“Wherever you are, I hope you are safe and know I loved you enough to write you this book,” Catherine Hernandez writes in the opening pages of her debut novel, Scarborough. While the dedication alludes to a four-year-old girl whom Hernandez encountered while working at a community center when she was 15, the elusive “you” also makes this feel like a dedication to Scarborough, the anonymity of its people, and the threads of their stories that have been silenced and forgotten in favor of the progressive and self-congratulatory image of its enormous neighbor.
Otherwise known as Scarberia, Scartown, and Scarlet, Scarborough is the suburb that surrounds the eastern fringe of Toronto. In the last few decades, it has become the destination and the home for a vastly diverse population—mostly immigrants, mostly low income and working class, others homeless and unemployed. Hernandez, who grew up and now resides in Scarborough, is familiar with how race and racism are experienced within its peripheries, unlike in the downtown core, where “Canadian politeness” and “diversity” obscure the uneven socioeconomic terrain for black and brown people.1
The result is a collection of multiple stories and perspectives, narrated by various individuals within the fictional neighborhood surrounding Rouge Hill Public School. Some are adults, some children. Each story depicts the dynamic within Scarborough and the implications of living on the margins of society, for a homeless Mi’kmaq mother and her children; a Caribbean restaurant owner; a young black artist; a single mother making ends meet; a neglected daughter.
Scarborough is Hernandez’s first work of fiction. As a theater practitioner, however, Hernandez has written two plays, Singkil (2009) and Kilt Pins (2012). Both works navigate familial relations, sexuality, gender, and race; both are set in Scarborough. Both aim to confront the comfortable image of Toronto as exceptional—a cosmopolitan city known for its diversity and multiculturalism.
In the months since its release last summer, Scarborough has mostly been greeted with critical acclaim.2 Reviewers have considered it a compelling novel that sheds light on the stories of a community at risk of neglect, and as such a refreshing addition to Canadian literature, with its complacent myths of nondiscriminatory progress and belonging. It has been shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and, more recently, longlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. As a novel centered around community, Scarborough has also been celebrated for its portraiture of its people’s resilience despite poverty and loss and the profound impact of neighborhood programming among Toronto’s poor.
The novel follows the events that unfold in a single school year at Rouge Hill Public School. Divided into four sections, according to the seasons and school terms—Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer—its arc is resonant of the loss and healing that bring together the voices and lives of those within the community. Miss Hina, a Muslim woman who takes a position as the school’s Literary Program Facilitator, unifies each individual story as a centralizing figure working closely with the children and families in the community.
She observes the children (and by extension, their families) who come and go at Rouge Hill as much as she interacts with them individually. As she is a frontline worker who witnesses firsthand the way poverty affects education, her email exchanges and reports not only reveal the tensions between low-income communities and bureaucracy but also bracket the novel’s overarching narrative, which aims to honestly depict how children are the rallying point for an impoverished community facing abuse, racism, and disability.
Indeed, among the strongest voices in Hernandez’s novel are those of the children, who narrate how they navigate the realities of Scarborough. They do so with an emotional intelligence that, while effective, is at times dissonant with their stated age and the otherwise realist tone of the novel: “We, the brown kids with one and one-half parents, with siblings from different dads we see only in photos; we who call our grandmothers Mom; we who touch our father’s hands though Plexiglas,” Bing, a young Filipino boy, narrates in distinguishing the brown and black kids in the neighborhood from the white kids who come from families with two parents with minivans.
If Scarborough locates children as the rallying point for communities, it asks, too: who is responsible for the care and the labor required to sustain a community in need? What does it mean then to nurture the margins? What does such care look like? What are its limitations and possibilities, within the broader context of the progressive fiction of Toronto and Canadian literature?
Hernandez informs us of the ways community is found among kindred spirits, or at least, among those whose shared experiences create a nurturing space within the margins.
Women are at the center of Hernandez’s vision. The dedicatory pages of the novel are addressed “to all the Scarborough girls who dreamt of embraces,” “to all my east end women,” “to all my sisters who have pushed powder for baby formula,” and “to all the young mothers who carry the weight of twenty-dollar strollers aboard the buses to their next wish.” These women are often seen fleeing the abuse and violence enacted by the men in their lives—fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, all of whom are a “sad combination of bad cards dealt and bad choices made.” They are left trapped, abandoned, and lost.
Michelle, a homeless shelter supervisor, keenly observes those who find refuge in the Galloway Shelter. Most are women at risk, in need. In Scarborough especially, it is the mothers and mother figures who define, both sociologically and figuratively, the profound endurance necessary to live in poverty and within systems that limit access to resources. For Hernandez, the act of giving care is laborious and burdened, measured by the effects of systemic violence, and yet, as a result of a woman’s love, immeasurable.
Hernandez, who owned and worked in a home daycare center for many years, is aware of the weight of servitude, whether professionally or personally. Caregiving, she once wrote, is a feminine occupation that is often undervalued and vilified.3 In an outpouring of joy watching her son Bing sing and dance to Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Edna, a salon worker, narrates the “joy” of “all those hours working. Pulling hair. Shirking sexual advances. Feigning gratitude for one-dollar tips.” She exclaims, “How lucky am I to do so, to ensure the security of this child? How lucky am I to do this, in the name of mothering a magical person? How lucky am I to have been chosen by God to be this boy’s mother?”
But what does it mean to be grateful and fortunate enough when faced with such taxing circumstances? Is it worth it? Here, “mothering” is understood as a continual act of understated labor, more of a preoccupation than an identity, where women are expected to carry the weight of sustaining the needs of their family and their community.
Reading Scarborough, I was reminded of Dionne Brand’s 2005 novel, What We All Long For. Set in downtown Toronto and providing a critique of the city as a multicultural metropolis, What We All Long For hinges on the repressive and violent structures embedded within the city. Its central characters are first- and second-generation immigrants, but the voice of a nonstatus refugee lingers on the perimeter, secondary to the main narrative. In much the same way as Scarborough, What We All Long For is an assemblage of narrators and distinct stories that highlight the multiplicity and fragmentation of voices within the city.
Unlike Scarborough, however, Brand’s novel ends in violence, when the disparate narratives threaten to cross one another. Instead, Hernandez offers room for reconciliation, when a young girl, Laura, dies in a fire and becomes an example for the community of how the system has failed in nurturing and caring for the lives of children. In doing so, Hernandez informs us of the ways community is found among kindred spirits, or at least, among those whose shared experiences create a nurturing space within the margins.
The closing pages of Hernandez’s novel are driven by a vision of possibilities. Her characters, however wounded and forsaken, come out resolute. Marie, a Mi’kmaq homeless mother, eventually finds an effective way of communicating with her autistic son. Miss Hina, after multiple tense exchanges with her previous supervisor, is reassigned to someone new. Bing is accepted into the gifted program; his best friend, Sylvie, gestures toward him “and … looked forward.”
In what feels like the novel’s epilogue, the voice of Laura, one of Hernandez’s child narrators, offers a vision for the future in a surreal afterlife sequence. She meets with the figure of her father, Cory, his hands outstretched toward her. It is a comforting image, but one that can be misunderstood as hearkening back to the soothing and consoling narratives of progress and exceptionalism that have pervaded Canadian literature. It is instead a dreamlike ending that offers no real conclusion. No matter the “Sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames,” the narrator Laura reminds us: “When you’re dead, you can’t tell someone, ‘You will change your ways,’ because their ways won’t ever continue again.”
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
- In an interview, Hernandez explains what makes Scarborough exceptional and distinct from the downtown core of Toronto: “an honesty about racism here that you don’t see downtown.” See Susan G. Cole, “Catherine Hernandez Sets Her Sights on Scarborough,” Now, May 25, 2017. ↩
- For criticism of the novel’s lack of nuance in its treatment of its characters and storylines, see Hannah Sung, “Review: David Chariandy’s Brother and Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough Bring a Community to Life,” The Globe and Mail, October 6, 2017. ↩
- Hernandez writes about her experience working with children as a caregiver and the disparity of privilege in “Everything Your Caregiver Wants to Tell You But Isn’t Privileged Enough to Say,” Buddies in Bad Times Theatre blog, July 18, 2017. ↩