Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Amy Lavender Harris

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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. She is a contributing editor with Spacing Magazine, where she writes a regular column on Toronto literature. Her work has also appeared in Reading Toronto, Open Book Magazine, The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto (Coach House), GreenTOpia (Coach House), Canada: A Literary Tour, Hagar: Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities, Plan Canada and the Ontario Planning Journal. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Visit Amy's website, Imagining Toronto

Please send your questions and comments for Amy to writer@openbooktoronto.com

The Proust Questionnaire, with Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris is Open Book's May 2011 Writer in Residence. In her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, she tells us her dream of happiness, her greatest extravagance and more.

The Proust Questionnaire was not invented by Marcel Proust, but it was a much loved game by the French author and many of his contemporaries. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent's "true" nature.

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What is your dream of happiness? A universe that opened and made room even for me [it did]. What is your idea of misery? Monotony.

Imagining Toronto

By Amy Lavender Harris

"In Imagining Toronto, Amy Lavender Harris ventures deep into the imagined city — the Toronto of fiction, poetry and essays — where she dowses for meaning in the literature of the city on the lake as its inhabitants understand, remember and dream it. By tracing Toronto’s literary genealogies from their origins in First Nations stories to today’s graphic novels, Harris delineates a great city’s portrayal in its literature, where the place of dwelling is coloured by the joy and the suffering, the love and the sorrows, of the people who have played out their lives on the written page.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

Doug Ford's reading List

Ever since Toronto Councillor and Mayoral advisor Doug Ford's humiliating revelation of the seemingly boundless extent of his illiteracy, the city has resonated with condemnation and ridicule. A campaign has even been instituted to draft renowned author (and Ford target) Margaret Atwood to run for Mayor.

In response, some commentators have taken up the didactic challenge of expanding Ford's awareness of Canadian literature. CBC Books blogger Erin Balser has, for example, suggested Ford read a diverse list of Canadian books, among them Brian Lee O'Malley's Toronto-set Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series and urbanist Jane Jacobs' classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Similarly, social network Zoomers.ca has invited members to submit reading recommendations for Ford.

My quibble with these reading lists is that they are not sufficiently Toronto-focused, nor politically attuned, to fully achieve their purpose. And so, in hopes of expanding the Ford brothers' literacy -- intellectually as well as administratively -- I present Doug Ford's Reading List, a kind of primer for political perspicacity:

Escape Velocity: A Meditation on the Poetics of Biking

For whole days at a time, when she'd first got back, she had gone biking, despite the slush and cold. In her helmet and sunglasses and gloves, no one had recognized her or stopped her. Biking comforted her. The risks were familiar risks: anonymous insults, skidding on streetcar tracks, car doors opening, an onion lying in the middle of the road. She'd tried to explain to Paul how much she loved the thrill of self-propulsion, feeling stripped down, sucked clean, swift and autonomous, warm in the raw air, the gas-sweet smell of car exhaust. [Catherine Bush, Minus Time.]

At escape velocity it is possible to rise above the earth, to leave its orbit, to be propelled into space and the unsilent reaches of the expanding cosmos.

Your face is familiar but I haven't the faintest idea who you are: Confessions of a Face-blind Raconteur

Several years ago I read a news report about prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, and thought immediately: that sounds quite a lot like me. The article included a link to the Prosopagnosia Research Centres at Harvard and University College London, and so I clicked through and completed one of their facial recognition tests (the main one is apparently no longer available unless you're a research subject), whose results indicated that while I may not have 'classical' prosopagnosia, my ability to recognise and remember faces is significantly impaired.

Authors of our own Misfortune: The Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto

Only days after being named Specialty Bookseller of the Year by the Canadian Booksellers Association. Toronto's venerable Flying Dragon Bookshop, a well-known Bayview Avenue purveyor of books for children and adults, announced it would be closing its doors at the end of June.

Jones, Interrupted

Even in the final days before filling her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse in March of 1941, Virginia Woolf struggled to find reasons to live. Her final diary entry is poignant, noting the fine spring weather and describing a lovely hat whose wearer she encountered in a tea room. "I will go down with my colours flying," she wrote before closing the diary for the last time.

Survivors of others' suicides often wonder whether some combination of impulsivity and regret infuses the final moments of those who have taken their own lives. The suggestion that death might not have been chosen so deliberately -- that suicide can be mitigated by some narrative of accident, compulsion or misadventure -- is a way of making space for grief to well up alongside the anger that suffuses many suicide survivors' memories of those who have lost themselves to us.

Seven Nineteenth Century Toronto Novels Worth Reading

Given the number of excellent Toronto novels, story anthologies and poetry collections out this spring (Farzana Doctor's Six Metres of Pavement, Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea, Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, Sean Dixon's wonderful The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn, Julie Booker's Up Up Up!, Jessica Westhead's And Also Sharks, Matthew J. Trafford's The Divinity Gene, Glen Downie's Local News, and reissues of Daniel Jones' 1978 and the brave never write poetry, among others), casting an eye across the dusty shelves of century-old city-based literary works might seem a bit backward.

No Mean City: Reading Sean Dixon's The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn

Toronto is a city in search of a mythology, a narrative that will transform it from a collection of bedroom communities into a city with a centre and a soul -- however tarnished or glittering that might be. In search of such a narrative, three kinds of myth-makers have turned their attentions to Toronto.

The first, epitomized by writers like Michael Ondaatje in In the Skin of a Lion and Hugh Hood (whose epic, Proustian, twelve-volume series the New Age / Le Nouvelle Siecle -- see The Swing in the Garden, Reservoir Ravine and Black and White Keys especially -- imagined Toronto as one centre of a great nation), have constructed realistic, identity-forming, city-building myths, such as those revolving around great public works (the Prince Edward Viaduct and R.C. Harris Water Filtration plan in the case of Ondaatje) and family dynasties (the Goderich and Archambault clans in Hood's series).

A Cure for Holocaust Envy: Reading Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

For two full generations of North American Jews, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust has meant living with familial as well as cultural rupture. It persists, more than half a century later, even as the tattooed grandmothers and traumatized great-uncles die off in nursing homes and hospitals and the decimated lineages fill in with nieces and grandsons. It persists as a burden even for those whose comfortable, middle-class lives in cities like Toronto seem to belie the memory of such suffering and loss.

Terrible Beauty: The Poetry of Paul Vermeersch

In poetry circles a longstanding debate -- beyond the ceaseless squabbling over the competing merits of lyrical, narrative, concrete, experimental and spoken word poetry or adherence to any of the various schools -- is "What is poetry?" and, more pointedly: "What is good poetry?"

I am not a poet and (after having made several serious attempts to study it) have come to conclude that I neither know nor really understand poetry. In large part this is because I cannot accept American poet-librarian Archibald MacLeish's famous injunction in "Ars Poetica" that "a poem should not mean / but be" -- a perspective that has in direct and subtle ways transformed contemporary poetry.

When I Write

It was five-thirty this morning when I came upstairs to write. The night had loosened but it was not quite morning yet. The house was silent and still. The only sounds: an early robin, the distant tremor of a train and the muted, intermittent drumming of my keyboard.

At a New Year's party a few months ago, the host passed around a copy of the Imagining Toronto book and one of the guests, a parent of two young children, hefted it and asked "When did you find the time to write something this thick?"

Win a Free Copy of Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea

Would you like to win, courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada, a free copy of Robert Rotenberg's latest Toronto-set legal thriller, The Guilty Plea (see writer-in-residence Amy Lavender Harris' comments on the book here), in stores this week?

Write a short (200 word maximum) text and post it in the comment section below, describing a real or imagined encounter with the criminal justice courts in Toronto. The best comment will win its author a free copy of The Guilty Plea -- and may just make you world famous (or infamous) in Toronto.

(In)humane City: Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea

A police court is a place of tragic gloom, though like the ground where Ophelia was laid to rest, it is sometimes enlivened by the jests of the grave diggers; it is a whirlpool into which offenders against law and order are sucked; a justice shop where men, sinned against and sinning, receive their deserts; a pit of peradventure into which men sometimes slip; a guillotine which falls with shuddering swiftness upon the necks of those who would menace society; a house of tears and sighs and evil temper; a clearing house, where parcels of humanity are valued and classified; and sometimes--not too often--it is a mercy seat. [Harry M. Wodson, 1917. The Whirlpool: Scenes from Toronto Police Court.]

Why We All Hate Toronto

In 1987 Anthony Hyde, an Ottawa-based reviewer of Michael Ondaatje's now-iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion, expressed his unhappiness not merely with the novel itself but with the city in which it was set. Describing Toronto as "a catastrophe," he emphasized, "ugly, formless, without character, it sits upon the banks of Lake Ontario like some diseased organ in the body, spreading pollution around it."

The City at the Centre of the Map

"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 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.