By Kathy McGrath
Scarborough has been in the news of late, but not because of squabbling over transit or the latest waterfront development plan. No, in this case the buzz is about two authors who are garnering attention in the Canadian literary world. Catherine Hernandez and David Chariandy, authors of the novels Scarborough and Brother, respectively, have been nominated for literary awards for their semi-autobiographical accounts of growing up in Toronto’s eastern suburb.
Scarborough, which is Hernandez’s first novel, was short-listed for the Toronto Book Award. Brother was also nominated for the Toronto Book Award and long-listed (but surprisingly not short-listed) for the prestigious Giller Prize.
Coincidentally, both novels, published this year, take place in similar neighbourhoods. Brothers is set primarily at the intersections of Galloway Rd. and Lawrence Ave. in West Hill, and Scarborough is set near Morningside and Lawrence, but also includes references to the Centennial/Rouge areas.
These books offer a glimpse into the lives of those who struggle to succeed while dealing with poverty, broken homes, racism and police intimidation. The sobering stories illustrate how tragedy is often the outcome for people, primarily immigrants, who are marginalized on a daily, grinding basis.
Scarborough has a large cast of characters centred on local children whose families are struggling to survive. There is Laura, a bright, eager girl living with a young father who is woefully incapable of caring for her. Bing is a chubby, gay Filipino boy who is bullied by his classmates. They are friends with Sylvie, a Native girl who helps her mother and autistic brother fight for space at a homeless shelter while also trying to care for her injured father.
Brothers is a touching tale of one family – a single Trinidadian mother and her two boys – that becomes splintered despite the mother’s efforts to protect her sons from the chaos of an unstable neighbourhood.
What makes the books hopeful is the resilience of these families, due in large part to the support of their cultural communities and, in particular, to the fierce love of mothers. Through the voice of Bing, Hernandez illustrates the intensity of a mother’s love following her son’s beating on a school bus. “The rest of that entire day, I sat on her lap, clean, with hair still wet from a long bubble bath. We watched everything and anything on TV, while she caressed my skin with her motherly touches.… I practically suffocated under her loving grasp, but I dared not escape.”
The Rouge Valley is also referenced as a place of peace among the turmoil. In times of stress, the characters in Brothers escape to the Rouge Valley by accessing a path under the Lawrence Ave. bridge. One of the brothers, Michael, explains, “It was mother, really, who introduced Francis and me to this place. When we were very little, she’d walk us down the rabbit path and we’d eat on the grass beside the creek… We’d spend whole seasons of time down there.”
While these books have many similarities, there are also differences. Scarborough is set in current times; Brother takes place during the more violent early ’90s. Brother is a detailed story of one family while Scarborough offers a glimpse into the lives of several different ones.
Both books are compelling, but I would say Brother stands out because of Chariandy’s superb writing. He is able to tap into the subtleties of emotion with spare, elegant writing. As he notes in his acknowledgments at the end of the book, “This short book took me a long time to write.”
Indeed, there is an art to being able to evoke a feeling with few words. Such is the case in a scene where “Mother” reacts to having sons released to her by police after they’ve been cleared of involvement in a local crime scene.
“Ma’am?” asked the cop. “Are you the mother?” “She nodded and listened but looked beyond the cops to the audience of staring neighbours. The combination of sweat and glare made her face shine like a mask, and she looked a bit like an actor who’d stumbled accidentally onto a stage and who now, too late, had to figure out her role.”
Ultimately, Scarborough and Brother are gritty, soulful novels that showcase the talents of two strong authors who are able to bring their communities to life on the written page.
Note to readers: Chariandy’s first novel, Soucoyant, is also set in Scarborough and was nominated for multiple awards.