Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The City at the Centre of the Map

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"The city scrolled away from us like a vast and intricate diagram, as indecipherable as the language of the Hittites. Lights dim as stars cut into the vast blackness of Lake Ontario, all quivering in the rising remains of the heat of the day. Here was a religion, I thought. My religion. My secret book, my Talmud." [Robert Charles Wilson, "The Inner Inner City," In The Perseids and Other Stories. Tor, 2000.]

The protagonist of Robert Charles Wilson's story "The Inner Inner City" is a scholar who resolves to create a city religion organized around a paracartographic map of Toronto. "Paracartography," he muses, "implied the making of maps, city maps, a map of this city, but not an ordinary map; a map of the city's secret terrains, the city as perceived by a divine madman, streets rendered as ecstasies or purgatories." Long and wandering walks through Toronto's streets and ravines lead him to an understanding that the visible city is only a mirror of the imagined city, an unchartable labyrinth of hidden avenues laid deep within its core. "There's a city inside the city," he concludes, "the city at the centre of the map."

Wilson's story resonates with Michael Ondaatje's observation in the iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion that "Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting"--an inference echoing essayist Jonathan Raban, who wrote in Soft City that "[t]he city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps."

Wilson, Ondaatje and Raban remind us that the cities we live in are made not merely of brick and mortar, or bureaucracy and money, but are equally the invention of our memories and imaginations. We realize that our cities unfold not only in the building but in the telling of them.

Through the Imagining Toronto project and in my book, Imagining Toronto, I have spent nearly six years exploring the city at the centre of the map. It will be my pleasure as writer-in-residence at Open Book: Toronto to share some parts of this journey with you.

When the Imagining Toronto project began in the fall of 2005, one of its motivations was to respond to claims that Toronto is a city that does not live in the imagination and a parallel belief that even if Toronto does have a literature, it cannot possibly be any good. A sentiment prevailed that Toronto's literary canon consisted of a short list of literary works -- among them Hugh Garner's Cabbagetown, Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies, any of Margaret Atwood's Toronto novels, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces -- that have won enough awards, sold enough copies or been adopted in enough undergraduate university courses to remain profitably in print. That thousands of other novels, stories, poems and plays exist that engage with Toronto was rarely considered or remembered. In response to this perplexing oversight I began accumulating a library of Toronto books and, five years later, the Imagining Toronto Library lists thousands of literary works engaging with Toronto, many of them major award winners as well as international bestsellers.

In the spring of 2011 it seems almost inconceivable that anyone could ever have thought Toronto lacked its own literature. This season's literary catalogue alone includes wonderful new books engaging with Toronto, among them Julie Booker's Up Up Up, Sean Dixon's The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn, Farzana Doctor's Six Metres of Pavement, Glen Downie's Local News, Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew and Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea.

This month at Open Book: Toronto I'll write about these and other books and chat with their authors about what it's like to imagine Toronto. I'll also put this burgeoning output in context, exploring some of Toronto's conceits and preoccupations, the city's cultural amnesia and self-hatred, the myth of the multicultural city, what it means to be the "city of neighbourhoods," how suburbs change our notions of what it means to be urban and how we live, love, play and work in a rapidly changing Toronto.

It's my view that we come to terms with cities--in all their beauty and ugliness-- through literature. This month at Open Book: Toronto I look forward to imagining Toronto with you!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page