Toronto becomes a place of dedication in Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable
The concept of place is not limited to geography. It also encompasses culture, character, history, politics, perspective, language, and inspiration. In fact, place can exist entirely beyond geography—it’s found in distant mythologies, online communities, and even the ever-fickle human memory. It is no surprise that the theme of writing and place proved incredibly rich for IFOA Weekly’s latest Open Book Literary Salon.
The free event, which took place on October 8th at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre,
featured a roundtable discussion between Camilla Gibb, Kamal Al-Solaylee, and Steven Heighton. Freelance books columnist, editor, and publicist Becky Toyne moderated.
Toyne opened the evening with a simple question: Where, for you, is home?
Gibb, who was born in London, England, but raised in Canada, called Toronto her home. She explained that when her roots were severed from London, the idea of home—that critical reference point—became distorted. Only through raising her daughter in Toronto has Gibb been able to adopt the city as her home. Conversely, when Al-Solaylee first moved to Toronto, he fell in love with the city immediately. He described the experience as a true romance, similar to how people often fall for Paris. Though he described today’s Toronto as a more hostile, alien place, his book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (HarperCollins Canada), is dedicated to the city he calls home. Lastly, Heighton explained that he had been raised in Toronto but had also lived in Japan. To answer Toyne’s question, then, he provided an excellent Mavis Gallant anecdote. When Gallant was asked if she considered herself a Canadian writer despite having lived outside the country for most of her life, she answered, “I will remain Canadian even if Canada ceases to exist.” This statement applied nicely to the situation of each writer.
Toyne’s second question addressed the craft of writing: How should novelists do research when describing a foreign country?
Gibb recalled a recent vacation to Vietnam. During the trip, she discovered that a very specific version of Vietnam had been “calcified in her imagination.” She learned that the Vietnam War was part of a much larger history, and that because this particular war was so damaging to the American psyche, its larger context had been lost to the Western world. Perhaps most telling was her discovery that in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is called the American War. Gibb’s conclusion: “I know nothing about this place.” When you know nothing, she argued, you are in the perfect condition to sit back and be a writer. Don’t look for inspiration; let it come to you organically. Research, Gibb said, should only be done in service of the character, and character should never be made for insertion into research.
Al-Solaylee spoke about his experience returning to Egypt and Lebanon. The trip, he said, was meant to stimulate childhood memories and thus help him find inspiration for his writing, but he was disappointed to discover that the trip triggered little. The spaces had changed; they now existed in his memory alone.
Al-Solaylee then went on a tangent. He explained how learning English had been his passport out of the Arabic world. At one point, he would not even speak Arabic with his Arabic friends. This aversion, Al-Solaylee said, was an act of repression and self-loathing. He felt that growing up as a young gay man, Egypt had failed him, and so, too, had the language—back then, he could not access an Arabic vocabulary that could describe the gay identity.
This point allowed Heighton to make a critical connection. Language, he said, is the best way to enter a place. Whether through proverbs, slang, colloquialisms, or other such identifiers, words extract the nuances of a foreign world. For example, understanding a specific culture’s humour is often used as a benchmark to judge one’s command of a language. Thus, Heighton said, place and language are intimately connected.
Hugh Garner places a murder mystery in Don Mills
Toyne’s third question asked: Does a novel need a specific setting?
Heighton immediately recalled Emma Donoghue’s Room. He believed the novel works without a specific setting because the place itself—the suburbs—is universally understood by a North American audience. He would, however, love to read a novel set in Don Mills. As the first designed community in Toronto, its purpose was to “humanize urban life in an age of industry and automobile.” I also agree that some suburbs exhibit unique identities. For example, my little GTA town of Bolton is currently being swallowed by its surroundings. As public transit becomes more accessible, my parents increasingly threaten to pack up and leave. However, my friends and I seem more and more willing to stay—a reversal of the classic motif. I would love to read a novel about a town where the older generation, not the younger one, itches to take flight.
Gibb notes that novels will always be read in a certain political context. Her book, Sweetness in the Belly (Doubleday Canada), features a woman born to English-Irish parents but raised by a Sufi sheikh. Although the book was written before 9/11, it was published afterward and read with that political climate in mind. Even her novel The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life (Doubleday Canada) became equally politicized. Because it took place “near Niagara Falls,” many wanted to know exactly which side of the Falls she meant. Furthermore, Gibb once had a publisher describe her book, set in England, as a particularly “Canadian novel” because of its sensibility toward multiculturalism.
Gibb continued to recount what was, to me, the most fascinating story of the whole discussion. Years ago the Japanese government invited her to read from her debut novel, Mouthing the Words (Pedlar Press), which deals with childhood sexual abuse. At the time, she had been confused—why did they want her? She had no real credentials to talk about this issue. Gibb learned, however, that Japan would soon be implementing extensive laws regarding childhood sexual abuse. Because it was such a rarely discussed issue, the country had no literature that could describe this experience. So Gibb, alongside a psychologist and a social worker, went to Japan to fill this gap.
Overall, I was impressed by the warmth of the occasion. Spontaneous audience participation was invited and the candlelit setting, the cash bar, multiple raffles, and a plethora of coral-coloured literature regarding the upcoming IFOA set a welcoming tone for the event. Although the room was nowhere near packed, a true sense of CanLit camaraderie was evident throughout the evening.
I am choosing to finish with a sincere invitation to all Torontonians: IFOA Weekly is an incredible free resource—so use it! The programme runs from September to June and includes everything from readings to interviews to salon-style panels. For more information regarding upcoming events, check the IFOA blog. I would love to see you there.