To the dismay of all rational thinkers, urbanites and enthusiasts of the calm, cultured image Toronto typically projects, Rob Ford’s endless “did-he-smoke-crack” saga has characterized the city to anyone outside of our borders. For anyone within them, it’s impossible to escape. Stories of the alien acts of our mayor and his entourage grow more surreal with every day and every page, and as the rumours and subsequent media stories fly overhead, we’re left confused and questioning what’s left of our collective identity and our leader’s ethics. Toronto writer and fiction editor Emily Keeler knew she wasn’t the only one dreading turning on the news, picking up the paper to find Rob’s face staring back with a new and absurd headline every day. Distraught, distracted from her work, and in an attempt to seek clarity, Keeler reached out to a circle of writers to see if they might find a way to approach it. She was interested in seeing how feelings relating to our mayor could be explored (and maybe even understood) through literature. Turns out, Keeler wasn’t the only artist in town looking for a venue to do just that. And so a group of 11 Toronto writers each put a pen to paper and emerged less than a week later with a piece of Fordian-fiction. What came to be was an 56-page journal of stories, (flexibly) based on true events and re-writing reality: an anthology of stories titled Everything is Fine.
Rob Ford is a protagonist, a Craigslist advertiser, an evil twin, a robot. He’s a menace, he’s naÃ¯ve, he’s anything we want him to be. Each writer produced a piece pursuing the facet of city council that tugs at their curiosity. The final product is recommended reading for anyone who’s been infatuated by Rob Ford’s dilemmas, and who might want a way to explore it in a way beyond the bounds of the aggressive daily news. Last Monday night, the publication Little Brother debuted the anthology with an official launch: contributors to the collection and members of Toronto’s literary community gathered to read and share their stories, opening up discussion for the narrative possibilities that come from cities and their leaders. Editor of Spacing Magazine Shawn Micallef took the mic to discuss how a political figure can shape narrative potential. Rob Ford is a perfect example, standing as a leader whose quirks surpass the point of charming and have lead to a disappointing few months for Toronto. Writing has the potential to bring creativity and light to a situation that will inevitably grow darker, and Everything is Fine seeks to do just that.
I sat down with Keeler, a former Toronto Standard contributor, to find out more about the ambitions of the collection and what tie the stories together. The anthology is the first special project of Toronto literary magazine Little Brother, a bi-annual magazine of prose, photography, and art created by Keeler. She came up with the idea for the project on something of a whim, finding that fan fiction might be a way to approach and understand our relationship with Ford – despite the fact that few downtowners consider themselves fans. Keeler knew that if she was enraptured by his drama, others must be and might want to write and read about it. There would be authors and there would be an audience. Keeler shot off an email to some of her favourite fellow writers to see if any had Rob Ford fan fiction or would be open to trying their hand at it. She gave herself and writers a strict deadline of less than a week to get their pieces ready. That way, the stories would stand as immediate and emotional reactions to of-the-moment news. “It was a really unique opportunity to see how responsive literature can be,” Keeler said. “The material was ripe and we had to act fast.” And so it was: with every report, and as the Ford saga progresses, the story becomes more intricate and preposterous — almost begging us to pick up a pen and play with it.
While some have more of a political bend than others, and all are commentary on the scandals’ presence in our community, none of the stories in Everything is Fine overtly push an agenda. Keeler noted that the crazier rumours about Ford makes it easy to jump in and start pushing ideologies in light of the mayor’s failings in the political sphere. She was pleased to see that none of the writers took to the journal to do so. “It wasn’t fiction as argument, it was entirely just about exploring the complexity of the situation and how it makes us feel about the city,” Keeler said. Ultimately, the writing isn’t about Rob Ford’s performance as a mayor, nor his crack allegations, conflict of interest cases, homophobia, or other accusations – but rather, it’s about the experiences as the people of Toronto pushing through. “It reveals new things about ourselves to us, if nothing new about Rob Ford”.
Yes, the fiction is about our own exploration and recovery — but that doesn’t mean that Ford and his circle get away without any criticism. Despite the collection’s disclaimer that the stories are separate entirely from the people whose names they share, some address the figures with direct critique and insult. Spencer Gordon, author of Cosmo (2012) and editor of magazines The Puritan and Ferno House, said that his piece Black and Blue is anything but light-hearted. “I wasn’t going for comedic in any way. Mine’s actually quite harsh and mean,” said Gordon. “[How you interpret it] is not my jurisdiction: all I want to you to do is know I’m so sorry because it was so quick. That’s the only way I want you to read it, with apologies in mind,” he laughed. While Gordon says he’s more comfortable in the novella zone, you can’t tell: the short piece Black on Blue is powerful. The story depicts a conversation between two city council figures as they cruise around Toronto streets, strategizing as they observe and judge the people of the city. Their conversation is cruel, and so is their representation – Gordon’s physical descriptions are exquisitely detailed and unforgiving. It’s like you’re in the back of the car with them, privy to an intimate and repulsive discussion of the people and place you call home – and it’s perfectly unsettling.
Other stories are fresh and funny, successfully bringing humour into what is an arguably comical moment for Toronto. Editor of Canada Arts Connect and This Magazine (and Toronto Standard contributor) Natalie Zina Walschots writes a piece that stands out: in ROBot Ford, our mayor is a simple automaton who was inexplicably elected as mayor and beginning to malfunction. His creator, Doug, is forced to desperately try and pick up the pieces as the robot-mayor thrashes around Toronto. It’s hilarious. Natalie cast Doug Ford as a protagonist, finding that he’s a more believable and maybe even sympathetic figure. “You can sort of see him as a person, where Rob appears to be an incoherent force of nature, wildly operating without any sort of sense of cause and effect,” said Natalie. With her sci-fi piece, Natalie explores her interest in the nature of narrative reality as such surreal events take Toronto politics. “I hope it sort of illuminates a little bit of how hilariously fictionalized our current reality is. The fictional reality is more believable than shit that’s happening. And more real.”
Stranger than fiction, it is. While subject matter varies in Everything is Fine, what the stories have in common is that they bring opportunity for Torontonians to explore complicated feelings and ask new questions. With the media picking sides, Keeler says it’s easy to feel lost as heads on the news aggressively report one way or another. Fiction allows writers to experience true issues in a more nuanced way, moving past the restrictions of reality. “I felt like taking the story outside of the context of facts and opinion and putting it into something where there’s a lot more room to think would be really helpful, especially for me,” said Keeler. She’s not alone.
With Everything is Fine comes an of-the-moment, organic piece of collaborative literature that offers alternative realities to engage with. It’s democratic yet more structured and refined than the reflections on Ford that float around the web. “I feel like the reverberations of our time will exceed just the memes. I wanted to make something more complex than a gif, with more room for ambiguity than a tweet,” Keeler grinned. The form succeeds. By presenting imaginative, critical, and whimsical realities equally as likely as the one that’s currently unfolding, the Ford-fiction challenges the unnatural and inaccessible chronicles of Rob. Everything is Fine gives the people back the pen in a moment when the story feels out of our hands. And it’s damn refreshing.
Farrah Khaled is an intern at the Toronto Standard. Follow her on twitter at @farkhaly.