We've got brand new original fiction and poetry today on Open Book as we present the second set of winners of the 2017 Ontario Book Publishers Organization's and East End Arts’ What's Your Story? writing contest.
The competition asked authors across the city to draw inspiration from their life and experiences in the city, with a focus on neighbourhoods that don't always get starring roles in Toronto literature: Etobicoke, North York, East York, and Scarborough.
We've already posted the Scarborough winners, and today we're proud to present the winners from East York. Stay tuned to Open Book in the coming months for the North York and Etobicoke winners as well.
In East York, the Established author category winner is non-fiction writer and novelist Terri Favro, who has been a finalist and winner for numerous literary awards, and our winners for the Emerging category are Jason Freure, Susana Molinolo, and Sadi Muktadir. Read on for new, vital, Toronto writing from all four of them.
Established Writer Category winner, East York region
Demolished by Terri Favro
Fog lowered itself over the skyline like a squatting dog. From across the harbour, Alison watched its cloudy haunches spread itself over the bank towers.
“I can’t see the city,” she said uneasily to Adam. He was taking a shot of a dead cormorant, frozen into mud.
“Water’s warmer than the air. Ergo, fog.”
A gust off Lake Ontario cut through Alison’s jacket, freshening her resentment. This ride was Adam’s idea of a way to fill a Sunday when they could’ve been watching Netflix under a duvet. Instead, he insisted on cycling to the coldest knob of the city, a jagged tooth dangling out of the city’s lower jaw.
Adam loved to explain that the Leslie Street Spit was created from the concrete cast-offs of demolished houses from lost neighbourhoods like the Ward, transformed over time into gritty beaches where Arctic birds dropped out of their flight paths on their way to South America. So many unusual species flocked to the Spit to feed and breed that the city shrugged and let them take over.
Alison could see a few withered cormorant carcasses dangling from branches, their bodies deflated as old balloons. Adam claimed that cormorant shit killed everything it touched, even the trees where they nested.
Offshore, hundreds of gulls sheeted the open water. Their never-ending high-pitched screams were getting on Alison’s nerves.
“Hey, is that a dog over there?” asked Adam.
Through the fog, Alison could see a tall man on the beach, his hands pushed into the pockets of dust-coloured trousers held up by suspenders, nothing more than a thin blue shirt shielding him from the chill. A white dog circled him, barking furiously.
“He hasn’t got it leashed,” Adam muttered. “I’m going to have a word with him.”
Alison watched Adam cycle up to the man. The dog –– a Lab ––pushed its muzzle into his hand. Adam’s voice floated back to Alison on the wind: “Hey, man, this is a bird sanctuary. No dogs allowed.”
Alison couldn’t hear his response. She squinted myopically until the man’s pale face came into focus. If it hadn’t been for his dark eyes, he might have been an albino.
“… lose my wife.” Alison heard him say. “In the fog.”
“Where’d you see her last, buddy?” asked Adam.
“Not buddy. Joachim,” said the man, touching a lock of hair on his forehead, as if tipping an invisible hat. “I keep looking.”
Turning, the man walked off the beach into a scrubby field where chunks of concrete dotted the ground like teeth wrenched from the mouth of a giant. The dog danced around him, whining.
Adam returned and glanced at his watch. “It’s almost five. The gates will close soon. We should let the guard deal with this guy.”
“He’s in shock,” protested Alison. “His wife’s probably fallen in the lake.”
“All the more reason to tell the guard.” Adam tugged her arm.
Alison wrenched away, pedalling onto the road that ran like a vein through the heart of the Spit, trailing the man and the dog through the mist. Adam followed with a curse.
Along the shoreline, the detritus of Toronto’s Victorian fixer-uppers was waiting to be bulldozed underground. Joachim stood before a pile of freshly dumped bricks. Someone had patched together a Dr. Seuss of a wall, red-yellow-blue.
Adam pulled out his camera. “I’ll bet France looked like this after World War One.”
Joachim shook his head. “France was muddier. You sink in up to your belly, if there is shelling.” He picked up a brick and added it to the wall. “They dump our house here. I build it again.”
Adam laughed. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Joachim lined up another brick. “We move in to a house on Woodbine, the year of the epidemic. 1919. Dagmar get sick first. Then, me. They bury us at St. John’s Norway.”
Adam snorted. “What’s the next part of this scam? Asking us to buy your way into heaven?” Turning to Alison, he said, “Hold on to my bike. I’ll take a leak, then we’ll go.”
Alison watched Adam trudge through the fog toward a blue plastic outhouse. As he disappeared inside, the dog went into a frenzy of barking, dancing in and out of the surf.
Offshore, among floes of half-melted ice, Alison saw a white floating mass, huge but delicate. A swan.
“Dagmar?” said Joachim.
The swan stretched her wings and made a sound like a bike horn. She glided toward Joachim, head bobbing. Joachim stepped into the surf up to his ankles. Then his knees.
Alison gripped the bikes and watched Joachim enter the lake — he was in up to his thighs now — and strip off his shirt and pants.
Something was sticking out of his shoulder blades. White feathers.
The swan moved closer. Joachim’s skin was bristling now, feathers covering his heavy shoulders and arms, riffling out of his long legs. Striding farther in, he called to the swan –– not a word, more like a guttural shout. Her cry echoed back.
A set of magnificent white wings burst from the muscles of Joachim’s back.
Maybe Adam was right. They should leave this to the guard.
But where was Adam? All Alison could see was fog, moving across the ground as if alive. She could smell Adam, though. The spices on the roti he’d had for lunch. Even the sweaty socks on his feet.
Adam, she tried to shout, but her voice was gone. She took a step and stumbled. The bikes clattered to the ground.
Lying on her belly, she was assaulted by odours. The mould beneath the snow. A trace of coyote urine.
Alison rolled onto her side, then onto her knees, all the while soundlessly whispering Adam’s name.
On his way to the outhouse, Adam had promised himself to get Alison back to his flat as quickly as possible. Okay, first to a reasonably priced café-bistro, then to the flat.
He pulled open the door. Used toilet paper covered the floor. Disgusting.
Pee fast, get back on the bike, get to the gate, get Frankenstein away from Alison, he told himself.
Zipping his fly, he pushed against the door of the outhouse. It stuck fast.
Pushed again. The door wouldn’t move.
“Alison? Can you pull the door from your side?”
No response. But Adam could hear something. It sounded like scratching.
The scratching grew more urgent, as if something was trying to get in.
He pulled out his phone. No signal. It was all he could do not to throw it down the shitter.
Panic hovered over him like a stinking black bird. He pounded on the door. “Alison! Get me out of here!”
Bathed in the fading blue light, he shouted until his voice roughened to a squawk. It was getting darker. Colder, too.
Finally, he pushed aside the toilet paper with his foot and curled up on the floor, trying to conserve body heat.
Tomorrow the trucks will be back, he told himself. I just have to get through the night.
At dawn, a dump truck pulled off Commissioner’s Street through the gates, its doors advertising MYSTIC LANDFILL, DAVE & MO LAMONT.
Driving past the western beach, Mo commented, “Listen to them birds. Freakin’ nuts.”
“Cormorants,” said Dave. “Their shit kills everything it touches.”
Mo laughed. “Speaking of which, I need to stop at the Johnny-on-the-spot.”
Dave sat waiting as Mo walked to the outhouse and tried to pull open the door.
“Oh, Christ.” His voice was thick with disgust. “Not another one.”
Dave hopped down from the truck and peered in. The bird was huge, its twisted wings covering the outhouse floor. One bright black eye stared up at them.
“Must’ve been here when the gates closed,” said Dave. “Let’s bring it to the beach.”
Mo shook his head. “I think its wings are broken.”
“Should we tell the guard?”
“No, let’s finish it off. It’s the humane thing to do,” said Dave.
The bird gave an alarmed squawk.
Mo and Dave pulled on their work gloves and picked up the injured bird, ignoring its small pleading noises. Awkwardly, they carried it to the water’s edge. With a heave, they threw the bird into the surf.
Mo started to walk away but Dave grabbed his arm. “Look.”
Just off shore, two swans glided side by. The larger one turned toward them. Watching.
“Beautiful,” observed Mo.
Dave nodded. “Wild Kingdom’s over, bro.”
On the way to the truck, they stumbled over two bikes on a pile of bricks, a brown-red bird perched on one handlebar. When Mo picked up the bike, the bird puffed her feathers and swooped, pecking his cap.
“Shoo!” said Mo, waving her off.
The bird flew a short distance to a concrete block bristling with reinforcement rods. She cocked her head to one side as Mo and Dave hoisted the bikes.
As the truck drove away, she gave a final piercing whistle, high and sad, before fluttering east.
Emerging Writer Category winners, East York region
The Paifang in Carpark 146 by Jason Freure
It’s not until the 506 glides across the DVP that I realize the muscles in my jaw hurt because they’re ready to yell, that my elbows are poised to shove, that I’m ready for a fight. I don’t relax until I’m under the paifang again, the Zhong Hua Men Archway, tiptoeing down Munro to my secret fire trap, the basement apartment behind the Don’s Milk sign.
Walls used to divide each of a city’s districts and these gates were the only way through. Every night the paifang doors shut — stranding lovers and lingering drinkers until they were opened for the early merchants and the rising sun. The lions stand guard all day and night. One crushes a demon under its paw, the other keeps a globe from rolling like a marble into the middle of Gerrard.
Gates exist to keep the rest of the world back. Here on the lip of Don Valley, you can’t ignore the rest of the city. It gets closer every day. Every morning a pile driver announces the city’s march over the bridge and vibrates through my home, a cheese knife chipping a tooth.
But gates are also the gap in the line of defenses. They permit. They welcome. To walk through them is to accept the laws of the city, the customs of the district.
There are no walls around the Gerrard Street paifang. The gate implies them. How far east does its protection extend? Does it terminate, abruptly, under the rail overpass at Carlaw? Does it extend to the Madinah Masjid, to the water treatment plant that looks out at the lake like a fortress, to the far end of the Bluffs?
I serve my friends tequila out of coffee mugs. I take their compliments for my brick walls, the view from my single window, one foot by two, of the CN Tower behind the garbage bin. I pluck spiders from my ceiling like fat crabapples. I leave out gifts for the feral cats, duck bones rattling in clamshell containers, soggy moo shu. I offer orange rinds and light bulbs, scrapings of ma po tofu, hoping to please the little gods, the dead workers who lived in these workers’ cottages.
There is not actually a reason to pass through the paifang at Gerrard and Hamilton. Behind the three arches lies Carpark 146. On the wall of the Spring Rolls Headquarters there is a vivid graffiti mural: a panda and a maneki-neko. There is no Spring Rolls restaurant on Broadview, but on Hamilton you always see rushed delivery men loading up trucks from behind the empty storefront, racing off to locations all over the city, forgetting to yield to pedestrians when they make right-hand turns.
Not all paifangs divided city districts. Some of them are memorial, like an Arc de Triomphe. The Zhong Hua Men Archway memorializes the Chinese railway workers who built the CPR, 17,000 of them who came in the 1880s and got paid a dollar a day and died by landslide and dynamite. They earned half as much as white workers. They died of scurvy, fed nothing but pâté chinois.
The air on the 506 is poisoned so easy. A man alone muttering nonstop, you can make out words like “Canadian” and “country,” swaying from a strap with someone’s nose in your armpit.
When I come, should I bring flowers if flowers will bring the scent of forest floors into your home?
If I arrive uninvited, could I arrive with wine in hand if wine might make songbirds flutter inside your rib cage?
I have no wine or flowers.
The day I crash your gates, I’ll be clutching fistfuls of joss paper and confetti your freshly swept floors.
Who do I think I am, to write about paifangs and rail workers and snails in black bean sauce? “At sites called Chinatowns, Chinese language, culture, cuisine, and artifacts have been torn free of their original referents and turned into spectacles in a power relation that constitutes a cultural and commercial appropriation of meanings.”
My life is this city and there are days my city is as small as the block between Dundas and Gerrard, Munro and Broadview. My hutong block. Junk stores and bao bakeries, delis and nail salons, tiny houses huddled elbow to elbow.
“The use of an ahistorical concept of Chinese culture as ideological device for reconfiguring race was not lost on them,” write Ruth Fincher and Jane M. Jacobs. In Cities of Difference they recount intersections of race and class in the 1970s redevelopment of Melbourne’s Chinatown, spearheaded by a Hong Kong entrepreneur and a white mayor. Merchants opposed the construction of pagodas made to resemble traditional entrances. “We want to be treated as Australians and with dignity.… We don’t want to bring back the image of an opium-smoking mah-jong–playing people which the whole concept of Chinatown encourages.”
Urban fabric is a social tissue. Woven out of connections as well as transactions. I live here but how many heres exist? There are the young people smoking outside of Hunter Internet Café, there are the Labatt drinkers in the submarine shop, there are the preteens yelling at each other outside the convenience store (“No More Than 3 Students at a Time”), there are the old folks playing xiangqi in the donut shop. There are churches and associations, living rooms, little leagues.
The key doesn’t fit. Shortly after midnight, I spend half an hour fiddling through my key chain, trying and retrying. I know this is the right one. It doesn’t fit. I try the others. I know they’re wrong. The right one is red with polka-dot smileys. For half an hour I stand under the Don’s Milk sign, fidgeting with a door, cars on Dundas zipping toward the DVP, police cruisers slowing down as they pass, streetcars clanging to a stop. A neighbour I’ve never met glares my way in the dark.
My cats are downstairs. At least one of the neighbours smokes inside, screams through her phone in the middle of the morning. What if she burns down the building and no one can get inside to save them? What if I’m locked out here for days and they starve and shit all over the place and think I’ve abandoned them?
Gates welcome, transform, exclude. They’re used to control, monitor, sort, judge, collect.
There are airport security gates, toll gates, the Pearly Gates, the Eye of a Needle Gate, the gates to Tianzi Palace, the cave on Lake Avernus, the subway turnstiles, ticket gates, Gateway — a pet cremation company, racing gates.
A gate is the difference between the saved and the unsaved, the living and the dead, refuge and danger, freedom and prison.
Sometimes towns become gateways to regions. St. Louis — Gateway to the West. Winnipeg, Fargo, Kansas City, Chongqing. In Suzhou there is a building shaped like a pair of pants called the “Gate to the East.” Edmonton — Gateway to the North. North Bay — Gateway City.
Not all neighbourhoods are so rich with symbols: the paifang, the Don Jail looking out over our little rooftops, the tower of mirrors that is Bridgepoint Health, the green truss bridge over Queen Street, the Broadview Hotel, the statue Sun Yat-sen with his back to Riverdale Park, the city itself, distant, watchable.
The city centre is where statues and architecture tell a narrative of place. Neighbourhoods are the effects of trends, the cost of building materials, accidental. The cottages and bungalows, the gabled townhouses south of Dundas. Riverdale sends mixed messages.
A bar opened up on Gerrard. It looks like it belongs on Dundas West. On the wall, there’s a mural. There are plenty of murals in Chinatown East, playful murals and murals of the Chinese zodiac. In this one, the 506 pulls to a stop at Broadview and Gerrard. Two crowds collide: getting on and getting off. Two lettuces bear a daikon radish out on a litter. A young man is walking the demon on a leash, growling. The lion of the Zhong Hua Men Archway advances. Somewhere in the background, a lobster, escaped from the tanks at Bill’s Lobster, saunters down the sidewalk.
I weave between the elderly shoppers, the stacked crates of fruit, the crab-bearing dollies, the trucks and testy drivers jockeying for prime parking spots by the supermarket. I race back toward Broadview, trailing hoisin-scented steam in the cold, like the ghost of a man fleeing. I sway, gently from left to right; they shut off the neon hanzi Pearl Court sign. I live in a city bursting with things I don’t always understand.
Little India: The Naaz by Susana Molinolo
In some Canadian towns
the liquor store’s called the drug store,
the co-op’s called the supermarket.
Here, there once was a cinema called the Naaz.
On blazing summer nights,
and cold-blue evenings
bulging golden lines wrapped around the block.
Sometimes red carpets were laid
for the Bollywood stars.
The neighbourhood smelled like bones growing,
the scent of former clay mines
and smoky sandalwood
learning to acquiesce.
The Naaz was like a giant elm
sprouting shiny new shops every week:
cold drink houses
buffet restaurants up and down the street
| PUNJABI CHAAT PALACE |
cardamom and kaftans for sale!
The mannequins at the emporium
in cinnamon sarees
ready for any occasion.
A cornucopia of sounds!
Chants of Falooda! Kulfi! Kashmiri tea!
Sultry silver music splashing out of tiny speakers
and the constant rusty rumblings of the streetcar.
The movie theatre’s now gone,
nibbled burnt bbq cobs litter the sidewalks
and the afternoon is sometimes large
the curious sun
watching us with all its lips.
Behind the dirty shop windows
stacks of roti makers,
and enough carron coins for the entire world.
The pastel desserts at the mini market
from the sidewalk they’re like derelicts.
Hydro poles rainbowed with posters:
Islamic poetry festival
affordable guitar lessons.
a kaleidoscope of events.
like in dreams:
graffiti rose alleyways
some familiar faces
and so many pigeons
that maybe you’ll start to fly.
there’s glowing trees
electric aroma of fires
and bubblegum giggles.
The modern merchants breathe in metamorphosis.
Tonight the sandwich boards say
the art studio is a pay-what-you-can yoga class
and the café is packed
no coffee in sight
just faces bathed with laughter.
the library is full
tiny sticky fingers,
still trying to map their way
to the moon.
Old Creation by Sadi Muktadir
It was always the summer. At least that’s how I remember it. On that street, all I can recall is the heat, the green leaves overhead, and the whirring of the streetcar as it blurred everything outside on its path to the bazaar. I hated it. The heat notwithstanding, I was being dragged by my mother on a Saturday afternoon to go shalwar kameez shopping, something I had no interest in. However, my father had insisted that my brother and I join my mother on Gerrard. He was working the night shift and would not be able to sleep if my brother and I were left at home with him.
I stuck my head outside the window of the streetcar and, as it slowed to a stop, a cloud of dust filled my lungs, making me cough in the midday heat. I was not ten yet, still too young to find anything cooler than sticking my head out of a moving streetcar’s window. I felt fingers pinch my knee hard. I yelped and yanked my head in, banging it against the window sill. My mother shot me a glare and that was all I needed. Her reprimands were quiet and discreet in public, but that’s all they had to be. I never mistook a quiet pinch for weakness. If I didn’t behave, I knew what awaited me at home, despite my best efforts to hide the damn stick again and again.
We followed the people off the streetcar; my mother held my younger brother’s hand while I trailed closely behind. I hated this place. My parents would always loiter here too long and stand in shops buying nothing while time passed. They would enter countless stores with unfamiliar script out front, walk around, argue and repeat the process for the entire length of the bazaar. I had no idea how long the street was, but that younger me felt years older at the end of each procession.
There was music playing that day. The sidewalk was crowded. Even then I could appreciate that the people here looked like me. There was no fear here. I’d had no idea there were this many South Asians in my city; I’d never seen such a large congregation of us anywhere else. In those intermittent trips into Little India, the number of people like me surprised me each time. The sounds of Hindi pop songs assailed my ears as we walked by the video stores; they cared little for my preference. When my mom slowed her pace by the man selling tandoori, I urged her to go faster. Even that treasured food couldn’t thin my disdain for the street.
Pop songs fought with other pop songs as people walked by each other in both directions. Here they were not in a hurry as the music and yells of chai sellers jockeyed for attention. We walked into Sona’s Sari Emporium and I groaned as I followed my mom into the air-conditioned store. Though the cool air was a welcome respite when it touched my skin, my nose wrinkled at the smell. The incense hung heavy in the air, projecting off of every pink, red, blue and green hue, filling my nostrils and hanging heavy on my shoulders as I lagged behind my mother. I performed a fake gag, doubling over on my knees in front of my brother who followed suit, doing the same thing but much louder. My mother shot me another withering glare, knowing exactly where my brother had picked up the mischief, though she hadn’t witnessed my performance herself.
She was busy leafing through the rack of colours with deft fingers, eyes on price tags instead of colours. I understood none of it. The desire for flashy colours with foreign smells instead of muted earths and muted flavours. At the very least, I wanted my mother to feel the cloth, to consider the colours and material, instead of thumbing the price tags and tracing a print over the inked number as if she could change it. A sales associate soon approached. A woman in a green shalwar kameez approached my mother, speaking in Hindi. My mom pointed at a tag and asked the woman a question. The woman smiled softly and shook her head. Even in the air-conditioned store, I could feel the heat rising on my face. I looked away with shame, hoping I wasn’t turning red. I understood the gist of what had transpired.
We walked out of the store and back on to the street. We passed by a man selling roasted corn. In front of him were two white people in a crowd of brown, holding white-and-green cups. They had wide smiles plastered on their faces, hands extended for the ears of corn, the red spice conspicuously absent only from theirs. I didn’t care. I couldn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t just buy a damn shalwar kameez without obsessing over the price. I understood her slow pace was born out of comfort here, as she looked out of place everywhere else. But as I followed my mother into Nucreation, I wondered why she had to milk the comfort for every breathless moment, not understanding that every moment recalled a faraway midday sun that suffocated you with heat.
These stores appeared to trick my mother, giving her an unhealthy reminder of how weak and out of place she was in this country, their familiar façade soon betraying their unyielding customs indoors. This idea was quickly put to rest in Nucreation. I felt the magic of Gerrard on that day. We walked in once again to the breath of cool air. I dragged my feet behind my mother, not daring to make a sound lest it be the last sound I ever made. My mother leafed through a rack of shalwar kameez while my younger brother dutifully hung on to her leg. I turned to my mother, too bored and tired and frustrated to give a damn.
“Ammu, why don’t you just pay the price it says on the tag?”
My mom didn’t say anything. Instead, she looked at me like I was stupid, disbelief and incomprehension were clear on her lifted brows. When the sales associate approached, the woman once again engaged my mother in conversation.
“Bhabi, these must be suggested prices, right?” my mom inquired.
“No, madam. We are fixed prices here,” the woman replied with a soft smile.
“Oh, I understand. But you wouldn’t charge these sort of prices on purpose, would you?” My mother was referring to a blue shalwar kameez she had in hand.
The associate took a quick glance at the tag. “It’s a fair price!” she said in indignation.
“No, no. If I return home with this and my husband sees the receipt … you know how our men are. Doesn’t matter what country they’re in, they think they know where their money should be going.”
The woman laughed. “Okay, today I can’t do more than ten, fifteen percent off,” she said, shaking her head.
“Nonsense! Bhabi — we came to this country to escape the robbers and crooks, not to find them here in a sari shop! Listen, I’ll buy a few things here and you can meet me at the cash register with a better number,” my mother replied.
The sales associate walked away chuckling while my mother returned to another rack.
I was in awe. I had no idea that my mom’s tactics could work. My face must have been frozen in a dumb expression because I remember my mother pausing in the middle of the next rack to look at me. She had a smile forming on one corner of her pink lips. The other corner remained controlled and restrained, as we were in public.
She gave me a look to unfreeze me; it was her turn to be ashamed. She thought I’d know better than to be surprised. My mother shook her head softly. This was her domain. Where things made sense and every subtle sound and movement was recognized. Nothing was a surprise. Here, I learned, she was still all-powerful.
Stay tuned to Open Book for the original texts from the winners in the regions of East York, North York, and Etobicoke over the coming months!
The OBPO and Open Book gratefully acknowledge the support of The Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Toronto Arts Council, Arts Etobicoke, North York Arts, East York Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.
Terri Favro’s novel Sputnik’s Children (ECW) was a CBC Books and Canadian Living recommended read for spring 2017. Terri is also the author of the awarding-winning novella The Proxy Bride, with a novel-length sequel upcoming from Inanna in fall 2017. A CBC Literary Prize finalist, Terri’s stories have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Humber Literary Review, Geist, Prism, and Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction.
Jason Freure is the editor of The Town Crier, the literary blog of The Puritan. He has also published work in Maisonneuve, Carte Blanche, Vallum, and Spacing. He lives in Toronto’s east end.
Susana Molinolo is Toronto based writer, producer, and community builder. Publication credits range from poetry in Taddle Creek Magazine to advertorial in The Globe and Mail. She is currently working on her first novel, The Buddha Luck.
Sadi Muktadir is a Toronto native born and raised, squandering his twenties working in an office downtown. He dreams of the day he can write every day, but until then, you can find him eating his way across the city, running 6ixspots with a close friend, a website devoted to celebrating the multicultural owners of the city's lesser known restaurants.