Billie Livingston has eyes fixed on social victims
Two sisters team up to slit the throat of a drifter with lecherous intentions. In love with his brother’s wife, an uncle confesses murder to his niece. A suburban mom in tap shoes flees to Vegas with one of her daughter’s grade-school classmates. Dementia claims a father while his ne’er-do-well son cracks up in a clown mask. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers: many of the stories in Greedy Little Eyes (Vintage Canada, $22) cast a perceptive eye on family dynamics, and author Billie Livingston sees no reason to change her focus.
“That’s where I figure all our first loves are, and where all our future buttons-to-be-pushed were installed,” says the acclaimed poet and novelist, whose latest publication is her first short-story collection. “So families, to me, are always really fascinating—either the families we create or the ones we’re born into.”
Biographical details on the Ontario-born, Vancouver-based writer are skimpy, but this we know: Livingston is 44, has two sisters, has worked in Japan and elsewhere as a model, and is not formally trained in her craft. And at some time in her childhood, she reveals, her own family slipped into poverty—which is perhaps why her stories, so coolly observational on the surface, are full of compassion for the losers and victims of this world.
“I’d been in foster homes growing up, and we were on welfare,” she says. “But my mother was a pretty middle-class woman. You know, she’d been a schoolteacher and had led a pretty standard Canadian middle-class life. It didn’t take too much for us, as a family, to stumble to the other side of the tracks—and then you’re those people. So I’ve had personal experience of finding myself in a pretty dark place.”
Writing was always her out, she adds: a means of locating herself in the world, and of expelling her fear. Increasingly, it’s also her avenue for subtle social criticism. Of her two novels, Livingston says that 2000’s Going Down Swinging delves into “more underbelly stuff”, while Cease to Blush, published in 2006, is lighter, more commercial. But in both, as in Greedy Little Eyes, she explores social politics, often through the filter of class.
“That’s something I’ve been fascinated with for a long time,” she says, noting that class prejudice was behind the failure of police to act in the case of the Downtown Eastside’s missing women—a subject touched on in her story “Candy From a Stranger’s Mouth”. And Livingston’s own brush with the Vancouver constabulary inspired “Make Yourself Feel Better”, which manages to be both laconic and harrowing.
In the story, as in real life, the narrator is on her way to a job interview when she’s attacked by a homeless man. “When I came back,” Livingston recalls, “the cops had him down on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back and his head behind the front wheel of the police car. And they were telling him that they were going to back the car up over his head, because he was just a waste of space.
“I was gobsmacked,” she adds. “I couldn’t get my head around it—and people just walked by as if it wasn’t happening.”
Ever since, she’s made it her mission to explore “the humanity of the faceless”.
“If you start really looking in the eyes of people who are on the street or who don’t come from your neighbourhood, you have to do some evaluating in a much deeper way than a lot of people are willing to do,” she explains. “Most people would rather turn on the TV and zone out after a day of work. But reading—any kind of reading—wakes up your mind to the equal and opposite extent that TV puts it to sleep.”
And that’s especially true when what you’re reading is as eloquent and insightful as Livingston’s work.