Whose bodies are unconditionally worthy of health and safety? Whose bodies are worthy of love and justice? This Black History Month, the answers to these questions are especially important, but also especially vague. Many of us feel a kind of déjà vu—knowing we’ve persisted, wept, before—even as we tread water cloudy for everyone. Blog posts can’t ward against anti-Blackness, nor can they undo the past year’s weight on our collective nervous systems, let alone the past decades or centuries. What they can do, with caution, is encourage you to listen: to Black thinkers, to Black storytellers. To the sound of our joy as it thrills with our rage and our grief on the page. We’ll be making space for this work, however transformative, for the next couple of weeks.
Our series continues with Dear Current Occupant, by Chelene Knight, a memoir about home and belonging set in the 80s and 90s of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Reflecting on her childhood, Knight composes a series of letters, addressing them to the current occupants of the twenty different houses she moved into and out of with her mother and brother. Peering through windows and doors into intimate, remembered spaces now occupied by strangers, Knight writes to them in order to deconstruct her own past. From memories of trying to fit in with her own family as the only mixed, East Indian and Black child, to crystal clear recollections of parental drug use, Knight draws a vivid portrait of memory that still longs for a place and a home.
“This memoir is built from shards of pure resilience, expertly pieced together into a compelling—and at times devastating—chronicle of youth, family, and sense of place,” writes Carleigh Baker, author of Bad Endings and a finalist for the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. “[I]t is a map of scars, and as everyone knows, scars make for good storytelling.” Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth, calls the book “haunting, intimate, and deeply rendered. A lyrical memoir set against the backdrop of Vancouver’s gritty East Side, it triumphantly melds together prose, poetry, letters and imagery, to illuminate the pain of un-belonging, the search for a home, and the power of words to heal and transform us. It is a book that boldly takes risks, unafraid and brimming with raw energy, tenderness, and heartbreaking beauty.” Dear Current Occupant won the 2018 City of Vancouver Book Award, and was longlisted for the 2019 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature.
As part of our series, we’re honoured to share a brief excerpt from Dear Current Occupant, which you can read and enjoy below. Join us next week as we continue our effort to support the work of Black authors.
Dear Current Occupant—Basement suite on Earles Street
The walls housed family photos hung crookedly with old tape from the Christmas box. The ash of the carpet. The room my brother and I shared. The couch Mama slept on. The nail that stuck out from the porch and sliced my ankle wide open. Mama’s one good boyfriend who made me laugh with the way he walked.
I tried to keep Mama safe. She had demons. On the day the money came, I pictured those demons grabbing a hold of her, wrapping vine-like arms around her throat, squeezing until she gave in. She was strong, but Lord knows, it was stronger. Imagine what it sounded like or how loud it was. I faked being sick in the schoolyard at recess and lunch. Keeled over in pain on the metal swings, letting the chains slap my face as I hit the ground. My teacher ran over. He rubbed his hand down my back. Felt the curve of my spine, the bones. Then my stomach. “Tell me what the pain feels like,” he asked as he squeezed me.
I wondered what it was that made me strong. Why did I worry? Why did I always need to make sure everyone else was still breathing? It can’t always be kisses and hugs.
“I feel so sick.”
“Let me get you home. What’s your address? Is your mother home?”
“I live behind a tree with flowers covered in pink.”
He drove me home. I checked on her. Got it down to a science. Practised in front of the bathroom mirror—held my breath, watched the colour of my skin change, furrowed my brows and wrapped my arms around my waist for emphasis. Came home and wrote poems about death. Wrote poems about being saved. Wrote poems about men, teachers. Wrote poems where I was somewhere else and my mama loved me and told me I was beautiful. I recited them over and over like mantras or prayers. Stared at her from across the room. Hoped she heard them though I wouldn’t dare say them aloud. She didn’t allow feelings to be aired. She just didn’t want to hear it.
“I love you.”
“Nobody wants to hear that shit.”
I hid notebooks, like I did something wrong. My brother didn’t worry as much. If he did, I didn’t know it. He got angry at times. He wanted more. I looked at him. On his bed. His side of the room plastered in pages. His posters were cut and ripped from magazines. Men in mid-air, jaws clenched as if to say, “I have to do this,” and these occupied the entire wall—these men with the jaws in pain.
“Why do you have so many of those posters?” I’d ask my brother.
He tossed his ball against the wall, speaking between the thuds. “One day I’ma be in the NBA.”
“What’s an NBA?”
“Sis, you need to learn!”
He threw a blue-and-yellow jersey at me. I put it on. Across the back it read “Webber.”
I fell asleep with my arms folded across the fabric.
Chelene Knight is the author of the 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 essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter, winner of the 2020 Saskatchewan Book Award. She is working on a novel, Junie, forthcoming from Book*hug Press.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” Knight was the previous managing editor at Room magazine, and the previous festival director for the Growing Room Festival in Vancouver. She is now CEO of her own literary studio, Breathing Space Creative and she works as an associate literary agent with Transatlantic Agency. Chelene often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. Chelene teaches part time at the University of Toronto.