Revisiting Toronto the Good: An interview with Anthony De Sa
How does the murder of a young boy change a city’s identity? And how do those who live through such a crime come to terms with the emotional and physical fallout in their own lives?
These are some of the questions Anthony De Sa explores in his gripping new novel Kicking the Sky.
Set in Toronto’s Portuguese community in the late 1970s, the novel looks closely at how the brutal murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jacques affects a cross-section of community members, but also how the senseless killing galvanizes a number of constituencies and changes Toronto’s perception of itself as a relative safe, caring city.
I was engrossed in De Sa’s story, in particular his masterful ability to weave a number of highly charged personal narratives against the backdrop of the murder. I was also moved by his ability to render the inner world of young protagonist Antonio Rebelo with deep sensitivity and honesty. Anthony graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the novel and its impact on Toronto at the time.
Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His first book, Barnacle Love, was critically acclaimed and became a finalist for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2009 Toronto Book Award. Anthony graduated from University of Toronto and did his post-graduate work at Queen’s University. He attended The Humber School for Writers and Ryerson University. He is currently a teacher-librarian at Michael Power/St. Joseph High School. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three boys.
Your novel Kicking the Sky takes place against the backdrop of the Emanuel Jacques murder, a critical moment in the history of Toronto. When did you first realize it was a story you wanted to write?
I was eleven when Emanuel Jaques was murdered. I’ve been writing the story in my head since that time; trying to make sense of such a senseless crime. It wasn’t until the release of my first book, Barnacle Love, which included a short story titled The Shoeshine Boy, that I got the confidence and encouragement to write about that tumultuous time in my life and in the city’s history. I didn’t think the story had been dealt with in fiction and it was an important story to tell. Both my agent and my publisher, Doubleday Canada, thought it had the makings of a terrific work of fiction.
In part, the book describes the reactions of various members of the tight-knit Portuguese community to Emanuel’s disappearance and murder. Are you old enough to recall the impact of the murder firsthand? How have members of the Portuguese community reacted to the book?
Let me begin by saying that although the murder of Emanuel Jaques galvanized the Portuguese community, it wasn’t as “tight-knit” as one would suspect. There was a very clear division between the Portuguese immigrants who were from mainland Portugal and those who were Azorean, which made up the majority of the Portuguese community. In 1977, when I was 11 years old, I was made to feel “less than” because of my Azorean background. I recall my friends mother once admonishing him for playing with me: she didn’t want him mixing with a “dirty Azorean.” But the boy’s murder impacted the way we treated each other, at least for the short term. Together, our parents tried to rein us in, limit our freedoms. Their fear washed over us, and we spent that summer fighting those fears. The truth was we felt invincible. We were determined not to let them rob us of our childhoods. So we got on our bikes and kept riding. They weren’t going to take that away from us.
The Portuguese community has been tremendously supportive of me and of this book. Much more than they were of my first book. They may not like some of the issues I continue to raise or how I invite people into a world they would rather leave private, but I think they are beginning to understand my work.
There’s a broader sense that you document the loss of innocence and ushering in of a new reality for Toronto as a city—a transition time when doors begin to get locked and when citizens confront a new sense of danger, particularly for their children. Can you talk about this further?
Like so many immigrants that chose Canada as a place to begin their new lives, Portuguese immigrants came for their children. (They will all tell you the same thing) There were opportunities here in Canada; a bright future had been promised. It’s what they were told . . . or sold. To have this terrible thing happen to an innocent boy, one of their own, made them question the very same reasons they came. Their sense of danger was heightened. I think about how guilty they must have felt; although doors were locked and everyone in our neighbourhood was on heightened alert, their work schedules didn’t change. They continued to hold two, sometimes three jobs. They were very absent from our lives. We remained latchkey kids and we roamed the city and visited places thought safe from prying eyes.
Another community who confronted the aftermath of the Emanuel Jacques murder was the city’s downtown gay community, who were targeted and harassed by police and the subject of a wider backlash. How did you approach writing about this material? How have member of the gay community responded to the novel, generally?
The gay community was the unfortunate target of a wider backlash. It was unfortunate for two reasons: the community was gaining confidence in Toronto, becoming more visible in the city, and they were being maligned as pedophiles. In my research, community members, politicians, the police, and the media was muddling the distinction between homosexual and pedophile. Gerald Hannon’s article in The Body Politic: Men Loving Boys Loving Men, sparked a police investigation and further inflamed a city that was still feeling bruised as a result of the boy’s murder. The notion that pedophiles and homosexuals were one in the same was completely wrong. Such a comparison was not only unfair, it was dangerous. Many people got hurt and there was widespread fear of repercussions in the gay community. Gay bashing took hold of the city and it was never reported in the papers. If there is a legacy to this murder it is in a community finding its voice, demanding it be seen and heard.
The gay community has been very supportive of Kicking the Sky. Perhaps it’s because the story has never been told outside the realm of journalism. Regardless, they have welcomed the novel, and I’ve felt that they’ve appreciated the sensitivity, the honesty and candour in which I tried to write the story.
You do a remarkable job at bringing to life a wide range of compelling characters. In particular, your handling of the novel’s protagonist, young Antonio Rebelo, is powerful and true. You capture the complexity, longing, anger and confusion of Antonio as he is shaped by the events of the summer. What were the most difficult aspects of writing Antonio’s character?
I think your question addresses my greatest challenge: how do I make this boy, Antonio Rebelo, true? How do I make his longing and confusion and his anger real without compromising his loyalty and friendship and sense of wonder? I think Antonio is like the majority of boys out there, teetering on adulthood. What was difficult was boldly suggesting that all boys share, to varying degrees, what I think are universal feelings and insecurities about growing up and what it is to be a “man”. I thought there would be more of a backlash. There hasn’t been, I think, because I was true to my character and that most difficult age.
One of the themes that struck me in the book is the notion of complicity—how silence and turning a blind eye leads to all kinds of suffering. And yet throughout the book, we witness countless small moments—individually, in families, in communities—where harmful behaviours and actions go unchecked. This begins to change towards the book’s conclusion. How important is “speaking out” or “telling the truth” to the narrative arc of the novel and to this period in Toronto’s history?
Finding ones voice, whether that be as an individual, collectively as family, or as a community, is key to finding peace and wellness. And I guess that’s why it’s important to the narrative arc; in all the turmoil, mistrust, fear, and suffering that results from the murder of this boy, there comes a time when holding back just isn’t an option any longer. This novel is about finding the strength of voice. Every character in the Rebelo family must find it. Manny, Ricky, and Edite are forced to confront it. The Portuguese community and the gay community cannot remain silent. They too find their voices. Only then can lives be changed.
What’s next for Anthony De Sa? Will you continue to promote the book? Any new projects on the horizon?
Kicking the Sky is slotted for a U.S. release in March 2014. I’m so happy to be doing a U.S. book tour with the book, something that we are seeing less and less of in the publishing world. There is a new project on the horizon, but it’s in its infancy stage, meaning I’ve only put pen to paper in the last week or so. I can’t say much, but I will say that it will be quite a departure from the kind of novel I’ve written before, set in a time and place that is far more exotic than Toronto in the late seventies. Look for it.