Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother, a twice-yearly literary magazine of short fiction, essays, photography and art. Her criticism and other writing have appeared inThe Walrus the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Maisonneuve and Hazlitt. If you join Emily and become a Page Turner today, you can win a subscription to Little Brother. Which is a great reason to donate $20 to become a Page Turner and to help us build a national network of sites and stories. Here's another: as Emily says, "I live where the stories are. But of course, so do you."
I live in Toronto's historic Little Italy neighbourhood, and I often walk along on its wide sidewalks. There is an added pleasure in knowing that the Italians who arrived here long ago brought with them their patios, their gardens (flowers in the front, vegetables in the back), and their pride in neighbourly street culture. I thank them in my mind, all the time. Wider sidewalks invariably make for better people watching.
Some of the families in Little Italy have lived here, generation after generation collided into one house, since the neighbourhood's beginning. There is a group of Nonas, sometimes three, sometimes four, who walk the length of my block and back every day before dinner, rain or shine. I like to imagine they debrief each other on the day's goings on, and I'm sure they gossip, which is just one word we have for telling stories.
I live where the stories are. From the window of my front room, I can see the butcher shop that employed the mother of Cary Fagan's young magical protagonist in The Bird's Eye. It's a coffee shop now, but the place displays photographs of a mural of bulls and chickens that decades ago, around the time Fagan's novel was set, adorned the walls. Years ago, someone wheat-pasted some illustrations from bpNichol's The Martyrology to a small window in the foyer of the house I live in. I see the saints, and their ghosts, of our literature every time I go out into the world, and every time I come home.
Sometimes, taking the streetcar up Bathurst, I can almost see the stained men from the leather tannery in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, making their smelly trek to the bath houses—“What remained in the dyers’ skin was the odour no woman in bed would ever lean towards.” When it's dark and the windows are lit, I notice the apartments above the stores that line College Street, the second and third floors that house yet more stories in the air. I lived in one for a year or so, in a secret kinship with Tuyen, the artist in Dionne Brand's What We All Long For. While my place had red walls, hers was “a mess of wood rails and tree stumps, twigs and rope, debris, really.” In the summer time, I walk up Grace street and like Jakob, the boy who lost his family and slept in the mud in Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, I hear the songs of some other place and humbly submit them to the day, or, more frequently, the night.
If you walk up Grace, like Jakob did, or like I do, you might see a little plaque from Project Bookmark Canada. On it, you can read the passage from Fugitive Pieces detailing Jakob's walk. Here is how it begins: “One Summer I walked up Grace Street, a summer tunnel of long shadows, the breeze from the lake a cool finger slipping gently under my damp shirt, the tumult of the market left blocks behind. In the new quiet, a thread of memory clung to a thought. Suddenly an overheard word fastened on to a melody...”
I realize how lucky I am. My reading life has been rich—I've overheard many words. Sometimes they attach themselves to the music of the street, and the songs get down into your bones. I live where the stories are. But of course, so do you. Project Bookmark Canada is an ongoing celebration of that thread of memory; the tricky faculty by which culture is handed down. The stories were informed by these places, and now the places are informed by the stories. The words are there to be overheard, a language overlaid on the map we make through our lives. Project Bookmark Canada marks out a few spots to stop and listen, to hear the songs of some other place that all the same is the place where you're standing.