Latest Giller winner adds to Toronto’s rich but often forgotten literary history

Ten years ago, Amy Lavender Harris, an urbanist and geographer at York University, set out to build a class around -based literature. She figured the topic was the perfect size for a single undergraduate course.

“I thought maybe I’d find half a dozen novels and a few stories, and maybe a bunch of poems,” she said. But as it turned out, she found hundreds in her first round of research alone. She later dug up thousands more , some dating back to at least the 1830s.

Harris found so much literature set in Toronto, in fact, she decided to write a book about it.

Imagining Toronto, published in 2010, traces the history and influence of ’s largest city in literature. It’s a history Torontonians have always been weirdly eager to forget. she believes.

On Tuesday night, at a black-tie gala in Toronto, André Alexis won the 2015 , the country’s richest literary award, for his novel Fifteen Dogs. The book revolves around the titular canines, all of whom have been given access to human emotion and language by a pair of gambling gods.

The plot sounds fantastical, and it is. But the book itself is set in the real Toronto of the present day. Its fourth word is “Toronto” — as in “One evening in Toronto.” And the first scene is set in a real Toronto pub, the Wheat Sheaf on King Street West.

Fifteen Dogs joins a long, if not always well-remembered history of writing set in and around Toronto, Harris said.

There are so many Toronto-based books, in fact, the public library has a map of them online, searchable by neighbourhood. But for whatever reason that history has always felt at least half obscured.

“For a long time people believed that there was no writing about Toronto, that the city was not interesting enough to have developed it’s own literary mythology,” she said.

“And this view has persisted and possibly still persists, despite the reality that for 100, possibly 150 years there has been a fairly strong and increasingly vivid history of writing and engaging with the city.”

The retired literary scholar, Germaine Warkentin, called it a kind of cultural amnesia, Harris said. For decades, Toronto books would be published and some would go on to international fame. But then they would be forgotten.

Tyler Anderson/National Post/File<br />
Tyler Anderson/National Post/File
Kensington Market. The public library has a map of Toronto-based books online, searchable by neighbourhood.

“(Warkentin) associated it with Toronto’s bid to become a world-class city,” said Harris.

“You could tie it to a kind of insecurity. And I think that’s a fair thing to tie it to. But I think Toronto’s outgrown that now, in the same way we’ve outgrown the CN Tower.”

Toronto books have also been breaking out in recent years of what Harris calls their historical focus on downtown, Anglo-Saxon themes. Books by diverse writers set in diverse parts of the city have earned significant praise. “The literature is catching up to all these stories.”

Fifteen Dogs, written by the Trinidad-born Alexis, certainly plays into that theme. It’s at once philosophical and mythological, yet at the same time rooted in the real place.

The book comes with two full-page maps of Toronto neighbourhoods, the Beach and High Park. In one memorable scene, Benjy, “a resourceful and conniving beagle,” rides the Queen streetcar all the way from Roncesvalles to Woodbine, enjoying a panoply of distinctive Toronto scents along the way:

“From the Musty Oleo of Parkdale, past a bridge that smelled as if it were made of pigeon shit, past grasses and urine-stained posts, past boutiques that exhaled dust or perfume or the smell of new cloth, back to old neighbourhoods, sumac trees and maples; the fishy-mineral lake intoxicating emanation.”

RelatedToronto author wins 2015 Giller Prize for ‘insightful and philosophical’ novel Fifteen DogsReview: Fifteen Dogs speaks truth to happiness

Not every reader enjoyed the distinctive Toronto feel Alexis brought to the book.

Reviewing Fifteen Dogs in this newspaper, David Berry called his “odd insistence on using Toronto’s proper place names, from the pub the Gods drink in to the streets the dogs traverse” the “lone exception” to the book’s “sense of joy.”

He added it felt like “a self-conscious attempt to overlay a specific place on a fantasy that is already pointed enough in its observations.”

Harris, though, thinks of Fifteen Dogs as “an example of how Toronto has grown up.”

The book doesn’t just name-drop streets for the sake of it.

“He’s done something larger with Toronto to universalize the stories that are here,” she said. “They’re about identity. They’re about soul. They’re about happiness.”

National Post

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: richardwarnica


Amy Lavender Harris’s recommended Toronto reads:

• Andre Alexis, Fifteen Dogs (2015)

• Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For (Knopf, 2005; Toronto Book Award, 2006).

• Sean Morley Dixon’s The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (2011), which engages with Kensington Market, buried portions of Garrison Creek, development, Nimbyism, city politics, etc. One of my favourite Toronto novels ever.

• Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Knopf, 2010); set in an in-transition Regent Park. My favourite Maharaj novel is Homer in Flight (1997), which is set mainly in Etobicoke.

• Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Noman’s Land (1985). Toronto’s first real mythology, in which an appropriately amnesic protagonist re/discovers his identity by enacting/re-enacting important Toronto moments: Marilyn Bell’s 1954 swim across Lake Ontario; hanging out inside the Archer, the Henry Moore sculpture at City Hall, etc. The buffalo then resident at High Park Zoo feature prominently, as does the Danforth and so on.

• Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians (1960; reissued in 2007 by McGill-Queen’s University Press). A proto-feminist suburban satire that received international attention in the early 1960s and was, like so much other Toronto literature, unceremoniously forgotten.

• Michael Redhill’s Consolation (2006; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), a novel about history and forgetting. Beautifully and powerfully written, it focuses on the search for some of the earliest photographs of Toronto circa 1856-57, whose glass plates are believed to lie at the bottom of what was once the harbour.

• bpNichol’s The Martyrology, Book V. The Martyrology is a collection of concrete and avant-garde poems. Book V constructs a kind of mythological map of Toronto, and is an interesting and revealing read.

• Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky (2013), set in the Portuguese neighbourhood along Dundas Street West during the summer of 1977, when shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques was murdered.

• Daniel David Moses’ plays, especially Big Buck City (1998) and City of Shadows (1998). Moses is known for his sharp satires told from an Aboriginal point of view.

• Tanya Huff’s Blood Price (1991), Blood Trail (1992), Blood Lines (1992), Blood Pact (1993) and Blood Debt (1997)): a detective-vampire novel series that is great fun to read. The protagonist, Vicky Nelson, is an ex-detective-turned PI, who teams up with a 400-year-old vampire, Henry Fitzroy. I loved these books; the series was made into a television show that ran about a decade ago.

National Post

About Richard Warnica