By Catherine Hernandez
Arsenal Pulp Press, 258 pages, $17.95
By David Chariandy
McClelland & Stewart, 180 pages, $25
When I was a kid, we went to the public library every week. I read like I was starving, never embarrassed that my mom, little brother and I would walk out at closing time carrying piles of books the length of our arms, all of them mine. Wasn't this normal? I didn't own many books. Why would we spend money when they were free at the library?
By the time I was nine, we were latchkey kids. I'd let us into the house after school. We'd flip channels on the TV until it became the only light in the darkness, and my mom would arrive to take over as the grown-up in the house.
And when my parents briefly owned a movie-rental store in a strip mall, I spent summer vacations behind the counter, long days broken up by occasional trips to buy Archie comics from the convenience store, owned by the only other Korean in the plaza. It was me, mom and my brother. Dad was always elsewhere, working.
This is what my childhood was like in Scarborough. But I never read a single story about a family like mine. And once I started poring over the newspapers, and watching the news, and reading between the lines of what our white Grade 6 teacher would say to me and my classmates, I twigged to the idea that Scarborough was the kind of place that people talk about with disdain.
Why? Was there something wrong with us?
Growing up in Scarborough in the 1980s, the eastern swath of what's now Toronto, whether brown, black, white, or like me, with parents who came from a place the other kids hadn't heard of, we were all the children of immigrants. Almost all, anyway. Parents who spoke English without an accent were the exception.
Today, 70 per cent of Scarborough residents are a visible minority. In some areas, such as where my family first landed, that percentage is 90 per cent. It's a place where cars rule, a place sadly and chronically underserved by transit, a place where quiet cookie-cutter subdivisions with manicured lawns co-exist with clusters of grey towers, six-lane avenues and big-box stores.
In Catherine Hernandez's debut, Scarborough, this landscape comes to life, populated by children whose parents, as with mine, didn't relax because they were in survival mode, trying to build a boat while they were sailing it.
Scarborough, recently nominated for a Toronto Book Award, is an ambitious collection of intertwined stories. The characters' lives intersect in the company of Hina Hassani, a young social worker tasked with community outreach. Her very job is the manifestation of institutional good intentions, or, in less charitable terms, white-saviour complex. (Hernandez herself clearly has no time for bureaucrats, the best example being Hina's boss, an out-of-touch woman who works downtown and never visits the centre but fills her missives with microaggressions, ill-fitting advice and an e-mail signature that enthusiastically quotes Oprah.)
The breakout star of Hernandez's array of characters is Bing, a young Vietnamese boy who aspires to become either a saint or a country singer. It was when I read a scene during which he spent an entire school day at the nail salon where his mother toiled that it struck me that, at the age of 40, this was the first time I ever really communed with anything close to my own childhood experiences in a book.
It's almost as if invisibility of diverse characters is what drives Hernandez's overpopulation of the book. Besides Bing and Hina there's Sylvie, an Indigenous child who is Bing's best friend and lives in a shelter with her family; Victor, a young black artist who gets stopped by police; Cory, a white supremacist and his neglected daughter, Laura; Winsum, a Caribbean restaurant owner; and Clive, her brother-in-law with a secret he indulges at night in public parks. That's just to name a few.
While's Bing's narrative often soars, the stories of these other characters didn't always lift off the page. I sometimes got the sense that the stories were engineered simply to highlight systemic inequality. It seems almost unfair to level any criticism against a book that tries, valiantly, to render unseen people, finally, seen. And it occurs to me that I might be overly harsh in my criticism when this book, conspicuous in its choice of locale, isn't perfect. And that's the essence of what it means to be a minority and come anywhere close to "making it" – others, inside and outside your world, will hold you up as an example. It's a burden. It's a privilege.
But it is not entirely alone. Brother, David Chariandy's second novel, which was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, also takes place in the lower-income end of Scarborough, in a world of mostly black and brown people, of immigrant parents trying to launch their children into orbit while simultaneously holding them close.
This book is a high-wire act – a taut, highly visual, time-stopping story of two brothers. Michael, the trepidatious younger sibling and Francis, the older, high-flying, charismatic brother, are two young, black men growing up in a world that, as their mother has always known and they grow to learn, won't necessarily love them back.
Brother is filled with moments of swagger and bravery, of recklessness and love that sparks against the dull pain of tragedy, which is foretold in elegiac descriptions of the landscape. In one scene, Michael gazes around at "the apartment towers, their darkened windows, lights kept low during the heat wave. And I remember in that moment feeling so haunted by the sight. As if through magic a whole neighbourhood had been made to disappear. As if a power existed to do such a thing."
What would that erasing power be, if it were to exist? A single edict doesn't seem right. What if it involved participation, willing and unwilling, the collusion of an entire system? Race is a central tension in our culture but it remains frustratingly difficult to discuss. Systemic inequities are so illogical, especially when we try to explain them in the context of our stated Canadian values of tolerance and equality. How could mere words explain away the contradictions?
One scene in the book involves the brothers, still young, consumed by news coverage of a citywide manhunt for a group of criminal suspects. When their mother returns from work, they say they are terrified of "the black men." Mother, shaken, corrects them with the right word: "Criminals." It is a crushing moment that Chariandy sets up succinctly for the two boys when he describes the family's habit of subscribing to a newspaper:
"Francis was seven at the time and just beginning to learn how to read, just beginning to understand what is executed every day in language, and he studied the words surrounding the black faces. There was a growing fear in him that, sitting beside him, I smelled and felt, but that he would not express."
If blackness and maleness and so much about racialized experience gets reduced to two nefarious dimensions on TV, and inadequate words in the news, what can fiction do for us at a time when we are looking to understand other people's truths?
As it turns out in this book, everything. What Chariandy has created in this slim book is a language that can transcend the limits of words.
As it turns out, upon reading Brother and Scarborough, I'm rethinking why I was so obsessed with reading as a child. All this time, I thought it was for pleasure, when, in fact, it might have been compulsion, driven by the disbelief that I could read so many books and still never, ever encounter a character like me, or a mother like mine, or a setting like ours.
With Brother, Chariandy has written a book worth reading through an entire library to find.
Hannah Sung is a video journalist at The Globe and Mail