A diary can be a powerful portal. In Denise Da Costa's And The Walls Came Down (Dundurn Press), Delia Ellis returns to her childhood home in east Toronto, years after making her ways through the trials and subtle digs that came with being a daughter of one of the only Black families in her neighbourhood.
By now, the young girl she once was feels far away. But when she rescues her old diary from the home before it's demolished, the past comes rushing back: Her formidable Jamaican mother, her beloved father—and later, her bumbling step-father—the move to a Toronto public housing complex, and her plan to reunite her parents that had far-retching and unexpected consequences.
Re-reading the diary forces Delia to reckon with the narrative she built around her life, and in particular around her parents' relationship. With adult eyes, she meets her mother as a woman holding everything together, emerging from a failed marriage, and protecting her children through poverty and discrimination.
Deeply seeped in its 1990s Toronto setting, And The Walls Came Down is a stunning portrait of a woman not only reckoning with her past but confronting the fault lines in her own memory. Wise and raw, and anchored in the irresistible and powerful character of Delia, the novel asks probing questions about home, community, family, and responsibility. Da Costa's elegant prose whisks the reader through a story that marks an important literary debut.
We're proud to share an excerpt from And The Walls Came Down today, courtesy of Dundurn Press. Here we meet Delia and her family, and witness her powerful mother's refusal to let a passive aggressive, condescending landlady push past her boundaries.
Excerpt from And The Walls Came Down by Denise Da Costa:
The city of Hadsworth, Ontario, encompassed two hundred square kilometres of protected green space and tedious cookie-cutter brick developments. If you weren’t young enough to have time on your side, it was the kind of place where you felt you were going in circles. Every intersection looked the same. Every month. Every year. And we were on the outskirts of the vortex drifting in with the pull. My parents referred to our time there as the “meantime plan.” Only a forty-minute drive to Toronto, the suburb was a suitable place to raise children — safe, with high graduation and university acceptance rates. While living there provided my parents with an illusion of modern civility and normalcy, the conservative hub was a united front of “the evolved,” though not particularly involved, citizens who claimed to share a vision.
We rented the basement of a split-bungalow on a corner lot, a short walk from the local middle school. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I got along well with our landlord’s son, Alex, a pleasant, buck-toothed brunette with an adorable bowl cut and a quick sense of humour. We spent loads of time playing video games, but our relationship was one of convenience; all that stood between us was two panel doors and a set of stairs. When we first moved in, I’d just started the sixth grade and I begged Alex not to tell anyone that I lived in his basement. No one else we knew shared a house with someone. I was afraid they’d treat me differently. It ought to have been an easy secret to keep. Then one day as I was taking the garbage into the laneway, I bumped into Alex and his friend Joey. They were heading back from a neighbour’s pool, dragging float mats that left a wide, wet trail behind them. Joey stopped in his tracks when he saw me. With his skinny pale legs sticking out of red swim trunks, he looked like a matchstick on fire.
I don’t remember laughing but I must have, because for the next few days, I spent a considerable amount of recess time staving off rumours of a budding romance between me and Alex. Our peers held court, demanding we explain ourselves. Alex insisted he didn’t like me “that way” and that my family rented from his mother.
Things only got worse from there. A short-sighted bully named Sam, who only spoke to girls who wore bras, left the tetherball game he was playing to put in his two cents.
“My uncle lives in my nana’s basement. My dad says he’s a loser.”
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He shared a high-five with some other kid.
I sat in class, mortified and too distracted to do schoolwork.
Notes flew over desks. People teased. Except Alex, whom I ignored for two weeks, and even after, I never truly trusted anyone. On most lunch breaks, I retreated to the far corner of the library writing away my fears, fantasizing about my future wealth, and plotting the ruin of my enemies.
In winter, a pervasive silence filled the grey streets of Hadsworth until snow blowers and plows emerged to scrape the soft white snow to the edges of its suburban palette. In spring, everything came alive: the buzz of lawnmowers, gritting saws, and clatter of wood drowning out the voices of children playing. By Canada Day, with short-term renovations completed, neighbours issued generous invites to my father.
“Cliff, come by this weekend to see our new so-and-so. Bring the wife and kids.” As though we were generic accessories.
This was progress. After we first moved in, our landlords were inundated with questions about the well-dressed Black couple (or “coloured,” depending on who was asking). My sister and I listened to our parents debrief as we washed supper dishes, Mother’s body stretched out on the couch, head resting in Father’s lap. He’d stroke her arm as they traded stories in broken patois.
“Rita, di man was staring so long I had to get out of the car and say ‘good morning.’”
Rolling bouts of laughter ensued. Then it would be Mother’s turn.
“There I was, minding my own business when dis ol’ woman walking a little ugly dog stopped to ask if I was di cleaning lady.”
“What?” My father reacted in feigned disbelief.
They kept their voices low, since the door to the main floor was six feet away and Alex’s mother hovered over our heads. I observed them, realizing that having each other allowed them to laugh at the hurtful things.
Eventually, people came to see my father as non-threatening and Mother as the mysterious, stylish woman who declined their wine, which further intrigued them. After summer festivities came the chill of fall, followed again by winter, when we bolted up in our houses again. All trace of life manifested in tire tracks and footsteps in the snow, ice scrapers and shovels left leaning against the double-car garages.
Typically, on a Saturday, as Seventh-day Adventists, we would have been at church, but I chose to stay home while my parents took Melissa to have two cavities filled. She was already crying about it at the breakfast table, and I was unwilling to bear a long car ride of her tears. I sat in the cold yellow kitchenette in my purple pyjamas, my hair unbraided, swinging my feet above the shiny white ceramic tile. While enjoying my own company, I was startled by a jostling coming from the connecting door. Before I could call out, I heard Alex’s mother in the stairway.
“Wait ’till you see the tile. It’s gorgeous.”
“They’re all down there... all four of them?” a strange woman said.
“Yes, the girls share a room. I don’t mind.”
“That’s awful. I couldn’t raise my kids in a basement,” said the other woman.
The key rattled in the lock.
“Well, I’m sending Alex to live down here as soon as he turns thirteen.”
Their short-lived laughter broke as the basement door swung open, and they stood transfixed on the threshold. My raised eyebrows met their tight crocodile smiles.
“I... I didn’t know anyone was home. Sorry about that.”
“I’ll let them know you came by.” I waved.
Before my parents had removed their shoes, I filled them in — sparing no details — from the landlord’s hasty entrance to their quick retreat into the mustard hollow of the staircase.
My parents grimaced at the door, and when I finished, Mother quietly removed her heels and dropped her purse onto the counter.
“She brought a stranger in here.” She turned to my father.
“They didn’t come in,” I said. “I was here.”
Her eyes were fixed on the door. My father changed the topic, and they seemingly forgot until that night, when their voices came through the walls of our bedroom.
“So, she can show off the tile but won’t replace the stove,” Mother said. “It’s an invasion of privacy, Cliff.”
“Can’t tell people what to do in their own house.”
“I’m going to give her a piece of my mind.”
“Give her a chance to come to her own reckoning. Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down. I knew the minute I met her, we shouldn’t take this place... acting like she was doing us a favour.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Of course not, because that would make you the critic — and that is my job.”
The next day, as Melissa and I did homework at the table, Mother emerged from her room in a plume of rose, wearing a fitted black dress and a serious look.
“I’ll be right back.” She went out.
Moments later, at the ring of the upstairs doorbell, Melissa ran to the basement door.
“I need to speak with you, Helen,” we heard our mother say, followed by the familiar tap of her heels against the floor.
“Is there something wrong with the stove again? I’ve been so busy. I was thinking since Cliff is handy... maybe he can take a look.”
“How dare you enter my premises and parade your company around like it’s a museum.”
“Excuse me? I have a right to inspect every area of my house.”
“With due notice, which I did not receive.”
“It’s a simple misunderstanding. No need for you to overreact.”
“I’m not interested in your assessment of my reaction to your mistake. Don’t let it happen again. Thank you.”
The front door slammed shut. Melissa and I scurried back to our seats and soon after, Mother came in, seething.
“When your father gets here,” she said, “I bet he’ll try to smooth things over, and I’m not interested.”
She snatched the keys from the rack and turned to us.
“I’ll park my car on the street and get tickets if need be. Don’t need her goddamn driveway.”
“Yeesh, she’s so cranky,” Melissa said.
“I kinda get how she feels,” I said, thinking of the kids at school who made me feel small in ways I found difficult to explain.
Excerpt taken from And The Walls Came Down by Denise Da Costa, a novel published by Dundurn Press. Copyright Denise Da Costa, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
Denise Da Costa is a Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist whose work is featured in Subdivided: City Building in an Age of Hyper Diversity. She lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.