I Don’t Love You, Toronto: On Books and Cities

August 14, 2017 | 8 11 min read


The first time I saw the apartment building that I live in, my heart crumpled. I was moving in with my partner, D. We’d fallen in love in my hometown, Kathmandu, and had kept up a long-distance relationship after he moved to the U.S. Then he’d moved to his hometown, Toronto, to be close to his children, who lived here with their mother. We decided I’d move, too, and we’d set up together.

I didn’t know Toronto, and its name evoked nothing, though my family had lived in Ottawa when I was a child, and I had fond Kodachrome memories of snow and sunshine and the Rideau Canal. When I landed in Toronto, at Pearson Airport, I noted with bemusement how very flat the surroundings were. D assured me that I’d like the city, but when we turned off at Allen Road and drove up to our building, the sheer ugliness of that pile of brick-and-mortar shook me. D had rented an apartment here for its proximity to his children.

A decade on, we’re still in this building, a low-budget rental in a stretch of other low-budget rentals on Bathurst Street, which stretches north from Lake Ontario through the entire length of Toronto, ending in the farmlands of Holland Marsh, 57 kilometers away. I find it helpful to remember that Ernest Hemingway and Northrop Frye once lived in our neighborhood, since there’s nothing to say about our building. Built in the 1930s, it is squat, with not a single folly or flourish. Whoever painted the doors and windows didn’t bother to use masking tape. The windows are grimy with age. The backyard is cluttered with the lawn furniture of tenants past. Inside our apartment, the paint is chipping, the caulking is cracked, and all the fixtures are shoddy. The building has always struck me as a teardown, best suited to young, transient populations, such as students; yet everyone who lives here has, like us, stayed for years, making a go of it after divorce and other family reconfigurations.

I’m now fond of our building. Like Toronto, its charms were un-obvious to me at the start: they came into focus only gradually, after I learned how to look for them. I have come to value our indoor garage in the wintertime, our backyard in the summertime, and our landlord, a soft-spoken, philosophical Lubavitcher who has never once raised the rent. Our building has sheltered us from Toronto’s housing market, boosted by the city’s status as one of the most “livable” in the world. It has more than met our needs. Yet I still don’t love it, and I don’t love the city it’s in.

I do, however, love D, and this love both pleases and confounds me. I had only ever had one- or two-year relationships before, and had resisted settling down—though I did, naturally enough, want love. If you are an independent Nepali woman, Kathmandu is not an easy place to meet people, not unless you want an arranged marriage with a Nepali man of the “right” caste: and then it’s all too easy. All of my relationships there had been ground down into joylessness by the inescapable Nepali imperative to marry. In my mid-30s, I’d given up on love when I met D.

It can strain a relationship when one partner moves—in our case, across the world—to be with the other. The task of orienting me to Toronto fell squarely on D, who was capable enough: he is one of the few Torontonians who were also born here. (More than half this city was, like me, born abroad.) When I wasn’t going to government offices to fill out the paperwork of the newly-arrived, D showed me the sights, starting with the flamboyant Honest Ed’s, a discount shop whose founder had lavished funds on the theatre, polishing up Toronto’s image as a center of culture. Over time D took me to Kensington Market, Toronto Island, Queen Street West, the Danforth, the Beaches, the Junction, Parkdale, St. Jamestown, Roncesvalles—all the on-trend neighborhoods. So much about a city is explained by its hinterlands. On weekends we took road trips through Ontario’s rolling farmlands and small towns, and we swam in the freshwater of Georgian Bay in the summertime. In time I came to see how Toronto arose out of a patchwork-quilt of glass, concrete, asphalt, and brick, and rivers, lakes, escarpments, and glacial moraines.

covercovercoverThere are still neighborhoods in the city I’ve never been to, including Cabbagetown, whose working-class history I’ve read about in the eponymous novel by Hugh Garner. I simply haven’t had the time or a reason to go everywhere. In his book Frontier City, Shawn Micallef points out that Toronto is more Los Angeles than New York: it sprawls on for 44 kilometers. Right from the start, I relied on books to help me imbibe the city’s spirit: when I first took the subway line over the Don Valley, I conjured up Michael Ondaatje’s diaphanous lost world from In the Skin of a Lion. I saw Alice Munro’s sharp and individuated women in downtown Toronto. As a newcomer, I shared the disorientation of the 19th-century protagonist of Michael Redhill’s Consolation. Madeleine Thien was the only Canadian writer I had met before moving here. I felt Canada’s worldliness in her novel Certainty.

covercovercoverMicallef became my go-to writer on matters Toronto. I used his book Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto to venture into unfamiliar terrain. It helped me look past the city’s surfaces: even the University of Toronto’s bewilderingly hideous Robarts Library seemed less so once I learned of Toronto’s flirtation with Brutalism. I found the city’s pretty parts charmed, and yet there were many plain, and even jarringly unattractive parts in between. They always stopped me, and prompted me, futilely, to speculate: was this because all of Canada’s funds went into healthcare? Was there a Protestant aesthetic at work here? Was this the legacy of some essential Canadian frugality? One year, at a party at the publisher Coach House, I came across Full Frontal T.O. by Micallef and Patrick Cummins, a picture book on Toronto’s houses in their full eclecticism and unsightliness. I loved that book so much I took it to Kathmandu, so I could puzzle over it when I was there. That book altered my view of the building that D and I lived in. What I had initially found ugly now revealed itself as, if not beautiful, then at least endearing.

“Where would we be if we hadn’t met?” D sometimes asks me.

I suppose I would still be in Kathmandu. I have held on to an apartment in a family home there, going back at least twice a year to spend a few weeks or a month to write and catch up with family and friends. The apartment is sunny, with windows looking onto a garden dense with tropical plants: camellia and poinsettia flowers, guava trees and kumquat shrubs. The city beyond is overcrowded, and bursting out of its rickety infrastructure; but it contains many of the people I love most in the world. And Nepal—troubled, dysfunctional and full of friction—gets under my skin in the way that, by comparison, orderly Canada doesn’t. Also, it has mountains. I miss D when I’m there. But on clear days, I can see the tall blue hills that ring the Kathmandu valley, and if I’m lucky, a Himalayan peak or two.

coverBy comparison, Toronto is flat to the point of insipid. In Cities of the Interior, Anaïs Nin’s characters feel at home when a city matches their inner geography. Toronto’s geography does not match my inner geography. The flatness here makes me desperate, and drives me, some days, to fantasize about leaving: heading north to some small lakeside town, or striking west to the Rockies, or settling in close to the ocean out east, or even leaving Canada entirely and going back to Nepal. I crave sightlines, topographies, geographical markers: some drama. Our building is near the Cedarvale ravine, and I walk through it regularly, seeking reprieve in its few slopes. D and I also walk the Bruce Trail, and once, in the woods near Kolapore Uplands, summited Mount Dhaulagiri, a 459-meter hummock named after Nepal’s 8,167-meter Mount Dhaulagiri. For someone from Nepal, that does not even feel like a hill.

But such are the decisions we make in life: the decision to exchange something valuable for another: in this case, love. Love is a rare enough thing. The longer D and I stayed together, the more precious our relationship felt. Life is, after all, fleeting. We can’t hold on to anything for too long: everything slips away soon enough. Over the years D and I lived large, scrapped, made up, got along like a house on fire, introspected, questioned, debated, comforted each other, and grew older. We learned to put up with each other’s most irritating habits, and remained strangers enough to enjoy some intrigue. Time did what time does. D’s children grew up, and a few years ago D became a grandfather. I lost my brother to a heart attack. My parents in Nepal aged and grew frailer. Through all this I felt enlivened by being with D, by touching him, feeling his breath, and taking in his intelligence and brightness and sparkle and wit. It felt like great good fortune to be able to revel in our relationship, and to revel more, and even more, to the end of our days.

Yet no matter how fulfilling, a relationship does not extinguish the world. When anyone asked me why I was in Toronto, I’d say, “Love,” and then muse over the love I didn’t feel for the city after all these years of living here.

“User-friendly” was how I described the city to family and friends abroad. When you have lived in Kathmandu, you do not take electricity or running water, or public transport, libraries, and parks, or clean, breathable air, for granted. I was grateful that Toronto was so “livable,” but did not know how to further deepen my feelings for it.

Then, walking down Davenport Road one day, I came across a memorial to what was described as an “ancient trail” along the shoreline of a lake that no longer exists: the Iriquois glacial lake from the last ice age, which used to span over all of today’s Great Lakes. The trail once connected the rivers marking Toronto’s boundaries: the Don in the east, and in the west, the Humber. This memorial struck me as rare. In my years here I’d noticed that Canada had a penchant for celebrating its brief colonial history and ignoring its much longer Indigenous, Métis and Inuit pasts. This marker moved me, it stayed with me. I asked others about it afterwards, and read more about it, and realized, with a pang, how acutely I missed living with a larger sense of history here.

At more than 250 years, Nepal is the oldest extant nation in South Asia. It was founded on nations that predated it. Though Kathmandu is now overrun by outsiders, as happens in any capital city, the Indigenous Newar community, who bequeath the city its distinctive art, architecture, culture, and language, remains central, even existential to the city. Markers of even older civilizations abound. Not far from my family home is Andipringga, a town dating back to the first century B.C., the city’s oldest site of archaeological significance. It lies buried beneath Handigaun, a neighborhood of middle-class homes, some built traditionally, with brick and wood, and others renovated along modern lines, with iron and glass and concrete. Andipringga is not visible on the surface. But archaeologist Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, author of The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal, talks of how often artefacts are unearthed when families renovate their homes. Handigaun also has a stone marker with an inscription from the first century A.D., when the Licchavi ruled Kathmandu: they were the ones left behind records about Andipringga’s builders, the Kirat.

In Kathmandu, I always got a measure of my brief lifetime to be surrounded by reminders of the nations that predated Nepal. This does not happen in Toronto. Canada is in its 150th year of confederation. Toronto is built on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of the Credit River nations. The latter two nations remain in the area—displaced to territories of another nation, the Six Nations of the Grand River, 100 kilometers away, in Brantford. The displacement of the Mississaugas of the Credit River remains deeply controversial, though newcomers can be forgiven for not realizing so. There is little indication that the First Nations are still around, much less that they are regenerating from centuries of exploitation by a far more powerful settler-colonial state. Toronto’s name is itself a Mohawk word that means ‘where the trees stand in the water.’ Years passed before I learned this.

covercovercoverIn those years I read up on CanLit, as Canadian literature is called, gravitating towards Indigenous authors, whose work most moved and educated me. I fell in love with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, a spiky contemporary story that invokes Haisla myths from the Pacific coast. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse imbued me the romance of hockey, a game I’d never much cared for, and showed me the losses of residential schooling. Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie showed me how healing can take place after individual and collective violence. Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy gave me an in into areas I’d traveled to blindly in the summertime, near Parry Sound, north of Toronto. It made the entire area, and Toronto’s hold over it, come to life in my mind.

coverOne day, D told me about a Toronto-based project by Hayden King and Susan Blight, to give Ojibwe names to the city’s streets: Spadina Road, nearby us, became Ishpadinaa, or “a place on a hill,” in the street signs that these Indigenous activists erected in 2015. I went to see the street sign and followed the project as Davenport Road became “at the old portage,” or Gete-Onigaming. College Street, near the University of Toronto, became Gikinoo‘amaagegaming, or “place of learning.” Both D and I wished the city would make those street names permanent. “Why couldn’t they?” we asked each other. “Yes, why?”

This larger sense of history was helpful, and orienting, and humbling. It taught me how we—all of us—were positioned here; and I saw my own complicated placement as an immigrant in a settler-colonial state. A fourth-generation Canadian, D was as much of an outsider to Indigenous Toronto as I. Once we came to frame Toronto, in our minds, as a city of Indigenous, settler-colonial, and immigrant communities, we both wanted to be “allies” to the Indigenous communities, but did not know how to do so, beyond educating ourselves and staying open.

Meanwhile, our landlord suddenly decided to move, with his family, to Israel. He sold our building and disappeared from our lives this spring. By summertime, our new landlord, a developer, had posted notices about the permits he had applied for to replace our building with six million-dollar townhouses. We began scouting, half-heartedly, for another apartment. “Should we buy?” I would ask D from time to time, and we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely.

Our new landlord was uncommunicative to the point of hostility. We couldn’t find out how much longer we had to stay on in our—his—building. So I went to City Hall on the day he was scheduled to apply for permission to carve up the building’s lot into six. My downstairs neighbor also showed up. Late in the afternoon, we sat through a dozen other applications—most of them swiftly approved—before city officials asked if anyone needed a deferral. Two applicants asked for three-month deferrals; then a lawyer representing our landlord asked for one too—not for three, but six months. City Hall’s planners, our local representative, and our neighbors had all asked for consultations, she said. “Even after all that, it’ll take more time,” she huffed, before breaking off. Upon obtaining the referral, she stomped off. My neighbor and I followed, consulting among ourselves, and confirming that we had at least a year, possibly more, left in our building.

There was time enough to plan our next move. I was relieved, strolling away from City Hall. Offices were letting out. The streets were crowded. I made my way to the commercial heart of the city, Dundas Square, where D and I had arranged to meet. There was a market going on there: booths were set up, and I could hear music coming from a stage on one side of the square. D sent a message: he was running late. I wandered through the booths, which were selling jewelry, beadwork, t-shirts, moccasins, all around Indigenous themes. A sign announced that this it was Indigenous History Month. The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto had a booth to provide information about their programs, including Cree language classes and drumming socials. At another booth, I overheard a woman saying that that she was from the Six Nations of the Grand River. At another booth, I saw a baseball cap with an intricately beaded emblem of the Toronto Blue Jays. A 20-something woman was manning the booth. “Where are these beaded caps from?” I asked, assuming that her booth, too, was affiliated with a particular nation. My question puzzled her. “It’s—it’s just something I made,” she said. “Oh,” I said, wondering where she was from—meaning, which nation. Then I realized she was from here. She was just—from here.

I wandered around some more, then ran into an acquaintance from Nepal, and we chatted awhile. D texted, saying he was on the way. We were going for a drink to the bar in which he’d wasted his youth—the Imperial, almost certainly among the least renovated bars of the past 50 years. It was one of those places that had stopped me when I was new to Toronto, a place that had prompted me to speculate: why so drab? I now found that drabness endearing. Perhaps that is what love does to us, I mused, waiting for D. It imbues what is foreign with personal significance. It makes our affections radiate outwards. It softens us.

I ended up near the stage, tapping my feet as the singers sang to the tune of the fiddle. Dundas Square was beautiful that evening. I was glad to have come across this celebration of Indigenous History Month. Toronto’s deeper history almost made up for the things the city lacked—hills, for example. This city would never reflect my inner geography. But being able to see the troubled friction underlying it made me not quite love the city, but relate to it, understand it, and even, as I did that evening, feel quite tenderly towards it.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction about her homeland Nepal. Her latest novel is All of Us in Our Own Lives, set in the cynical, moneyed world of international aid in Kathmandu. She is currently completing the English translation of There’s a Carnival Today, Indrabahadur Rai’s classic novel about “the old Darjeeling.” A full list of her writing is available at manjushreethapa.com.