LivingArts: Getting to Know Hamilton Through Literature

Cootes Paradise is known to many as the Royal Botanical Garden’s largest and most diverse sanctuary. It’s a critical spawning area for fish. It’s favoured by migratory waterfowl. However, until I read The Fishers of Paradise, the Hamilton Literary Award-winning novel by Rachael Preston, I knew nothing of the historic boat community that flourished along the shores of Cootes Paradise in the first half of the 20th century.

Literature allows us to explore every corner of the Earth. It brings readers into the centre of complex mythical worlds and can launch us into space. Yet, at the same time, it can introduce us and reintroduce us to our own surroundings. Local literature can force us to think about the spaces and places we inhabit, allowing us to explore the city we are most familiar with through a different set of eyes. 

With lush green space, an industrial North end, tight-knit neighbourhoods, and a storied past of mobsters and musicians, it’s no surprise that Hamilton inspires writers (and filmmakers and musicians and visual artists …), whether they’re writing a collection of poetry, a work of nonfiction, or a novel. The Fishers of Paradise itself was inspired by a walk along a path the writer took.

Writing workshops often tell us: “Write what you know,” which has been called “the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever.” However, there’s also something to be said about reading what you don’t know. We each have views of Hamilton shaped by our own experiences, privilege, the things we do, the places we work, and the people we know. The books I’ve read about Hamilton have helped shape the way I view the ambitious city as it grows.

There is no shortage of books (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, YA) set against the backdrop of Hamilton, from a collection of poetry set on an HSR bus to a H. P. Lovecraft-esque modern mystery set in and around Ivor Wynne Stadium. Through non-fiction I’ve learned about Hamilton’s punk scene, the Inuit population of the Sanitorium, workers who organized, and the Italian community of our North End. (Maybe one day I’ll put together the essential “Read Hamilton” booklist).

As I write this blog post, I think of Project Bookmark Canada, and their tagline: “Where we stand, there is a story.” Local literature has the ability to preserve our stories, bringing to life eras and ways of living that no longer exist. They’re a chance to see your city differently — through the eyes of characters — real or fictional — with lived experiences unique from our own.