Writer in Residence

Tweet Tweet: A City’s Past & Present: Remapping Vancouver

By Chelene Knight


@poetchelene: After reading and researching about the setting in my novel I felt compelled to recognize the city as a character. #hogansalleyfactorfiction

 “Junie stood on her balcony overlooking the city. Her city. The large cement blocks bigger than anything she’d seen. The screeching sounds of heavy machinery whining, and drilling, and sawing were enough to make her eyes tear up. Whatever they were building whipped this city clean on its back. This neighbourhood and the people no longer belong or have space to exist.”

 The above is a few lines from the epilogue of my novel, Junie. She comes back to her city long after her community’s displacement and watches the final remnants come down right from her own window.

 Place. Cities. Belonging. Home.

 “I felt such a strong connection to Hogan’s Alley. Why am I longing for a place I’d never been? A place I have never seen. I am so drawn to this picture I have painted in my head about Hogan’s Alley that it became difficult for me to keep to myself. A year ago, I began to write a character who lived in this neighbourhood during its prime. I began to write a story of a girl named Junie, fighting to stay in her city, to keep her city—without even realizing it.

 I wrote her walking through the city after she’d been gone for years. She walked through the remnants of Hogan’s Alley after it had been demolished—she did not recognize a thing. No more were the black-owned barber shops where men exchanged stories of how they almost snagged that beauty at the bar, or the chicken houses cooking up everything you could imagine for their hungry and over-worked customers that would pile in after a long day doing whatever they did to earn a dollar, and the speakeasies that lined the alleys, streets, and popular corners. No more were the jazz clubs with music pulsing through the alleys after dark, enticing the bricklayers and shopkeepers to spend their last few dollars on a whiskey or gin and the promise of a good time. These were replaced with prim and proper coffee shops where no one knew your name, and you were known simply as “next customer please.” Everything was destroyed, wiped out, and dare I say, forgotten.

The demolition of Hogan’s Alley is a great example of a community being wiped out, a process that was hidden behind the term urban renewal, when, really, in my opinion it was an ethnic cleansing. Hogan’s Alley had the highest concentration of black folk than anywhere else in Vancouver.”

The above excerpt is from my essay, “Bring Me Back Home” Writing about home, belonging, and place is what I’ve always done. I’ve written about the places I’ve lived, and how my own memories were trapped inside the walls of thirty homes. I wrote a memoir to rebuild those fragments of memory—to take them back. I had to rewrite my own history. What’s different about the novel I am working on now is I am writing about a place I’ve never been. Never smelled the wet leaves hang low from the weight of the city’s rain. Never walked through the narrow alleys lined with shops, clubs, bars, and… homes. Never peeked through fogged windows framing families eating dinner at small tables, dim lights, with laughter so heavy it carried out to the streets. I am writing about a city that existed long before the one I was born into, and I am fascinated by the people whose memories may be trapped in those walls too.

But how do you research a city (and a history) that was erased? How do you listen to voices that were muted long ago? Writing this novel is not only about research and getting the facts straight. It’s also about turning up the volume of those voices that weren’t heard, and just listening.

“When the painting dried she rolled it up tightly with sturdy hands. She pulled out the drawer of her vanity and rooted around for an elastic to tie it up. Pushing aside old tubes of barely used lipstick, tarnished costume jewellery and scraps of paper, Junie’s fingers grazed an old yellow ribbon. She ran the fabric over and under her fingers for a moment before removing it from its hiding place. She closed her eyes and pulled it out from the drawer and looped it around the paper four times before expertly bringing the two strands together, bending one over the other, pulling firmly, forming the two loose ends into a neat bow. No threat of unraveling.”

 Place. Cities. Belonging. Home.

To rewrite history you first have to remap a city.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight was born in Vancouver, and is currently the Managing Editor of Room Magazine. A graduate of The Writers’ Studio at SFU, Chelene has been published in various Canadian and American literary magazines. Her debut book, Braided Skin, was published in 2015. Dear Current Occupant is her second book. Chelene is also working on a historical novel set in the 1930s and 40s in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley.