Saturday, December 21, 2019

Book Review: "Scarborough (a novel)" by Catherine Hernandez

I was born in Scarborough, and returned to live in the eastern part of Toronto about ten years ago. I chose to live here because I love it here and therefore I definitely wouldn't miss the opportunity to read a novel exclusively dedicated to the community I walk and drive through every day.

Written by Catherine Hernandez--also a Scarborough resident--a theatre practitioner and writer of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese, and Indian heritage. She has carefully captured the voices of a community of characters who also represent a range of nationalities, in addition to various ages, experiences, and stages in development.

Our little town doesn't always get a good rap. In fact, residents of any other part of the Greater Toronto Area from Brampton straight through to Oshawa most likely have a different perception of this part of the city than the actual residents do. I won't even repeat any of the stereotypes circulating for years about Scarborough (because it's safe to say that every region from Peel to Durham experiences their own unique challenges and concerns), but I do embrace the fact that there are so many different kinds of people that live here, and that's what makes it unique. Anyone--and everyone--can feel culturally at home in Scarborough.

Photo via Queen's Gazette
In this particular novel, in one particular area of Scarborough, Hernandez brings us into the homes and hearts of the children and families that cross paths through their local residences, a shelter, and a Literacy Program that operates out of a local elementary school. The Program Facilitator of the Program, Hina Hassani, is a compassionate connector between individuals, lessons, resources, and emotions.

Each of the characters in this compassionate novel are lovable--even those who are questionable in behaviour and opinions at times. Each chapter takes us into a different lifestyle, a different thought process, and a different person as they navigate their day and readers have the opportunity to experience Scarborough through their eyes...as well as learn about what it takes for them to get through each day.

Author Catherine Hernandez
This book goes straight to the heart. The stories are beautiful, and tragic, and inspiring...and yet there's still a deep sadness that exists even when the characters achieve their small triumphs and experience joy. Between the seasons, the days, the experiences, and the conversations, we are able to get to know Ms. Hina and how she respectfully nurtures and educates the children in her program, while sharing and embracing their parents and allowing them to maintain dignity through her food giving and clothes sharing processes.

There are no stereotypes here: just realities. Realities for particular Scarborough pockets, or any low-income neighbourhood where residing in shelters, accepting food donations, and relying on community support are customary. These conditions aren't tied to one particular race or demographic. Just like a ride on the Eglinton 86 or the RT: there are white folks, black folks, Asian and South Asian folks, and indigenous North Americans/Canadians. The mosaic is as Scarborough as the TTC routes, and the living conditions see no colour in this particular story.

Mental illness, poverty, child care, gender issues, and abuse are unfortunate issues that the characters learn to cope with, succumb to, or overcome within the pages of Hernandez' novel. And you can feel the cold in the under-dressed, and smell the funk of the under-groomed. The characters are vivid and relatable even in their worst predicaments, for they are just Torontonians trying to make it through...with their own unique circumstances to take on.

Photo via Toronto.com
The bad times are bad...but the moments of happiness are sweet in this novel as well! There's a dancing moment of triumph for a boy named Bing, and a very sweet friendship with him and a classmate girl named Sylvie. There are wonderful parent-child bonds, and so many moments of support and love between community members. Parents celebrating progress with their children, and children relishing in small joys with one another.

Overall, is it the character of Hina that I truly love because not only does she serve as the story's anchor and narrative of sorts, but she also stays committed to her work. She is the hope in this novel, because she is able to witness the commonalities and provide a safe space for individuals to grow, express their dignity, and dream. She is pure in her love for community, and diplomatic when communicating with her superiors and fighting against institutional challenges.

Photo via Toronto Star
There are many lessons and glories within the pages of "Scarborough," and the message that resonates most of all with me is that everyone has their issues. Whether in Scarborough, or in Ajax, or in Markham, or Woodbridge...everyone is faced with issues that stand between their daily routine and achieving their greatest dreams. The main difference at times is just circumstance, resources, and even morale. You feel this when you see even the most simple of gestures from one character to another make a great different in outlook and activity.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Scarborough" and thank the staff member (Jasmine) at the Scarborough Town Centre Indigo who highlighted this book as a "staff pick" and drew my attention to the shelf display to motivate my purchase.

Needless to say, as someone who is committed to promoting and celebrating cultural stories, I know that "Scarborough" is the type of book that has to exist. Often. Across generations. It shows us about ourselves, reminds us about others, and particularly for those of us who live in Toronto...it is an up-close-and-personal look at the lives of the folks we pass every day, and a deeper understanding of challenges that we may not have encountered...yet.

An excellent book, an excellent town, and I commend Catherine Hernandez (CatherineHernandezCreates.com) for the way in which she handled the complexities of Scarborough, the sensitive issues, and the cultures with compassion, accuracy, and hope.





Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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