Toronto is a highly idiosyncratic character in Austin Clarke's More, the novel that won the Toronto Book Award Thursday night.
And not just any Toronto — a particular inner-city neighbourhood where the character Idora, a black immigrant to the city who has been struggling with poverty for 25 years, comes to the realization that her son is involved with criminal gangs.
"I'd always felt that the writers who went before me, had neglected the character of Toronto in their books and felt that it was more in literary style to describe Paris or London," Clarke told CBC News on Friday. "I could not understand the neglect of the city."
The story could not have happened anywhere else, he said.
"It means that we have come of age, because describing the physical aspects of a street — in this case Shuter — is, as you said, like describing a woman so the street becomes a metaphor for the main character Idora," Clarke said.
Idora faces discrimination, friendlessness and the difficulty of raising a son alone, and the details of her story sometimes reflect badly on a city that prides itself on its multiculturalism.
"Idora is an embarrassment to herself and to the city because she remembers things that we had already swept under the carpet — the assassination of Mr. Albert Johnson that was the first screaming outcry that something was wrong."
Johnson was a black man shot dead by Toronto police in 1979 in an incident that raised racial tensions in the city.
But Clarke said More, while it shows the city's failings, is not altogether a sad book. Idora experiences wonderful moments with friends and on the streets of the city. She comes out of her period of depression over her son to make a sermon at the unusual church she attends irregularly.
"When she does the sermon in the Holiness church, the revivalist church, it is a triumph," Clarke said. "She's expressing in the church what she though she would have been able to express on the streets, in her apartment, in the circle of her friends, etc. It is a release."
Clarke, who won the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for his previous novel, The Polished Hoe, said it means a lot to him to win an award associated with his own city.
"It locates me in a certain environment that I love and that I try to portray with all its weakness and its triumphs and it is a charming neighbourhood that I was writing about," he said.
The Toronto Book Award comes with an $11,000 cash prize.
The other finalists for the award were:
- Anthony De Sa for Barnacle Love.
- Maggie Helwig for Girls Fall Down.
- Mark Osbaldeston for Unbuilt Toronto.
- Charles Wilkins for In the Land of Long Fingernails.