Amy Lavender Harris on Reading Local: The Map to Who We Are
Growing up in a Toronto suburb in the 1980s, isolated by poverty and social exclusion, I had the opportunity to experience place in a way few of my suburban peers did. While the neighbourhood kids spent their days hanging out at the local mall, watching music videos in their parents’ basements or cycling endless rings around the nearest cul-de-sac, I went down into the ravine, a deep-cut sedimentary floodplain across the road from our house.
I spent hours there every week, tracing a narrow path above the undercut bank, or wading upstream, my feet in the current, silt and schools of tiny fish sluicing through my toes. In the deep pools where trout lurked in the shadows, I hunted golf balls, and on gravel bars that rose like wedges above the water I looked for fossils lodged in the shale and conglomerate. Season after season I traced its length, edging around ox-bow lakes where grouse erupted from cedar thickets, absorbing the scent of rivermurk, answering the eerie echo of spring peepers , while all the while, the river charted its meandering course through the ravine.
Years later, when at university I studied geomorphology—the science of landscapes—the subject seemed strangely familiar. I realized that I understood the algorithms, the complex calculus of landforms, because I had already spent a decade learning that landscapes are living things, that they form and flow and accrete and ebb according to processes that may not only be measured but felt. And it wasn’t only familiar topography—the glaciated, moraine-rich, alluvial landscape of southern Ontario—that resonated because it had grown into my bones, but also unfamiliar terrain: igneous and periglacial landscapes, karst topography, landforms shaped directly by tectonic processes. All these became comprehensible because I had learned the local language of landscape.
While researching and writing Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), I spent five years reading novels, plays, memoirs, poetry and short story collections that engaged with the greater Toronto area—and became conscious of doing a similar thing. While I had always been fascinated with literary works set in the places I lived or visited, it was this immersive experience that taught me something vital about how to read the cultural landscape. Culture, I learned, forms and flows, accretes and ebbs in much the same way the physical landscape does: according to processes that may be violent or subtle but are always alive and always local.
In Canada there continues to be a great fixation on interpreting literature through a nationalistic or at least regional lens. Northrop Frye’s famous observation—that the main question confronting Canadian identity is not “Who am I?” but “Where is here?”—has for half a century been taken up as a question about regional—and often rural—identity rather than having anything to do with the local places where most of us actually live. As a result we have come to associate Canadian literature with novels of sweeping historical scope set in rough-hewn landscapes evocative of arrival, struggle and perseverance. Despite the international success of Rawi Hage’s Cockroach (set in contemporary Montreal), Michael Redhill’s Consolation (set in Toronto) and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (set in WWII-era Vancouver), none of these works has really entered the Canadian literary canon, in large part, I would argue, because they are considered too contemporary, too urban or, alternately, too racialized.
Still, if contemporary works have had trouble gaining traction in a country fixated on nation-building and Nature-the-Monster narratives, there is evidence even the Canadian canon—defined for decades by works like Sinclair Ross’ As For Me and My House (1941), Earle Birney’s poem “David,” (1942), Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (1964) and Margaret Atwood’s work of literary criticism, Survival (1972)—has fallen out of favour. In an eloquent 2010 essay published in the Globe & Mail, Canadian author Susan Swan lamented the absence of national curricular standards governing the teaching of Canadian literature in schools, arguing that widely varying provincial standards, education cuts and limited post-secondary training in Canadian literature have largely erased Canadian books from schools.
But if there is loss to be inventoried here, there is also an opportunity. Perhaps it is past time for the idea of a singular, unified Canadian literary canon to die a natural death. In a response to Swan called “Why We’re Teaching the Wrong Kind of Canadian Literature", I noted that my undergraduate students “don’t care about Manitoba Mennonites, Left Coast computer programmers or wayward sons and daughters hoping to get off (or get back to) the Rock. They want to read, instead, about genocide, gang warfare and racial profiling and about people struggling with their sexual orientation and inter-generational cultural conflict in novels, stories, poems and plays set in suburbs and subways and shopping malls, airports, alleyways and downtown clubs. They want, in short, to read about themselves.”
A groundbreaking 2007 study conducted by the Toronto District School Board connected soaring drop-out rates to the absence of culturally resonant materials in the classroom. “Teach us about us,” the Toronto Star concluded, aptly summing up the study’s findings.
“A prescription for cultural myopia,” a cynic might respond; “further evidence of the decline of literacy and the narcissism of the young!”
But if we think about literature the way a geographer might, we can gain new insight into the way literary landscapes—and our maps of culture—are formed. “Being is round,” asserts the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1958; 1964), pointing to the corporeal body’s immediacy, its place at the centre of our experiences, echoed in the roundness of the earth and the curved edge of the horizon. Similarly, the renowned Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan observes in his famous book Topophilia (1974) that “the objects we perceive are commensurate with the size of our body, the acuity and range of our perceptual apparatus, and purpose.” We measure the world, in other words, against the scale of our own familiar bodies. Only after having learned to do so at the most local level are we able to reach meaningfully beyond—to other cultures, other times, other places.
In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) French cultural theorist Michel de Certeau argues that it is not from a great height or distant perspective that we are able to perceive and appreciate culture. Rather, it is at the scale of the street that the “poetic and mythic experience of place” gains its resonance. In their fascinating interdisciplinary book Theatre/Archaeology (2001), performance scholar Mike Pearson and anthropologist Michael Shanks take this argument further, describing walking in local places as an act of narrative creation: “Walking is like a story, a series of events, for which the land acts as a mnemonic.” In her remarkable book A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), Rebecca Solnit invokes cultural flaneur Walter Benjamin to bolster an argument that getting lost in the local is how we open ourselves up to experience:
“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. [...] But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.
Reading local literature—stories set among our familiar streets and landscapes, whether urban or rural—is how we learn about ourselves. It is how we learn to get lost—and how to look. It is a way of opening ourselves to new ways of perceiving the familiar, and therefore of accommodating the unknown.
And it is only when we absorb that landscape into our bones—silt and clay sucking at an ankle, the heat emanating from urban pavement, frozen ruts on a farm road, the overbright lights of a shopping centre, the primordial rumble of a subway train, a wet wind blowing in from the sea—that we have really grown able to grasp the visceral power of literature to take us beyond ourselves. Local literature is a map to who we are.
Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto, which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literature and won the 2011 Heritage Toronto Award of Merit.