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The City and the Writer: In Toronto with Antanas Sileika

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                                                               —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Toronto as you feel/see it?

The mood of the city is dynamic, edgy, triumphant verging on disastrous, a racetrack filled with potholes. 

Back in the seventies, the late Peter Ustinov described Toronto as New York as if it was run by the Swiss. This was old Toronto, a well-managed WASP town that closed down completely on Sundays, and had many more banks and churches than cafes. Ustinov’s Toronto was a crisp white sheet laid over an earlier rough and tumble pioneer Hogtown.

And now Toronto is something else again. Our mayor has a major drug and drink problem, and appears as a buffoon in various Youtube clips. The streets are crumbling, public transit is deteriorating, yet real estate prices in the city have been soaring for two decades. The heart of the Toronto is boomtown, with cranes raising more and more “loft” condos. All you needed to do to get rich in this town was to buy a dilapidated house somewhere near the center and sell it twenty years later and move on out.

Many artists have moved out of this money-crazed metropolis, for example into a nearby former steeltown, the city of Hamilton, where the blast furnaces have given way to cafes and literary festivals.

But if the artists are flowing out, the immigrants are flowing in, a couple of hundred thousand a year, and they move into old suburbs of the sixties and the seventies so vast neighborhoods are Somali, or Sikh, or Pakistani or Russian Jewish. My workplace is on the west side of town, where I can find more pierogis than hamburgers.

The youth who serves me in the big box store has a nametag with a string of vowels and consonants so long that he would have taken on a new name a few decades ago, but he has become the new norm. The whole world is here, scrambling to make it up the social ladder

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

All heartbreak has to do with loss. The fading names of print shops, tailors and groceries while below them hang the bright signs of Starbucks, Body Shop, and Subway. The printer was a grouch, the tailor overcharged, and the grocery sold bad produce, but you had to know that. Now you don’t need to know anything. It’s even heartbreaking to see the new retro shops, the hardware with new, yet old-looking hardwood floor, the butcher who sells meat that has provenance, the grocery that stocks milk in glass bottles. The chains chased out the Mom and Pops, and now the “Ye Olde Shoppes” offer the kind of consolation you get from a foster parent—sincere and striving, but missing some essential natural element.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Kindness lurks in this town as if it were a dirty secret. You don’t expect kindness in a city on the make like this one is, not until you need it. When my late mother was hit by a runaway car in the supermarket parking lot, the ambulance was called by half a dozen people, as many threw themselves on us to help and dozen more hovered, ready to assist if called upon. My wife broke her leg and was in a wheelchair and this occasioned more smiles from strangers as I pushed her around the streets that I have ever had in a small town. Doors were held open, places in line given up. But this is secret kindness. You wouldn’t know it was there when you walk down the apparently indifferent streets.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Canada in general, and Toronto in particular, are islands upon which our shipwrecked immigrant and refugee parents found refuge. Their children go on to tell their stories. Mine came out of Lithuania, Joe Kertes’s out of Hungary and Wayson Choy’s out of China and Chinatown; Shyam Selvadurai's out of Sri Lanka, M. G. Vassanji's of Kenya, Alison Pick of Czechoslovakia, Eva Stachniak of Poland. When you are here, you read of elsewhere. Sometimes, the everywhere else lies in other parts of Canada, too.

Is there a place here you return to often?

A stretch of road. Summer in Toronto is a dinner and a walk through a particular part of town. The parish church where I was baptized has been torn down, but across the street in an unremarkable part of College Street is a Portuguese family restaurant called Bairrada. This place has a vast backyard full of picnic tables and a whole pig is roasted there every Wednesday. Going there is like dropping in on an Italian wedding. We’ll eat vast amounts of meat served with bread, rice and potatoes, just to be sure. Then we stroll off the weight by heading east into Little Italy, where we’ll buy ice cream at the Sicilian Ice Cream cafe, and if the patio is too crowded, sit on the church steps next door to eat and watch the cyclists go by. This is a big cycling town where pretty women on two wheels outnumber their bearded, earnest counterparts.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Plaques are starting to go up around literary places, but my favourite one is very obscure. It is the tiny bar on the top of the Park Hyatt restaurant. Hardly anyone outside Canada, and very few inside it, remember Morley Callaghan, the man who knocked out Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match in Paris in the twenties. Morley Callaghan was one of the very few professional Canadian writers before and just after the war, and this was his watering hole. The drinks are outrageously expensive now, and clientele mostly ignorant of the past, but if you take your drink out on the balcony, you can still get a sense of old Toronto with its restricted view of the world, its puritan veneer with its disreputable core.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are two types of hidden cities in this town, but only one of them is accessible to outsiders. The first is the vast variety of ethnic neighborhoods, some famous and others not. There are still Italians and Portuguese in their Little Italies and Little Portugals, but there were Jews and Irish, and Germans who came behind them and left no trace. Generation X and Y moms in sunglasses fill those places on weekdays. The long boardwalk along the Eastern Beaches is a revelation to a West Ender like me. Closer to my home, The Junction is a lively street that filled with artists twenty years ago when the meat packing plants left and took their stink with them. Kensington Market is still called the Jewish Market by some old timers. There are still some old synagogues there, but the Jews moved uptown. Behind them they left a warren of dry goods stores, butcher and fish shops staffed by new immigrants, many of them Caribbean.

These are the hidden cities that are not really hidden at all. You just have to walk the town to find them.

The second type of secret city is also ethnic and religious, but it contains a world sealed to the outsider, and anyway, it contains secrets no hipster would ever care to explore. Because there are so many immigrants both new and old in this city, they maintain community centers. For example, my own generation was born in Canada and so was that of my children. But my parents came from Lithuania and opened up parishes and community centers. In one of these parishes there is a small library with about ten thousand books read by almost no one. The librarian says she serves primarily me, and when I ask her when a book is due, she waves her hand dismissively.

In these volumes left by my parents’ generation are the stories of being locked up in the Stutthof concentration camp for resisting the Nazis, of deportations to Siberia for no crimes at all, of Jews murdered and saved, of a children’s writer who went on to become the Dr. Seuss of Lithuania only after ingratiating himself by shooting dead two resistance partisans. Dramatic and heartbreaking stories that almost no one will notice but me. I know for certain that such forgotten libraries and archives exist in Latvian and Estonian community centers, and probably in dozens if not hundreds more.

These are the true secrets of Toronto. These are the stories of what brought people here. Almost no one will ever know them because they seem quaint, parochial, banal. These hidden cities keep their secrets in plain sight, but no one is looking.

Where does passion live here?

The term “passion,” like the word “creativity,” is a whore. Both attach themselves to money. The words are debased, used promiscuously in whatever new business book is the rage. 

Instead of “passion,” I choose the words “obsession” and “folly.” How else to explain the Telephone Booth Gallery in The Junction, a space so small the owner could sell everything on the walls and still not meet the monthly rent. There are strings of these galleries on Queen West, around Sorauren, and in other enclaves in the city. The city is just too damned expensive now, yet these obsessives insist on creating artistic projects that make no sense at all.

What is the title of one of your works about Toronto and what inspired it exactly?

Twenty years ago I published a collection of linked stories called “Buying on Time,” about the struggles of an immigrant suburban family in the fifties and sixties. And I wrote it because I was pissed off.

The memory of popular culture is lazy, depicting the fifties as “Happy Days,” or “Father Knows Best” or as a racist, sexist, Cold War fantasy-land dominated by white men.

I was born too late to be anything but a child in the fifties and sixties, but I saw no depiction anywhere in literature of the world I remembered: the smell of wet woolen mittens on the radiator at school, the rare taste of soda pop that was too expensive for most of the working-class families to buy, the all-permeating smell of cigarette and pipe smoke that meant your parents were home when you came back from school.

Money was tight, so half the mothers worked in jobs wherever they could find them. My own mother was a government chemist who specialized in analyzing street drugs. She was an emancipated woman before her time, but her dream, her desire, was to be a housewife, to bake elaborate cakes, to have time to go to concerts and the theaters.

If the fifties have taken a bad rap, the suburbs have taken a worse one. These are depicted by many writers, who have a sort of “downtown” bias, as boxes for consumerist morons. People who live in the suburbs are the playthings of marketers, the fools who watch too much television and use chemicals to fertilize their lawns.

But the suburbs I remember were nothing like this. Among my friends’ parents were a Canadian soldier who had spent the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and was legally blind due the malnutrition he’d suffered; Canadian Japanese who had lost everything during their internment in Canada during the war; a father who'd been in Normandy; and of course, my own parents, who lost everything during the war and were lucky enough to escape while their relatives died in the Gulag.

In what way were these dull people? What right did anyone have to call them boring when they had seen too much excitement in their lives and were just seeking refuge in their suburban streets?

But those decades and the suburbs didn't need aggressive defense because they were also funny. They were indeed full of striving people, and anyone who strives runs the danger of looking ridiculous: our neighbor, who loved his lawn so much he did not want our cat to walk on it; my aunt, who asked her boyfriend to paint his car the same shade as her shoes, dress, and handbag in order to go attend a big wedding party in style; my own mother, whose desire for the ornament of culture exceeded her taste for it.

If I started the book in anger, I finished it with fondness for the people of that time, the kind of fondness Woody Allen showed in Radio Days, or Frederico Fellini in Amarcord.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Toronto does an outside exist?”

In Toronto's case, the question can be turned on its head. “Inside Toronto, does an inside exist?” There must be something of the old Protestant atmosphere that still exists in this town, because for all its festivals and ethnic neighborhoods, the city is still somewhat reserved. At times, you wonder if Toronto's secret heart is hidden, or if it has no heart at all.

One thing is certain. Canadians from elsewhere hate this town. Montrealers sneer at it for having no style, and the others find it pretentious and narcissistic.

For a while my son was a train hopper, crisscrossing the country with other vagabonds. He told me that most of the riders he met would do anything to avoid Toronto. They would go a hundred miles out of their way to bypass it. To those on the road or the rails, Toronto was a black hole.

To those of us living in the black hole, the light of other Canadian cities is very faint indeed, but the light of the major world metropolises is alluring. Sometimes we strive to be like those metropolises, and in our own way, become comic strivers as well.


Antanas Sileika is a Canadian writer, Toronto-born, who writes fiction set primarily in Lithuania. The distance helps him to focus on a little-known place where the dramas of twentieth-century Europe have played themselves out. He is the author of four books of fiction: Buying on Time was nominated for both the City of Toronto and Leacock awards; Woman in Bronze and Underground were named by the Toronto Globe and Mail as among the year's best Canadian books. The latter is in development for a movie called Bloodlands. He is the director of Toronto's Humber School for Writers.

Published Dec 8, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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