Chelene Knight is an award-winning Vancouver-based writer whose recent works have explored carved-out pasts across the city. She is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award and long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Her work has appeared in numerous Canadian and American literary journals, publications such as the Walrus and the Globe and Mail, and anthologies including Making Room, Sustenance, and Black Writers Matter. Knight is also the founder of Breathing Space Creative Literary Studio, which supports artists looking to transform their publishing experience. Her latest novel, Junie, is set in the former Vancouver neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley, and dives deep into themes like community, belonging, black joy and female introversion, and complex mother-daughter relationships.
Interviewed by Ash Hampson
Ash Hampson (AH): Was there a particular reason you felt compelled to tell the story of Hogan’s Alley? And as it’s not particularly well known, what did research for this novel look like?
Chelene Knight (CK): Originally, the book started out of a dream to rebirth or resurrect the displaced community in Vancouver’s East end. But as the story evolved, I realized that there was something more powerful yet to be unearthed. I wanted to reimagine and bring back the living that took place in the neighbourhood, not the places themselves, but the pulsing life. The everydayness. As the story grew, I realized that this was a story about a girl searching for home and belonging. A girl searching for love, self love.
Research was as typical as it gets, the difference being that it’s hard to unearth the stories connected to the truth about the neighbourhood. That everyday life, the idea of just existing could only be explored through calling in an oral history that was not documented anywhere. It was through my research that I decided to let go of the fragments of a world that history wanted us to focus on and instead build a world full of pulsing life. A world Hogan’s Alley deserved.
AH: In the author note at the end of the book, you mention that Junie is a character you’ve had blossoming for years. Given how nuanced she is and how much depth she possesses, it’s easy to see how fully formed the character is. Was Junie someone you had begun to create before your discovery of Hogan’s Alley, or was she born at the same time as someone who needed to exist in this new fictionalized world you were creating?
CK: Junie sees the world in a very different way. She slows down, she is present. For the most part, the rest of the world is not. In order to accurately capture Junie’s way of seeing and tasting the world, I had to use a complex string of vignettes in addition to the main narrative. This was not easy work. To me, it was meant to be a choreographed song or dance. Yes, I break the traditional rules, but Junie is a non-traditional character. I had to not only build a world for her to thrive, but I had to create an environment where she could feel safe and seen. In everyday society, many of us have to conform or squeeze ourselves into boxes we don’t fit in. I didn’t want to do that to Junie. I had the power to build her something perfect for who she is. Junie has always been with me. The idea to drop into Hogan’s Alley was like me playing matchmaker. I wanted her to have a safe place to explore her coming of age.
AH: Was there a conscious decision in creating a parallel between Dear Current Occupant, in which there is longing for a place and home, and Junie, in which she creates home and community for herself?
CK: I write often about home and complex female relationships. It’s just what happens naturally for me. But also, I want folks to pick up on the essence of water in the book. Writing for me has always moved in waves, often creating soft ripples that more often than not we never get to witness. But the gushing water metaphor also speaks to what happens when systemic racism causes a community to change from a tap gushing with water to a slow and steady drip pooling at the bottom of a greasy salad bowl, just like I mention in the early pages of the book.
AH: Your previous answer regarding the gushing water metaphor, that was actually one of my favourite quotes in the book: “How can so many droplets fill the dips and valleys like that? How long does it take for each tiny drop of water to build a community in a small bowl?” That said, racism, sexism, poverty – while we know these issues are all present, a lot of them almost sit on the periphery in Junie. Do you think moving them aside helps the reader view the narrative differently?
CK: Oh that’s so interesting to hear! Yes, the intentional choice to scale back the racial tension allowed for a very different book. I think writers of colour are often expected to serve up pain on a platter whereas I chose to de-centre it, purposefully. It doesn’t mean that it is not there, but we see and feel the ripples of systemic oppression through the way Junie moves through the world, and we see it through her eyes instead of through the oppressors’. Sometimes when we face barriers and difficulty, we can and should have a place to just breathe, a place to exist. This is what I tried to offer Junie. I wanted her to have a safe(r) place in an environment that allowed her to focus on her own internal struggles … her superpowers also helped her to quiet the external pressures without ignoring them.
AH: Did the narrative of Junie ever change over the course of your writing, perhaps turning away from what you’d originally intended? And after working through numerous drafts, did your depiction of Hogan’s Alley end up the way you had hoped?
CK: Junie definitely took a few different turns. The book originally spanned 50 years … but to me that just wasn’t working for the kind of book I wanted to write so I made the decision to focus on the time when the neighbourhood was thriving (in the eyes of the people who set down roots there).