Dignity, Love, and Community in Catherine Hernandez’s Unique Debut Novel SCARBOROUGH

Scarborough is an impressive, ambitious debut novel by writer—among other things—Catherine Hernandez. (She’s also, to quote her website bio, a “proud queer woman of colour, radical mother, activist, theatre practitioner, burlesque performer, the Artistic Director of Sulong Theatre Company and the owner of Out and About Home Daycare”). Set in the city of Scarborough, which is east of Toronto and a large, culturally diverse, low-income municipality, this novel is unique: it’s rare to see a piece of fiction focus on a place and people like those in Scarborough with love and respect. I don’t know if there are any other novels focused so intimately on Scarborough and its people, actually. So for that fact alone, this is a noteworthy Canadian novel. But it’s not only that that makes Scarborough a worthwhile book.

Hernandez takes on the elaborate task of representing the community of Scarborough in all its diversity and truth admirably. The novel is focused intimately on the lives of Scarborough residents, without flinching. In particular, our way into this community is through three children: Bing, a queer Filipino kid with a single mom; Sylvie, Bing’s BFF and whose Mi’kmaq family lives in a shelter; and Laura, a white girl severely neglected by one parent and then the other. Hina, a program facilitator who runs a literacy program out of a local elementary school, serves as a kind of anchor point with connections to these kids and to many of the other characters. It was her story, actually, that I felt the most drawn to, although Hernandez writes compelling narratives for all the characters.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it, just like the book doesn’t: Scarborough can be a really tough read. It’s raw, sometimes heavy, and often emotionally hard-hitting. It made me cry. All of the characters, to varying degrees, are struggling to thrive and often to merely survive. Poverty affects them all, as do many intersecting oppressions, including racism, Islamophobia, and sexism. All of this marginalization makes dealing with other struggles a huge uphill battle. For example, Sylvie’s younger brother has autism and their mother, who has the whole weight of her family on her shoulders while she is living in a shelter with a sick husband who can’t work and two young kids, has to work so hard just to get a diagnosis, and then to make the various specialist appointments using the inadequate transit system. When she finally, finally, is able to communicate with her son using cards with pictures on them after trying for months, it’s such a beautiful, triumphant moment because you know how unbelievably hard she has worked to get there. Hina’s later success in dealing with her patronizing, unsupportive, and Islamophobic supervisor feels similarly glorious.

However much all these issues are at the forefront in their lives—how could they not be?—none of the characters are defined by their marginalizations. It’s really a treat to Hernandez weave complex portraits of these people that include but aren’t limited to their identities. Probably the most touching scene in the entire book is also the queerest: we get to watch Bing do a drag karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in front of his school through his mother’s eyes. It is SO BEAUTIFUL to see how proud she is of him and so affirming to see a mother embracing her child’s queerness so fully.

Catherine-Hernandezjpg.

Catherine Hernandez / Image via catherinehernandezcreates.com

I said this novel is ambitious, and mostly what I mean by that is that Hernandez sets out to tell this Scarborough story from many different perspectives. Each chapter begins with the name of a character and continues the many stories either in the first person or in the third person focused on that character’s perspective. Constructing a book from multiple perspectives is challenging for many writers; while I think overall Hernandez does a great job embodying the different voices—the writing of the emails between Hina and her supervisor are amazingly spot-on—the sheer amount of perspective changes made a disjointed reading experience for me. There were a few times where I was confused about whose perspective I was reading from and what had happened to them previously, despite the names at the top of the chapter. (There were so many characters that I couldn’t remember them all only by name; sometimes I was like, wait, who is so-and-so again?). I loved that so many different characters were included in the novel; it really added to the feeling of community that Scarborough represented. So I don’t think any characters would have been better left out, but some structural changes would have made a more cohesive story. I would have loved to interact with some of the more minor characters through the lens of the characters who get more page time if Hernandez chose to keep the multiple perspectives, or to see the lives of all of the characters represented through an omniscient narrator.

That said, I would still highly recommend Scarborough. It’s so amazing that this Canadian novel tells the stories of so many poor and/or people of colour with such dignity, respect, and affection. That’s something I hope to see so much more of in fiction from Catherine Hernandez and other queer writers in the future.

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About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
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