"What if I saw The Work as a historical novel? Maybe it’s not set far enough in the past to count as historical, but maybe it could still be durational in the way a historical novel is, and it could be about history, about the way different people construct it."
I worked on The Work for … long enough to forget how long. And I know I’m not alone. Almost every writer I talk to has a long-simmering novel somewhere that they can’t seem to complete, but can’t give up, either. Maybe it’s loyalty, maybe it’s stubbornness; maybe we just don’t know how to stop. It’s not unlike the thwarted love-affair in my novel. The trouble is that as the years go by, the original concept no longer seems so inspiring, or so relevant. At a time like that, it helps to see the project through a new lens.
I remember when that shift happened for me with The Work. I was lying in bed reading Eva Stachniak’s The Chosen Maiden. My eyes were closing, but I just could not put it down. I turned the page, eager to know what would happen to the young Bronia Nijinska at the Imperial Ballet School, but first I came one of the interludes interspersed through the book. They take place in 1939 and show Bronia on a ship bound for the United States at the start of the Second World War, a perilous voyage toward an uncertain future. I was on the ship with Bronia, feeling the cold sea air, along with the grief she cannot leave behind. In these interludes Stachniak says, Sure, an exciting story is unfolding, but I’m going to show you something more: duration. In this short flash-forward, it became clear that the book was going to settle in and observe this character throughout her youth and into middle age, that this plot would grow many strands, just like a long life.
The Chosen Maiden is a book about endurance. Unlike her brother Vaslav, Bronia is called upon to be practical, to compromise, to balance many people’s needs and expectations. But she’s also a deeply driven artist, with an evolving vision and her own internal and external storms to navigate. The novel is not just historical in the sense that it brings Stachniak’s exhaustive research to life, but it also dances with history, staying faithful to the facts while finding a form that breaks out of the conventional dramatic arc.
I thought, What if I saw The Work as a historical novel? Maybe it’s not set far enough in the past to count as historical, but maybe it could still be durational in the way a historical novel is, and it could be about history, about the way different people construct it. It was still a long time before I arrived at my final structure for The Work, but I know that that particular what if opened the way for it. So here I’ve chosen a group of books I have read over the past few years that engage with history, biography, duration.
What if I saw The Work as a historical novel? Maybe it’s not set far enough in the past to count as historical, but maybe it could still be durational in the way a historical novel is, and it could be about history, about the way different people construct it.
Mostly—I think—because it’s so expensive (and getting worse), Toronto gets the reputation of being a work-centred place, a city devoid of whimsy, creativity, romance … imagination. In her virtuosic Imagining Toronto, Amy Lavender Harris shows that this is not true. She evokes a city teeming with stories and poetic images which live in and around its buildings, roads, neighbourhoods, and the landforms on which it was built. She invites us to linger even as we rush by on our way to work and consider these places as writers have imagined them. And she brings to life an aspect of Toronto every bit as real as the material one. The best books not only say something, they also do something. In Imagining Toronto, Harris not only documents the imaginal landscape of Toronto, she opens the door to populating it even more richly.
Speaking of books that do something, Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is simply one of the best books I’ve read in … well, one of the best books I’ve read. There are many reasons to recommend the book, but I’m talking about it here because of the way it shifts between a relentless (in a good way) focus on the details of everyday life, and the larger sweep of history, between personal stories and the much bigger picture of colonialism and all the evils it continues to bring.
In “The Same Space,” she talks about the Bloor and Lansdowne area in Toronto, a place where she first lived when she moved to the city. In her essay, Elliott conveys the excitement and vulnerability of that time of life. But—as she points out—it’s not the same place for everyone. Some choose to be there, to mine its potential as if it were a resource, there for the taking. Others have no choice but to live in this area where rents are—or have so far been—relatively cheap. Now, they are being pushed out, “told their achievements in this space are not enough.” Elliott talks about hidden stories, her own, which she kept inside for many years, as well as the hidden stories of Tkaronto. She points out that the process of exploitation, of erasure started long before the gentrification of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, long before the city as we know it was even built, all of it made possible by betrayal and lies. Reading this essay made me think about what a privilege it is not to have these thoughts intrude in every waking and sleeping moment, how for me, bringing them to the forefront—living in that space, as it were—is a choice. Yet, as Elliott points out, looking at things plainly is the only way forward.
Set in present-day Calgary, in the days leading up to the observance of the Muslim holiday of Lailatul Qadr, Anar Ali’s Night Of Power stretches back over three generations of an Ismaili family, from their early days as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s (saved, in family mythology, by Pierre Trudeau, a Canadian superhero who pirouetted into their refugee camp in a red cape and beret) to their prosperous life prior to their expulsion under Idi Amin in 1972, and back, still further, to their determined and sometimes violent push to integrate into Ugandan society a generation before that.
History lives just below the surface for Mansoor and Layla, and their son Ashif. Whether they try to escape it or struggle to keep it alive, it appears in the form of spectres from the past, or in outbursts which resemble possession. The book unfolds as a series of reveals, layer by layer unmasking the Canadian dream which Mansoor and his son have embraced. Ali never allows her readers to tuck people into convenient categories. She shows the pain at the root of violent acts, the resilience of the seeming victim.
Though it does not shy away from brutality, this is a story of immense warmth, presenting hope in the form of community, which continues to embrace its members across the globe as they respond to forces which uproot and scatter them. It’s the strength of this ever-present community that allows Ali’s characters to thrive.
In the brilliantly titled Things are Good Now, Djamila Ibrahim’s characters grapple with loyalty, identity, and above all survival, as they settle into life in North American life after years of struggle. These are not stories of people leaving behind their traumas for safety. For one thing, it’s not a safe place for them, physically, emotionally economically or in any other way. The whole question of what constitutes good is more nuanced. In “Little Copper Bullets” an Ethiopian freedom fighter learns quite literally to love her enemy—but has to ask herself what role romantic love has to play in her life. In “Spilled Water” we see a lighthearted Canadian holiday through the eyes of an internationally adopted child, who invests it with associations from the world she has unwillingly left behind. In the titular story, “Things are Good Now,” a survivor of torture tries to make a home in Toronto with the brother who emigrated and escaped her fate.
Ibrahim often steps back from the intense momentum of a story to look at the situation as the characters remember it, years later. These are characters caught up in history’s dramatic events, yet Ibrahim focuses on their private moments of decision, which they may only recognize as such, years after the fact. They are moments of human connection, and are thus, deeply hopeful. For the most part. However, in “You Made Me Do This,” about a mother who loses her son to gang violence, Ibrahim takes us—quite rightly—to the bleakest of places and leaves us there.
Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher tells the story of a different kind of endurance. Spanning a period from the 1950s to the 2000s, it’s about a boy (then man) surviving his relationship with his artist father, the larger-than-life Bear Bavinsky. The son (nicknamed Pinch) displays a devotion as unstinting as Bear’s narcissism, and it’s a testament to Rachman’s skill as a novelist that it never becomes tedious to read endless variations of the same dynamic played out over decades, and across different backdrops. Maybe it’s because, in the relationship’s successive iterations, Rachman has us calling into question what it is to be an artist, and what it is tosurvivea relationship with an individual so utterly self-absorbed and lacking in empathy. There is also great cast of characters. Though incapable of looking beyond his own needs, Bear is surrounded by people of the greatest depth, generosity and courage. And Rachman portrays relationships between men like no one else I have read, not just hard-bitten and competitive relationships, but relationships of loyalty and unguarded tenderness. It’s a great book: witty, insightful, unexpected, and it has amazing scenes of Toronto in the 1970s.
In Jesus on the Dashboard, Lisa Murphy-Lamb looks back on adolescence with affection but not sentimentality. It’s told from the point of view of teenaged Gemma, who sees the world around her with a clarity that gets lost as many people grow up. Gemma is smart, creative and exploding with anger, but longs to disappear, to “fold myself into the pocket of my pants.” In a way that is so beautifully true to adolescence, she claims not to care about finding the mother who abandoned her yet places herself in a position where it might happen any day. The book takes place in the 1980s which—for many—brought a breakdown of the nuclear family, but also a backlash, a nostalgia for a family structure and religious cohesiveness that never existed in the first place. (And it includes references to two of my favourite cultural icons/slash/YouTyoutubeube distractions, Flashdance and Haim Ginott. Ginott, a child psychologist, had a spot on The Today Show, and once suggested to a gobsmacked Barbara Walters that if your child—who was always called Jeemie—spills a drink, you should not verbally abuse him, but treat him like a dinner guest and simply get him a napkin.) Gemma’s voice is witty, quirky and above all musical. I was instantly drawn into her world and wanted to stay there. Murphy-Lamb saves the best for last, though. The story offers so many possibilities for pat endings, easy solutions, and she steers past each and every one of them. Jesus on the Dashboard is about embracing life’s messiness and ambiguities, not forcing them into an idealized package.
This Place: 150 Years Retold recounts the history of “Canada” from an Indigenous perspective. In an introduction, Alicia Elliott tells its young readers: “every Indigenous person is a hero just for existing.” A timeline at the start of each of its ten chapters sets forth a shameful parade of attempts at assimilation and annihilation. Then, illustrated panels tell stories of resistance, in the Mackenzie River Valley, at Restigouche, Oka and other sites. These stories are focused on the individuals who took action. We hear of Annie Bannatyne, the woman who—in 1850—horsewhipped the editor of the Globe and Mail for making disparaging remarks about Métis women, of Francis Pegahmagabow, a highly decorated soldier in World War One who went on to stand up against governmental policies. The multi-generational trauma of Indigenous children being taken from their families is told in the words of Nimkii, a young mother, artist and activist, recounting the story to her daughter. The most difficult moments in this story are portrayed as the narrator’s own drawings, and these frames are painful to look at. Yet the drawings are also reminders that she has lived—not just to tell the tale, but to fight for change. The final story in This Place takes place in 2350—encouraging readers to take the long, long view. I was captivated not just by the stories in This Place, but also by the intent behind them. The work of ten different authors/illustrator teams, this gorgeous book is a gift from one generation to the next.
I started reading Leslie Shimotakahara’s Red Oblivion in an airline waiting room with a storm brewing outside and found myself welcoming a flight delay because I might be able to keep reading for an extra couple of hours. In other words, it’s a very compelling book! This mystery sees its protagonist delving into her own family’s past. Called to attend to her father in his final illness, Jill takes a leave from her job as an architect in Toronto and travels to Hong Kong, where she grew up. For Jill, Hong Kong is both familiar and foreign, allowing Shimotakahara to create a vivid portrait of the city through her eyes. Inspired by a series of threatening letters, Jill begins to inquire how her father got to Hong Kong from Guangzhou, how his business started, what he was doing during the Cultural Revolution. Her domineering father insists upon the stories Jill has heard all her life, which don’t really hold water, and she becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened. Jill’s image of her father flips from villain to hero to victim by the instant, as a brutal period in the country’s history comes to light. But, in the forced intimacy of caring for him in his final days, Jill also senses their similarities. Her struggle to understand her father is also an excavation of herself.
When aspiring stage-manager Rebecca Weir falls for the married director of the SenseInSound theatre company, she initiates a love triangle-and a working collaboration-which go on for two decades. Beginning in Toronto in the early 1980s, The Work traces the rise and fall of SenseInSound. The director has the status of a guru within the company, and his disciples call their method The Work. Is he pushing people to creative heights or abusing his power? Is The Work a cutting-edge artistic practice, a road to personal healing, or a cult? And as his top deputy, is Rebecca complicit, or merely loyal? A historian trying to write about the company, many years later, has little to go on but internet searches—that is, unless the women behind the man find a way to speak out.