I learned one important thing last night at the first event in the One Book element of April’s Keep Toronto Reading festival: ask author Austin Clarke a question, and you’ll probably get a lengthy, meandering anecdote in response. But it will always be fascinating, and you’re likely to learn something about Toronto or perhaps Clarke’s native Barbados that you’d never known before.
It’s kind of fun, the idea of getting an entire city reading the same book for a whole month. Of course, realistically, no one can get a whole city to do that, but Toronto certainly tries. And one of the primary features of the One Book that gets chosen each year is that the city of Toronto itself features prominently.
The same holds true for this year’s selection, More by Austin Clarke. As he described during an interview with Tina Srebotnjak last evening at the Toronto Reference Library, the novel takes place in Toronto – as a matter of fact, in a neighbourhood just south of where I live myself – and deals with the immigrant experience. How does someone whose entire range of cultural norms and social cues has been left behind manage to know or even recognize themselves in a wholly new context? These are issues with which Idora, the main character of the book, must struggle, as Clarke himself struggled three or four decades ago as an immigrant to Toronto.
In a very small way, I can relate to this dilemma, having come almost exactly a decade ago from conservative Calgary to liberal Toronto, and having had to reinvent myself as a Torontonian. This is why I love books like More, or the very first One Book chosen in 2008, Michael Redhill’s Consolation. I love discovering the many layers and facets of this city.
Clarke certainly gave the audience some of those last night. One of his anecdotes took us to the jazz clubs in his early days here, virtually all of them now closed. But he could remember that this one was owned by So-and-So from Hungary, “and his wife used to bake cakes,” while that one was where he first saw this or that musician. Mister Clarke gave us a snapshot of Toronto-then compared to Toronto-now. And I got nostalgic for all the history that I’d missed.
The evening was rounded out by selected readings from More, by actress and writer Trey Anthony, and the Mike Murley jazz trio regaled us with music to suit the mood of the book, both before and after the interview and readings.
I plan to go to several other events during this Keep Toronto Reading month. But this introduction, with the reminiscences and insights of Austin Clarke, reminded me why I love Toronto, and added yet another layer to my understanding of my adopted city.