Queen’s Reads brings the GTA closer to YGK

Scarborough explores the complexities of inner-city life with truth and dignity 

Pick up your free copy of Scarborough around campus. 
Photo supplied by Queen's Gazette

Mainstream depictions of Toronto are welcome, but Catherine Hernandez has a darker, more intimidating story to tell of one of its inner-city communities: Scarborough.  

Published in 2017 and named after a Greater Toronto Area (GTA) neighbourhood, Scarborough is the Canadian author’s first full-length work of fiction. 

On Aug. 22, Queen’s announced in a press release the award-winning novel would be the next installation in the university-wide reading program, Queen’s Reads. 

Queen’s Reads attempts to engage the Queen’s community with important themes and topics by providing the campus with copies of a different novel each year. A selection committee, comprised of students and staff, chooses a work of fiction that tells an important—often-times marginalized—story in the Canadian context. 

Last year, Queen’s Reads explored the livelihoods of Indigenous women in suburban Canada through Katherena Vermette’s The Break.  

In 255 pages, Hernandez presents the stories of several fictional residents living in the low-income inner-city of Scarborough. The residents follow their own storylines, navigating day-to-day hardships. They’re living out seemingly normal ways of life marred by their socio-economic status, and defined by their attitudes about themselves and towards others. 

To some degree, their lives are interconnected through different means: some reside in the same shelter;  others use the same daycare. Their interactions are the essence of the novel. 

The reader is invited to experience the city through  different lenses—a Muslim daycare worker, a Caribbean restaurant owner, an Indigenous mother and daughter, and several others. 

Despite Scarborough’s apparent diversity, however, characters like Cory embody the Canadian face of xenophobia. He displays an outright disapproval of Ms. Hina, a daycare worker, the moment he lays eyes on her hijab.  

Hernanedez channels Ms. Hina’s voice and her internal thoughts concerning Cory’s micro-aggressions. She’s able to portray Cory’s ignorance, lack of education, and poor social skills. 

The reader begins to understand the impact he has on Ms. Hina—fostering her fear that’s exacerbated by several tense scenes including Cory wrenching his daughter from her arms. 

Cory’s daughter, Laura, is regularly neglected by her father but finds a place to eat healthy, non-instant meals at Ms. Hina’s centre. Despite being primarily an institution for learning, Laura’s reliance becomes the backbone of the novel and comes to characterize the underlying reason why the characters come to interact with the centre. 

Despite the reader being bombarded early on with several names, voices, and complex back-stories, it becomes strikingly apparent, a couple pages in, that the story easily flows from one character to another. 

Each person is plagued by their own issues; alcoholism and drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, and violence are the main themes in this Canadian city. 

Hernandez is able to portray life in Scarborough by channeling the inner thoughts of children and adults but doesn’t shy away from depicting what their true and real thoughts would be their given situations. 

Cory struggles with inner conflict over whether Ms. Hina is an adequate guardian for his daughter. 

Another character, Sylvie, a young Indigenous girl, comes to understand how her father’s gambling has resulted in his apparent injuries.  

The impact that poverty and broken families has on education becomes clear as the school-year unfolds throughout the novel. A specialized education program and the possible diagnoses of a developmental condition for a young child is put on the back-burner as families struggle to provide food for their children, stomach hospital bills, and find permanent residence. 

As the reader becomes normalized to each character’s ignorance and despair, it becomes difficult to forget that these are depictions of real-life experiences. 

Hernandez doesn’t shy away from telling the truth—especially in a fashion that forces the reader to understand their privilege and the overwhelming importance of their own education. 

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