New student anthology bridges generation gap through storytelling

A Ukrainian woman destined for domestic drudgery frees herself from Saskatchewan farm life, a father arrives in Toronto from India with just nine dollars in his pocket, and a Greek grandmother remembers her confrontation with a German soldier as a child escaping the wartime occupation of her village. These are just a few of the tales in Toronto Generations: An anthology of stories written by York University students.

It is an anthology of stories passed on from elders to youth eager to connect with their past and learn about events that shaped their identities and the identities of family members.Toronto Generations focuses on roots, generations, family, diversity, lived experiences and grandparents. It offers a glimpse of the history and experiences of Toronto’s citizens through the words of a new generation.

“I am quite thrilled and filled with such a sense of pride and dignity. I see it as a tribute to my grandmother and I am happy that I have written it while she is still alive so that I can share it with her and she can know that she was and still is appreciated,” said Maria Reid, whose story appears in the anthology.

The stories in the anthology were selected from creative writing assignments in a set of first-, third- and final-year undergraduate courses in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies – Childhood, Schools & Society; the School & Fiction; and Childhood & Society – that centred on the notion of roots and generations.

Left: Writer Garyn Kirshenbaum and her grandfather Zaidy Jack Katz

"They are versions of history that inspire global understanding, make public worlds out of what had been private and uncover how earlier generations are role models for the current one. They also delve into how mainstream cultural accretions challenge and change traditional or long-held norms," said Chris Searle, co-editor of Toronto Generations, editor of Cosmopolis, Toronto and former York visiting professor. "The book contains episodes of great Canadian epics of migration, expressed through the form of personal narratives, which collectively highlight the complex and hugely diverse population we live in."

Grandparents and their impact on the family are the focus of many of the students’ stories. In Francilia Odame’s "Kente", an illiterate Ghanaian grandmother teaches her granddaughter to read through the colours and patterns of kente cloth; in "A True Hero", Zaidy Jack Katz teaches his granddaughter, Garyn Kirshenbaum, the power of positive thinking; and in Lisa Alexander’s (BA ’07) "Mama Says So", her grandmother provides invaluable lessons on forgiveness and new beginnings.

Right: Chris Searle

“Every York student has a unique story to tell and their stories weave together the fabric of Canada, said Searle. “Toronto Generations provides us with a rare and very intimate mirror into the past and an insightful glimpse of today’s cosmopolitan reality. The stories carry a contemporaneous truth for the lives of modern Torontonians.”

Toronto Generations is a companion to Cosmopolis, Toronto (see YFile,  March 20, 2007) also written by Atkinson students and edited by Searle. It was after the publication of Cosmopolis, Toronto that Searle and Kristin Taylor, communications coordinator for Atkinson’s Office of the Dean and co-editor of the anthology, decided they had enough material for a second anthology. Over the summer and fall of 2007, they volunteered their time to select and edit stories. Tim Hudson, Atkinson’s communications manager, provided creative direction and Erica St. Louis, a work-study student at Atkinson and a communications studies student at York, was responsible for the book jacket and typography.

Left: Writer Tina Bissoon (centre) flanked by her mother (left) and her grandmother (right)

Toronto Generations is a moving and powerful examination of identity – both individual and familial. The writers should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. Their work is a beautiful testament to Toronto’s rich diversity and heritage," said Taylor.

The students’ stories were inspired by novels, short stories, autobiographies, plays and poems by prolific writers from all over the world, including Charles Dickens, James Joyce, C.K. Narayan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ha Jia, Rita Joe and Barrington Gordon, as well as by their peers who wrote Cosmopolis, Toronto.

“I’m thrilled to have been part of two such worthwhile projects,” said Taylor. “Cosmopolis, Toronto and Toronto Generations reflect the kind of deep and meaningful learning that takes place inside the York classroom. Students aren’t asked simply to regurgitate course material; rather, they are asked to engage with it, to wrestle with it and to bring it to life by connecting it to their own experiences.”

As was the case with Cosmopolis, Toronto, proceeds from Toronto Generations will support the Red Cross and will help rebuild education in communities affected by the 2004 tsunami.

Searle currently teaches at the University of Manchester in the UK and is working on developing a curriculum project inspired by the anthologies. He has taught in Britain, Canada, Tobago, Mozambique and Grenada. His books include Classrooms of Resistance, Words Unchained, This New Season, We’re Building the New School, The World in a Classroom, Grenada Morning and The Forsaken Lover – for which he was awarded the Martin Luther King Prize. His books of poetry, include Mainland, Red Earth, Common Ground and Lightning of Your Eyes.

For more information, contact Chris Searle at or Kristin Taylor at

Copies of Toronto Generations are available at the York University Bookstore.