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How Montreal’s Mile End became a muse for writer Sarah Gilbert

‘For a long time, I was just quietly writing stuff, waiting for it to be discovered’
January 10, 2024
By Samantha Rideout, GrDip 10

A close-up portrait of a woman with a gentle expression, featuring long dark hair, a subtle smile, and wearing a navy blue top with a red garment underneath. She is set against a neutral background with soft lighting. Sarah Gilbert, MA 96 | Credit: Alain Pratte

Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood has overlapping past lives as a streetcar suburb, a sanctuary for immigrants and a low-rent haven for artists and musicians.

To this day, it’s an area where everything is accessible on foot. This walkability gives it an energy that appealed to Sarah Gilbert, MA 96, when she first moved to Montreal in 1990.

“I was taken in by the density and the activity,” she recalls. “People were always out on the street.”

At the time, she had a bachelor’s degree in journalism. “But I was actually sort of shy and introspective,” she adds. “I realized I’d always been an English major at heart.”

She enrolled in the creative-writing stream of Concordia’s Master of Arts in English, where she says she says she was lucky to have demanding teachers.

Later, Gilbert became a producer at CBC Radio with a hand in its literary programming. In that role, she helped readers discover Canadian authors. But it took her years to find her own voice as a fiction writer.

Gilbert’s work has appeared in a number of literary journals, and last summer she put out her first book, a collection of short stories called Our Lady of Mile End (Anvil Press). It’s a portrait of an urban neighbourhood as seen by characters with varying life experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.

“They’re all piled up and living in such close proximity that it creates a bit of the human friction a story needs,” Gilbert says.

In one story, a teenage girl experiencing neglect steals a sweater from a classmate with a warm and attentive mother. In another, a textile artist makes portraits of her affluent housecleaning clients out of dust from their homes.

‘In fiction, you can imagine other realities’

Book cover image of author Sarah Gilbert's latest book, Our Lady of Mile End. Our Lady of Mile End is widely available, including at independent booksellers such as Mile End’s own Drawn and Quarterly | Credit: Anvil Press

Gilbert started writing about Mile End while on maternity leave in 2008.

“I took a lot of walks with my daughter, and often I was pushing the stroller very slowly to get her to sleep,” she explains. “I got to observe my surroundings in detail.”

The immediate result was Mile Endings, a blog that recorded the people and places affected — for better or for worse — by the neighbourhood’s ongoing gentrification. It found an enthusiastic audience.

Gilbert’s journalistic approach led her to unique stories. A long-time hatmaker who was going out of business and a cloistered Carmelite nun were among the residents she interviewed; her fiction contains characters loosely inspired by each of them.

“That’s what literature’s all about: experiencing what it might be like to be someone else,” Gilbert says. “I don’t write only about myself because I’m not that interesting. In fiction, you can imagine other realities.”

Upon turning 40, Gilbert decided to leave freelancing for a steadier job. Her Concordia degree helped open the door to her current position as a literature professor at Dawson College in downtown Montreal.

Gilbert occasionally returns to Concordia as a guest lecturer for creative-writing students. Her advice to them? “Submit, submit, submit.”

Yet she knows this can be tough for people who aren’t brimming with confidence — people such as her younger self. “For a long time, I was just quietly writing stuff, leaving it on my hard drive and waiting for it to be discovered somehow,” she admits.

She also likes to ask students what they write about and where they find their inspiration. She tells them she feeds her own creativity by going out and seeing what’s happening.

Although her ideas come from close to home, Gilbert hopes her stories will resonate even with readers who aren’t familiar with Mile End.

“My publisher is in Vancouver, and there are similar neighbourhoods there — in almost any city — that have been through many evolutions,” she says. “I like tracking the changing cityscape: we’re all a part of it.”

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