Monday, January 02, 2006

Imagining Toronto

I have proposed Imagining Toronto as a new fourth year course in the Department of Geography at York University for 2006-2007. Presently the course has received Departmental approval, but (as of December 2005) has not yet been reviewed by the Faculty of Arts, CCAS, or the Senate.

Why Imagining Toronto? Whole worlds come alive at the intersection of geography and literature. One doesn't need to venture as far afield as Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi's Dictionary of Imaginary Places or even Malcolm Bradbury's Atlas of Literature to find these worlds. They exist in places so familiar to us that we don't even notice them, places simultaneously so strange that we can hardly conceive them. Robert Fulford calls Toronto an "accidental city", in the sense that many of its most meaningful and iconic places -- the CN Tower, Chinatown, and the Toronto Islands among them -- have emerged as happy accidents; the unintended consequences of city planning, commerce, demographics, and natural processes. He writes,

A successful city fulfills itself not by master plans but through an attentiveness to the processes that have created it and an awareness of its possibilities. It achieves a heightened identity by giving form to memory and providing space for new life. (Fulford, 1995: 14)

In Emerald City, John Bentley Mays writes of the city dweller's need to discover 'urban thinking places' and adds that

living fully and mindfully anyplace, I believe, involves giving thought to all the rhythms we move within -- the personal ones, from birth to death, but also the historical ones, preserved and recalled by the artifacts of architecture and urban planning, art and writing and music. (1994: 2; 27)

Fulford and Mays' commentaries suggest that the cities we live in are not so much the products of bricks and mortar (or bureaucracy and money) as they are the invention of our memories and imaginations. In other words, our cities unfold not only in the building but in the telling of them.

And yet, there is the question of how and whether a Toronto-based urban literature might supplant a century and more of writing fixated on the rural and wild spaces of Canada, in a country where the very existence of urban spaces is so often conceived as an invasion and a blight on what is romantically remembered as a pristine and natural landscape. There is the additional problem of how and whether such a literature can adequately capture the complex flows, crises, and assertions of a moving metropolis. In Downtown Canada, Douglas Ivison and Justin Edwards comment on the importance of shifting focus to "that most placeless of places, the city" while also "reasserting the local in an increasingly globalized Canadian literature." (2005: 6) Finally, and perhaps most urgently, there is the difficulty of determining whether such a literature exists at all.

Opinion on this last question is mixed. Toronto journalist Bert Archer claims that Toronto is "a city that exists in no one's imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world." He adds, "Toronto is a place people live, not a place where things happen, or, at least, not where the sorts of things happen that forge a place for the city in the imagination." (2005: 220) In contrast, in a 2005 Vanity Fair article the American critic Anderson Tepper avers that since the 1987 publication of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, "a vision of modern Toronto gradually took shape before our eyes." The article quotes Toronto novelist and poet Dionne Brand's comment that "the literature is still catching up with the city, with its new stories." Writing in the Globe & Mail, Stephen Marche describes Toronto's "flourishing bookishness" almost breathlessly, asserting that "Toronto may be the only city where novels are integral to high art, the alternative scene and mainstream culture all at the same time." Yet, Marche describes both the city and its fiction as "insular" and focused on "interior rather than public spaces."

One important purpose of Imagining Toronto is to challenge all of these viewpoints. It has been a very long time since Toronto first clawed its way out of its literal or literary woods. To claim (as both Archer and Tepper do) that Toronto literature begins or ends with Ondaatje's novel is to exhibit a remarkable (although hardly uncommon) lack of familiarity with the city's sizable and expanding literature (please click on the Bibliography of Literary and Critical Works link to view a long and expanding -- and incomplete -- list). Marche's description of Toronto as "unimaginative to the extreme" is as perplexing and narrow as the short list of literary works he grudgingly attributes to Toronto writers. Brand's comment seems to be the only one that offers much hope for a Toronto literature. Indeed, catching up with a city's stories is any urban literature's greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity. Imagining Toronto seeks to take up this challenge.

Imagining Toronto explores intersections of literature and place in the Toronto region, exposing students to critical and imaginative works on place, culture, and representation. Close readings of a wide selection of Toronto-based literature (fiction, poetry, non-fiction) are paired with critical scholarly works interrogating how places are invented, (re)presented, and (re)produced. The course is arranged thematically. An introduction to concepts and theories in literary/cultural geography (including representations of place, literary regionalism, issues raised by the modernity/post-modernity dialectic, among others) precedes an exploration of topics including (1) constructing identity and place, (2) immigrants and natives / selves and others, (3) transformations of nature into culture, (4) sexualities and the city, (5) the possibilities and impossibilities of dwelling in the city, and (6) urbia and suburbia.

Through engagement with seminars, workshops, guest speakers, and field trips, and through their own (short) imaginative and (longer) critical essays, students will explore Toronto's visible and subterranean layers. Toronto is a city built upon buried streams and half-culverted ravines that periodically roil up and swallow cars and concrete. Toronto's shore is a filled-in lakebed periodically disgorging the remains of sunken trawlers. It is a city built upon its own detritus -- brickyards, landfills, and Huron villages -- revealing that present-day Toronto is only the tip of the tel. Toronto is not only physically but culturally liminal. Neighbourhoods like Kensington Market wear the traces of Jewish, Portuguese, Caribbean, and Asian passage like so many discarded coats thrown down after the voyage, like the overcoats shrugged off in Neil Bissoondath's story, "Christmas Lunch". Toronto novels -- Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion and Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces among them -- turn Toronto's ravines into metaphors of immigrant struggle. Other works, like Dionne Brand's What We All Long For turn streets into rivers along which the grief and hope and longing of generations separated and rejoined coalesce in turbulent flow. Indeed, Brand's novel -- which gathers many of the course themes together -- will serve as the centrepiece of the course and the starting point for our own reflections and inventions, both literary and critical. Groupings of Brand's chapters will be paired with critical pieces selected from the scholarly literature along with shorter pieces and excerpts from literary works exploring similar or contrasting motifs.

For example, in a session exploring home and homelessness, the course integrates a chapter in What We All Long For in which the character Oku meets (and meets again) a homeless musician in Kensington Market. His discomfort with the man stirs up questions about his own place in his family, the city, and the cultures he bridges (Caribbean and Canadian). This discomfort is echoed in Carol Shields' Unless, a novel in which the narrator's daughter (about the same age as Oku) abandons her university studies and family to sit on a Toronto street corner begging and holding a sign reading "Goodness". Similarly, Shaunessy Bishop-Stall's memoir Down to This narrates the author's journey from university studies in Montreal to Toronto's Tent City. The discussion of these texts is filtered through critical commentaries on dwelling and home/homelessness (e.g., Kelly, Derek A., 1975. Home as a Philosophical problem. The Modern Schoolman, LII (January), 151-168; Mark Kingwell’s “Building Dwelling Acting”, Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2000, 107(2): 177-202); and/or Gerry Daly’s “Homelessness and the Street”, from Images of the Street). Students undoubtedly have their own views and experiences of homelessness; the readings and discussions are intended to both challenge and inform.

The session titled 'Urbia and Suburbia' will explore the oppositional (and yet adjacent) character of urban and suburban experience. In What We All Long For, Toronto's Chinatown and the suburb of Richmond Hill are cast as opposites: for Tuyen's Vietnamese family, the large, insular suburban house is the hard-won prize of two decades of life-rebuilding in a new country. It is their escape from the wearying drudgery of the restaurant they run, but it is also their prison. A culminating scene in the novel is an act of striking violence just outside their home that brings both the city and a lost son to their front door. This grouping of Brand's chapters will be paired with other readings contrasting Toronto-area suburbs with the cities they adjoin, including selections from Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (which contrasts the harsh topography of new tract housing with the harsher subterranean landscape of the Don River Valley and the even more ruthless social terrain of adolescence) and (likely) a selection from Russell Smith's Noise, an urban-suburban satire. Paul Milton's critical reading of suburban literature, "Rewriting White Flight: Suburbia in Gerald Lynch's Troutstream and Joan Barfoot's Dancing in the Dark", in Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities, will help illuminate the varied character and meanings of different and representations of the suburban Toronto experience, as will other analystical pieces like Alison Clarke's "Tupperware: Suburbia, Sociality, and Mass Consumption" in Visions of Suburbia.

The broad aim of Imagining Toronto is to discover and explore Toronto's liminal and literary character, and in doing so, to make a place for both ourselves and our literature in this city.

The course website and an expanding bibliography of literary and critical works is available. Suggestions and additions are very much welcomed. Please send comments to Amy Lavender Harris at

About the Course Director

I have lived all over this city. I was born in Toronto in 1972 in what used to be called the Doctor's Hospital, at the edge of Kensington Market, while my parents (newly arrived in Toronto from New Brunswick) lived at Carlton and Parliament. As a child I lived in Cabbagetown and east Riverdale (in the area now known as Little India), before spending several years in a suburb at the east edge of the city. After spending time away to attend university, I returned to Toronto in 1997 for graduate school and lived for five years near Jane & Finch. I now live in the Junction, and travel almost daily by bike to Kensington Market.

When I came back to Toronto to live, I didn't want just to see the city: I wanted to read it. First I read several edited collections of Toronto short stories -- Morris Wolfe and Douglas Daymond's Toronto Short Stories, Cary Fagan and Robert MacDonald's Streets of Attitude, and Barry Callaghan's This Ain't No Healing Town. I read Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, Michael Ondaatje's obligatory In The Skin of a Lion, Robertson Davies' Murther & Walking Spirits and The Cunning Man. I re-read Hugh Garner's Toronto essays and some of his novels (like Cabbagetown and Death in Don Mills), as well as Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride. Then I began to look deeper. I found used copies of obscurely written Toronto novels like Basil Papadimos' The Hook of it Is and Richard Scrimger's Crosstown. At some point my interest became nearly obsessive. I found more of Katherine Govier's work, such as Fables of Brunswick Avenue and The Immaculate Conception Photo Gallery, and began reading Austin Clarke and Niel Bissoondath alongside Dionne Brand, Helen Humphries, and Carol Shields. In the past year this list has grown to include speculative literature such as Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring and Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (which is a wonderful companion-piece to Sarah Dearing's Courage My Love, also set largely in Kensington Market), Howard Ackler's The City Man, and Steven Hayward's The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke. This is only a partial list. By rights it should also include non-fiction, like Shaunessy Bishop-Stall's Down to This and Cary Fagan's City Hall and Mrs. God. And as a geographer and urban planner, I have of course read everything from Robert Fulford's Accidental City and John Bentley Mays' Emerald City to Wayne Grady's Toronto the Wild and Jean Cochrane's Kensington. I have even read John Sewell's Up Against City Hall and his later A City in the Making. There is also Toronto poetry, of course. Perhaps the less I say about it the better, given that I am married to the man Christian Bök once (perhaps enviously) described as "everything that is wrong with poetry in this idiotic country." (Word, February 1998, page 7)

I don't just read about Toronto. I have biked across much of it in the mild seasons, and drowsed in its subways in the winter. I have been a passenger in cars travelling to the region's big box stores and its outlet malls. I have sailed the city's lake and waded its rivers looking for fossils. I have sung drunken tunes in the city's seedy bars and sipped afternoon tea at its fine hotels. I have cruised many of Toronto's back lanes and alleys looking for discarded mirror glass and sheet metal to use in salvage and art projects. I garden in this city, and parry regularly with its raccoons. As a child I used to walk along the railway tracks late at night with my father, on midnight trips to the supermarket at Gerrard Square. I have listened to the primordial sound of the streetcars very early in the morning, and the trains shunting into the evening. I have been trampled by bureaucrats rushing to Union Station at the end of the business day, and pushed into traffic by an incoherent, shouting woman on Dupont Street. I have been both a student and a teacher at two of Toronto's universities, and most recently, have begun to write about the city myself. And it is to this end that I have sought to bring all these experiences and narratives and spaces together in Imagining Toronto. Welcome aboard.


Archer, Bert, 2005. "Making a Toronto of the Imagination". In Jason McBride and Alana Wilcox, eds., uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto. Toronto: Coach House Books, 220-228.

Bradbury, Malcolm, ed., 1996. The Atlas of Literature. London: De Agonstini Editions.

Edwards, Justin D. and Douglas Ivison, eds., 2005. Downtown Canada: Criting Canadian Cities. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Fulford, Robert, 1996. Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto. Boston; New York: Peter Davidson / Houghton Mifflin.

Manguel, Alberto and Gianni Guandlupi, 1987. The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Expanded edition. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.

Marche, Stephen, 2005. "Drab and dull, yes, but we write a mean novel". Globe & Mail, December 31, 2005, Page M2. Available electronically (copy and paste link if it doesn't work) at

Mays, John Bentley, 1994. Emerald City: Toronto Visited. Toronto: Penguin.

Tepper, Anderson, 2005. "Northern Exposure: Can you hear that literary buzz? It's coming from Toronto". Vanity Fair, 12 December 2005. Available electronically at


Anonymous said...

Well, here's an idea. I dare you to explore the suburbs as liveable spaces, and to train your students' thoughts on what work needs to be done. Suburbs, in other words, not as the detestable underbelly to the desireable urbs, but as places in their own right. Of city thought beyond urbanists, it seems to me that there is lots. Creative thinking in public discourse about what to do about the suburbs, on the other hand, seems stuck in neutral. Besides, isn't this at York University? Instead of starting at some downtown core and then working out to imagined peripheries, why not try imagining the Toronto for which York U is the physical centre?

Muse said...

Many thanks for your insightful comment. As you may note from the course syllabus, I have already begun devising ways to take up the challenge, which I agree is an extremely important one.

I do not believe that cities -- at least not as experienced -- consist of satellite peripheries organized around a single core. Instead, it is my view that each of us lives and dwells in a familiar setting (which may be local or regional) from which we base our travels and explorations. In other words, the city we know always begins with a neighbourhood.

Suburbs -- and I lived in one for nine years -- certainly have their own "detestable underbelly", but you are correct to point out that they should not be singled out as inherently less desirable than downtown life (which has its own, far more richly chronicled, seamy underbelly). Such a claim would seem to go against the demographic reality that about half the GTA's population chooses to live (and increasingly work) in suburban areas.

Because my course begins with ideas about home and neighbourhood (the site of students' first field excursion and writing assignment), it is unlikely they will begin with "some downtown core". The majority of my students usually live in the so-called "905" area, and would have only a superficial grasp of "downtown Toronto" in any event.

At the same time, we will need to confront the ways Toronto is imagined through the existing literature. Much of this literature -- when it references suburbia at all -- does posit the suburbs as social and ecological wastelands. Michelle Berry's Blind Crescent (which isn't about Toronto per se)is one good example of this oeuvre. Yet, other novels render something that is at least somewhat more complex. Notable in this regard are Dionne Brand's What We All Long For (which thoughtful interrogates both city and suburb as sites of both redemption and loss), Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, and (perhaps -- I haven't finished reading it, yet) Darren O'Donnel's Your Secrets Sleep With Me. If you have other literature in mind, I would be eager to hear your suggestions.

Exploring how Toronto is imagined will require both a critical eye and an openness to considering all the ways this city is conceived and experienced -- including imaginatively, socially, politically, ecologically, spiritually -- and is not likely to be based on a rough severing of city and suburb.

Pending scheduling, I'll post something to the weblog in a few days about the imagined urban-suburban divide with a more lengthy response. There are some good/controversial articles out there, including Ken Whyte's 'In Defence of Suburbs' which appeared in Saturday Night in 1994.

Again, thank you for your thoughts. Please feel welcome to comment further, or write me directly at .