturday, deals with her son’s absence by traversing the city streets to find comfort in the familiarity of her close friend’s home, juxtaposed with the strangeness of that same friend’s customs in comparison to her own. A sense of home and not-home bump up against the heart, reminders of missed opportunities or unlived lives, until Linea must return to the known topos of streetcar rails and blank-faced commuters.

The impossibility of reconciliation between the past and the present, and parents and children, is evident in some of the works. The father of the narrator in Leslie Shimotakahara’s A House on St. Clarens tries in vain to recover certain truths about his unhappy childhood from his ailing mother. Different versions of the past coalesce in the narrator’s mind; she sees her father as “a neglected child screaming out for attention”, her grandmother as a faded beauty, “wobbl[ing]” across the parking lot “in mincing steps” in her beautiful shoes. The trauma of the Japanese internment camps where her family was imprisoned is experienced through a “stark and unreal” photograph at a gallery on Queen Street West. The narrator soon discovers that the real trauma of her father’s childhood is instead rooted in a house, a place, and a time, materializing “like a Polaroid coming into focus, working its horrible magic… [i]f only I’d known”, and making clear the fact that redemption is not always possible.

This collection is artfully arranged and the variety of voices and styles will appeal to many readers. The editor Helen Walsh writes in the introduction that we should be “tourist[s] in this known and unknown Toronto”; it is sound advice, for in reading a map of a city, we may often overlook the lives that intersect as naturally as the grid-patterned streets or the overhead electrical wires.

About The Author


Rena Klisouris is a Masters student in English at McGill University, where she studies the immigrant experience in Canadian literature.

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