27 Jul 2023

We Can(ada) Read: SCARBOROUGH by Catherine Hernandez

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Author: Catherine Hernandez
Series: N/A
Source: Audible
Publisher: Audible Studios
Publication Date: April 24, 2018

Overall Rating:
Diversity Rating:
Representation: queer, Filipino, Black, West Indian, Muslim, socio-economic struggles

City of Toronto Book Award finalist Scarborough is a low-income, culturally diverse neighborhood east of Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America; like many inner city communities, it suffers under the weight of poverty, drugs, crime, and urban blight.

Scarborough the novel employs a multitude of voices to tell the story of a tight-knit neighborhood under among them, Victor, a black artist harassed by the police; Winsum, a West Indian restaurant owner struggling to keep it together; and Hina, a Muslim school worker who witnesses first-hand the impact of poverty on education. And then there are the three kids who work to rise above a system that consistently fails Bing, a gay Filipino boy who lives under the shadow of his father's mental illness; Sylvie, Bing's best friend, a Native girl whose family struggles to find a permanent home to live in; and Laura, whose history of neglect by her mother is destined to repeat itself with her father.

Scarborough offers a raw yet empathetic glimpse into a troubled community that locates its dignity in unexpected a neighborhood that refuses to be undone.

Catherine Hernandez is a queer theatre practitioner and writer who has lived in Scarborough off and on for most of her life. Her plays Singkil and Kilt Pins were published by Playwrights Canada Press, and her children's book M is for A Pride ABC Book was published by Flamingo Rampant. She is the Artistic Director of Sulong Theatre for women of color.
Amazon | Chapters
Content Warning: hate crimes, poverty, child neglect, racism, drug use (mentioned), crime, homophobia

Even if you've never been to Scarborough, you should read this book. The city of Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, but Scarborough (the book and the city) paints a different picture of what that means. Scarborough is an ethnically diverse, lower-income suburb east of Toronto. 

There’s a lot of different people, stories, and perspectives that are used in this book, which does make it a bit more difficult to follow along. We have Laura, a quiet girl whose mother abandons her and now she lives with her angry, racist father, Cory, a former skinhead and gang member. We also have Bing, a queer, overweight Filipino boy who lives with his mother Edna, after they’ve left Bing’s mentally ill father downtown alongside Bing’s best friend, Sylvie, an Indigenous girl who lives in a shelter with her mother, Marie, and her brother, Johnny, who’s got some undiagnosed condition.

Initially, it’s a little hard to keep track of all these people. But Hernandez uses a savvy structural device. She lets us read email reports by Hina Hassani, the literacy program’s young facilitator, to her supervisor. In these missives, Hina comments on the children in her care (and their parents), and so we get to see these people and their actions from different perspectives.

We also get to see Hina struggling with the bureaucratic stonewalling by her patronizing, passive aggressive supervisor, who signs off her emails with an increasingly annoying Oprah Winfrey quote (“Reading is a way for me to expand my mind, open my eyes, and fill up my heart.”)

In addition, we get to see very brief glimpses of others: a woman who works in a neighbouring massage parlour; another denizen of the shelter; a mother and son associated with a Caribbean restaurant who one day, after their refrigerator breaks down, give out free chicken to a desperately hungry Cory and Laura. And then there’s Victor, a talented Black visual artist who’s commissioned by the city to illustrate a bridge when he gets stopped by the police and brutally interrogated.

Hernandez has control over most of her narrative threads, stitching together a sturdy patchwork quilt of a tale. The passages involving Bing and his mother, who works in a nail salon, feel a bit more vivid and detailed than the others, particularly with Tagalog expressions. But Hernandez doesn’t hold back in letting us see, for instance, life through the angry, embittered eyes of Cory, with all his sad and pathetic contradictions.

By the halfway mark we’re involved in all the characters’ struggles and minor triumphs. It’s not a coincidence that the final word in the novel is “home.” Scarborough honours these real, often marginalized people, by depicting their home with truth and compassion.

Let’s hope schools and libraries – in Scarborough and beyond – promote this book. Can’t wait to see what the talented Hernandez writes next.

Are you going to pick this up?

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