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September 13, 2017
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 24, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
Our next review is of Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, reviewed by Erin Della Mattia. Erin, the third of five 2017 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is the Managing Editor of Sewer Lid Magazine. Catherine Hernandez will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 24, from 2:30pm – 3:00pm and again from 5:00pm – 5:30pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 12, 2017.
“Beyond sainthood. Beyond Jesus. Beyond survival. Beyond lipstick. Beyond singing in the mirror. This was my son. My beautiful child.”
Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press) is the first full-length work of fiction by Catherine Hernandez, a writer, activist, artistic director of Sulong Theatre Company, and all-around theatre maverick.
Tracking the fictional community around Rouge Hill Public School over the span a single school year, this character-driven novel follows a group of children and their parents through their everyday struggles, tragedies, and triumphs. With the aim of emphasizing the community-oriented focus of the novel while also allowing for intimacy and individuality, Hernandez has employed multiple narrative perspectives to excellent effect.
Our primary narrators are three young children, Sylvie Beaudoin, Bing Espiritu, and Laura Mitkowski, as well as Laura’s father Cody, and Ms. Hina Hassani who, as facilitator of the literary centre at Rouge Hill Public School, acts as a unifying force for the novel, bringing together the various characters, plots, and themes. At first it seemed as though the reliance on the child narrators might limit the novel, but as the character arcs continue to weave in and out of one another, it becomes clear that children are the driving force behind the text, from which everything else spirals out. Through depicting issues such as poverty, abuse, racism, and disability from the perspectives of children, Hernandez demonstrates how children are often the rallying point for close-knit, low-income communities.
One of the most engaging aspects of Hernandez’s writing is her focus on the material world of her characters. From Laura’s paper duck family, cut out from eviction notices, to Bing’s mother’s hands, rotting away from acetone, “despite her wearing latex gloves” at her nail spa job, to the smell of Cheerios wafting from the literacy centre where Ms. Hina serves meals, in defiance of orders from her supervisor—such details lend great realism to Scarborough. This realism gets left behind, however, in the final section of the novel. Without revealing any plot points, while the ending is certainly affecting, I found that its move into fantasy distracted from the already poignant conclusion of the other character arcs, and particularly from the community-centric, forward-looking tone of the penultimate scene. That said, Hernandez’s writing completely shines in its most poetic moments, such as in Bing’s meditations on playing on an ice hill:
“We, the brown kids with one and one-half parents, with siblings from different dads we see only in photos; we who call our grandmothers Mom; who touch our father’s hands through Plexiglas; we wait for the fanfare to be over. We wait through weekends of extracurricular activity for Mondays, when the Zamboni resurfaces the rink and leaves a pile of chemical-ridden snow. This mountain-high remnant of the nuclear family was what we delighted in…”
Moments like this, as well as the dedicatory ode “To all the Scarborough girls” at the beginning of the text, smoothly emphasize the way in which the characters’ individual experiences play out, pattern-like, throughout the entire community, while also bringing into focus their contrast with the wealthier white people in the area.
I also appreciate her inclusion of the email correspondences between Ms. Hina and her supervisor Jane Fulton. Although I am generally not a fan of emails and text message within fiction, as the form can quickly become gimmicky when overused, I found that Hernandez managed to include emails in an unobtrusive and moderated way that services her thematic concerns.
Ms. Hina’s writing, like that of the author herself, is fearless, at all times standing up for herself, the children she works with, and the needs of the community at large. Through Ms. Hina’s perspective, and to a lesser extent that of Michelle, a shelter supervisor, Hernandez also allows the reader to witness the obstacles faced by those who work tirelessly towards the betterment of the lives of people who live in inner-city neighbourhoods. While this theme is a fairly common trope in books and movies (think Blackboard Jungle and Freedom Writers), Ms. Hina’s perspective proves unique in that she is an insider rather than an outsider to this community, and so any potential gaze of the colonizer, so to speak, is circumvented and, indeed, can be attributed to Ms. Hina’s manager, Jane, instead.
Drawing from her own experiences as both a mother and home daycare provider in Scarborough, Hernandez offers an important contribution to this literary theme in particular. And with her overall deftness at detail and perspective, and her engaging bursts of lyricism, Catherine Hernandez announces herself as a bold new voice in the CanLit world, and whose future work is certainly worth looking out for.
Erin Della Mattia is a writer, researcher, and the Managing Editor of Sewer Lid. This fall she begins her doctoral studies with the Department of English at the University of Toronto.
Name one of the plays written by Catherine Hernandez.
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.