Whole words come alive at the intersection of literature and place. They exist in locations so familiar to us that we don’t even notice them, regions simultaneously so strange that we can hardly conceive them. In the iconic Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion (McClelland & Stewart, 1987), Michael Ondaatje writes that "Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting." In Soft City (Hamish Hamilton, 1974) Jonathan Raban observes, “[t]he city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps.” These commentaries suggest that the cities we live in are the products not primarily of brick and mortar (or bureaucracy and money) but instead 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.But in navigating the formal (and formulaic) aspects of writing literary non-fiction (and labouring to be both academic and accessible) I am reminded repeatedly of Toronto author Dionne Brand's observation (quoted in a 2005 Vanity Fair article about Toronto literature)that "the literature is still catching up with the city, with its new stories."
In the time I've engaged with the city's literature, I've learned that (contrary to repeated claims that Toronto doesn't exist in anyone's imagination) Toronto writers cover a vast literary, cultural, and physical terrain. Yet, as Brand suggests, many stories remain untold. When I teach Imagining Toronto as an undergraduate course at York, I invite my students to tell their own stories about the city. Last fall a number of these writings were anthologized in Urban TEXTures, a chapbook produced to considerable interest within and beyond York.
My plan this year is to do something more directly collaborative, called Toronto: The Novel. My idea, at this point, is to invite participants to help the city catch up with its new stories by writing a collective text about Toronto. In the course we will probably agree upon characters, cultures, settings, themes, and perhaps plot lines near the beginning of the course. During the term we'll write, and while doing so we'll compare what we write to the body of published Toronto literature we'll be reading. One intention will be to observe how these parallel texts converge and differ. Another intention will be to remind students that we all write the city we live in.
I am curious if this is an idea that would work beyond the Imagining Toronto course. Would you like to participate in a similar project? My idea, somewhat in genesis, is that Toronto: The Novel could be repeated in various settings with various groups of participants. The plan is not to 'publish' the work as such, but rather to write, post and edit it electronically and publicly, using open community software and a website.
I'll be doing a public talk about Toronto literature as part of the 2007 Toronto Festival of Architecture and Design in May, and will discuss this and an idea about Toronto literature-focused book clubs (thanks to Sean Lerner for letting this out of the book-bag on the Imagining Toronto Facebook group). If you are interested in participating (or have any ideas about open-source web-based software that would support such a collaborative project and that anybody, including older children, could use; e.g., a wiki), I would love to hear your thoughts here or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
[This post appeared originally at Reading Toronto.]