Sunday, September 2, 2018

Far from Gotham

by Jean Roberta

Please excuse my lateness in posting this. (I usually post on the first Friday in a topic cycle.)

Particular settings make narratives memorable.

Here is some history of how large numbers of people have changed their real-life settings: the population of North America became much more urban in the first half of the twentieth century as young, ambitious adults moved off the family farm to seek their fortune. After World War 2, “nuclear families” (husband, wife, kids) began moving to the suburbs: places that offered some of the greenery and sense of community that could be found in a village or an extended family, but with close proximity to jobs, shopping and entertainment in the heart of a city. Since then, the gentrification of former slums has pulled some people back to densely-populated neighbourhoods. Divorce and the rise of LGBT enclaves have created a demand for single-person accommodations.

The New York writer Sarah Schulman uses the broad term “urbanity” to define several social trends she considers related: leftist movements for social change, creativity, a diversity of cultural roots, flexibility in relationships (queerness, polyamory, living alone, childlessness and childraising outside of heterosexual marriage). She traces all the big trends in politics, popular culture and fashion to urban communities.

What all this boils down to is that most readers on this continent are: 1) American, 2) culturally aware, and 3) living in cities with over a million inhabitants. Even Canadian readers are likely to live in a few cities that are known outside the country. (From west to east: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax.)

When I read current fiction, I usually notice very specific references to streets and landmarks. (A story set in Toronto describes a woman’s fashion sense as very “Queen Street West.” Or was it East? Anyway, I had to look it up.) An erotic story from a few years back describes a lesbian seduction on the Coronado Bridge in San Diego, California. As far back as the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel wrote a now-classic song about the 59th Street Bridge in New York City (also known as the Queensborough Bridge, and not nearly as conducive to restful contemplation as the song suggests).

When teaching poetry, I sometimes compare the Simon & Garfunkel song to Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Lines Written Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” Wordsworth’s love-poem to the city of London, England, was written in a time when it had a population of 200,000 people, making it one of the world’s largest cities. The town I live in (which even most Canadians would have to look up) is approximately the same size now, although the site was unpopulated* grassland in 1802. (*This place was not permanently populated by people. Nomadic native bands followed millions of roaming buffalo.)

I sometimes describe urban settings (i.e. urban by today’s standards) in my stories, but I’m always afraid of getting the details wrong. I’m lucky to have visited various cities in Canada and the U.S., plus London, England, and a relatively green area within commuting distance of London called “the Surrey stockbroker belt.” (This has probably changed beyond recognition since 1973.)

So the settings of my short stories are often generically urban. Any two or more characters could plausibly meet in a coffee shop, which might be part of big chain, e.g. Starbuck’s, even here in Regina, Saskatchewan. (Note: the first Starbuck’s was in Seattle, Washington, on the American west coast, hence the mermaid logo.) However, if I don’t name the town, I assume urban readers will simply imagine the place where they take their own coffee breaks or compose their own fiction on a laptop.

Regina also has nightclubs (including the last community-run LGBT bar on the continent), shopping malls, a human-made lake in a park full of planted trees, two levels of government (municipal and provincial), a university, crime, and even crystal meth addicts. The vibe here is more urban than many readers in coastal cities would guess.

From the time Regina was founded in the late nineteenth century (and named for Queen Victoria), it has always had a racially-divided white vs. indigenous population, but the specific racism here isn’t really transferable to bigger North American cities, where the early white-settlers’ dream of killing off or assimilating the local native population has largely been accomplished.

When starting a narrative, I have to decide how much to explain. If the story is set in a generic city, I can focus on characters without describing the setting beyond a few lines. Judging from the number of my stories that have been published, this strategy seems acceptable to editors on both sides of the Atlantic. And if the story contains explicit sex, presumably readers are more interested in bodies than in surroundings.

In a novella or a novel, however, the need to set the plot in a particular place seems more pressing. So unless I seek out information about other places and/or other eras, I need to explain my actual setting for readers who have never seen it, and probably never will.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being a virtual tour guide for outsiders. Unfortunately, the natural environment isn’t really wild enough to appeal to those who want a wilderness adventure, and the town is no longer a cozy village where everyone knows everyone else. On the other hand, both the town and the surrounding province of Saskatchewan have a distinct history and demographic makeup which I sometimes use to try to lure readers in. I can even combine several public buildings, historical events, or actual people for dramatic effect, and I assume I won’t be confronted about my fictionalizing because most readers have no idea what’s real here.

As I say in my bio, I live on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming.

[Not an accurate image of local wildlife.]


  1. I appreciate cities and like to visit them now and then, but I do resent the assumption of "urbanity' as the the root of all political and cultural trends. I don't deny it, exactly, but especially in these days of internet connectivity one can live in rural surroundings and still be as progressive and creative as any city dweller. Especially if your rural surroundings are in close proximity to four major colleges and a university. Granted, that's a rare situation, and I do have to admit that the colleges bring the advantages of cities to the country, but I still chafe at the notion that only cities are civilized. (Okay, my pointless rant is over.)

  2. Your strategy doesn't match mine at all, but it may be just as effective. You're probably right that if you describe a generic North American city, the reader will fill in the familiar details. But what about you? When you're writing, where do you imagine the tale playing itself out? I can't really start writing until I know where the characters are and often, where they come from. Can you?

  3. Thank for commenting, Sacchi and Lisabet.

    Please excuse my late response. I tried to respond on my cell-phone, but my reply disappeared into cyberspace. This weekend has been insane. The local court of drag performers (queens and kings) elected a new Emperor and Empress, so there has been a drag show every evening for 4 nights, plus a Sunday brunch. My partner Mirtha and I were recruited into being part of a queen's chorus of backup dancers, so we had choreography to rehearse! Between shows, we had to make sure the LGBT club was clean, since this is our job. Coronation Week (always in September) is the high point of the year for members of the court, but I'm glad when it's over.

    Anyway, Sacchi, I also have a problem with Sarah Schulman's concept of "urbanity," especially since it is shared by some other folks who seem to believe that nothing of interest happens in cities of under a million people. Saskatchewan (largely rural) was the birthplace of the Canadian health care system, and of the far-left political party originally named the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), which survives as the NDP (New Democratic Party), still slightly further left than the Liberals or (of course) the Conservatives. Here in Sask, the two small cities (Regina and Saskatoon) are magnets for people leaving the surrounding farm villages or the native reserves, and this makes them more urban than people in other regions seem to guess, since the two cities aren't suburbs of bigger cultural centres. Regina, in particular, is a seat of government, so political protests can have an effect here, and the curious can watch government in action at City Hall or in the Legislative Building.

    In other parts of North America, racial conflict usually involves two or more groups of people who are not native to this continent. In other parts of the world, there is even an assumption that the original inhabitants of North America are already extinct. Here in Saskatchewan, we're still dealing with racism/colonialism in its original form. The poorest neighbourhoods in the two cities are sometimes jokingly called "the Rez" because they are full of visibly-native people. In the 21st century, there is still a chance that the historical pattern of slaughter, starvation, assimilation, the outlawing & destruction of native culture which has resulted in a public image of native people as losers by nature can be stopped and some amends can be made.

    Maximum word-counts affect my decisions about how much local colour to include. Even within Canada, I've found that most people outside the prairies know very little about this region, or this province, or this town, so if I want to include this setting, I need to explain things. A writer in New York could refer to Bleecker Street and expect the reference to be recognized, and a writer in Toronto can refer to Queen Street (East or West), the CN Tower, or particular parts of town, but if I were to say that a hip couple is renovating an old house in the Prairie Gothic style on one of the cross-streets off 13th Avenue in Regina, would this reference make sense to anyone who hasn't lived here? If I were to say that rush hour traffic was especially heavy on the Albert Street Bridge, could you picture the scene? Unless I have room to explain, I usually avoid specific references to place, even when I imagine a plot unfolding where I live.

    There are characters, and then there are readers. If I imagine readers, I usually imagine them living somewhere else.


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