As a child, I spent a great deal of time alone so reading was a welcome escape into the unfamiliar, and I relished being whisked away to settings across the globe and beyond. However, for a long while, I expected that “good” stories would be about someplace else about people other than the ones I knew – that these were the narratives worth sharing. This wasn’t true, of course. I was simply limited to the popular books my parents had purchased for me and whatever was doled out in the elementary curriculum. Thus, the lens with which I was able to experience the greater city of Toronto and its commuter communities came through adult conversations I overheard, media, and trips taken on public transit.
When I was finally introduced to local authors and content, these stories were varied enough in their characters, tone, perspectives, and settings that they exponentially broadened my understanding of Toronto and where I fit in. In each tale I could revel in the familiar streets and glimpse the inner lives of my neighbours and schoolmates. Here are a few of my favourite Toronto-based stories that will be sure to add another layer to the city you thought you knew.
That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter was the book that broke the mold. Narrated by relentless optimist, Booky, a young girl whose family faced unimaginable poverty during the Depression era.
David Chariandy’s Brother is a coming-of-age story about love and love with all the nuances of living in a heavily policed sprawling city tenement in Scarborough.
Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. A haunting, intimate portrait of city-living for families struggling with poverty, health issues and the children in the center of it all.
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta. This lost picture album is a literary triumph. Another example of pulling the areas of the city out from a busy urban grid and into the real world; Eglinton Avenue, or “Little Jamaica,” gets some well-deserved attention in this coming-of-age collection of short stories following a young first generation Canadian, Kara, and her mother.
The Heart of Downtown
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel is a slice of dystopian brilliance in a recognizable Toronto
Alissa York’s Fauna is an unforgettable and delicate examination of the Toronto socio-ecological system. Few know our wildlife as well as York.
My debut novel And the Walls Came Down is about troubled Delia Ellis who returns to her old neighbourhood, Don Mount Court, to retrieve a beloved childhood diary. While the entries uncover significant revelations around her mother’s past, it is Delia’s return home that leads to a true understanding of the circumstances that forged her identity. I created a 90s-themed Spotify playlist that you can listen to while you read - enjoy!
Denise Da Costa is a Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist whose work is featured in Subdivided: City Building in an Age of Hyper Diversity. She lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. Learn more here.