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ARCHIVED - Canada: A Literary Tour

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Literary Cities


Knitting the Ravines Together
by Amy Lavender Harris, York University

Black and white illustration of a wooden bridge surrounded by trees

A bridge across the Rosedale ravine, Toronto, ca. 1887


In the iconic Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Michael Ondaatje writes that "before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting." Toronto's tangled terrain of ravines, viaducts, subway tunnels, suburbs and bank towers is the physical embodiment of a literary landscape that provides an atlas to the city's cultural and topographical diversity.

Toronto's literary genealogy can be traced to oral narratives of Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon, First Nations villages on the Humber and Rouge rivers. The city's name is believed to derive from a Mohawk phrase meaning "where there are trees standing in the water," a source of rich metaphor in a city built upon the basin of a former lake bed.

White 43-cent stamp with a colour illustration of a city skyline in the background and waterfront with a park in the foreground

Postage stamp entitled Toronto, 1793–1993,
August 6, 1993


In Noman (1972), Toronto poet Gwendolyn MacEwen describes downtown buildings made of sinews and bones, drawing life from the city's sediments. Anne Michaels writes of the city's ravines as the storehouse of the city's memory in Fugitive Pieces (1996). The CN Tower is represented as a "spirit tree" drawing power from the lake, in Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring (1998).

Black and white photograph of a man with a cigarette in his right hand

Morley Callaghan, photograph by Walter Curtin, 1960


Ondaatje's celebrated novel about the immigrants who knit the ravines together and built Toronto's public infrastructure is one of many narratives that chart Toronto's character and the city's progress from colonial backwater into Canada's largest and most diverse city. Many narratives portray Toronto as a moral landscape split along class lines demarcated by the city's ravines, including the works of Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner's descriptions of Depression-era Toronto in Cabbagetown (1968), and Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces (1996).

Other works chart culture and gender across the geometric grid of the city. Phyllis Brett Young's 1960 suburban satire The Torontonians; Austin Clarke's Toronto Trilogy (The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973) and The Bigger Light (1975)), depicting 1950s struggles of working class Caribbean immigrants; Dennis Lee's meditations on local citizenship in Civil Elegies (1968); Margaret Atwood's depictions of the adolescent city in The Edible Woman (1969) and Cat's Eye (1988); and Dionne Brand's probing interrogations of multicultural diversity in What We All Long For 2005).

"Nothing in a city is discrete. / A city is all interpolation," Dionne Brand writes in her long poem Thirsty. But Toronto is a shifting city, and its literature seems to produce narratives as complex as the terrain they map.