Catherine Hernandez discusses the real-world issues behind Scarborough

Writer-in-residence talks new book, creative process

Hernandez’s book Scarborough is Queen’s Reads novel of 2018. 
Journal file photo

Catherine Hernandez teaches lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Hernandez, campus writer-in-residence and author of Queen’s Reads’ Scarborough, moved to her novel’s titular city at age nine, and was soon thrown into the heart of the vibrant community east of Toronto.

It’s a bracing lesson in holistic storytelling for students on campus. 

“While [students] learn academics, they can learn from the school of hard knocks ... the characters in the novel would never dare to dream about an institution as beautiful as Queen's,” Hernandez told The Journal over email.

Living in what she described as the “New Jersey of Toronto,” Hernandez grew up surrounded by extremes. While Scarborough was replete with art and culture, it had to equally contend with poverty, crime, and the blind eye of bureaucrats and policymakers.

Now almost 40, Hernandez revisits her hometown in her debut novel Scarborough. She explores her community through the eyes of three different children—Bing, Sylvie, and Laura—who navigate their youth through a complex and interlocking maze of family drama.

All the while, the characters face the highs and lows of their education—filled with effective but short-lived community programs.

“Scarborough is considered by more central people as a place to just live and survive,” Hernandez said. “Every time I would tell a Scarborian I was writing a novel about Scarborough, their reaction would move from disbelief to complete elation. I would often hear things like ‘Us? You wrote a novel about us?’”

“This [attitude] is indicative of how people in lower income suburbs are treated. Our communities are often an afterthought of political decisions.”

Exploring life in an outcast community—which remains proud, creative, and resilient despite its economic and social pressures—is the reason Hernandez set upon Scarborough as the central character in her novel.

Her story is coloured with interviews gathered from dozens o n f residents, as well as stories from her own life. These influences capture the complex swing between comedy and tragedy that’s characteristic of the lives of so many Scarborians.

However, when setting out to write Scarborough, Hernandez knew that to be truthful to the experiences of her neighbours, and the “beautiful mess of immigrant and Indigenous cultures,” she had to let them speak for themselves.

“I ensured that the characters I portrayed lived and breathed on their own and created their own storyline,” Hernandez said. This holistic approach to storytelling, and openness to others’ perspectives is something she wants to leave as her mark, during her tenure as writer-in-residence at Queen’s.

In this way, she can bring a piece of Scarborough to Kingston, while imparting some of the diversity and experiences that can shape a nuanced and empathetic worldview in her readers.

“Characters [in Scarborough] experience the tiniest of miracles by simply surviving each day,” Hernandez said. “I think reading my material will provide students with a great deal of perspective.”

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