Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez is one of those book I’ve read in 2020, that baffles me as to why it wasn’t nominated for the prestigious book awards that are famous around the world. I’m talking the Booker Prize, Women’s Prize for fiction etc.
The story is such an enchanting, multi-character driven plot about low-income families living in Scarborough, a neighborhood in Toronto, Canada that I can’t believe the themes she touched upon, weren’t worth a shot at mainstream praise and accolade.
Scarborough is a book that I stumbled upon through a friend of mine. I was recommended to read it a year ago, but only got it this month. Still, I found that this short, yet profound story of the culturally diverse and prejudiced reality that many low-income families – in different areas around Canada – live in is a remarkable book.
There were passages in this book that felt whimsical and almost movie like. I mean, Scarborough could make for a beautifully, heart-breaking independent movie that can touch many people. I still wonder why many people don’t talk about it? The author: Catherine Hernandez has a way of writing where each character feels like an extension of her.
But before I go onto those, I want to talk about the plot of Scarborough.
The story begins with a Muslim, hijab wearing social worker: Hina getting her employment offer to work at the provincially-funded literacy center, where parents are encouraged to play and observe their children. It is aimed at parents from the low-income class to come and join their children, so that they can be part of their child’s upbringing.
Similarly, we move onto the children and parents that frequent this center. All of them have problems and are struggling with medical issues, violent partners, temporary jobs, and basically everyone living with their ends stretched. We meet Bing, a genius Filipino boy who’s mother works at a nail salon, Sylvie; his best friend who’s mother has to take care of her younger brother on the spectrum and is a Native girl.
“Every day after school, families with lighter skin and two whole parents with two whole jobs drive to the ice rink for hockey lessons. Out of the minivans, their back windows illustrated with those family stickers: the largest stick figure, a father; the medium-sized one in a skirt, the mother; and so on to show everyone their three healthy children, their cat, their dog, emerge these perfect families, hockey gear and all, their ice skates clinking as they rush inside.
We, the brown kids with one and one-half parents, with siblings from different dads we see only in photos; we who call our grandmothers Mom; we who touch our father’s hands through Plexiglas; we wait for their fanfare to be over.”
Then we meet, Laura who is left by her mother with her clothes in two plastic bags, to her dad who has a mean temper and racist tendencies. The neglect that follows from her mother to her father, eventually causes an event that ripples through the story like an earthquake, affecting every one.
All of these characters live in the shelter home with their families, where we are introduced to other people from different ethnicities and are given glimpses into their lives. Throughout the story we also see how Hina is trying to be a pillar of support for the children and their parents, even if some parents attack her racially.
“This mountain-high remnant of the nuclear family was what we delighted in, mid-winter, climbing to the top in our second-hand sneakers and sliding down on garbage bags. This shadow of the outlines we never live up to is what we took in handfuls, to throw at each other in fits of laughter and joy.”
For her, the kids and their wellbeing, even if it means feeding them breakfast knowing they may not have had much or any, is one of the ways she tries to make an impact. However, her reports on her efforts is met with a passive aggressive attitude by her supervisor, who not only makes racist comments about her hijab and her political views outside of work, but forces her to do work outside of the facility and working hours, without compensation.
Gradually, Hina gets it under control, but her storyline hit me hard, because this is a reality so many Muslim women face in the West, whether they wear the Hijab or not. Similarly, Scarborough plot line on Bing, Sylvie and Laura, and their parents struggle just broke my hearts multiple times over.
What Scarborough accomplishes is that is shines a light on a class of people that we don’t bother to pay attention. We assume that they don’t exist, and so their struggles or their demons have no place other than in headlines. There was another character of a young Black artist who was racially profiled by the Police and taken to the station just because he had expensive paint with him.
“If you were to ask me the exact details of the first time I was told cops are not to be trusted, to e truthful I wouldn’t even remember. It’s like having a memory of when you first tie a show by yourself. The event was so long ago”
Paint that he was given for a project that he was hired for. This goes to show how racism and prejudice is seeped deep into the society they live in, and how this glimpse into the lives of culturally diverse and different families is part of the reality we all live in.
Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez is amazing story, written with a simple yet remarkable clarity, where each character and their lives is connected to form the bigger picture of life in Scarborough, Toronto. This story touched my heart, and I found the author to do justice to each and every character and their cultural identity, without pandering.
Onto the basics:
Favourite quote: “You’re like aligning yourself, you know? Aligning yourself with the energy of these desires. If you say I want this, I want that, the universe will only reflect back to you, that you’re a person who wants thing. Not has things.”
Should you read it: Yes absolutely.
Reader level: Fairly easy.
Would I read it again: Most probably I will.
Till next time,