TORONTO – Anthony De Sa is a man with a mighty memory. He vividly remembers, for example, the reception from his students when he returned to Toronto’s Michael Power/St. Joseph High School, where he taught English, after attending the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala as a finalist.
“They all stood up and they clapped,” he said in an interview, sitting in an office that looms above the city he’s lived in all his life. “And then after that — boy, did they listen.”
Being nominated for one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards for his debut will do that. Now, five years after “Barnacle Love,” an interconnected collection of short stories about a Portuguese-Canadian family, he’s exploring his community even more deeply with “Kicking the Sky,” a novel inspired by a murder that De Sa says marked an indelible end to the era of “Toronto the Good.”
In the summer of 1977, 12-year-old Portuguese shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques went missing on the Yonge Street Strip, then a dodgy cesspool. His body was later found mangled, the victim of a sexual assault, in a plastic bag on the roof of a sex shop.
For De Sa, then 11, the memory of his community at the time is vivid too.
“It was the first time that I recall my father clicking on the deadbolt in the front of our house, the first time we closed doors and shut windows. It was the first time teachers asked us go to bathrooms in pairs. It was the first time the neighbours, who used to be boisterous and friendly, all of a sudden kind of retreated into their homes.”
De Sa says the local aftermath of the murder was notable for all the things that changed, but also for the things that didn’t change — specifically, his parents’ long work hours. “Kicking the Sky” uses the tragedy as a jumping-off point to explore that dichotomy from the eyes of 12-year-old Antonio Rebelo, whose family is still learning where love fits into the new place in which they live.
De Sa says that perspective was tricky to maintain as an author. He had initially written in the gruesome details of Jaques’s murder, but removed them to preserve the innocence of that point of view.
“As adults, we can see murders of children and … understand how horrendous that is. But as a child, it affected my family, it affected my friends and neighbours, but we had a sense that as boys, that would never happen to us,” he said.
“I wanted the world to change and for Antonio to recognize that change because the people and places around him were changing.”
In the book, the community’s healing comes in part from Antonio’s discovery of a miracle — the image of God in a limpet shell. But for the real-life city, it came in the form of a new voice for a then-silent diaspora. In the wake of the murder, it finally rose up, with thousands marching to City Hall and Queen’s Park and demanding change.
De Sa blames the community’s silence on the fact that many immigrants had fled the virtual dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, where citizens feared imprisonment or death. That, plus its fidelity to the promise understood by Portuguese immigrants — that a better life awaited, and the trade-off was quiet, hard work — meant the diaspora for the most part kept its head down.
It’s also why the murder resonated so deeply — and still does, even to this day, he said.
“The crux of (‘Kicking the Sky’) is a story of this city, of how it invites us all in, but it’s also a story of betrayal. It’s a story of a bag of goods that were sold, and people felt betrayed — by politicians, by police, by the social system, by the promise. And that’s why I think (the murder) hurt so much.
“I think a community finally found its voice, and it was OK to speak up and say, ‘We’re angry.'”
It also served as a turning point for Toronto. De Sa calls the book a “kiss to the city,” recalling that growing up, Toronto lived in the shadow of Montreal, which hosted Expo ’67 and the Olympics in 1976.
“But then, the Toronto Blue Jays were coming. And then we were getting the CN Tower. In ’76, cars stopped in the middle of the highway and we watched that helicopter put that last bit on top of the world’s (tallest) free-standing structure. The Eaton Centre had just been built — the largest shopping mall in the country. And that summer of Emanuel Jaques was the same summer that the Son of Sam was happening in New York.
“It’s going to sound strange, but as kids, there was a kind of pride — that Toronto had made it. That we were a world-class city because every world-class city had a certain amount of sin. And as boys, we relished that comparison. … In many respects, the community had a say in how that city changed and rebranded itself after this tragic murder.”
For De Sa, the summer of Emanuel Jaques was a story he says he “needed to tell.” The novel builds off a short story that appeared in “Barnacle Love,” and it was one of the first pieces he wrote when he first began writing in 2004.
“It’s the one I’ve been writing since I was 11 in my mind, but never had the courage to tell in this full-length treatment,” he said.
It’s also a story that hadn’t yet been told. And while that could have produced undue stress — would the still-testy community bristle at its depiction? — a fearless De Sa says he knows he was true to the story. To wit, he cites a recent piece written about the book by someone who had helped organize the Jaques rally in 1977.
“(He wrote), ‘As a community we may not want to hear half of the stuff he’s got in this book, but he got it damn right.’ And that makes me feel wonderful,” said De Sa. “It makes me feel like I haven’t betrayed anyone — and certainly, this community doesn’t need to be betrayed once again.”
“Kicking the Sky” is on bookstore shelves now.