By Shoilee Khan
The small press is a mighty thing; risk-taking, genre-disrupting, experimental works of great impact often find their home here. It’s a publishing space that takes intentional chances on new voices and engages with a vision for a literary landscape that is interesting, thoughtful, unexpected, and nuanced. The small press is where new, original, and vibrant works of art find dedicated belief and care.
This month’s reading challenge highlights a selection of debut novels published by a small press. The debut novel is exciting because it is the beginning of a fascination. It represents the breakthrough of a writer’s voice in novel form; it carries with it the weight of a promise – here is a voice that has captured us and will capture you. Here it is at the very start making its mark on the world, making its mark on you.
These selections range across a spectrum of provoking topics: intense social and historical critiques, tender coming-of-age fumbles, wild and imaginative hauntings, and heart-wrenching multi-generational family sagas.
Slip into the biting cold of November with the flush of a vibrant, debut novel that will guide you somewhere new.
Isolated Incident, by Mariam Pirbhai
When a rock, a threatening letter, and a burning Quran are thrown into a mosque on the outskirts of Toronto, religious leaders and the police shrug it off as an isolated incident. But many see it as a hate crime. Among them is Kashif Siddiqui, the son of Pakistani immigrants. Kashif joins a group of volunteers at an Islamic Cultural Centre on a security watch during the festive Eid night, a potential target of another attack. When an attack materializes, Eid night becomes a test of friendship, family, and faith for the community; it also ends in near-tragedy and a declaration of love and reconciliation.
The Loyal Daughter by Nancy Lam
The Loyal Daughter is a novel in stories, told from the perspective of mother, daughter, and granddaughter and spans the 1940s to modern day. A young woman in a village in Communist China finds herself scrapping her way through the crowded streets of Hong Kong. She immigrates to an isolated Northern Ontario city and finally settles in Toronto. When she finds herself stuck in a small apartment above a clothing store, with four kids, her mother, two siblings, and a husband who is never home, the promise of a new beginning fades. Filled with heart-breaking sacrifices, struggles, and secrets that shape her identity, The Loyal Daughter stands testament to a woman’s true resilience.
Jade is a Twisted Green, by Tanya Turton
Jade Brown, a twenty-four-year-old first-generation Jamaican woman living in Toronto, must find a way to pick up the pieces and discover who she is following the mysterious death of her twin sister.
Grappling with her grief, Jade seeks solace in lovers and friends during an array of hilarious and heartbreaking adventures. As she investigates some of life’s most frustrating paradoxes, she holds tight to old friends and her ex-girlfriend, lifelines between past and present. On the journey to turning twenty-five, she finally sees that she belongs to herself, and goes about the business of reclaiming that self.
Through a series of whirlwind love affairs, parties, and trips abroad, Jade stumbles toward relinquishing the weight of her trauma as she fully comes into her own as a young Black woman and writer.
All the Quiet Places, by Brian Thomas Isaac (Available on Audible Canada)
It’s 1956, and six-year-old Eddie Toma lives with his mother, Grace, and his little brother, Lewis, near the Salmon River on the far edge of the Okanagan Indian Reserve in the British Columbia Southern Interior. Grace, her friend Isabel, Isabel’s husband Ray, and his nephew Gregory cross the border to work as summer farm labourers in Washington state. There Eddie is free to spend long days with Gregory exploring the farm: climbing a hill to watch the sunset and listening to the wind in the grass. The boys learn from Ray’s funny and dark stories. But when tragedy strikes, Eddie returns home grief-stricken, confused, and lonely.
Eddie’s life is governed by the decisions of the adults around him. Grace is determined to have him learn the ways of the white world by sending him to school in the small community of Falkland. On Eddie”s first day of school, as he crosses the reserve boundary at the Salmon River bridge, he leaves behind his world. Grace challenges the Indian Agent and writes futile letters to Ottawa to protest the sparse resources in their community. His father returns to the family after years away only to bring chaos and instability. Isabel and Ray join them in an overcrowded house. Only in his grandmother’s company does he find solace and true companionship.
In his teens, Eddie’s future seems more secure—he finds a job, and his long-time crush on his white neighbour Eva is finally reciprocated. But every time things look up, circumstances beyond his control crash down around him. The cumulative effects of guilt, grief, and despair threaten everything Eddie has ever known or loved.
All the Quiet Places is the story of what can happen when every adult in a person’s life has been affected by colonialism; it tells of the acute separation from culture that can occur even at home in a loved familiar landscape. Its narrative power relies on the unguarded, unsentimental witness provided by Eddie.