Sunday, March 6, 2011

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris’s Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010) is both easy and difficult to describe.

The book contains an analysis of Toronto literature, from the earliest of times to the present.

But what is “Toronto literature”? And what is the critical approach taken in the analysis?

First, Toronto literature is books that set (most of their) action in Toronto.

Second, Lavender Harris teaches at the Geography Department at York University and focuses on “urban identity and the cultural significance of place.” See also the Imagining Toronto website. Her book, she writes:

… is predicated on a belief that rather than comparing Toronto to the world’s other great literary cities and finding it wanting, we should instead realize that Toronto’s literature reflects an entirely new kind of city, a city where identity emerges not from shared tradition or a long history but rather is forged out of a commitment to the virtues of diversity, tolerance and cultural understanding (14).

That is, she presents an urban planner’s view of Toronto as reflected in books written about Toronto. What she compares and contrasts are books about Toronto to other books about Toronto and all of those books to the city itself. The book emphasizes, therefore, the integration of the “real” and the “imagined.” The first sentence quotes Michael Ondaatje from In the Skin of a Lion: “Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting” (13).

One caution here. The Ondaatje quotation contains the suggestion that the real can be seen, defined and stabilized. Once it has been routed through the filter of the imagination. But the imagination is nothing if not mutable, and so the real is constantly shifting also. Lavender Harris presents an image of Toronto as filtered through dozens of books published between the recent past and stretching back through the decades to pre-Confederation. She has distilled patterns and provides a remarkably wide-ranging reading list, but I’m uncertain how much this has to do with “the real.”

The greater value in Imagining Toronto is the “kind of charting” the book provides of the imagined Toronto presented across genres in the dozens of books Lavender Harris analyses. This is perhaps the place to say that “literary value” isn’t at the top of the author’s mind, though this doesn’t stop her from calling Gwendolyn MacEwen “undeservedly neglected” (21) or Hugh Garner “internationally regarded” (15), claims George Fetherling challenged in his otherwise praising Quill & Quire review. Lavender Harris, however, does outline a sort of Toronto Canon, but it is a canon shaped around the cultural significance of space rather than a holding to account against a particular school of literary criticism.

The best Toronto books, in other words, are those that assist in defining Imagining Toronto’s thesis and thus they are books that include an exploration of the specific history, geography, and sociology of Toronto. Such books include: Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, Claudia Dey’s Stunt, Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown and Death in Don Mills, Gwendolyn MacEwen’s Noman’s Land, Michael Redhill’s Consolation, Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians, Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love, Austin Clarke’s short stories and Hugh Hood’s The Swing in the Garden. To name but a handful.

I kept a pen handy as I read this book, jotting down titles and authors I’d never heard of or had previously passed over. Lavender Harris provides more than ample proof to contradict the skeptics who think that Toronto hasn’t been deeply engaged as a subject in literature. Here is Lavender Harris outlining that school of thought:

In a 2005 essay called “Making a Toronto of the Imagination,” journalist Bert Archer asserted that Toronto is “a city in no one’s imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world,” adding, “Toronto is a place where 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.” Similarly, author Andrew Pyper has claimed that “there’s a reluctance in our fiction to engage Toronto directly as a place,” a sentiment echoed by literary critic Philip Marchand, who wrote flatly of the “bland and featureless reputation” of Toronto’s literary landscape and insisted that “our city awaits its great novelist” (15-16).

Of great interest to me was Lavender Harris’s inclusion of many titles published pre-1967. Just as Carmine Starnino did in his expansive introductory essay to Lover’s Quarrel, where he argued that the pre-dominant view that the nation’s literature had failed to mature prior to the Centennial Generation was false, Lavender Harris re-introduces the sophistication of previous eras to help renew and reframe discussions about Toronto’s literary history.

Lavender Harris, in fact, goes back to the beginnings of geological time, discussing the impact of the Ice Age on the topography of what would become Toronto (i.e., it left the city dragged with ravines, a feature that repeats with unsurprising frequency in many Toronto novels. Paul Quarrington’s The Ravine, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down, for example).

Lavender Harris also explores other common features of Toronto: its famous neighbourhoods, its multiculturalism, its suburbs. She also provides a class analysis and surveys the city’s topography of desire. She does all this while also suggesting there is much more that could be said.

Imagining Toronto provides an outline and an overview. It is perhaps overburdened by having to begin by addressing such severe skepticism. It is an introduction to Toronto literature, and it suggests many opportunities where deeper analysis may be richly rewarding. The section called “The Myth of the Multicultural City,” for example, is a mere 25 pages. It deserves a volume unto itself.

Here’s some other online responses:

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