Tuesday 8 November 2022

Scarborough by: Catherine Hernandez

Genre: Fiction

Published: May 2, 2017 by: Arsenal Pulp Press 

Pages: 272 

Rating: 5/5 stars 

CW: white supremacy, Islamophobia, graphic depictions of poverty, parental neglect 

Scarborough follows the often intertwining lives of some of the fourth-largest city in North America's diverse residents. Hina is a Muslim school worker who runs breakfast programs for lower income students, however she faces a lack of support from the school board and racism from some of her student's parents. Alongside Hina, we follow Winsum, a West Indian restaurant worker struggling to keep his business afloat, and Victor, a Black street artist who faces harassment from police. These characters and more feel proud to be from their city, but social stigma and gentrification threatens both their lives and the lives of some of the city's youngest residents. 

This book has been an anticipated read of mine for a long time, and it did not disappoint. For those of you not from Ontario or Canada, Scarborough is a neighbourhood in Toronto known for being culturally diverse, but also impacted by crime and gentrification. The neighbourhood has grown a reputation for being unsafe, despite having a vibrant art and food scene. My mother and most of her family grew up in Scarborough, and I would say that most residents feel protective of the neighbourhood and wish for it to thrive despite gentrification and stigma trying to force its way in. I know the neighbourhood mostly for its delicious Indian/Pakistani restaurants, but I have to admit that since I never grew up in the Scarborough myself, I have been able to remain ignorant to the struggles that some of the residents face. In this book, Catherine Hernandez depicts Scarborough during the early 2000's, when many people were immigrating to the neighbourhood and trying to adjust while lacking support from the city and the wider province.  

I really loved how Hernandez chooses to follow multiple perspectives within this text, as opposed to just one character. She really captures how diverse Scarborough is by displaying characters from all walks of life. I would say that the character who resonated with me the most was Hina, who really tried to connect with her students and their parents despite not always receiving respect in return. In particular, one of her students is Laura, a little girl who faced neglect from her mother and now lives with her father Cory who is a white supremist and also an alcoholic. Cory never shows Hina any respect, and says the most horrific things behind her back and to her face. However, despite all of this, Hina holds onto hope, and she always helps Laura and provides resources to Cory on how best to care for her. What is even more unique, is that despite Cory holding such horrible prejudices, we get little glimpses of him genuinely caring for Laura's wellbeing and trying to keep it all together despite lacking any resources himself to help his daughter have a good life. Is Cory a good dad? The answer is an easy no. However, Hernandez makes it clear that he too faces the affects of poverty in the neighbourhood, and he tries (though often fails) to keep Laura at the very least cared for. Capturing this duality between characters such as Cory was a very unique choice on Hernandez's part, that ultimately made the book all the more impactful. 

Hernandez also chooses to follow Bing, a young Filipino boy who is coming to terms with his sexuality, and Sylvie, an Indigenous girl who moves from shelter to shelter with her mother and disabled brother. Hernandez adds another layer to the story by choosing to explore the affects of growing up queer in a poverty-stricken city, alongside Sylvie who faces anti-Indigenous sentiments and perhaps even the affects of inter-generational trauma. These are children, and yet they are forced to grow up too fast and fail to get the childhoods they deserve because of the systems that have failed them. While the book also portrays adult characters such as Victor and Winsum, I found myself most interested in the perspectives of the young characters as they begin to learn how the world around them views them and how they need to act and look a certain way in order to be accepted into their flawed society. Hernandez knows that these kids are aware of the prejudices they receive, and she gives them such developed personalities despite them being so young. 

The ending of this book is shocking, sad, but also somewhat hopeful. I don't want to spoil anything at all, but I will say that I did not see the ending coming and was very upset with the result. However, I understood why the ending occurred, and how it reinforces the book's overall commentary on the social stigma within Scarborough. However, we also do see glimmers of hope within the end of the text, to show that despite it all, this neighbourhood will continue to thrive and its residents are integral to its survival. I would encourage folks from Toronto, folks from Canada, and folks from beyond to experience this well-crafted book for yourself. 

Have you read Scarborough? What did you think?

Emily @ Paperback Princess


  1. How fascinating to read about an area where your family grew up! And especially when it takes such a good look at the challenges there. Gentrification is such an issue! And I like what you aid too about the Cory character- he sounds horrible but at the same time he DOES care for his child, even if he makes bad choices. Some people are just like that! People are complicated.

    1. For sure! I really want my mom to read this book and see what she thinks of the representation. I think this book definitely highlights the complexities of people, especially when they are at their worst.

  2. Sounds a) complex, and b) awesome-sauce! :)