November 18, 2012
Here We Are Among the Living by Samantha Bernstein
Non-fiction by women turns up with a predictable lack of frequency on literary prize lists, in particular when the non-fiction is of a personal bent. And so when I saw that Samantha Bernstein’s Here We Are Among the Living was on the longlist for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, I absolutely had to check it out. Described as “a memoir in emails”, a chronicle of coming of age in Toronto at the (most recent) turn of the century, written by the youngest child of Irving Layton, this promised to be a book that was something different, a book that I might just happen to be the ideal reader for.
It begins with a prologue, 1999, Samantha writing to her friend Eshe about a road trip to Montreal with her friend Michael to attend a tribute to Irving Layton, the father she barely knows. Much of the journey is Sam negotiating her relationship with her famous father and with his legacy, but also becoming conscious of a developing attraction between her and Michael. When the book begins, we’re two years into the future, Sam and Michael’s relationship over but something lingering between them. It’s a few days after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and Sam is once again writing to Eshe, who has just started university studies in New York. She writes about her response to the tragedy, about her anger at other standard responses, about her frustrations with her mother who once espoused hippie ideals but turned her back on them with middle age. And so we go, from 2001 to 2005, the story of a girl growing up, finding her place in the world. At the book’s beginning, she’s just dropped out of UofT, is working at Starbucks, is living with her mother and cherishes their closeness just as she’s resentful of it.
Part of my attraction to this book is that Bernstein is documenting my time– she’s two years younger than I am but just a bit more worldly enough that our lives had their parallels. There was something peculiar about being 22 when the Twin Towers fell, on the threshold of a world that appeared to be crumbling. And for me, the Irving Layton part of Bernstein’s story functioned as a metaphor– how are we as a generation to find our place in the world in the enormous shadow of our parents’? So many of our values were their values once upon a time, but they outgrew them. Their culture remains our culture. What does it mean that we’re taking on their cast-offs? Will their cast-offs just destine us to make all the same mistakes?
Here We Are Among the Living is also a stunning record of an important time in the history of Toronto, of the burgeoning civic awareness that developed as the city turned into the new century. Bernstein writes of one Sunday when a shopkeeper bought a row of parking spaces in Kensington Market, and gave the road over to pedestrians, which turned into pedestrian Sundays. For years, her friends’ hang-out was a loft in old factory building down on Cherry Street, that would be turned over to demolition crews with the development of the West Don Lands. Her memoir includes Toronto under SARs, and the great blackout of 2003 (which is also depicted in Grace O’Connell’s novel The Magnetic World, and it makes me wonder where else it will turn up in literature yet-to-be-born).
And it’s not just recent history, but also geography. I was living in Toronto in 2001 as well, but my experience of the city was confined mainly to the university campus. Beyond Bathurst was the Wild West, and I never went north of Bloor except to see a movie at the Cumberland. Whereas Bernstein navigates the city like someone who has lived here her whole life, like somebody with a car. She writes about the peculiar circumstances of her upbringing, on the fringes of Forest Hill, on the fringes on the middle class (her mother drove a Saab, but it was 17 years old). She spent her childhood growing up on Thelma Avenue in a house her mother owned, and talks about its bizarreness, “a lower-middle-class street in a rich area” and I’ve checked out Google streetview–it’s still just as odd. She spent her teenage years in high-rises on Walmer Road, and at Yonge and St. Clair. She cris-crosses neighbourhoods, takes in the College Street scene, her boyfriend’s comfortable home in Riverdale, her eccentric friend who lives in a storefront converted from a dental office. She comes to understand, reluctantly, the futility of trying to make the best parts of the city forever stay the same.
Here We Are Among the Living is a documentation of intersections between the personal and political, like some of my favourite non-fiction books— Afflictions and Departures by Madeline Sonik and Subject to Change by Renee Rodin. It’s the story of the profound ways in which an ordinary woman understands her place within the wider world. I think the book also deserves attention in light of the success of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, as Bernstein is engaging with the very same question. She writes, “All kinds of confused, difficult people have still done some good in the world; we aren’t the first ones tripped up by our own natures, who don’t know what to do or how to act. But in our uncertainty, trying at least to flesh out ideals we have stick with, create lives that won’t betray us too much.” And her book resonated with me where Heti’s didn’t, for a few reasons. That she called it true, for one, and that she asked the questions earnestly. And also that her characters are in their early ’20s rather than their late ’30s, and that in the trajectory of the book they grow up, that they actually come closer to understanding the kind of people they want to be. A lot of people do.
Which is not to say that all the enthusiasms of one’s early ’20s are to be thrown away with age. Samantha Bernstein grows up, but I found it interesting to read her older brother’s supposedly wise lectures on the value of capitalism and the goodness it has brought to countries like Greece and Spain. In light of the recent economic turmoil of these two countries, her youthful idealism does not seem so misplaced. She begins the book by dropping out of school, but finds herself by going back to academia, another school and another program and a bit more experience under her belt. I also find the structure of this memoir quite remarkable, a testament that electronic communication has value, that it’s capable of being literature, that young people have something to say and their own way to say it.
I don’t think this book is for everybody. It’s a bit too long, not always as profound as it imagines itself to be, is an exercise in self-indulgence, and yet I connected with it on so many levels. It’s a book I emailed my friends about, my friends who were sitting around a booth with me at a College Street diner on the night of September 11 2001, and I told them, “This is our story.” It’s a book that’s important for anyone who cares about women’s non-fiction (and if that’s not you, what’s wrong with you?). I loved it, and it’s truly one of the most remarkable books I’ve read this year. I’m so glad that the folks at the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction think so too.