Queen's University

A literary tour of the city

Amy Lavender Harris explores literary geography in her work.

"Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting." - Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion

[photo of Amy Lavender Harris]Amy Lavender Harris. Photo by Peter Fruchter.

Amy Lavender Harris, Artsci’95, MPL’97, has been garnering accolades for her writing on literary geography, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010). Most recently, the book won the Award of Merit, the highest honour given to a book at the 2011 Heritage Toronto Awards. It was also shortlisted for the 2011 Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism.

As an undergrad, Amy vacillated between the study of literature and geography. She eventually decided on a major in geography with a minor concentration in English,. “But nearly every paper I wrote for a geography course,” she recalls, “had some literary component, and most of my English papers endeavoured to take up some spatial theme. This practice reached its apex when, for a cultural geography course taught by Brian Osborne, I wrote a paper on Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town -- in its era (and even now for many contemporary readers) the ideal Canadian imagined place. The interdisciplinary environment of the Geography Department made it easy to make connections between literature and place, and I credit studies there for planting the seed from which the Imagining Toronto project grew.”

That project almost had a different start. Amy continued her exploration of literature as a graduate student in Urban Planning. “I relieved the pressure of working on my thesis -- on the edifying subject of sewage capacity -- by obsessively reading novels and poetry set in Kingston, such as Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy, Merilyn Simonds’ The Convict Lover, and the stories of Diane Schoemperlen. So, indirectly, my graduate work at Queen's also contributed to the project. It is likely that had I not moved to Toronto, the project would have been called 'Imagining Kingston.'”

Instead, it started in the Department of Geography at York U, where Amy now teaches. The project began as a course informed by voracious reading of literature set in Toronto and expanded rapidly into a research project, an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, and a book. “When the project began,” says Amy, “there was a widely held assumption that Toronto had no real literature beyond a few well-known books; now Torontonians seem eager to engage with their city's stories.”

"It is a city that burrows, tunnels, turns underground. It has built strata of malls and pathways and inhabited spaces like the layers in an archaeological dig, a body below the earth, flowing with light." - Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down

“Imagining Toronto” has a website that offers an online library of literary works about Toronto. Widely used by scholars, librarians, urbanists, and readers, it consists of thousands of works and is updated regularly.

Queen's Alumni Review, 2012 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2012 Issue #2
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