Strangers’ voices in the middle of the night, walking to elementary schools through streets and alleys that change every few months from addresses that do the same, packing whatever you can and getting out in less than an hour. Commercial, Broadway, Woodlands, Fraser, Kingsway, Clark, Earle’s, 49th, East 112th. Using garbage bags, shopping carts, suitcases, whatever. This was Vancouver author Chelene Knight and her brother’s childhood as their mother, who was living with addictions, became deft in the art of the midnight move.
Other souls might have fallen apart. Other souls might have eventually followed their mother’s path. But Knight made a choice: to be better, not bitter. Knight’s second book Dear Current Occupant is joyous evidence of that.
The book is a vibrant, haunted, loosely threaded work of creative non-fiction that uses journal entries, poetry, maps, photographs of various abodes, and messages to the occupants of the places Knight used to live to create a variegated mosaic of her childhood, a mosaic with broken and missing tiles. She arrived at this format after her publisher advised her to let go of the original poetry format and go to the places that scared her most.
“That’s what kind of blew my mind,” Knight says from her Vancouver home. “I’d read memoirs and think I could never write my story because one, there’s no way I could remember every single detail and two, no way I could I stitch it together in order. Not only with broken memory, but with schematic broken memory. Something else happens where your mind can play tricks with you or certain details that you think happened but didn’t happen that way.
“And so if I wanted to write this story authentically, I had to let the story fall on the page in the way that it fell and let it land in that way. Folks ask, ‘Why didn’t you just write this all in prose?’ There’s no way that I could have done that. Maybe for fiction but not for this.”
And while the book is heart-wrenching in places, dark in others, there is a solid sense of love that shines through the broken windows and cracks under bedroom doors. There’s no hatred, no despair, only a telling of a story in a manner that keeps the reader engaged in touching those mosaic pieces and marvelling at their veracity. There is no judgement of the mother that caused a young girl’s addresses to number in the dozens.
“That’s not what this book is about. The book is about uplifting her and showing how strong this woman must have been,” Knight explains. “Because you know, as kids we think everything’s the end of the world and we think everything is about us. But now looking back as a parent, I’m thinking, ‘My god, how in the world did this woman do it? How did she handle having two kids and so much on her shoulders and still making sure we were OK?’
“We were protected in a way where I hear stories about women that were abused and sexually abused and physically abused — I never had to face that in my childhood. And you’d think that would be breeding ground for that kind of trauma and I never had to face that.”
And while the journey was rugged and frightening, filled with strangers’ cigarette smoke, closed bathroom doors where silence speaks of time when minds slip away, lunchless school days, and journeys that begin and end with a single garbage bag full of clothes, the family, today, remains close. Knight’s brother, aunts, and mother all live within about half an hour of each other. “We all hang out. We’re all pretty close.”
But that little girl would sometimes wish for a different life, one where you didn’t have to sleep with your shoes on in case you had to move quickly. “These kids who are living this and you see things on TV and you see these sitcoms with these perfect families, and you start to picture yourself somewhere else. I used to think, ‘Why can’t someone just come and take me out of here?’
“I pretty much had two options. I could follow this path my mother was on and that would have been easy for me, or I could work a million times harder and climb up this hill. So that’s what I decided to do and I had to remind myself many times she was the only one who could teach me that.”
Keeping in mind that powerful influence of her mother, Knight was understandably worried to unleash her story into the universe. “I was afraid not to write the story, but to hit send on the final draft to my publisher. Once it’s out, it’s out there.
“I really had to prepare myself for that; I was really worried what my mom would think, what my brother would think. But it actually brought my mother and I closer. When she started to read the book she would call me or she would text me little notes saying ‘Oh my God, reading this, all these memories are flooding back, things I never thought of, and this is really great.
“It opened something up so she could share more of her experience with me. Which is really cool because we’ve never had a real full-on conversation. It’s great the book was able to help us do that.”
Because being close to her family and making her living writing today are happy endings, and because she moved so many times in so few years, it might be surprising that Knight is considering making another move. But with housing prices in Vancouver being what they are, she considers it. Maybe to the United Kingdom, maybe to Brooklyn, where she has traveled as an editor for Room Magazine and feels an affinity for, maybe to Calgary, where her cousin lives. And while you might think that someone who had changed addresses so often as a child might want to grow deep roots as an adult, Knight doesn’t see it that way.
“If someone were to (offer an enticing job opportunity elsewhere) it’s not the moving that would scare me – I can pack my entire house in probably eight hours – I’m that used to doing it so it wouldn’t be an issue leaving certain things behind. I know where my valuables are, my important items, I know exactly where they are. They physical nuances of moving don’t scare me; the finances would.”
Chelene Knight appears at Wordfest sessions Dick Lit’s Festival Edition, Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m., and Bionic Women Writers, Saturday, Oct 13 at 3 p.m. at Memorial Park Library, 2nd Floor. For tickets go to https://wordfest.com/.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer.