Thursday, February 16, 2006

Reimagining Toronto

I've been rethinking my response to journalist Bert Archer's claim that Toronto "exists in no one's imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world ... 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." (Making a Toronto of the Imagination, in uTOpia, 2005: 220)

I still disagree with Archer's assertion that there's been no "first-rate" Toronto fiction since Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. However, I'd like to take up the latter part of his essay, which consists of an adjuration that "we cease ignoring -- and as a result wasting -- the parts of our days we tend to consider white noise: the going-to and coming-from, the getting and the spending parts ... notic[ing] the details, the patterns ... getting a handle on ... what Toronto is, rather than what it is not." (ibid.: 227-228) and use it directly against his own claim about the absence or lack of quality of Toronto literature.

There are not merely dozens but hundreds of novelists (and poets and playwrights) who have turned their attention to the details and patterns of Toronto, and who have managed to create not one Toronto but numerous Torontos of the imagination. It's not Toronto but Toronto literature that seems to exist in no one's imagination. And yet, I have compiled one extensive and expanding list here, and am painfully aware that I am only beginning to outline the scope of available works. The challenge is for readers, writers, and journalists -- like Archer -- to read and acknowledge the presence of these works.

Archer is right in observing that before a place can exist in the imagination, it must develop its own stories. But this is only part of the answer. For a literature to live, it must be read and discussed and fought over. The story itself must be permitted to enter the imagination. The stories must be permitted to matter. The problem with Toronto is not that no-one imagines it, but that a perplexing and pervasive deafness afflicts this city's arbiters of culture, meaning that almost nobody hears it. I think it is a terrible shame, for example, that winning the City of Toronto Book Award seems to be a guarantee that your book will go out of print almost immediately afterward.

But Bert, if you'd like to talk, I've got a long list of books you might enjoy reading.

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