Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Everybody Knows this is Nowhere

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"I gotta get away from this day to day running around,
Everybody knows this is nowhere."

My friend Andy Bull and I wheel around my dust-caked 98 Tercel coupe, dancing ecstatically for the rising sun. It's March, 2005 and we are in Big Bend National Park in Texas. We have been driving for a month. We have been arrested for accidentally trespassing on US Navy Property. We have been waylaid by police for the "possession of a dubious odour". We have trundled through the heart of the United States of American. And now we are here, in Big Bend, and it feels like the beginning of time.

"Everybody knows this is Nowhere."

Except it's obvious to both of us as we dance - he, a British sports writer and me a, well, I wasn't quite sure yet - that we aren't "nowhere." If we listened to the song - a song we both knew well - we would have known that the nowhere being referred to was California, a "nowhere" because it wasn't home.

Still, the chorus appealed to us. It was the big lie: that we had escaped the world of hussle bussle and rampant signifiers. Andy and I's drive to the heart of USAmerica (I've been trained by my father never to call the country beneath us "America") was an attempted escape from the everyday, but it was also a march into a mythology. Big Bend wasn't nowhere. It was the American desert and we knew exactly what to do with it: we were meant to go on long walks, consider what it was to be a modern man, buy peyote from the mexicans on the other side of the rio grande, have some transcendental realizations, and go home.

We didn't dissapoint the myth one bit.

I conjure this memory (one of my fondest) if only because I have been thinking quite a bit of late about writing in Toronto. When I first decided that I wanted to write, I thought I needed to live in exotic places like London, New York, San Francisco, or Paris. I thought this because, when I closed my eyes, I could imagine writers living there. I could imagine writers living there because I had read novels set there, I had lapped up the mythology of those cities: F. Scott throwing up on his shoes, Mailer beating everyone up, Hemingway sitting in a clean, well-lighted place for a drink.

I grew up in Toronto. I also grew up reading novels by Torontonians. But for some reason, almost against logic, I couldn't imagine how to be a writer here. I couldn't see it. I didn't know how you were meant to write about Toronto. Largely, this is because, apart from classics like Ondaatje's 'In the Skin of a Lion,' most of the writing I'd consumed by Toronto writers had been written about other places: another home, a bleak dystopia, an imagined America.

As Noah Richler discusses in the first chapter of his phenomenal This is My Country, What's Yours: A Literary Atlas of Canada, this country of ours is a bit of a "nowhere." Unlike our neighbour to the south, our story is still being written. There's no official history, largely because we've never been able to teach ourselves any one narrative. All of that is very freeing, but, at the same time, it makes life difficult.

I didn't realise it before sitting down with Richler's book again last night, but every piece of fiction (whether a short story or film script) I've ever written has existed in a kind of non-space. When it is clearly Toronto, I never name it; but usually, things are set in "other spaces" - hypothetical, symbolic worlds only related to reality by shadow.

This isn't a bad thing. I've just never asked myself 'why' before.

Growing up in Toronto, your eye is often set on the world outside rather than the rest of the country you live in. I never dreamt of moving to Calgary or Dawson City or St. John's (though I should have). I thought Canada was small and provincial.

I worked my butt off to get into a university in the United Kingdom, where I encountered glowing worlds straight out of Wodehouse, McEwan, Zadie Smith, and Coronation Street. When I told people where I was from, most thought it quaint. They had questions, but only a sparse few actually wanted to know about our political system and our arts scenes. To them, Canada was nowhere - a place where long-lost relatives had gone to escape, a place scattered with igloos whose best and brightest no doubt dreamt of moving to London and improving themselves.

When you come home after an experience like that, it's difficult to see the world you inhabit in clear light. You simultaneously wish to prove its worth and find a pocket that adheres to standard models of 'literary'.

It took a long time, and I'm still not done, but I've worked rather hard to find my city and my country. Part of the joy of writing Kickstart was getting to know Canada better, travelling around and talking to people from all over the country.

So why is it that whenever I sit down to write something, I still can't place it? Is it that Toronto is too nice, safe, and lucky a place to be interesting to anyone outside its boundaries. No one wants to read about the folks who have won the geographical and economic lottery. Perhaps my life and my city are too boring even to myself.

But no, that's not true at all. I walk down the street from my apt. in Cabbagetown and I know that's not true. I pick up the newspaper and I know that's not true. I watch people on the subway and I know that's not true.

So why is it that I can write the characters I see in my day-to-day life, but I just can't put them here?

I'll get back to you on that.

- Paul

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.

Related item from our archives

Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel

Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel are the authors of Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started (Dundurn Press, 2008). Kickstart profiles over 30 prominent Canadians who explain how they started their careers.

Go to Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel ’s Author Page