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"What's Your Story?" Read the Winning Texts of the 2018 OBPO Writing Contest Winners! Part Three: Scarborough

Scarborough

It's summer and that means the best time to read - whether it's inside with a fan or out in a park or on a beach. So grab your refreshment of choice and find some shade to take in four brand new, exclusive, and free to read pieces from four talented Toronto writers. We're excited to present the third set of winning texts from the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and Scarborough Arts's What's Your Story? literary contest. Today's winners represent the Scarborough region of the competition. 

The What's Your Story? contest recognizes both the wealth of literary talent in Toronto and puts a particular spotlight on the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York, and North York.

Without further ado, here are the 2018 Scarborough What's Your Story winners!

In the Established Writer category: Trillium Book Award- nominated author Alexandra Leggat, publisher of Two Wolves Press, whose books include The Incomparables and Animal (both Anvil Press), and acclaimed visual artist and author Petrose Tesfai. 

In the Emerging Writer category we have two exciting new voices: Nicole Bayes-Fleming and Natasha Ramoutar.

And we've still got one more set of winners to come in August from East York, so don't miss reading even more free, exclusive, Toronto stories! You can also check out all the winning texts from Etobicoke and North York

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Established Writer Category winners, Scarborough region

"The Ruminants" by Alexandra Leggat

Every day at half past three, the dogs and I head to the curve of our road. Walk down the steep hill littered with tilting pines and fallen silver birch that twists from Galloway Road through the hidden way into Morningside Park. Sometimes I drop the dogs’ leashes or else they’ll pull me off my feet and I’ll be dragged down like a rag doll. They are well-intentioned, excited, unaware of their strength. We head into the park at dusk to see the deer. They are always there at dusk and dawn, near the entrance, where other people venture in to feed them, to feed on the beauty of graceful creatures. I imagine for the others, like me, being in the presence of the deer is salvation, peace, a sanctuary from the stress of a day, from the city, jobs, marriage, children, parents, grief, loneliness, relationships, bills, debt, the vastness of a house one rents in a place called West Hill with two northern dogs I call the wolves.

 

We moved from a one-bedroom apartment in the Beaches. Picturesque but not in an open way. Like an Ansel Adams photograph, a-natural-setting-framed-and-behind-glass picturesque. Constricted. A part of the east end of the city along Lake Ontario, thin sidewalks, vein-like. In the summer it’s congested with young parents coddling small children, golden retrievers, and shopping buggies. In the summer, the clogging worsens with tourists. Then there was me, sledding across its surface with my Inuit sled dog and Alaskan malamute, like warm air on skin, I thought, unaware of the fear I caused. “The wolves!” kids screamed. Yes, I squealed, but no, no, no. Parents’ eyes on us as wide and dark as the lake, the comments thin and sharp like the sidewalks, like the minds of the whisperers, began to wear me down. Live and let live, I’ve always believed. “You shouldn’t have dogs like that in the city,” some muttered and I’d say, we’re not in the city. The more tense I became, the tenser the dogs became, their howls and growls, their natural way of communicating intensified and we were vilified, “Direwolves?” some asked and, having never seen Game of Thrones, I was lost.

 

“These breeds are the purest of all dogs, the closest thing to wolves I have ever worked with,” said their trainer, and to someone like her, to someone like me, that meant everything, a good thing “They haven’t had their natural instincts bred out of them,” she said, and I thought, lovely. Neither have I.

 

I packed the wolves and the contents of that one-bedroom apartment in the Beaches into my trusty red Dodge Caravan and drove farther east. Followed the winding shoreline, the evolving, broadening sky. The reaching trees, trees whose history spoke to me through the palms of my hands, filled my tired lungs with oxygen, gave me breath. In a dream they whispered, “This way, dear, our home is your home, don’t look back.” And I woke rejuvenated, despite my sister's echoes: “It’s not a good idea to make big decisions, like moving again, when you’re going through …” She stopped, looked around. Go ahead, I thought. Just say it. “Well, life-changing traumas, you know …” I stood up and loomed over her, “The annihilation of a marriage, is that what you want to say?” She shook her head and said she would never have worded it that way. She said this as we sipped wine in the one-bedroom apartment and my mother’s phone messages whistled. “You’re running away. You’re always running away.” When I’m in the park with the deer and the wolves, all the communication I need comes from the comforting signs of a creature that is just as cautious of people as I am. A creature that makes a big decision every time it comes out of hiding to eat.

 

I explore the definition of deer: Deer are the ruminant mammals forming the family Cervidae. Six deer materialize from the woods into Morningside Park, a family. Two babies, which are the boldest. The deer are there before I see them, surveying the surroundings, I imagine. Until I detect movement. Coats blend with the tree trunks, the white under their tails hidden. They send a baby out first, like a scout, then the others tiptoe behind them. Dainty step by dainty step they merge onto concrete. Ethereal, ghostly. It takes a moment for the eye to adjust. Even in photographs an airy element to their form remains. The closer they move into my world, they become more defined, real. They converge on the open space where people feed the birds. Join the cardinals, blue jays, gophers, and squirrels, to dine together at half-past three. I remain still as I can be. The wolves observe like real wolves, frozen, noses in the air. The slightest movement causes the adult deer to flinch, heads bop up, dark eyes widen, fragile ears and legs stiffen, exhibiting caution — but they don’t run away. The babies trudge forward, fearless. At what point in their lives do the young become cautious, fearful?

At what point did I?

 

I look up the word ruminant. Read the second definition first – a contemplative person; a person given to meditation. Then I read the adjective, of or belonging to ruminants.

 

My sister calls to see how things are going. “Beautiful,” I say. She’s quiet for a second then says, “I’m worried you’re too isolated out there.” She says “out there” like I am in space. I was isolated in the city. Here, I belong. I belong to my neighbourhood, to West Hill, even to the deer. A ruminant, of or belonging to ruminants. “I am out in space,” I tell her. Surrounded by space, open sky, wide roads, the Rouge Valley, East Point Park, Morningside Park, vast. Some days we walk for miles, me and the wolves, never encountering another person. If we do, they smile, they wave, they pet the wolves, fearless.

 

“Why don’t you come and stay with us for a few days?” I ask my sister. “Relax. We can go to the park, see the deer. I want to show you the deer. Then you’ll see.” She says she’s busy for the next few weeks, but she will, she will come to visit, she will.

 

My mother arrives with flowers and treats for the wolves. They howl, make a fuss over her, which makes her happy. She brings me dish towels as a housewarming present. Though she means well, they are the wrong colour. My new kitchen is blue. She brought me yellow towels. She says blue symbolizes sadness. I disagree. “It represents peace, spirituality.” She rolls her eyes. I take the towels. “Yellow,” she says, “symbolizes joy and happiness.” It doesn’t matter, I say, I like blue. I show her the spare bedroom; the door closes on its own. Her voice murmurs behind it, probably about my colour schemes. My family’s convinced I fled the city into a three-bedroom detached bungalow where I know nobody because I am sad, affected by the end of things. On the contrary, I’m jubilant, bursting with happiness. I am free. Revelling in the company of new friends, and neighbours who have a naturalness about them as refreshing and true as the creatures I encounter in the park.

I pour my mother a glass of wine. “lt’s lovely,” she says. “So much space.”

“The house?” I say.

She nods and adds, “For one person.” She takes her glass of wine. “It’s a real house for a change, for you.” She laughs, hits my arm. I could never afford a “real house” on my own in the city. I put down my wine, decide I’ve finished justifying my choices.

“Come with me, I want to show you something.”

I help my mother and the wolves into my trusty Dodge caravan. Walk around to the driver’s side, run my hand over its glistening red paint. Red symbolizes courage, passion, love, vibrancy, and determination. One of my neighbours walks by, waves, asks how I am. I tell him, well. Really well. “Where’s the wolves?” he says. I pat the van and smile. “Tell ’em I say hi.” I thank him. I am thankful. I hop in the van.

“Where are we going?” my mother asks. I start the engine, think about her question. Where are we going? Any one of us. I left behind everything that others covet, friends, families, a high-paying job at the university, to serve tables in a small bistro by the water. The wolves and I settled into a place as far east as we could go before crossing the line into a county. The novelties of the metropolis thrive within easy access. My friends are forever close within me. I am not blue. I am red.

“Well?” my mother says. I look at the time. It’s 3:25. I take a deep breath. I can breathe knowing that the park, the deer, will speak for me.

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"A Pose" by Petrose Tesfai

“At capacity, a silent solidarity exists in a TTC vehicle … while it moves … from your bedroom window you can see where you were born … Scarborough General Hospital’s taupe cylindrical tower juxtaposed with industrial warehouse rooftops, busy bridges, chopped horizons grounding the sky … at night the earthly constellation embers … due to elevation your vision appears in multiple viewpoints … is that why the floors of a building can also be called stories?

“You’re rolling your eyes … exercise to treat your visual impairment … something is different … maybe worse … too early to tell … you no longer feel despair of pain without relief … you were impressed by the family lineage of a thirty-eighth-generation Chinese-medicine doctor who’d advocated for this eye exercise … do you know your own history?

“Immigrant … family … homeowners … the colonial presence of Scarborough is over unceded territory … Anishinaabe … indigenous communities … their land spans across and beyond settler states like Canada … do your neighbours know you?

“There must be more work here than temporary labour … there must be more time to realize what is partially recognizable … what others are feeling about what they have said … what you say as if they were you … imagining yourself as a disembodied perspective watching the performance from nowhere … out-of-body-experience … is this music?

William Basinski’s Garden of Brokenness had represented exactly how you’d felt … at that moment it presented itself … you played it again and again to feel that way … although music was not the cause of any evocative memory it evoked something … a trace of something limpid … empathy for the past … maybe that’s what you were pining for … pining before … after … maybe only during representation … you want to believe … melodies are manifestations of the holy spirit … prayer and worship can emerge from song and vice versa … you were raised by immigrant communities … they raise everybody … intergenerational trauma precludes any living memory … you are passive-aggressive … you displace emotions caused by the displacement of your body as a member of global diaspora … you are benefiting … suffering … concurrent marginalization and discrimination against people like you … not the right time … nor the right place … for now … just writing … this is how to be somebody … to be okay … you scribble notes … starting … stopping … starting again … holding each corner still … diverting your plane of sight rapidly relieves the strain of your optic nerves … what is an eye to its beholder; ball or socket; organ itself or space it occupies?

“The major intersection nearest to your home is Kennedy and Ellesmere … there the downtown skyline is invisible … you’d seen it every morning on a bridge … on your walk to school … going to Agincourt … now you just go to the library … take the 43A bus down Kennedy Road through the underpass of Highway 401 … Highway of Heroes dedicated to fallen soldiers … 43B detours to Town Centre … a third bus … NOT IN SERVICE … embark until Shepard Avenue … disembark … walk through Agincourt Mall unless you prefer to stop at Cardwell Avenue and cross the back parking lot … you remember travelling a few minutes farther north on Birchmount Road years ago … curvy residential streets … Tim Hortons … parkette … another Tim Hortons … the last of the desiccated maple leaves gathering in brown-fenced ditches … snowbanks … bus routes punctuating pedestrian traffic … which way is north?

“You are in the library … in school you learned that a parallelogram is a quadrilateral with two pairs of parallel sides … you learned the invariability of your alienation could be as much of a joke as your appearance … there was a racist colloquial nickname for Agincourt … teachers told you it was part of the most ethnically diverse region of the most ethnically diverse city in the world … most of your teachers were white … you are daydreaming … a few condos came after your time … you guessed explicitly or intuitively … how these developments could stand between a golf course and a Walmart … whenever you walk by residents peek out from the indoor pool … treadmill gym … balconies … what is curb exposure?

“The library is bustling … you check in your borrowed materials: Black Looks by bell hooks; The Fluency of Light by Aisha Sabatini Sloan; Familiar Stranger by Stuart Hall … these books have been on your person for days, later they will end up in someone else’s home or workplace or private spa and other unimaginable places … is this community sharing?

“You reckon the public library’s inter-regional delivery system was intended for internal use then instituted as one of its perennial community services … it is nonetheless convenient … is this more or less accessible to families than commercial food delivery?

“You recall the intense marketing campaigns by courier firms during summertime … food insecurity all over the Greater Toronto Area … Earth … you ask yourself embarrassing questions implicating your involvement in the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy state of Canada … you feel guilty … that makes you feel more guilty … you hum hymns … you speak to yourself over the music or the music imposes itself on your thinking … you wondered about the racist conception of backwardness after reading a tweet by Hannah Black: criminality is a fascist concept … Black wrote a book with Juliana Huxtable: Life … you read Huxtable’s own book Mucus in My Pineal Gland daily, like a bible … purchased downtown with a copy of Hervé Guibert’s Crazy For Vincent … your friend who is reading it first told you it is romantic and engrossing except for its recurrent problematic notions … walking through the library’s first floor awed at the sheer amount of published materials … you wondered how many gurus and clergy and motivational speakers are aware of their proliferate sampling by underground hip-hop artists … this train of thought leads you to the second floor … 819.1 LAU: Oedipal Dreams by Evelyn Lau … you flip through to page 74: Walking in Toronto at six AM … the music video for Drake’s “5 AM in Toronto” has a warm fluorescent white balance complimented by neon blue spotlights … during the summer of 2016 … a friend of Drake … Anthony “Fif” Soares was murdered in the lobby of an apartment building in Scarborough … during the investigation police solicited witness testimony at the lobby of your building … during the subsequent news circulation Huda Hassan wrote an article titled “Why Police Asking Drake to Help Investigate His Friend’s Murder Is Wrong & Offensive”… Agincourt Library closes at 8:30 p.m. on weekdays … 811 ANG: And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou; page 49 … you said we are still learning how to love each other … golden ribbons on your mother’s luggage marked to differentiate them from the rest … 819.32 HUM The River by Helen Humphreys … from a chapter called Anthropocene … an old way of catching bullfrogs… with a red tablecloth …crystalline precipitation on windows mark the temperature difference of indoors from outdoors … strangers ask about the weather … when would they ask about climate change?

“James Baldwin’s unsegmented report, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, contains a snide remark about Irish-American immigrants, among the rest of the comic relief to its heavy historical subject matter, that belies and perhaps betrays a dark humour apparent in the author … by now wondering is like a state of undress … you wonder … aren’t black people … aren’t we … metaphysically capable of being racist?

“Somewhere along the subway … an East York station like Woodbine … the passengers change colour … there is silence … is there solidarity?

The bluffs … motel strip housing homeless families … property values … CN Tower … you feel like flying overseas … the trip home seems shorter than the journey … somewhere on the internet you happen to find Richard Bruce Nugent’s Harlem-renaissance work, Smoke, Lilies and Jade 

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Emerging Writer Category winners, Scarborough region

"Intersections" by Nicole Bayes-Fleming

It was an aggressively grey day. The street lamps remained on even though it was nearly nine a.m., and fog from the lake hung over them. The sidewalks were painted with ice that gave a satisfying crack if she stepped on it right, but sent her sliding when she misjudged it. Danielle walked to the bus stop that way, cracking and sliding, her toes and fingers slowly turning to stone. She curled up her fingers into her palms. There hadn’t been fresh snow in a couple of days, so all the snow that had been on the road had turned into a thick brown sludge. Slush pooled at the curb at every street crossing, and by the time she made it to the bus stop her boots and socks were soaked through.

She didn’t like having to be up so early on a Saturday, but she did like getting to take the bus. She felt like a real city girl, dropping her coins into the till and pulling the yellow cord when it came to her stop. Her mother didn’t want her to take the bus, because she thought it was unsafe, and always said, “It makes me nervous, you taking that bus into Scarborough.”

“But we live in Scarborough,” Danielle would argue.

“We live in the Rouge.”

“Same thing.”

“No,” her mother would say, “It’s not.”

And of course Danielle knew it wasn’t. Real Scarborough was on the news most nights, it had a reputation that made Ken Shaw assume a sombre mask and intone guns and gangs in his deep news-anchor inflection. Her mom would tsk and say, “These reporters never name the intersection, not all parts of Scarborough are so bad.” By this she meant their part of Scarborough, the Rouge, which had been filtered through the fine net of white suburbia, and didn’t have cops in any of the high schools, and was safe except for the coyotes that sometimes came up from the ravine and preyed on their dogs.

So Danielle waited for the bus in the safe part of Scarborough. The bus was late, which wasn’t unusual. When it showed up, it was an older model with a poster on the inside that said Ride the Rocket!, a slogan she had forgotten about. She took a seat near the back. Because she got on at one of the first stops the bus was mostly empty, but it became crowded as it bumped along farther west into the city. She rested her head against the cold plate of the window and let all the different languages people were speaking fall on top of her.

The languages were the reason she was on the bus in the first place. Danielle had grown up listening to people speak words she didn’t understand, at the mall or the nail salon, and sometimes at one of her friend’s houses after school if their parents didn’t know English yet, or didn’t want her to know what they were saying. When she was little, she had thought everyone heard English inside their heads, but that some people knew how to speak in code. She didn’t know any codes and it made her jealous. Her parents had grown up in Canada, and their parents had grown up in Canada, and their parents had grown up in Canada, too. If they’d ever known any other language it had been forgotten.

“It’s like our ancestors came off the very first boat,” Danielle complained. “They must have been on the frickin’ Mayflower.”

And her mother pinched her lips and said, “That’s American.”

Her craving for another language to wrap her words around was why she’d decided to sign up for French again, even though she was old enough that it was no longer mandatory. If she and her brother spoke something else, like French, they could turn to one another on the bus and wrinkle their noses at the back of the man sitting in front of them and whisper, Mon dieu, cet homme sent mauvais! They would laugh, and he would never know we were talking about him.

That was all she wanted, but she wasn’t very good at French. She could never remember the Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp verbs correctly, and always made mistakes when trying to use le passé composé. Then the class was introduced to l’imparfait, and she could never keep straight how to say things in the past at all. So she could only speak in the present tense, and she wasn’t passing the class by as much as her parents would like her to be, which had motivated her mother to find a tutor for her nearby.

The tutor’s name was Mme. Bernardo, which wasn’t a good name to have in their part of Toronto. Many of their mothers could still remember the extra caution they took walking home after evening classes at the campus over in Highland Creek, back when the Scarborough Rapist made young women afraid of the easiest things, like standing at the bus stop after dark. Their fear was so large that it leaked onto men, managing to transform even the surliest of TTC drivers into people who were as protective of them as their own fathers.

Now Bernardo and his awful wife had been caught, and their mothers were safe, but they all remembered that name. Her own mother refused to let her go to Mme. Bernardo’s house for tutelage the way the rest of the students she tutored did, which was a bit embarrassing, and instead they always met at the library near Thomson Memorial Park. Danielle always thought of that park fondly, because she used to have cross-country meets there when she was in elementary school, running in between the power lines. There was a little pioneer village at the park and after they raced she’d always beg her parents to take her there, so she could get dressed up in bonnets and petticoats, but they never would, since she was all sweaty and her legs were covered in mud and grass clippings.

The bus was almost at her stop. Danielle pulled the cord, zipped her jacket up to her chin, and got up, sliding past the person next to her. She pushed her way to the doors as the bus slowed to an unwilling halt. The doors opened with a press of air and she stepped off into the cold, shivering at the intersection as she waited for the light to change, watching the red hand morph into the walking man. She crossed the street and walked down McCowan, wondering how her life would have been different if she’d lived in one of the houses along there, if it would have been so different, what high school she would have gone to, whether that high school would have offered up a language course other than French. 

Because the bus had been late to pick her up, she was a bit late to meet the tutor. She got to the library and went to their usual spot, close to the back, so that when they spoke they wouldn’t be told by the librarians to keep their voices down. Mme. Bernardo was already there with the French-English dictionary and Bescherelle she let Danielle use sitting on the table in front of her. She was texting on her phone, but looked up when she heard Danielle approach and waived and said, “Salut, comment ça va, avez-vous votre cahier aujourd’hui?”

Danielle had forgotten her cahier last week, which had been annoying for both of them, because they’d had to spend most of the time making present-tense small talk in Danielle’s limited French vocabulary. But today she had it packed in her bag, along with a water bottle and a snack for later, and she sat down with this woman with the bad name in the bad part of Scarborough, and replied to her questions in her bad French.

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"Summer '16" by Natasha Ramoutar

This summer we’re just driving through the 6 with the windows down and sunroof open, screaming to One Dance even though its last year’s song. We’re steady singing about Summer ’16 as if we didn’t just lounge at home like sweet potatoes, streaming Community and dreaming of trips we couldn’t afford to sand-strewn beaches and open water. To places that look more like home.

*

Drake’s forever the sweetheart of the 6. I know those girls who screamed when he rapped about that Markham Road exit, like he wrote us into existence. Pretty girls in the Vern — ain’t nobody who’d dispute that.

*

But now the moon is out and the windows are rolled up as me and the baes watch street lamps blur driving down the DVP. We all grew up on the outskirts of the city, in the crevices that housed immigrant families. We knew the best chili chicken spots before we had money to buy it.

We never used to go downtown to get turnt because they only played that top 40s bullshit, and we were used to Scarborough dancehall and soca at every grade eight dance, at every high school semi-formal. At least one of our cousins was an up-and-coming Scarborough DJ — there was one in every family — and they usually played at these events for free. Then Drake’s “Controlla” and “One Dance” came out, revolutionized the whole scene like some gateway drug to island beats.

Lemonade and vodka passes hands in the back seat. This highway is the bridge to an unfamiliar city.

*

It’s uncanny seeing Toronto in this man’s videos. Eerier still when we see our suburb in those Grecian pillars up in the Guild, or outside of local joints as if this man is hitting up Markham Station at 2:00 a.m. like the rest of us.

Gotta admit, though — even though he’s a Toronto mans, mans got no whine game against Rihanna.

*

We get there in our crop tops and high-waisted shorts, skipping cover ’cause we slaying the arrival before 11:00 p.m. Shorts & Skirts, a dancehall night up in some next spot downtown. We sip on rum and cokes, that dark brown liquor, as we wait for the track to change, bobbing politely to that top 40s.

They start playing “Controlla” in the club when we’re waiting for Beenie and Vybz. We look at each other, shake our hips a little, get down but not too down, not authentically down. It’s the new-age old question: which came first — Drake or patois?

*

This is not a new discovery. Summer ’16 is not some Christopher Columbus or Jacques Cartier bullshit.

We’ve always been trying to leave our marks, but our footprints are swept away as fast as we make them.

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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.

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Nicole Bayes-Fleming grew up in Scarborough and graduated with a journalism degree from Carleton University in 2017. Her writing has been featured in multiple publications including the Globe and Mail and Ottawa Magazine. She has previously worked as an editor, and has been writing short stories since she was eight years old.

Alexandra Leggat is an author, freelance editor, owner of Two Wolves Press, and a creative-writing instructor at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her work has been published in journals across North America. She has written for the Globe and Mail and was a sports columnist for Toro Magazine.

Natasha Ramoutar is an emerging writer of Indo-Guyanese descent from Scarborough, Ontario. She completed her honours bachelor of arts in English and French from the University of Toronto Scarborough in November 2016, and started the Master of Professional Communication program at Ryerson University in September 2017. Her writing often explores diaspora, physical movement, fragmentation, and folklore. Her latest piece, “In Between,” is forthcoming from Understorey Magazine.

Petrose Tesfai (born 1995) is a writer and visual artist in Scarborough, but sometimes not. His work addresses identity and politics through representation, community is always relevant.