More of Austin Clarke, Please

Tina Srebotnjak interviews Austin ClarkeI 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.

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

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.

Jazz Trio

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Taking “Consolation” in history

There’s a story behind the story of wherever we live, whether it peeks out from a weathered keystone, lurks in the architecture behind the modern signage on an old building, or ghosts through someone’s comment about a house or business that “used to be here.” And according to Michael Redhill, we might just be less lonely as a society, and even treat each other differently, if we discovered and paid attention to that story.

This past Monday, as part of the “Keep Toronto Reading – One Book” initiative, the Reference Library launched the month-long program with an evening featuring the “One Book” itself — Michael Redhill’s Consolation. The choice of book might seem obvious for a Toronto program, since it features dual storylines set in the city in 1997 and 1857, but the underlying idea that propels both stories is universal and equally important to any city or other community.

It’s too easy, Redhill said during his discussion with journalist Tina Srebotnjak, to be interested only in the “here and now,” while letting the past go without even a look or any documentation. Yet he believes that the way we treat our physical city “leaks into” how we treat other members of our community. The physical city has a lot to do with “the polis,” which the Greeks conceived of as the community itself, exercising citizenship responsibilities within that physical place.

So the modern-day storyline in the book deals with the race between finding and documenting the remains of an old shipwreck at the former shoreline in downtown Toronto, and the threatened destruction of the archaeological site by the construction of a major sports centre on top of it. Running in parallel, the 1857 story depicts the loneliness of three characters who forge a relationship in the old city (part of the “consolation” of the title), and eventually document its early growth with the emerging photographic technology of the time. The result of their work is a 13-part panorama given to the city, which is then sent to Queen Victoria by municipal officials who hope to persuade her to choose Toronto as the capital of pre-confederation Canada. It is the original plates for this panorama, possibly carried as cargo in the lost ship, that the archaeologists seek in the modern story.

The prints of this panorama do in fact exist, one copy in Toronto and another in London, England, although the plates are gone and no one actually knows whose work it was. But it was this photographic series which inspired the novel Consolation and, Redhill said, “put flesh on” the instinct that there was an ongoing Toronto story, carried through past and present.

Monday’s event was more than “just” Tina Srebotnjak’s interview with Michael Redhill. Ross Manson, founder and director of Volcano, an independent theatre company, presented two dramatic readings from the book, one from each time period. And singer Mary Lou Fallis, accompanied by pianist Peter Tiefenbach, provided a musical setting with several early Canadian songs.

In fact, a couple of those musical numbers perfectly illustrated the points Redhill was trying to make. “Oh, What a Difference Since the Hydro Came” chronicles a lover’s complaint that amorous trysts in the darkness of an evening have disappeared, since “the hydro” now makes night as bright as day. Even in 1913, when the song was written, the customs of the past had been cast aside by the progress of the present.

Another early song, “We Dye to Live,” was originally sent around on sheet music by the Parker & Company Dye Works, to the firm’s customers and other citizens in 1890. It served both as a marketing tool, and a song the whole family could sing around the piano.

And the Parker & Company Dye Works, so far as can be ascertained, was originally situated on the site of the Toronto Reference Library. There’s the past and present, connecting once again in a single evening.

Do I want to read this book? Actually, I cheated: I read it last year when it first came out in hardcover. But because I love discovering the history of a place and feel that it helps a person experience the present life of that place in a richer way — yes. That was exactly why I wanted to read the book. And this evening with Michael Redhill would have induced me to read it if I hadn’t done so already.