In Chelene Knight’s memoir of a nomadic childhood in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, she shares fragments of her life that are so nakedly candid, the reader can feel like they’ve intruded on a private conversation or wandered into a room they were forbidden to enter.
“I lay in bed and searched the ceiling for her,” Knight writes about her mother in Dear Current Occupant. “I slept with my shoes on in case she came home screaming that we had to leave.
“I worried about her most when the bathroom door was closed. I worried when the light under the door didn’t change because I knew what the frozen light meant," reads another passage. "I worried that she’d never come back and I would have to pack my things again.”
It’s a gritty and often heartbreaking journey through the eyes and mind of a child. But, in a telephone interview, Knight emphasized there’s also hope buried in Dear Current Occupant.
“There are so many stories of struggle and abuse and neglect,” she told the Straight. “I think that a lot of young girls think, ‘Well, that’s my path. This is what I’ve seen, this is the way I grew up, and this is the only way to go.’
“I’m showing folks that ‘Yes, this is kind of rough stuff, but…there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can go through all of these things and still be bloody amazing.’”
Published last month by Book*hug, the book recounts Knight’s disjointed memories of no less than 25 locations where she lived through the 1980s and '90s. Some, many Vancouver readers will quickly recognize, such as “Palms Motel, Kingsway”. Others are labelled with less specific descriptions: “Apartment on Clark Drive above the convenience store”, for example.
As the title suggests, Knight hopes the people living in these buildings today will find the book she’s written. But Dear Current Occupant is also a letter to the mother that Knight describes in its pages.
“As a way for me to say ‘Here’s what I went through, here’s the relationship that I wish I had with you,’” she explained.
Today, Knight’s mother still lives in the Downtown Eastside.
“She struggles a bit here and there, but she’s super supportive of my work,” Knight reported. “Our relationship is really strong.”
Dear Current Occupant began as a single poem that was published in 2015 in Knight’s first book, Braided Skin.
"Commuting via transit from where I live now [in South Vancouver] to where I work downtown, I would pass a lot of these houses that I lived in," Knight said. “I would look out the SkyTrain window and I would see these places and it would really resonate with me and something would happen.
“I needed to write about it,” she continued. “I took a little walking tour around all of these places…and I just stood out front with a notebook and a pen and I’d see what transpired. I realized that a lot of the memories that were locked away and that I had not thought about for years and years and years started to come back.”
With a mix of essays, poetry, and photographs, Knight has created a vivid account of the turbulent childhood she spent in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It’s a touching if troubled portrait, both of the relationship Knight shared with her mother and of the community where they called so many places home.More