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December 12, 2010

Imagining Toronto by Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto is one of the best books I’ve read this year, blowing my mind with its gorgeous prose, fascinating facts, stunning narrative, and sheer readability– I was absolutely lost inside it. Which is fitting for a book whose author/narrator implores her reader to: “descend until we lose our bearings, until the landscape merges with the base of the bridge, and the sounds of trains, traffic and the river grow almost indistinguishable from one another. We have reached the city at the centre of the map: let us begin.”

Though its bibliography is 24 pages long, Imagining Toronto is no catalogue, or dry academic treatise, but instead it is a story, and the story is a city (and the city is a story, but we could go on like this forever). Harris has not merely written a book about Toronto, but she has written the city itself, from the depths of its ravines to the tip of the CN Tower, 1815 feet up in the sky. Her raw materials are the city’s fictions, and the city is rendered by these poems and stories in glorious concreteness.

Though it was fascinating to realize the volume of literature that has been written about Toronto, to encounter books I’m familiar with (The Robber Bride, Moody Food), books I need to reread urgently (Headhunter), and books I simply must read now (What We All Long For, The Torontonians etc.), the greatest delight of Imagining Toronto was what these fictions had to tell me about the city itself. About its geography– the true location of Cabbagetown, for example. About the infamous Ward slum (finally razed with New City Hall) which Harris intriguingly refers to not as the city’s “other”, but as its shadow. And about the migration of its residents westward toward Kensington Market, and then eventually out to the suburbs. About multiculturalism, which Harris shows through various works is our “creation myth”, suggesting more productive ways to understand our neighbours and negotiate this space we all share. She writes about situations in which fact and fictions fail to gel, in particular with the portrayal of Toronto’s homeless populations in works such as Carol Shields’ Unless and Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig, and the virtual silence in our stories from characters who’d reflect the reality of homeless people’s lives.

Harris is utterly in command of her material, her footnotes populated with engaging asides. She leads her readers on a tour across Toronto’s varied topography, through its neighbours, and along its “desire lines” (“despite their lyrical nomenclature, we owe these cartographies of desire not to poets, but to transportation engineers […who] used the term to refer to the informal footpaths worn by pedestrians deviating from paved pathways…”). She writes about “Desire’s Dark Side”, and highlights that missing children are prominent in the city’s history and in its stories– Shoeshine Boy and Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless among others. We are taken to the Toronto Islands (the number of which, I was surprised to learn, is anybody’s guess), and not only learn of the stories the islands have told, but the story of the islands themselves, and of the artists and writers who’ve lived there. In “City Limits”, Harris highlights another disparity between fact and fiction– “The Myth of the Monocultural Suburb.” And what it means that so many places once at the limits of the city have now been absorbed into the city proper.

Just as you have to walk a city to gets its sense, so too do you have to actually read this book to understand its comprehensiveness. References are current to August 2010, and include recent books such as Alissa York’s Fauna. (And though the works within Imagining Toronto seem an exhaustive list, Harris includes an ever more complete Toronto Library on her website.) One gets the impression that this is the kind of book an author could have gone on writing forever (Volume II, anyone??), but reading it is a similar experience. With every page, we discover a new dimension of the city to explore, another book to add to our list to-be-read, and when we reach the conclusion, we realize we’ve been transported somewhere new.

Or perhaps we’ve been here all along, but we’ve only just starting noticing, and imagining. And then we realize that noticing and imagining are so often the very same thing.

UPDATE: See Harris’ piece from The Toronto Star this weekend, Best kids’ books based in the GTA.

7 thoughts on “Imagining Toronto by Amy Lavender Harris”

  1. m says:

    Fascinating. Sounds amazing. I long for a book like this about Vancouver.

    I wonder if a non-Torontonian would get as much out of the book as you? I’d be interested in picking it up, but I’ve only been to Toronto four times and each time it has seemed like a different city to me. (Probably because I was there for different reasons, staying in different areas.) Do you think this book would be lost on someone like me?

    1. Kerry says:

      I feel as though the book is such a guided tour that it is not just for locals. For me, a great effect of reading it was being awakened to parts of my city I don’t know (or haven’t imagined yet).

  2. Panic says:

    What an amazing undertaking.

  3. m ~~ I don’t think the definitive book on Vancouver literature has been written yet, but in terms of Vancouver literature you might want to check out The Vancouver Stories: West Coast Fiction from Canada’s Best Writers (Raincoast, 2005; introduction by the ubiquitous Douglas Coupland) and Vancouver Short Stories (University of British Columbia Press, 1985; edited by Carol Gerson).

    You might also be interested in the Vancouver section of Canada: A Literary Tour (Library & Archives Canada, 2009), written by Karis Shearer.

    P.S. Other Canadian cities also have books written about their literature: see Saskatoon Imagined (1989), Storied Streets: Montreal in the Literary Imagination (2000) and The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg 2005).

    And P.P.S.: Kerry — I’m so grateful for this wonderful review I couldn’t sleep last night after reading it. Thank you!

  4. m says:

    Thanks for the book suggestions! I’ll definitely seek out yours, too. Good to know that an outsider will appreciate it, too.

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