Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: Piece by Piece: Stories about Fitting into Canada edited by Teresa Toten

Piece by Piece: Stories about Fitting into Canada edited by Teresa Toten is a collection of 15 stories (including one graphic essay and a spoken-word poem) targeted at young adults. Its contributors hail from all over the world: China, Croatia, England, Grenada, Hungary, India, Iran, Jamaica, Japan, Lebanon, Russia, South Africa and the U.S. About a third emigrated to Canada as children; most, however, moved here as adults. (Only one is a second-generation Canadian.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Here are my thoughts on a few of the essays:

In “Snapshots from the Fringes,” Rachna Gilmore shares the story of how a beloved book—Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery—had a profound impact on her life. This story brought tears to my eyes, perhaps because I also read the Anne books as a teenager—and can identify with feeling a sense of both belonging and not belonging in PEI, which I visited every summer as a child (my father grew up there).

“A Caravan of Words” by Rachel Manley is probably my favourite essay in the book because it’s about cats and words and Montreal (even though she doesn’t love Montreal as I do)—and the anecdote about how Manley became the official Jamaican interpreter in Toronto is absolutely priceless!

The hardest essay to read was “You’re Not from Around Here, Are You?” by Linda Granfield, who came to Canada from the U.S. to go to university and found that Canadians didn’t live up to their reputation for being polite and tolerant. Instead, she found that anti-American sentiment was rampant—during the Gulf War, she felt she was living in fear in her adopted country. While I don’t want to belittle her experience, and I know firsthand the pain of being excluded based on your cultural background, I was uncomfortable with the fact that she used the word “racism” to describe this type of discrimination. At the same time, this piece made me squirm in recognition: anti-Americanism is unfortunately alive and fairly socially acceptable in Canada.

The weakest piece in the book was “Under the Armpit of Noah,” the spoken-word poem by Boonaa Mohammed. Perhaps it’s because I’m not generally a fan of spoken-word poetry—and no doubt the piece would have a greater impact if it was performed—but I found it didn’t sustain my interest in the same way the other stories did.

Finally, I had to wonder why the story “Shadow Play” by Rui Umezawa was included in this anthology. Although Umezawa now lives in Toronto, this essay is not about Canada at all—it takes place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin!

Exoticism, like accents and ethnicity, is something we often think only other people or places have—especially if we are white and North American. But in fact, everyone has an accent and an ethnicity—and every place can be exotic if seen from the outside, as evidenced from the stories in Piece by Piece. At the same time, a book like this is also a reminder that anyone can be an outsider, and most if not all of us have felt like outsiders at some point in our lives.

Other reviews: Movable HypeQuill & QuireRoverSal’s Fiction AddictionSpin Me I PulsateWhat If?

You can also read an interview with the editor: Torontoist

Read Teresa Toten’s introduction to the book (and her powerful story): “My Piece

Thank you to Penguin Canada for sending me this book to review.


  1. Great review, Avis. Sounds really interesting.

  2. I am really surprised that you say anti-Americanism is rampant in Canada. My husband works for a company that has facilities in Canada, so we've know a lot of Canadians through the years. We also know a lot of Americans who have lived in Canada for a while and every single one of them loved it there. We even considered moving there (instead of here) but decided we couldn't be that far away from my parents at their age.

  3. Avis sounds like a good book.

    I also read all of the Anne books growing up and wish I had lived there at times in my life.

  4. Thanks, Donna, I recommend this book!

    Kathy, I didn't mean to imply that I agreed with Granfield that anti-Americanism is rampant (I don't really know whether it is or not), just that it is something I've encountered and that it's fairly socially acceptable, unfortunately. I also think there's a difference (obviously) between expressing negative feelings about American policy and anti-Americanism, which perhaps got blurry during the Gulf War. Anyway, I'm glad to hear that hasn't been your or your husband's experience or that of your friends!

    Cindy, I think I'm too much of a city girl to want to live in PEI, but it's definitely a great place to visit!

  5. Very interesting and thought provoking review of this one!! I do know for a fact that if it wasn't for the Canadians coming to my area here in Michigan to spend their $$$ that the retail shops would be hurting terribly!!! I've never experienced any anti-American feelings when I've been to Canada...but I'm positive it exists as does anti-Canadian here in the U.S.

  6. I SO want to read this! I can't wait until it's released here. And the cover is perfect. :)

  7. This sounds like a really interesting bunch of essays. Though I'm sad (but not surprised) that anti-Americanism is rampant in Canada (and probably most other countries.)

  8. Staci, I'm glad to hear you haven't experienced anti-American sentiment while in Canada. I can't say that I've run into any anti-Canadian sentiment ever. (Anti-Quebec is a whole other story...)

    Eva, I love the cover too! If you want, I could send you my copy! I'd love to hear your take on this book.

    Jenners, I don't know that I'd use the word "rampant," but anti-Americanism is definitely present here.

  9. Now that I think about it, I don't think I've often encountered Canadian voices in my reading. I'll have to look for this one.

  10. Ah, there are some fine Canadian writers out there, Kari! I hope you get the chance to discover some of them.