When I moved from Jamaica to Canada years ago, I lived with my aunt in Scarborough. The neighbourhood in which we lived was enclosed by blocks of run down looking plazas along jaded roads, a façade which served to hide the quiet community with a tree in nearly every front or back yard, and even more cooling, the pools that increased the worth of the property. A large plush park, that gave mischievous teenagers the space they needed from their parents and other squinting eyes, shared property with an elementary school. Within walking distance of that was a neighbourhood high school that was worth getting into. Years later, small houses unable to contain themselves would break out of their shells and morph into bold, big and confident versions of themselves. Spaces that were occupied by air would solidify into storied containers big enough to fit three generations, a sign that the neighbourhood was increasing in value. A hot spot worth investing in. That was the Scarborough I knew. I was so confused, therefore, by the smug and pitiful responsive tones of friends and strangers alike when I would tell people that I lived in Scarborough. Scarlem, Scarberia are still some of the monikers used to describe the neighbourhood. It has gained such a reputation and it seems to be so detached that only your true friends would make the effort to visit where you live. To prompt some you may have to declare that you live in the good part of Scarborough or really on the cusp of it, North York.
It wasn’t until I moved out, years later, that I became acquainted with the part of Scarborough people seem to frown upon. Lethargic dirt brown apartment buildings showing depression from the winter and some of the cramped lives that resided in them replaced the dainty houses with yards. It was a Scarborough where drunken arguments roused you at night, tempting you to respond from the mesh window of your bedroom. It was a Scarborough where blood drops on the sidewalk (from a stabbing) lead you on the path towards the bus stop, where beggars couldn’t wait for the red light to halt traffic.
Coming from Jamaica, I knew I had seen worse. Reading Brother by David Chariandy, I still knew that I lived in a different Scarborough community than the one Micheal, Francis and his mother Ruth belonged to, or maybe that is just what I want to think. No, that is what I know. Sure the communities are equally represented by a mix of first and second immigrants. Where fast walking white collar executives littered the streets of downtown Toronto, here tired working class women and men slugged back to their apartment buildings after getting off the bus. Here, the Tim Hortons is a meeting ground with small groups in their corner speaking their native languages over coffee. Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Dominicans, Nigerians etc. and some young white Canadian couples looking for cheap accommodations for only a year to get their feet on the ground, resided here ten years later, their bodies anchored down by the heaviness of life and its price tag. We shared this Scarborough, but somehow Michael’s seemed to lack more hope, despite the author saying the book is about hope. The little hope that resides in the book is seen in the love. I want to say it is a book in defense of the protection of love and those loved since love in such a heavy space seems like the only hope, thus worthy of defense… but this means risking a lot.
In the description, Brother is relayed as a book that tells the story of an immigrant family’s change and turmoil after a series of violent events in the community occur. Attention to racism and police abuse, violence and masculinity and blackness is key to discussions of the book. However, while these are evident, my mind was pulled to the community. Not merely the physical space but the people living together who support or don’t support each other; those navigating unfamiliar communities; the community of people who limit their involvement to judgement and criticism of youth and their behaviour; the communities living among communities and their codes of operation; the policing bodies of the external communities; the lack of community at times; the pitiful kindness of the community at other times.
There is so much irony to how we live in these developed packed spaces. People are so much closer in proximity but so far from connecting as a community. I say this as a witness, someone who may take the elevator but never meeting the eye or greeting the person beside me who lives but a floor up– who may have been living there for ten years for all I know. The only time community would show itself was for about 10 mins, long enough to wait in line to get a burger at the summer picnic the rental property manager is hosting. And yet, in the home of the other Scarborough community, people living in detached homes knew each other and actually stopped outside for a chat. The irony here is stronger than the walls that separate the cheap apartment units.
Overall though, Brother really is so much more than what you think it is or will be. Chariandy is a very emotive storytelling. Where the issues are concerned, there is no going through the motions to think whose side you should be on. No doubting. No flip flopping. No wondering. No guilt about how you should feel. Community is at the heart of the characters’ actions and you understand the outcomes, and it makes you angry at the conditions that make our communities like those experienced in the book and in real life. There is sorrow and plenty of it. Not much laughter but welcomed moments of peace and lightness amidst the increasing decay. Love is there too. It is strong though hidden in the dark, a soothing light warming and protecting mother and sons; a different love from the flowing scent of the potluck of young people gathered in what is initially a safe space of a barbershop community. Different from the love that fuels one to protect.
Chariandy’s “Brother” is rich in description and emotion, both sustaining and explaining the other. It’s equally about love and pain as it is about community, though more a matter of pain and love and protecting those in such a community. He does well in enrolling readers into the environment and lives of his characters so to not only understand actions but also the unspoken. I highly recommend this book. I finished it in less than a day.