The Next Chapter

Aparita Bhandari on 3 books that capture the complexities of life in Scarborough

Columnist Aparita Bhandari on Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, Brother by David Chariandy and That Time I Loved You by Carianne Leung.
The Next Chapter columnist talks about Brother's depiction of Scarborough, a Toronto suburb. (Twitter/Penguin Random House)

Scarborough, the large suburb of Toronto, has been branded many things over the years. It's dangerous, a hotbed of crime. It's an urban wasteland, a blight on the landscape. It's kind of a nowhere eclipsed by shiny cosmopolitan Toronto. It's Scarberia.

It may be all or none of these things, but what it definitely is, is a culturally diverse neighborhood where people live complicated and interesting lives. This past year, three acclaimed novels have proudly placed Scarborough front and centre in their stories.

The Next Chapter's columnist Aparita Bhandari just immersed herself in fictional Scarborough.

On cultural authenticity

"Scarlem, Scarberia — I've heard them all. When I first moved to Toronto from India in 1998, that is literally how I was introduced to Scarborough and I hadn't even been there yet. Those sort of names came first. I visited it and to me, it was a fascinating place because as somebody who was a new immigrant to Canada, there were so many reminders of home in a way. I had come from New Delhi, India. There was this wide variety of people who lived there — all of them immigrants. There were some familiar things and some not-so-familiar things and to me, it was this fascinating place.

"More recently, it's interesting that I find a lot of people have started claiming these Toronto suburbs as places where one can find levels of authentic experiences — whether it's food, whether it's culture. Often, these places will have movies from Hong Kong or Bollywood. There has been this interest in them and we have these authors also reflecting that idea through books."

On diversity

"I actually met Catherine [Hernandez, author of Scarborough] many years ago as an actor and playwright and she'd been telling these stories about growing up on the fringes of Toronto, as it were. Even back then, she always had these wonderful stories and descriptions of what Scarborough meant. As she has grown as an artist, these very insistent stories took shape in the form of this novel Scarborough and it takes you into present day Scarborough, where there's a jumble of people living cheek by jowl to each other.

"There are Filipino immigrants, there are Caribbean immigrants. There is a social worker, who's Muslim, wears a hijab and faced racism in a very polite, Canadian way and responds in an equally politely Canadian way. There are Indigenous characters in it and they're all struggling and dealing, but also making space for themselves in Scarborough. This novel is where Catherine's passion and the advocacy work that she does as an artist all come togethers to say, 'This is Scarborough and you need to pay attention to it.'"

An alternate narrative

"In Brother, David Chariandy takes us into the lives of these young Caribbean men, who are growing up there. He also takes us into the spaces where they socialize, in barbershops, musical gatherings and school. It's such a wonderful, very nuanced and careful way to look at these lives that otherwise sometimes just become headlines. 

"I thought it was fascinating because when we think about race we often tend to think about it in polarities, but there are so many complicated layers that sort of come into it. For instance, the central characters in his book are of Caribbean background, but they're Trinidadian, so the father is South Asian and the mother is Black. There are all sorts of layers that you can pay attention to."

On race and class

"Places like Scarborough or other areas in the Greater Toronto Area often work on that idea of class. It's the immigrant, it's the blue collar worker, we're talking about, not the Bay Street lives in downtown Toronto. When I meet other people who have immigrated here, we often talk about how their parents or grandparents manage their lives. It's fascinating to me the very kind of regularity with which they talk about the way that, 'Oh yeah, my parents were managing three jobs. We were growing up by ourselves behind closed doors.'

"These novels are bringing those stories forward and giving them a life for sure, but also give us a sense of how precarious these lives can be and have been and how when something good happens out of that how wonderful it is or how remarkable it is. So I think novels like BrotherScarborough or Carrianne Leung's book That Time I Loved You bring that to the fore."

Aparita Bhandari's comments have been edited and condensed.