21 April 2018
“You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time. You’ve got to carry yourself better and think about your look. Doesn’t matter how poor you are. You can always turn up the edge of a collar to style a bit, little things like that. You can always do things to let the world know you’re not nobody. You never know when your break is coming.”
Brother. Big brother to little brother. This could have been a quote from “Grease”, couldn’t it? But these brothers are immigrants from Trinidad, trying to fit in in Canada, specifically the Park in Scarborough, outside Toronto. Multi-cultural doesn’t begin to describe the community here. Nobody belongs. Everybody belongs.
Michael tells us his story himself, which makes it very personal and made me feel like apologising for the dreadful treatment so many migrants face.
“The world around us was named Scarborough. It had once been called “Scarberia,” a wasteland on the outskirts of a sprawling city. But now, as we were growing up in the early ’80s, in the heated language of a changing nation, we heard it called other names: Scarlem, Scarbistan. We lived in Scarbro, a suburb that had mushroomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life.”
We learn right away that something happened to the older brother ten years earlier and that Mother has never really recovered. The story moves back and forth between today and childhood and youth. The boys’ father left the picture early, and Mother is sadly familiar from other migrant stories.
“All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond what they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might have just a little more than they did, children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past.”
When the boys were still young, she left them home alone with strict instructions while she went to work the night shift.
‘Just answer that front door once. I will string you up by your thumbnails from the ceiling. I will skin you alive and screaming. I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel!’”
They ate their food after she left and then . . . went wandering. Freedom!
I know an old Croatian lady where I live in regional Australia, and she tells me proudly how when she was a young refugee widow here, she worked three different cooking jobs to raise her two little girls. She criticises today’s young people for wanting welfare because she got off her backside and managed without it. They are lazy. There are jobs there if they’re willing to work. Sound familiar?
But, she left the girls home alone, at night, while she went to work, and when I told her that you’re not allowed to do that today, she basically scoffed. I have a feeling she would do the same thing today despite the law if she were in the same circumstances.
I do think that’s a lot of the problem regarding welfare and equality and the common complaint of older people that anyone can get a job if they just try hard enough. Not alone with little kids, you can’t. Mostly, we’re expected to be with our children whenever they aren’t in school or some kind of care. And of course all parents aren’t equally intelligent and resourceful either.
But I digress.
Francis was the old brother who loved music and hanging out with mates from many countries at Desirea’s, a local barber shop. This reminded me strongly of the classic Jayber Crow, where the men gathered in exactly the same way, to be part of a “family”. The more we think cultures are different, the more they are the same (a slight alteration of the French saying).
“Our parents had come from Trinidad and Jamaica and Barbados, from Sri Lanka and Poland and Somalia and Vietnam. They worked s**t jobs, struggled with rent, were chronically tired, and often pushed just as chronically tired notions about identity and respectability. But in Desirea’s, different styles and kinships were possible. You found new language, you caught the gestures, you kept the meanings close as skin.”
Mother was told that Desirea’s is where the undesirables and law-breakers hang out and had plenty to say about it.
“‘You don’t listen!’ she might shout at us. ‘You all don’t pay attention to what I tell you. You all is HARDEN! Too too HARDEN.’ If we ever hurt ourselves, she would promise to ‘corn our backsides.’ She vowed to whip the life force back into us if ever through sheer foolishness we cut ourselves and shamefully bled our lives away.”
Also sound familiar? Parents everywhere swear that if you break your neck on that bike/horse/mountain I’ll KILL you!
Unfortunately, Mother was right, and they should have stayed away from Desirea’s.
There was one place where they enjoyed some peace and nature, The Rouge. This is a big conservation area, and the boys and even Mother used to wander down the valley to cool off. The boys played and built things with sticks, as kids do. Michael makes a point of saying it’s not David Attenborough country, but it served them well.
“The Rouge Valley. It was a wound in the earth. A scar of green running through our neighbourhood, hundreds of feet deep in some places, a glacial valley that existed long before anything called Scarborough.”
The story of the boys, Mother, Aisha and the other kids is hauntingly real and the author tells it well. It may not be new, but it sounds personal, sad, and angry.
Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the preview copy from which I’ve quote so much. It’s well worth reading, and if you want a first-hand opinion, read some reviews by people who have lived there themselves.