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November 30, 2011

The Vicious Circle reads Imagining Toronto

Last night, The Vicious Circle gathered in a the farthest reaches of the inner-city to read Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto (which was one of my favourite books of 2010).  We’d braved torrential downpour to be there (which now joins a major snowstorm and a temperature of 50 degrees celsius as weather we’ve braved in order to be Vicious in 2011). Curling up in the world’s coziest living room, lined with books (as is every room in that house), and well-supplied with cheese, we sat down and gossiped, and gossiped some more, and then it was time to speak of bookish things.

Imagining Toronto left us wanting to explore Parkdale, and wanting to read The Torontonians. We loved the way Harris acknowledges how much Toronto’s neighbourhoods are at different stages of similar narratives. We talked about Kensington, the Union Station of Toronto neighbourhoods, and  how much that neighbourhood had changed– apparently Sneaky Dees used to be a Pie Shop?

We loved the sense she creates of a walk around the city, the psychogeography. Learning the history of an area like Yorkville, whose reality is different from myth– Yorkville’s heyday wasn’t a long day. We liked the structure of the book for the most part, how she organizes by neighbourhoods. We note that Toronto books were how we learned about Toronto back when we were growing up in the suburbs and small towns. As Harris writes, a city unfolds from its telling, and culture emerges from narrative. We also realize for the first time that all of us grew up in the suburbs and small towns, none of us in Toronto at all. We note that we’re part of a homogenization of the city, in the age of “the myth of the monocultural suburb.”

Some of us took issues with categorical statements that framed the city in a way that was contrary to how we understand it. That the literary Annex is not dead, for one. Or that Little Italy is not the only neighbourhood in Toronto with connections to the Old World, when we’re thinking about Roncesvalles, Little Portugal, Corso Italia, and others.

We like how the book succeeds in doing what city books are meant to do– not describing the city, but recreating the city, becoming the city. We talked about Toronto as a city without an identity, and noted that it’s not that Toronto doesn’t have a creation myth, but that it hasn’t been immortalized. We talked about the nuances of the chapter on multiculturalism, and Harris’s ideas about multiculturalism being a process that begins with us engaging with tensions, acknowledging our own discomfort with one another.We felt the “Desire Lines” chapter was less successful, and wondered about its organization– parts about gay literature, sex work, pedophilia, and birth didn’t seem to fit together so well. We expressed discomfort with gay literature belonging with the rest, and also with the lack of nuance in the bit on sex work (and wondered why it didn’t fit into the chapter on Work). We wondered why the part about Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love and the the Shoeshine Boy might not have fit better into a chapter on Little Portugal. Why were these stories removed from the neighbourhoods in which they took place?

Imagining Toronto, we decided, functions as a remarkable starting point, and creates desire to go explore both the city and the its stories. We praised its balance of academic and accessible writing, and it was pointed out that Harris is writing about really complex ideas in this book, but delivers them in a way that is so readable and seems unconscious of their weight. We talked about this book being published by a small Toronto press rather than an academic press, and what an undertaking this must have been for Mansfield Press, and perhaps why the overall package is intimidating to behold– small text, no images. We noted that it must have been an undertaking for Harris as well, and that nobody had ever attempted to do this. We noted that Harris does it so well that even her footnotes were interesting. We wondered about books that were missing from the book, and the Toronto stories still to come. Some of us thought we’d check out the Imagining Toronto website, and we all look forward to seeing what Harris does next (and to reading Imagining Toronto Part II).

And then we started gossiping again, and soon the cheese was nearly gone.

One thought on “The Vicious Circle reads Imagining Toronto”

  1. Kate says:

    I admire places with its own history and for that reason one of my favourite spots in the city has always been good Toronto´s Distillery District. It is a beautiful area and it also sets a great example to other cities. The developers did a great job when they decided to renovate those beautiful historical buildings instead of building new ones.

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