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2017 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Shortlist

By 49thShelf
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Rakuten Kobo, in search for the best new books written by debut Canadian authors, today announced the shortlist for its third annual Emerging Writer Prize. The award was created with the goal of kick-starting the careers of debut authors, with a $10,000 CAD cash prize awarded to a book in each of three categories: Non-Fiction, Literary Fiction, and Genre Fiction (Speculative Fiction this year). In addition, each winning author will receive promotional, marketing, and communications support through 2017.
Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition

The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich
also available: Paperback Paperback

Shortlisted for the 2017 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, Nonfiction Category
Longlisted for the 2018 Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors

Tim Bosma was a happy young father with a promising future when he listed his pickup truck for sale online, went for a test drive with two strangers, and never returned. The story of the Hamilton man’s strange disappearance in May 2013 captured headlines across the country and took over social media, resonating with everyone who had ever taken a test drive or …

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A 2007 Dodge Power Ram 3500 Diesel 4x4 pick-up truck
170,000 kilometres – mostly highway
5.9 litre engine
Extended cab – short box Gray cloth interior
New transmission, new brakes
Price $24,000.00
Address: Ancaster, Ontario
This is the ad posted online by Tim Bosma’s wife, Sharlene, in the spring of 2013. And it is also the starting point of prosecutor Craig Fraser’s opening address at the first-degree murder trial of the two men accused of Bosma’s murder, Dellen Millard and Mark Smich. Fraser has turned his podium sideways so that he can face the fourteen members of the jury as he explains the case the prosecution intends to prove. His delivery is measured and dry. He is not the type of lawyer who sets off fireworks, inspires TV characters, or wins oratory awards. But for this trial, no special effects are required. Fraser’s style suits the story he is telling—a story that is sensational, tragic, and almost beyond belief. And it all begins with the problems caused by that black Dodge Ram diesel.

The truck had been running up hefty repair bills, causing stress for its owners, a young family on a tight budget. A plan was put in place to sell it and replace it with a cheaper, better functioning truck, but unfortunately there weren’t many prospective buyers. An earlier version of the ad that had run in April had failed to attract even one serious prospect. A man who Tim Bosma referred to as a tire kicker had emailed a few times to ask a lot of questions then never bothered to view the vehicle in person.

The first person to actually want to see the truck was a caller from Toronto who was prepared to drive one hundred kilometres to Bosma’s home in Ancaster to check it out. That seemed like a good sign, so in preparation for the visit Bosma washed and waxed his truck. Then, at 7:25 on the morning of the planned appointment, he sent a text to confirm: “Good morning. It’s Tim. I’m working in Hamilton today if you want to meet or do you still want to meet at my house tonight for 7 pm?” He was upset when the text went unanswered and then relieved when the man from Toronto finally called at 7:22 that evening to say he was en route to see the truck and would be there within an hour.

What happened after that would make headlines around the world. Tim Bosma left with two strangers on a test drive from which he would never return. Social media exploded with the news of his disappearance. The police requested help from the public in their search for the missing man and his truck, and their almost daily news conferences were live-streamed online and then endlessly dissected on the internet. Within days, an arrest was made, and then two weeks later another one. But the arrests didn’t make things any clearer. The opposite, in fact: they made the disappearance of Tim Bosma more puzzling than ever.

The first man police arrested was Dellen Millard, a wealthy young heir to his family’s aviation business who owned several million dollars’ worth of properties in Toronto. On the day after he went for the test drive, he had closed on the purchase of a condo for which he was reported to have paid more than $600,000 in cash. As his lawyer and hordes of online commentators kept insisting, he could easily have afforded to buy a brand-new truck. Others pointed out that if Millard were a psychopath, devoid of empathy and seeking thrills, how much money he had was irrelevant.

The second man arrested was Mark Smich, an unemployed drug dealer who lived with his mother in her suburban middle-class home. His last arrest, a few months earlier, had been for spray-painting graffiti on a highway overpass. Until this trial, he had never inspired anywhere near the same level of interest as Millard.

On their first day of trial, both defendants tell the court that they are pleading not guilty to first-degree murder and that they are ready to proceed.

Because of the very public nature of the early investigation into Bosma’s disappearance, it has long been known that the evidence in this case is strong. Two days after Millard’s arrest, Bosma’s truck was found concealed inside a transport trailer parked in Millard’s mother’s driveway. Human remains burned beyond recognition were discovered at Millard’s Southern Ontario farm. And most sinister of all, Millard was revealed to own a portable livestock incinerator, named the Eliminator, despite the fact that he kept no animals on his farm.

Fraser tells the jury that he and his two fellow prosecutors will prove that in the late evening of May 6, 2013, Tim Bosma was killed in his truck, shot by the two accused at close range, and that his body was then incinerated hours later by Millard and Smich. To make the Crown’s case, there will be testimony from multiple forensic scientists, including blood-spatter and gunshot-residue experts as well as the anthropologist who examined the bones and remains found in the Eliminator. There will be video showing the Eliminator being towed to the Millardair hangar at the Region of Waterloo International Airport and then being ignited outside the hangar door—and still more video taken from the security system in the hangar. There will be extensive analysis of the cell phones used by the accused and their friends. There will be testimony from the friends and girlfriends of Millard and Smich, some of whom knew they planned to steal a truck. And there will be letters sent from jail by Millard to his girlfriend, Christina Noudga, who was charged as an accessory after the fact to Tim Bosma’s murder almost a year after her boyfriend’s arrest.

In his letters, Millard asks Noudga to witness tamper and get his best friend to change his statement to police. “If he knew that his words were going to get me a life sentence, he would want to change them,” Millard wrote. “Show him how he can, and he will change them.” He instructed Noudga to destroy his letters, but—whether for sentimental reasons or as an insurance policy or both—she defied his wishes and kept them. The very damaging letters were seized from her bedroom when it was searched upon her arrest.

Noudga’s arrest occurred the same day Millard and Smich were charged with another murder, that of twenty-three-year-old Laura Babcock, on or around July 3, 2012, in the area of Toronto, ten months before Bosma’s death. Millard alone was also charged with the murder, on November 29, 2012, of his father, Wayne. Although not a word will be heard about those cases at the Tim Bosma trial, the complications of prosecuting three overlapping murder cases, not to mention their multijurisdictional nature, are among the reasons it has taken almost three years for the trial for the murder of Tim Bosma to begin. From the test drive on May 6, 2013, to February 1, 2016, when Craig Fraser addresses the jury, a thousand and one days have elapsed.

Throughout this time, someone from Tim Bosma’s family has attended every single court date for Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, from two-minute video appearances to the full days of pretrial motions that took place in the fall of 2015. In the face of trial delays and tedious legal arguments about evidence admissibility and the like, Tim’s parents, Hank and Mary, have remained outwardly stoic—and frequently cheerful. Hank, a small, wiry man with a grey moustache, bald head, and glasses, will often approach journalists to tell them he likes an article they wrote or a TV report they did about his son. He will joke in the elevator of Hamilton’s John Sopinka Courthouse about little things like where to get a coffee and make it back to court in time. Mary, a petite blonde, is more shy, but like her husband she smiles when she wishes everyone Merry Christmas on the last day of pretrial motions. The Bosmas’ faith—they are active members of the Ancaster Christian Reformed Church—has helped carry them through, as have the many friends who have accompanied them to court in the days, months, and years since Tim was taken from them.

Except for some members of the defendants’ families, a few of their friends, and the usual handful of conspiracy theorists, this is not, for the vast majority of people, a trial about guilt. It’s far more about the how and the why of what happened to Tim Bosma and the very nature of evil. It’s also about the dread that almost every major murder trial brings to the surface—the fear that justice will not be done. There might be a “glove doesn’t fit” moment, a secret “deal with the devil.” Or, in this case, one of the accused might succeed in blaming the other and walk away with no more than a few years in jail.

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Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality
also available: Paperback




We think of the modern woman as sexually liberated – if anything, we’re told we’re oversexed. Yet a striking number of women are dissatisfied with their sex lives. Over half of women report having a sexual complaint, whether that’s lack of desire or difficulty reaching orgasm. But this issue doesn’t get much press; the urge is to ignore or medicalize it (witness the quest for ‘pink Viagra’) …

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In-Between Days

In-Between Days

A Memoir About Living with Cancer
also available: eBook Audiobook

2016 Governor General's Literary Award Finalist

2017 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Winner

2017 Joe Shuster Award Nominee

Teva Harrison was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In this brilliant and inspiring graphic memoir, she documents through comic illustration and short personal essays what it means to live with the disease. She confronts with heartbreaking honesty the crises of identity that cancer brings: a lifelong vegetarian, Teva agrees to use experimental drugs that have …

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100 Million Years Of Food

100 Million Years Of Food

What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today
also available: eBook Paperback Paperback
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In the vein of Jared Diamond and Michael Pollan, a fascinating new exploration of what we eat and how we live, and the health consequences of denying our complicated evolutionary history with food.

Finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writers Award

There are few areas of modern life that offer as much information and prescriptive advice, often contradictory, as the arena of diet and health: eat a lot of meat, abstain from meat; whole-grains are healthy, whole-grains are a disaster; get a lot of sunlight …

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The Elephants in My Backyard

The Elephants in My Backyard

also available: Paperback Audiobook (CD)

Rajiv Surendra (the rapping mathlete from Mean Girls) read Life of Pi, discovered it was being adapted into a major motion picture, and embarked on a ten-year journey to land the role of a lifetime--but this is not a journey of goals and victories, this is a story of obsessively pursuing a dream, overcoming failure, and finding meaning in life.
n 2003, Rajiv Surendra was acting in Mean Girls, playing the beloved rapping mathlete Kevin Gnapoor, when a cameraman on set gave him a copy of Life of …

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Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances)

Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances)

A Memoir
also available: eBook

In this smart, funny, and inspiring memoir, Denise Donlon recounts her journey as a corporate leader at the forefront of the massive changes in the Canadian music and media industries.

One of Canada’s most celebrated and dynamic corporate leaders and broadcasters, Denise Donlon has long been recognized as a trailblazer in the Canadian cultural industries. In Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), Donlon chronicles her impressive and storied career at MuchMusic, Sony Music Canada, and C …

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The Translation of Love

The Translation of Love

also available: Hardcover

WINNER of the 2017 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize WINNER of the 2016 Canada-Japan Literary Award. An emotionally gripping portrait of postwar Japan, where a newly repatriated girl must help a classmate find her missing sister.
After spending the war years in a Canadian internment camp, thirteen-year-old Aya Shimamura and her father are faced with a gut-wrenching choice: move east of the Rocky Mountains or go “back” to Japan. Barred from returning home to the West Coast and bitterly grieving the …

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Kay's Lucky Coin Variety

Kay's Lucky Coin Variety

also available: eBook

A bittersweet coming-of-age debut novel set in the Korean community in Toronto in the 1980s.

This haunting coming-of-age story, told through the eyes of a rebellious young girl, vividly captures the struggles of families caught between two cultures in the 1980s. Family secrets, a lost sister, forbidden loves, domestic assaults—Mary discovers as she grows up that life is much more complicated than she had ever imagined. Her secret passion for her English teacher is filled with problems and with …

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Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety Chapter 1
I was behind the counter of our convenience store, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, reading the Toronto Star when I heard tires screech and someone screaming obscenities. A horn blasted. I looked out the window.

“Are you freaking crazy?” the driver was yelling. Tico merely kept honking the bicycle horn he wore around his neck as he finished crossing the street.

“Hey, Mare,” he said. “Got anything for me?”

“You okay?”

He nodded. He wasn’t much of a talker, which was a good thing; he smelled awful. I handed him the loaf of day-old Wonder Bread my mother kept aside for him. He came in for it every Tuesday at 8 p.m. My mother had a soft spot for him because his eyes reminded her of Gregory Peck’s. She was convinced Tico’s current hardship was a result of bad deeds in a previous life and took pity on him. Tico smiled at me. His teeth were grossly decayed, some were missing. He nodded a quick thank-you and left. I heard his horn again as he crossed to the other side of the street.

I got back to the newspaper. Often a real-life story would trigger ideas I could later weave into a story or a poem. The Titanic had recently been discovered on the bottom of the North Atlantic. While my brother, Josh, was fascinated with the mathematical improbability of its collision with an iceberg, I was intrigued by the idea of hundreds of people trapped in a sinking ship. I imagined mass hysteria, floating bodies draped in wet evening clothes, white faces stargazing through frozen eyes. A dark-haired prostitute I hadn’t seen before walked in and interrupted my daydream. She looked around and strolled over to the gum rack. Her red fishnet tights had a tear just below the hemline of her red miniskirt. So much red, I thought, and wondered if she knew about the rip.

I didn’t recognize her until she handed me a ten-dollar bill to pay for a box of condoms and a pack of Wrigley’s Big Red chewing gum. In an instant I was transported back seven years to Mr. Mills’s fourth-grade class.

*  *  *

It had been an unusually warm October day when I transferred into a new elementary school in Toronto. After years of working in other people’s variety stores and at miscellaneous jobs since emigrating from Korea in 1975, my parents had saved enough money to buy their own store in the centre of the city. I stood shyly in the doorway of the new classroom as the principal informed Mr. Mills of my arrival. Then came the awkward introduction. “Class, this is . . .” I finished Mr. Mills’s sentence for him. His eyes scanned the room. So did mine—there were no Asian students in the class and no empty desks. Mr. Mills rolled his chair by the windows and offered it to me. My cheeks burned as I crossed the room, knowing every eye was summing up my faded hand-me-down purple hooded sweater and jeans, my self-inflicted, uneven bangs, my chopstick-thin body. I sat down, convinced I was unworthy of friendship. The lesson proceeded. A handout was distributed and we were instructed to take out a pencil. I had nothing to write with.

“Delia,” Mr. Mills said, “lend the new girl a pencil.” Remembering names was clearly not his forte.

A pale girl with Goldilocks-blonde hair fumbled through her pencil case and passed me a brand-new pencil that smelled oddly of cinnamon. I was about to thank her when a rough scar on the back of her hand caught my eye. It ran from above the wrist to below the middle finger, a startling blemish on such a delicate hand. When we returned after our recess, I was deeply disappointed that Mr. Mills had arranged a desk and chair for me and that I was now seated towards the back of the class, three desks directly behind Delia.

When I finally got the nerve to ask about the scar a few weeks later, it was too late. Delia had stopped coming to school. I asked Mr. Mills about her, but the only thing he volunteered was that she had moved away. No one seemed to know where. Or care. And I forgot about her.

*  *  *

Almost seven years later, the scar was still a jagged island surrounded by calm waters. I examined Delia’s face as she studied the Jamaican patties at the end of the counter. She looked older than sixteen, but she was biting long fake nails the same shade of red as her outfit. Her once-beautiful blonde hair was now solid black, like mine. I could almost smell the mousse and hairspray that kept it puffed up. I struggled to stay composed. She didn’t bother to check her change before dropping it into her purse. My heart pounding, I watched her leave the store, then dashed to the door to see where she was headed. She didn’t go far. She was still standing at our corner four hours later when I crept into my brother’s room to peek out his window.

I was thankful Josh was a deep sleeper. Had he been awake, I might casually have asked him if he’d noticed the new girl working the corner. Then I had the idea to check his log, kept hidden behind his bookcase. I’d found the spiral notebook last year when I was snooping. It recorded how long it took a prostitute to return to the corner after being picked up. Josh had turned his observations into a science. Because he spent so much time tending the cash register, he noted what brand of condoms each prostitute preferred and what cigarettes she smoked. He’d even assigned the girls names: Trixie, Babe, Suzie X.

I took the notebook to the bathroom, the only place I could get away with having a light on at that late hour. There she was: “Scarlet: white, 5'5", black hair, grey eyes, scar on hand, ears pierced five times left, three times right . . . fave gum, Wrigley’s Big Red.”

Where had she been for the past seven years? How had she ended up working this corner?

*  *  *

It rained all the next day and evening. I was so busy mopping up a trail of footprints left by customers that I almost missed Delia when she came into the store. A big, round security mirror hung from the back corner, and I was able to watch her talk to my brother at the cash. Her back was to the mirror, but I could see my brother’s face was lit up.

“Yeah, I don’t get out much,” Delia said, her voice warm and full. “But I loved that movie! I loved Ally Sheedy’s character.”

I felt my entire weight shift, with the mop becoming my crutch. I’d seen The Breakfast Club and knew exactly what they were talking about.

Prepared to make my way to the front, I dropped the mop into the pail. The wooden handle clanged as it hit the metal. Both Josh and Delia turned to look at me. I fled into the back storage room.

“You okay?” I heard my brother yell.

“Need the bathroom!” I replied, trying to catch my breath. I was surprised I’d found my voice that quickly. Through the crack of the storage-room door I watched Delia finish her conversation with my brother. She waved to him as she left.

*  *  *

The next morning at 6 a.m., I sat drained at the kitchen table, watching my mother as she made breakfast. Despite living in Canada all these years, she still insisted on preparing a typical Korean breakfast—steamed rice, soup, kimchi, and several vegetable and meat dishes. I was desperate to mention Delia, but didn’t know how to begin.

“You don’t have to make so much food,” I finally said in irritation.

“Something smells good,” said my dad, walking in.

My mother handed him a cup of green tea she had set aside to cool. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” she lectured, “not dinner. What do you need such a big meal for when you’re going to bed? It just makes you fat.” She stopped cutting vegetables and added in Korean, “There’s so much flawed thinking with some of these white people. Can you imagine what it would do for the health care system if everyone ate rice, kimchi, and soup three times a day? We’d be paying less taxes for one thing.”

“Listen to your omma,” my dad said. “She’s always right.” He winked, took a sip of tea, and left.

In that instant I knew my parents would never agree to help a white under-aged hooker. Instead, I envisioned my mother smacking the side of my head and telling me to go study. “Become a lawyer first,” she would yell at me in Korean. “Then think about saving the world!”

I left the kitchen and went into my room. I was at a loss, convinced my mother couldn’t offer me any advice. However, I was determined to initiate a conversation with Delia the next time she came to the store. Maybe I could ask her if there was anything I could do to help her get off the street.

*  *  *

I was behind the store counter, looking up the movies playing at the Eaton Centre. Unlike some white girls I knew who planned elaborate Sweet Sixteen parties, I was content treating my closest friends to lunch at Mr. Greenjeans and a movie afterwards. I’d even allowed myself to indulge in fantasies of asking Delia to join us, a joke really because it was nearly the end of the month and I still hadn’t found the courage to say a word to her. Rubina, my oldest friend, could finally meet her.

The door opened and Delia walked in. I was shocked to see the broken Valentine that was her face. A small cut near her eye ran in the direction of her natural expression lines and the surrounding area was patchy with bruising. A cut on the edge of her lips made one side of her unpainted mouth look inflated. Her neck had strange red marks on it. I was so stunned, I almost cried out her name.

As always, Delia avoided eye contact with me as she laid her usual purchases on the counter. She made a peace sign with her fingers, and I removed two cigarettes from an open box of Export “A” and placed them on the counter between the condoms and the Wrigley’s Big Red. She dropped her change in her purse and left without a word, the scent of cigarettes and cinnamon trailing her out the door.

Delia’s battered face haunted me that night. I saw her white body lying still, her grey eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling as raw hands, white and black, pawed and probed her naked flesh. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shake the image. When I realized I couldn’t sleep, I got up and wrote in my diary. I saw myself back in Mr. Mills’s classroom. I saw Delia’s pencil sitting in her pencil case, surrounded by sticks of Wrigley’s Big Red gum, waiting for my arrival, ready to connect our two lives. But now she was in a dangerous place. My parents would say it was an immoral world. How could I help her?

*  *  *

But our history would repeat itself. Delia disappeared.

I waited for her every night as weeks passed. I became so desperate for answers, I turned to my brother. We were in the store.

“Do you know what happened to the girl with the scar on her hand?” I asked. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”

“She’s gone.” He looked up from a Sports Illustrated magazine. “I don’t know where, but she said she needed a fresh scene after what happened to her. Can’t blame her.” He turned back to his magazine but my silence prompted him to look up again. “Sorry she didn’t say goodbye.”

“What do you mean?”

Josh closed the magazine. “She mentioned she recognized you from Mr. Mills’s class,” he said, avoiding my eyes.

My thoughts went blank for a moment. “But she never said anything,” I said finally.

“She was really embarrassed. Try to understand—”

“But she told you—” I felt myself getting hot. Why had she turned to him instead of me?

“She was pretty messed up. She probably didn’t want to burden you with her problems.” He rolled the magazine and tapped it against the counter. “She was a really nice girl. She told me she wanted to be a party planner. Throw confetti in the air and make people happy. I really felt bad for her—she didn’t have a whole lot.” His eyes finally met mine. There was a sadness there that washed over my anger. I wondered if perhaps he too had hoped to help her—that we’d both spent all this time wrapped in the same concerns.

*  *  *

Our convenience store sat on Queen Street in downtown Toronto. It was west of Bathurst Street at a corner popular with prostitutes, the homeless, and the occasional patient from the nearby mental health hospital. The CN Tower, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, was less than a ten-minute drive south, but much to the disappointment of any out-of-town guests, we had no view of it. Not that we had time for sightseeing. At seven every morning, Christmas being the only exception, we opened for business. Of all the staple items we sold—milk, bread, and newspapers—cigarettes and condoms were our best sellers.

My parents owned the two-storey building and we lived in a small apartment above our store. The entrance to our home was on the side of the building, facing a narrow one-way street off Queen. The windows shook each time the streetcars rumbled by, and we got used to the scream of sirens, even learning to distinguish the differences among fire, police, and EMS. But the apartment was comfortable though small for the four of us. Josh, who was a year younger than me, had the bigger corner bedroom with windows facing in two directions. His friends used to sleep over all the time until my mother discovered why. The boys would turn off the light and peek out at the prostitutes on the street corner.

By the mid-eighties, most of the variety stores in Toronto were owned by Korean immigrant families. At least, that’s what the KBA—the Korean Businessmen’s Association—reported in the Korea Times newspaper. Established in 1973, the organization had become big enough to have paid employees and offer membership services and benefits.

I disliked working in the store and hated working the cash. I preferred to line up rows and rows of canned tuna and boxes of instant soup. On hot summer days, I welcomed the job of refilling the coolers with cans and bottles of soft drinks. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded because I had to reach behind the cold drinks to place the new ones that needed time to chill. My favourite job was restocking the magazines. I was fascinated by the porn, although I didn’t have the opportunity to examine it in any great detail, as my parents were vigilant. Because we were robbed frequently, I was never left alone for long. Nothing that would ever make the six o’clock news, although we once had a patient from the mental health hospital come tearing in with a butter knife held dramatically in the air. “I need a goat to sacrifice!” he screamed at my mother. “Sell me a goddamn goat!” When my startled mother stared wide-eyed at him, he turned to me. “You—you!” he stammered. He waved his free hand, a finger pointed at me like a street sign rattling in the wind. “What’s your name?” When I mumbled Mary, he yelled, “Ming, tell her—tell her in Chinese or whatever you people speak!” We captured the entire incident on security videotape, minus the sound, but the police took it away before we could show anyone.

Another time, two skinny white guys came in claiming they had a gun. They were both freakishly tall but their baby faces made them seem less intimidating. They obviously had no idea we made three cents for every newspaper we sold and that we had to sell milk at cost just to bring customers into the store in the first place. “You should be robbing a bank,” my dad told them, his advice sincere but difficult to understand because of his thick accent. The two of them took off with less than fifty dollars in cash, a bag full of cigarettes, and the latest edition of Penthouse, which I’d placed on the shelf minutes earlier.

Because most stores closed between 10 and 11 p.m., my parents, whenever they had company, had visitors drop by very late. At least once every few months, I’d be awakened by my dad and his friends in the living room singing, drunk out of their minds on soju. Although I’d never tried it, I was told it tasted like vodka. The women drank boricha, a barley tea, and talked quietly in the kitchen. Josh and I stayed in our rooms. Although it was a nuisance to be kept awake so late, we were secretly happy to hear our parents laugh and be part of a circle in which they spoke their language and felt a sense of belonging. I sometimes felt sad my parents and their friends had to meet like fireflies in the night, sacrificing sleep for laughter, food, and gossip.

The men liked to sing and each of them had a favourite song. Mr. Young, who owned a tiny store north of us on Dundas Street, always sang “Arirang,” a traditional folk song considered Korea’s unofficial anthem. Even I was moved by his rich and powerful voice each time he sang.

My dad’s favourite song was about a famous general. Dad’s family had kept official record books that showed he was a direct ancestor. Born in 1316, the general became a national hero when he led his men to victory during a number of battles against Japanese pirates who began raiding the Korean coast in the 1350s. He went on to win increasingly more important battles against the Mongols, reclaiming northern territories lost to them during the Yuan dynasty, as well as the Jeju Islands to the south. This gained him tremendous favour and influence with the king. However, as the song goes, his great popularity also made him great enemies, who in turn conspired against him, and on one cold November day in 1388, the general was branded a traitor and beheaded.

My dad, who never sang unless he was drunk, always sounded sad whenever he belted out the song about the general and the glory days when a man could be a real hero. When one of his friends teased him and wanted to know why he couldn’t be a hero himself, he laughed and said, “In this country, I’d have to learn English first!”

It was true that my dad, despite living in Canada for ten years, hadn’t really learned to speak or write English. It never seemed to bother him, unlike my mother, who kept piles of instructional English-language cassette tapes—ranging from beginner to advanced levels—by the cash register, and played them in between customers.

“Why don’t you make him learn like you do?” I once asked my mother. “Aren’t you at all embarrassed by him?”

“Your father’s accepted his fate here,” she said.

Although for once I don’t think she intended to make me feel bad, I felt guilty that my dad saw himself as limited in the same country that my mother was sure would lead me to a great and brilliant life. Unlike my dad, I was never going to accept my fate.

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