In Sampling Toronto’s Storied Streets … one finds that Toronto’s literature paints a multilayered portrait of successive waves of immigration and their contributions to Canada’s largest urban metropolis. Its writers have peopled the city and Project Bookmark Canada, which provides informative plaques of places of literary interest, has already profiled parts of the city brought to literary life by Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels and poet Ken Babstock.
Michael Ondaatje’s haunting novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987) glimpses Toronto in formation. The Bloor Street (or Prince Edward) Viaduct being built by daring men like Macedonian immigrant Nicholas Temelcoff who, before owning a bakery, earned his living hang in mid-air beneath the bridge, and one night caught a nun in flight. Roads being tarred by men who warmed their cans of beans in the hot tar (28). Workers from the abattoir and tannery who on Saturday would share a beer before walking to the Oak Leaf Steam bath to steam off the week’s sweat and smells (135). Patrick is one character in the novel born in Ontario, but he inhabits a world full of languages and often finds himself estranged. Once he settles in Toronto, his neighbours who do not speak much English know little about him: that he eats peaches on Friday, for example (113). One day he manages to find the word for iguana in Macedonian and can explain his bizarre need to buy “vetch” regularly for his unusual pet (112). The word unlocks a neighbourhood welcome, consummated over an impromptu lunch in the market (114).
Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (1996) is partly set in post-Second World War Toronto. One narrator, Ben, whose parents were both Holocaust survivors, mentions a time when his father rebukes him after he threw a rotten apple in the garbage: “My mother kept food in her purse. My father ate frequently to avoid the first twists of hunger because, once they gripped him, he’d eat until he was sick. Then he ate dutifully, methodically, tears streaming down his face, animal and spirit in such raw evidence, knowing he was degrading both” (289-90). The father eventually makes Ben eat the apple, shoving it through his teeth (264-5).
In Judy Fong Bates’ novel, Midnight at the Dragon Café (2004), we glimpse Toronto’s Chinatown. Compared to small town Irvine, where the family’s restaurant is located about an hour out of Toronto, and they are the only Chinese family in the town, Toronto seems like a bustling place. Here, Chinese immigrants arriving too late to learn English well, and forced to leave relatives behind in China due to Canada’s harsh immigration laws imposed in 1923, could find a community with whom they could converse. One meeting place was the China Trading Store in Toronto, where Annie’s father, “in spite of his shyness” is so pleased “to be talking in his own language” (189). The novel describes many meals prepared for the Western or “lo fon” clientele, intricate ones to celebrate special family milestones in Irvine, and dishes prepared to compensate for life’s bitterness. But Toronto is scene for some of the novel’s most pivotal meals: dim sun when Annie and her mother first arrive (11-12), a wedding feast for Lee Kung and his new mail-bride (262), and two soups prepared for a new mother when a decision is finally made that it is time for Annie’s brother to take on full responsibility of the restaurant in Irvine (312-3).
Written by: Nathalie Cooke