Saturday, March 11, 2006

Imagining Toronto at Reading Toronto

Between March 11 and March 18, 2006, I will be guest editing at Reading Toronto, the online community focused on urban design, planning, politics, and culture in Toronto. Daily posts will introduce the Imagining Toronto project and address themes and issues arising from intersections of literature and place in the Toronto region.

Please feel free to stop by Reading Toronto and comment.

What is Imagining Toronto? (The following description was posted to Reading Toronto and appears, in slightly different form, on the Imagining Toronto website.)

The Imagining Toronto project explores intersections of literature and place in the Toronto region. Originally conceived as a new fourth year geography course at York University (scheduled to run for the first time in 2006-2007), Imagining Toronto has quickly grown into a larger project.

Why Imagining Toronto? Whole worlds come alive at the intersection of geography and literature. One doesn't need to venture as far afield as Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi's Dictionary of Imaginary Places or even Malcolm Bradbury's Atlas of Literature to find these worlds. They exist in places so familiar to us that we don't even notice them, places simultaneously so strange that we can hardly conceive them. Robert Fulford calls Toronto an "accidental city", in the sense that many of its most meaningful and iconic places -- the CN Tower, Chinatown, and the Toronto Islands among them -- have emerged as happy accidents; the unintended consequences of city planning, commerce, demographics, and natural processes. He writes,
A successful city fulfills itself not by master plans but through an attentiveness to the processes that have created it and an awareness of its possibilities. It achieves a heightened identity by giving form to memory and providing space for new life. (Accidental City, 1995: 14)
In Emerald City, John Bentley Mays writes of the city dweller's need to discover 'urban thinking places' and adds that
living fully and mindfully anyplace, I believe, involves giving thought to all the rhythms we move within -- the personal ones, from birth to death, but also the historical ones, preserved and recalled by the artifacts of architecture and urban planning, art and writing and music. (1994: 2; 27)
Fulford and Mays' commentaries suggest that the cities we live in are not so much the products of bricks and mortar (or bureaucracy and money) as they are the invention of our memories and imaginations. In other words, our cities unfold not only in the building but in the telling of them.

And yet, there is the question of how and whether a Toronto-based urban literature might supplant a century and more of writing fixated on the rural and wild spaces of Canada, in a country where the very existence of urban spaces is so often conceived as an invasion and a blight on what is romantically remembered as a pristine and natural landscape. There is the additional problem of how and whether such a literature can adequately capture the complex flows, crises, and assertions of a moving metropolis. Finally, and perhaps most urgently, there is the difficulty of determining whether such a literature exists at all.

Opinion on this last question is mixed. Toronto journalist Bert Archer claims in uTOpia (Coach House Books, 2005) that Toronto is "a city that exists in no one's imagination, neither in Toronto, nor in the rest of the world." He adds, "Toronto is a place people live, not a place where things happen, or, at least, not where the sorts of things happen that forge a place for the city in the imagination." (220) In contrast, in a 2005 Vanity Fair article the American critic Anderson Tepper allows that since the 1987 publication of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, "a vision of modern Toronto gradually took shape before our eyes." Acknowledging a slow accretion of Toronto literature, the article quotes Toronto novelist and poet Dionne Brand commenting that "the literature is still catching up with the city, with its new stories." Writing in the Globe & Mail, Stephen Marche describes Toronto's "flourishing bookishness" almost breathlessly, asserting that "Toronto may be the only city where novels are integral to high art, the alternative scene and mainstream culture all at the same time." Yet, Tepper's canon of Toronto fiction is sharply abbreviated, and Marche describes both the city and its fiction as "insular" and focused on "interior rather than public spaces."

One important purpose of Imagining Toronto is to challenge all of these viewpoints. It has been a very long time since Toronto first clawed its way out of its literal or literary woods. To claim (as both Archer and Tepper do) that Toronto literature begins or ends with Ondaatje's novel is to exhibit a remarkable (although hardly uncommon) lack of familiarity with the city's sizable and expanding literature (click here to visit the Imagining Toronto library). Marche's description of Toronto as "unimaginative to the extreme" is as perplexing and narrow as the short list of literary works he grudgingly attributes to Toronto writers. Brand's comment seems to be the only one that offers much hope for a Toronto literature. Indeed, catching up with a city's stories is any urban literature's greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity. Imagining Toronto seeks to show how this is being done.

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