The Universality of Local Stories by Carissa Halton – #TurnItUP

When I moved into Alberta Avenue, an inner city neighbourhood in the heart of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, my acquaintances often asked, “Why would you live there?” In fact, not long after settling into our century-old house with sagging stucco skin, the city published a report that gave Alberta Avenue a zero quality of life rating. A ZERO. It only confirmed what our well-meaning acquaintances felt for us: our children would not be safe.

Three children and fourteen years later, my book Little Yellow House: Finding Community in a Changing Neighbourhood (2018) explores through many first-person stories what a contrast our experience was from those dire predictions. It is not a classical textbook on how to do community development, though it could be used as such. Nor is it a traditional personal memoir, though Ted Bishop, author of Ink, called it a “neighbourhood biography,” which is a kind of memoir-with-a-twist.

I wrote it with two purposes: first to document, like literary polaroids, a neighbourhood that was changing with an influx of revitalization funding and improving housing market conditions. Second, I wanted to explore the human connections that are integral to the quality of life all of us experience in our built environment.

Before the University of Alberta Press picked up Little Yellow House for publication, I spoke to a literary agent about the process of selling the book to a commercial publishing house and one of the first things she said was, “Who in Toronto wants to read stories set in Edmonton?”

Although it was intended as a rhetorical question, I tried to defend the universality of “local stories.” While local stories are helpful for recording and teaching in their specific locales, I argued that they are critical for finding shared learnings across regions and oceans. Is this not why many of us read? By reading one another’s local stories we better understand the “other” and—even better—discover our own stories in the other’s local stories. In fact, the wide circulation of “local stories” is, I believe, at the heart of empathy, ecumenicalism, and peace-building.

It is to expand and enable this curiosity that drives university presses and thank goodness for them! There are many “business cases” that limit books like mine from finding their way onto the lists of commercial publishers. University of Alberta Press, and editor Peter Midgley, had the flexibility to see the literary and theoretical merit of Little Yellow House and then took a chance on it. While the press does not have any mandate that urges them to pursue Alberta stories, as a small publisher connected to our city’s literary community, they are accessible to independent writers like me. It is these connections to local and regional communities where university presses offer a unique service to the literary arts community and readers—well, I think I have argued—everywhere!