Canada Reads·Canada Reads 2022

Read an excerpt from Canada Reads finalist Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

Scarborough will be championed by Malia Baker on Canada Reads 2022.

Scarborough will be championed by Malia Baker on Canada Reads 2022

Brown woman with chest tattoo and short black hair in front of white backdrop. Book cover of young girl running on subway platform
Scarborough is a novel by Catherine Hernandez. (Noor Khan, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Malia Baker is defending Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez on Canada Reads 2022.

Canada Reads will take place March 28-31. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

The novel Scarborough is the multi-voiced story of a neighbourhood that refuses to fall apart in the face of poverty and crime. Weaving together the stories of three children growing up in difficult circumstances with the stories of three adults who are doing their best to help them out, Scarborough is a vibrant and emotional debut. 

You can read an excerpt from Scarborough below.

They caught each other's eyes. Both blonde. Both cold. One inside, one outside. One young, the other younger. They waved.

When Laura was living with her mother in a low-rise apartment complex near Kennedy and Eglinton, her two major jobs were to reach for things and to guard the door.

Jessica was out of the house for prolonged periods of time. Sun rising and setting. Rising and setting. All silence. In this silence, Laura made tasks for herself, like drooling into a puddle at the edge of the carpet to see how much drool it would take to make an ocean. Sometimes she played swimming in the bathtub, where she peed to make the water yellow. Sometimes she watched mould grow along loaves of old bread, waiting for it to turn into a forest.

She did not know how to read. So when pieces of paper were slipped underneath the door, she did not know that they were notices from the landlord. She took a pair of shears from the kitchen and began to cut these yellow notices into the shape of a mother duck. The shavings became a nest. Laura imagined it was her duck farm and placed the mama duck on the window ledge to watch it grow and feed on anything Laura could find, be it cotton swabs or hairpins.

"Mama Duck said 'quack, quack, quack, quack,' but none of her five little ducklings came back ..." Laura sang while cutting five eggs out of more yellow notices slipped under the door. She placed them in the shredded paper nest under their two-dimensional mama.

She did not know how to read. So when pieces of paper were slipped underneath the door, she did not know that they were notices from the landlord.

The sun rose and set. Rose and set.

"Five little ducks went out one day, over the hills and far away ..."

Laura happily skipped to the nest, ready for the ducklings to hatch. She used the shears to cut the paper eggs open. Only, there weren't any ducklings inside. Thankfully, at that moment a pink piece of paper slid under the door with big angry letters on it. She cut out five pink ducklings, gave them faces with her mother's ballpoint pen. She placed them underneath their paper mama for warmth. They needed to rest.

The sound of an ambulance drew her to the window, delighted. It meant that a crowd of people were gathering, and perhaps one would wave to her, up on the second floor. They didn't. They were too busy shaking their heads over the bloody body of L, the man who rolled his money in rubber bands and had lots of visitors.

At night, when the rest of the tenants were watching talk shows, Laura took her mother's razor blade and shaved her entire body. She shaved her vulva, which she witnessed her mother do while smoking a cigarette, before leaving on her extended outings. Laura shaved one of her eyebrows and stopped when she clipped her skin.

One day there was a knock at the door. She pulled the step stool over and looked through the peephole. It was Mrs Kamal. Her bejewelled hijab was a wonderful mystery to Laura, but her mother never let her say hello.

Laura opened the door. The stink from inside made Mrs Kamal cringe. She guided Laura to her apartment across the hallway. Food. The sound of Arabic became the soundtrack to Laura's survival. When Mrs Kamal found lice in her hair, Laura was shuffled back to her own home, and the door was closed for good.

Some time. Some time passed. Some time, after Laura used the last of the toilet paper. Some time, after she decided to eat the mouldy bread. Some time, after she made piles of lice, which she plucked from her own scalp, her mother walked in.

Jessica's hips rotated to and fro, making a beeline to her bed. She resumed her last position, face down, chin touching the saliva stain she had made before leaving the last time. Laura took hold of the bedspread and tucked her sleeping mother in. She found gum in her mother's purse, which she chewed and swallowed to feel weight in her stomach.

One day, after another yellow sheet of paper was slipped underneath the door, Jessica tried to turn the tide. She began to care for neighbourhood kids. They were the kinds of kids with poor brown and Black parents who knew full well that Jessica was unfit to care for their kids, but they had no choice. They couldn't afford anywhere else.

Laura, still in her stained pyjamas and still feeling her empty stomach, walked over small children on the carpet or eating dried glue off their palms to peruse the empty refrigerator for fantasies.

When some lady in a pantsuit came, Jessica panicked: $2500 per child, per day, was the penalty for not adhering to the Daycare and Nurseries Act. Jessica threw diapers at the woman as she walked away, clipboard in hand. The next day, Laura woke up to find her mother packing her stuffed animals into plastic bags.

"Come on. You're going to your dad's."

Ms Hina's hijab was not bejewelled like Mrs Kamal's. It was simple and dusty blue. Laura wondered if the pin near her right ear adhered the hijab to her head like a staple, but she didn't dare touch it.

"Did you want to help me make the snack?" Ms Hina asked after she saw that Cory was asleep on the couch. Another bender.

Laura watched with wonder at Ms Hina spreading cream cheese between two saltine crackers. Carefully and with graceful brown hands, she angled the sharp knife and peeled the apples. Peeled them the way Laura shaved her body in her mother's absence.

Ms Hina sat Laura down at the snack table and placed a coffee filter in front of her. She placed the crackers on it, along with cucumbers. Laura did not start eating voraciously, as she usually did. Instead, she sat with her hands in a fist on her lap.

Ms Hina's hijab was not bejewelled like Mrs Kamal's. It was simple and dusty blue.

"Did you have something to show me?" Laura nodded. She opened up her fists to show Ms Hina a weathered foam letter u. Laura had picked away at the foam while thinking of words to use. "Oh. My. You really thought about this, didn't you? What words did you discover?"

"Umbrella?" Laura was unsure.

"You're right! You got it, miss." Laura didn't want to tell her the other u words she learned: "unlucky" and "ugly."

"Are you ready for the next letter?" Ms Hina went to the cabinet. "This is the letter g. Guh–guh–gorilla. Can you promise me to find more words that start with this letter?" Laura nodded, then began eating.

Excerpted from Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Copyright © 2017 Catherine Hernandez. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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