Living In Toronto


2013 Toronto Book Awards Finalist

How does one fit in a new country if she's a "giant freak," doesn't speak the language and can barely comprehend the bizarre things happening both back in her motherland and in her body? In a voice reminiscent of Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals, Aga Maksimowska tells the story of 11-year-old Gosia, a Polish girl whose already-difficult coming of age is intensified by an incomprehensible and sudden move to Canada. Gosia is forced to undergo the tumults of puberty in a foreign land far from her beloved grandparents who remain in Poland where they participate in the struggle to rebuild and reinvent the old republic. Like many children of migrants, Gosia, unsure of her identity, weaves a new way of living, one that includes Toronto's multi-ethnic influences and old familial traditions.

What the judges said

Aga Maksimowska's Giant (Pedlar Press) is a story of migration and reinvention. Chronicling the physical and emotional journey of Gosia, the adolescent protagonist, the story begins in Poland, the country of her birth. While navigating the physical awkwardness of growing faster than her peers, she is also obliged to make sense of her mother's move to Toronto to lay the foundation for a better life for the family. Maksimowska first introduces Toronto as a mythical, unknown place to which Gosia is a reluctant migrant. In the midst of her adolescent angst, Gosia must find her own place in a new country, in the new life her mother has created. Beautifully told, the novel is an honest account of the messiness of growing up, set against the complex backdrop of transplanted traditions, language and expectation.

Aga Maksimowska

Aga Maksimowska emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1988. She studied Journalism at Ryerson University and Education at the University of Toronto. In 2010, she completed a Master's of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. She lives in Toronto. Giant (Pedlar Press, 2012) is her first book.
Photo credit: Jordan Gross

Excerpt from Giant

IN ADDITION TO being a giant nerd now, I am also on the year book committee. Actually, I am fifty percent of the year book committee; my new friend Jenny is the other. The job requires taking pictures of school events and pasting them onto big layout sheets, which I am oddly good at. I write some of the text for the soon-to-be-published hardback book, and use gold cursive on the cover, like the books Mama used to read. The school secretary takes care of all the student lists for the mug shots; I don't have to deal with her much.

Because we'll be graduating from Finch Valley in a few weeks, our grade has to submit baby pictures to the year book committee. Jenny and I begin the photo selection process with our own shots. In my black and white, I'm one year old, sitting on Tata's shoulders, soft sand dunes behind us, sparse grasses swaying in the wind. This picture was taken on the Baltic coast, near Krynica Morska, where we vacationed once with Babcia and Dziadek and two of Mama's siblings. There is another photo: Tata holding my fat, round head right up to his, and I look a lot like I do now, which is alarming. We are both grinning into Mama's Kiev camera. Tata's nose is like a seagull's beak, he has nest-like eyebrows. He has my face.

"Maggie, do you have any colour photos?" Jenny asks, as I help her sort through the pile I've spilled out of a brown envelope marked Gosia: 1977-1981. "Although, these are pretty rad. You look like you were born in 1877."

Jennifer Elizabeth Grant is pink, baby blue and blonde, and Mama is obsessed with her. In fact, she's obsessed with all my new, excessively white, Anglo-Saxon, gifted classmates, who wear Roots sweatshirts instead of cheap Cotton Ginny substitutes. No Honest Ed's or Bi-Way footwear for them, only Reebok and Tretorn. Mama doesn't miss Althea, Finch Valley's star basketball player, as much as I do. To Mama, the fact that I now have 'proper Canadian friends' is a sign that I myself am finally a proper Canadian. I thought citizenship would be enough (which Mama says we should get any day now), but Jenny Grant seems to be a more impressive kind of citizenship. "You never know," Mama says, "the Grants might be good people to know some day."

Jenny is dressed in pink in every one of her baby shots. Her photographs are chronologically arranged in an album with a bow on it. Mrs. Grant wears pink lipstick, Mr. Grant an orange and green argyle sweater, and Grandmother Grant a massive lavender hat. The sky is blue, as it should be, not the colour of cigarette ash. "Was there any colour in Poland?" Jenny asks, comparing her photograph to mine.

I'm a little offended, sad, even embarrassed. 'Of course there was colour in Poland, you stupid cow,' I want to say, but I don't, because I don't want to have to put the entire year book together all by myself. It's not Jenny Grant's fault that she can't imagine waxy, coral-coloured rosehips behind gold sand dunes, and fat bumble bees around purple and pink wildflowers. "The Soviets took all the colour away," I tell Jenny, and I laugh stupidly at how this sounds.

She stares at me. "How's that?" she asks. "Weren't the Soviets all about colour: red and gold?"

There is no way a pink girl would ever understand Poland. So I shrug.

"Let's publish this one." She hands me the close-up of me and Tata. "Look how hilarious you are: a perfectly spherical cranium, like Gorbachev."