Canada Reads·Q&A

'A community that refuses to be undone': Catherine Hernandez and Malia Baker discuss the novel Scarborough

Ahead of Canada Reads 2022, Malia Baker talks to the author of the novel she's championing.

Malia Baker will champion Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez on Canada Reads 2022

Catherine Hernandez's novel Scarborough will be championed by actor Malia Baker on Canada Reads 2022.

Written as "a love letter to Scarborough," the novel follows three children, and the adults who care for them, forming bonds of friendship and community in a system that consistently fails their poor neighbourhood. The novel moves through the voices of several characters, as they fight for better housing, education and safety for their loved ones.

Scarborough is now a feature film and was nominated for 11 Canadian Screen Awards, including best adapted screenplay for Hernandez.

Baker, known for her role on Netflix's The Baby-Sitters Club, said the book compelled her from the first page. She interviewed Hernandez before the debates on March 28 to 31st. Watch their conversation above, or read a transcript below.

Canada Reads 2022 will be hosted by Ali Hassan and broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Baker: Hey Catherine, how are you doing?

Hernandez: Oh my god, it's happening. It's happening, Malia!

Baker: Dream for both of us! First of all, I wanted to give you the reason I chose this book. When I picked it up, from the dedication to the first chapter, you could tell that this was going to be raw and authentic and real. And that's something that you can't really spark in a book a lot of times. Yours did it for me right away. It's just too good of an opportunity to pass up, and I'm just so grateful now getting a chance to know you.

Hernandez: Oh my gosh. Well, I'm grateful for you for picking up my book, for believing it enough to defend it on national television and radio. This means so much to me, and this is seriously a dream come true to be shortlisted for this competition.

Baker: We've got this. Now the first question: Catherine, why did you write this book and what was the process like?

Hernandez: Well, there's two things. One of them is that I definitely wanted to capture the spirit of a community, this community that was really supporting me during a really challenging time. At that time, I was a single mother. I had a struggling home daycare situation, really living hand-to-mouth and and when I say paycheque to paycheque, it wasn't really that. It was like a handful of change to a handful of change, sometimes hoping that I would make enough money just for groceries and to make the rent.

And so, capturing the precarity of those times, I wanted to tell a story about a community that refuses to be undone, even though they're facing a system that's really designed to fail them. The process of writing it, funny enough, is that I would write it before the children would arrive at the home daycare. You definitely get that sense, when you read the book; it's like the desperation of those times.

A still from the feature film adaptation of Scarborough written by Catherine Hernandez. (TIFF)

BakerI thought it was really interesting the way that it was represented. It almost felt like a documentary that was written down. Even the dialogue I was like, "Oh yeah, that's like things that people say, this isn't polished." You can read it for hours on end and say, "Oh, they went through like years and years, making sure this is perfect, perfect, perfect." And as much as it was perfect, perfect, perfect, it was in its original and authentic way.

A lot of the story is told from the perspective of little kids. Why did you make that decision?

Hernandez: Well, because we know that children in the first two years of their life will learn almost everything that they need to know to survive as a human being. So most of their cognitive skills are learned in those first two years of life, and the speed at which they learn is something that I wanted for the book. So it's actually quite a short book. Arsenal [Pulp Press] did their best to sort of enlarge the font.

I've got to tell a funny story about writing Scarborough. I was a playwright, this is my first novel, and so I remember writing the first manuscript, and at 20,000 words, I was like, I just wrote 20,000 words! Finished! I didn't realize that you have to at least hit about like 80,000 words for a novel to have the right heft that publishers expect.

I remember writing it, and it just feels so new to me. I felt excited about people finally learning about my community. This book is really taking me on some major adventures — everything from it being adapted into a film at TIFF to now this, it just feels completely unreal. 

Baker: What did you personally take away from the experience of writing this novel? 

Hernandez: I always say this when it comes to my writing process because I really believe that the ancestors just speak through me and I'm just writing down what they want me to say. And then also that community matters, especially because we're right now in the middle of a pandemic. I think that what this pandemic really teaches us is what happens when community is not the priority. What happens when we don't care about other people? This is what happens.

The antidote to that, obviously, is to love one another, to really centre safety, to really ensure that everyone has equal access to resources. That's what I got out of it when I was writing it, for sure.

Baker: And I feel like that's something that people definitely take away after reading the book, at least what I took away while reading the book. I was wondering, since there's so many perspectives in that community and you wrote all of them so eloquently, what was that like? Especially since not all the perspectives, you can't live in each one, to have those different lives — what was the experience of writing that like?

Malia Baker is championing Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. (CBC)

Hernandez: Well, you know, I wanted to have Scarborough be its own character in the novel. My editor at Arsenal Pulp Press, was just like, "I want you to think of it as another character and maybe map it out." And I actually had a map that I would say, this scene happens here and this happens here, so I can have an idea of it, right?

And that helped me a great deal. But the thing is, it's not just about the map of it, but it's also how you traverse through Scarborough. I can't go to the grocery store or the Dollar Store or whatever without bumping into somebody and then us exchanging stories for the day. So it takes a long time to get anything done, that's for sure, in Scarborough.

I really wanted to capture that sort of start-stop, start-stop, listening to everybody's gossip. So when you look at the book, it is from these multiple perspectives and then when it came to really editing down, I really wanted to make sure that people who are from those different communities felt that they were well-represented. 

Right now, it's very in vogue to have what they call a 'sensitivity reader' and I have issues with that, partly because you're not having these people read it because people are sensitive. So I called it an accountability team.- Catherine Hernandez

I mentioned this a lot in all of my interviews — when you're depicting people that are outside of a community, just make sure that those people from those communities are reflecting back to you ways in which you can do better. And also, pay them for their time, either a capitalist exchange or, in my case at that time because I was really struggling, sometimes it was just a loaf of bread or my labour.

Right now, it's very in vogue to have what they call a 'sensitivity reader' and I have issues with that, partly because you're not having these people read it because people are sensitive. So I called it an accountability team. They're there to keep you accountable so that you could do better as a writer.

Liam Diaz appears in this still from the film Scarborough. The coming-of-age movie is a beautiful adaptation of Catherine Hernandez's novel, that tells the story of community support and resilience. (Compy Films)

Baker: I really love the way that you rephrased that. I think that's very, very true.

Other than the fact that all the characters live in Scarborough, what do you think ties all these stories together?

Hernandez: I think what ties them all together is that everyone just really wants to thrive. They want to do good by people, even the people who are the least likeable characters in the novel, such as Cory. The truth is that even he wants to do well by his child. It's just that when people don't have the resources, when they don't have the skills to do what they need to do, they make bad choices. And, those bad choices can affect lives in horrifying ways.

A lot of times, journalists will really commend me for how three-dimensional Cory is, as this person who was part of the skinhead groups in the 1990s in Scarborough. I find this so funny — the expectation to really make sure that people who are white supremacists are given that chance to be three-dimensional, whereas, when you're racialized, you're hoping for even just one dimension. Even if there's a person that is showing up on the screen, you're happy, right?

I think that what this pandemic really teaches us is what happens when community is not the priority.- Catherine Hernandez

I'm glad that Cory doesn't come off as two-dimensional, and I'm also glad that I was able to find the compassion for him, especially because in the 1990s, there were men just like him in skinhead groups who sincerely, I was terrified of them. So it was wonderful to sort of, in my mind, make peace with those people who really a lot of times they're attracted to hate groups because they are outcasts in society.

And so, as a writer, I really have to really meet this person in the middle.

WATCH | The trailer for Scarborough

BakerI feel like a lot of the marginalized groups, when you see them on the telly or you see them in books, it's always a sob story behind them. And, like you said, we're just grateful for that one-sided perspective — like, oh my God, she even said she had curly hair. That's crazy.

I just feel like this book reins that in. It showed some of the amazing memories and it shows some of the heartbreaking ones and it was just full-rounded in that way where you could feel that sense of relatability if you're in it, and if you're not, then you could still feel the spark that was there. 

What's one of the most impactful things that you learned about yourself, especially putting yourself in all these other perspectives' shoes?

Hernandez: Well, you know, as someone who identifies as a queer femme woman and also the fact that obviously I present as a brown woman, I learned that you can re-parent yourself.

So Vivek Shreya, who is a beautiful author, a creator of beautiful things in this world, wrote a children's book called The Boy & the Bindi. I remember her saying at one of her events that she wrote a book in which she just really wanted this feminine South Asian boy to be feminine and still be loved by his mother for doing feminine things. And she said, "I just really wanted to tell a story in which he is loved because I can do that. I'm an author. I can do whatever I want."

And I thought, that's exactly it. Like when it comes to Bing, I can author into being a child who is feminine, fat, Filipino and gay, who is loved by his mother. I can do it because I'm the author. I can create it. And that means that also in this world, we can create that reality. Right? It's just as simple as making a decision.

This book is really taking me on some major adventures.- Catherine Hernandez

And when it came to like authoring things into being, like authoring into being Ms. Hina as the facilitator of the literacy program, I wanted to author into being a social worker who was brave enough to stand up to her manager. And that was really powerful because I would do these readings at events, and these frontline workers would tell me, "Thank you so much for writing that because I don't have the bravery," and I say, "Yes, you do. All you have to do is do what I did, write it into being." If I can write it, they can do it.

Baker: It's so interesting and intriguing to see a book that's in our reality and it is our world and it is our Earth, and it just shows all the possibilities of what it could be.

And Bing, like you said, that character, oh my God. My heart poured. I love him, and everyone included. It's just so interesting to see the different perspectives.

The theme of Canada Reads this year is One Book to Connect Us. What do you think of that and how do you think it resonates to your story?

Catherine Hernandez is the author of Scarborough. The novel is being championed by actor and activist Malia Baker on Canada Reads. (CBC)

Hernandez: Oh, well, I feel glad that this is the theme for the moment that Scarborough is going to be entering into the ring because that's exactly what this book is about. It's about, what does sincere connection between each other look like?

It's a recurring theme between all of the characters where you have Sylvie, who is like a really parentified child having to learn to make a connection with her mother, even though her mother has her hands full trying to navigate the special education system, right?

You have Bing trying to make a connection with his classmates, even though he is considered to be different and weird.

And, Ms. Hina obviously building bridges with a community that has very little trust in her.

What I'm hoping for is that the people who read Scarborough will think about, "Who's across the way from me and my house? Who's taking care of my children? Who are the leaders in my small community? And, how can I make sure that we're all moving toward the collective idea that all of us deserve to be safe?"

Writer Catherine Hernandez is photographed with actors Liam Diaz, Anna Claire Beitel and Essence Fox ahead of the premiere of Scarborough, the film adaptation of Catherine Hernandez's award-winning novel, at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Baker: When I first heard the theme, I was like, "This is going to be perfect for this book." It was just the thing that truly wrapped it all together.

OK, last question, do you have any advice for me as I get ready for the competition?

Hernandez: Oh my goodness. Well, I feel like as long as you understand that this is a discussion about the importance of whatever the themes are in the book, and not necessarily winning — I think that that's the number one thing, right? Because this is a discussion about great books for people to discover. I think that's what's going to be incredible to witness.

But other than that, I mean, seriously, Malia, I think that you are such a dynamo. I just have absolute confidence in you, no matter what happens in the competition. I just feel like I've already won having you championing this book, because that feels like an award like in and of itself.

But I mean, just have fun and be present in the conversation. That's all. I mean, how do you feel?

Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson with writer Catherine Hernandez on Day 1 of filming Scarborough. (Kenya-Jade Pinto/Courtesy of Compy Films)

Baker: I'm terrified. I got to be honest. I'm so scared, but I feel like it's a good thing to be scared, you know? It's something that's out of my comfort zone. Everyone involved in it so far has been so lovely and I'm excited. But wow, nervous.

Catherine: OK, there's just one thing I wanted to say too, is that I know that, myself included, we're all like, amazed by your age, but your age aside, the truth is is that you're there, your voice matters, you're a powerful person, and that you're someone that everyone should be really happy that you're even at the table.

Baker: Thank you. I appreciate it. I feel like just having all these amazing kind of mentor-like roles around me and having you and just even being able to speak to you, it's a blessing for sure.

Hernandez: Oh, awesome. Well, thank you so much for choosing my book.

Baker: Of course. I'm so happy I got the chance to read it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Canada Reads 2022 contenders

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now