Dear Current Occupant is non-linear memoir that maps Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the 80s and 90s.
Through writing letters to the occupants of rentals she once lived in as a child, as well as through photographs and poetry, Knight interrogates her own memories of belonging.
Brighde: What do you hope readers take away from Dear Current Occupant?
Chelene: It is my hope that the book will reach all kinds of people from all walks of life. And based on the feedback I have received so far, I think it’s doing the work I’ve expected it to do. I want to break down the rigid boxes of genre. I want people to walk away from the book changed. Maybe they realize they can now share their story or maybe they feel empowered to flip the script and write in a new way, an uninhibited way. In Dear Current Occupant I am not just writing about my childhood or my city, I am drawing people a map to undiscovered territory. If you grew up in Vancouver, I guarantee that you will see your city differently after reading the book.
Brighde: In the book, you share a line you wrote in your first-ever notebook, “These hands will always do the work of the empty.” Has your writing process changed over the years since that first line, and if so, how?
Chelene: My process hasn’t changed. And by process I mean my method for drafting, revising, and polishing. I think once a writer establishes a process, it’s important to acknowledge and accept it—to stick with it and be true. That particular line I wrote was basically me trying to say that no one would ever read my work. So I am writing this emptiness from emptiness, if that makes sense. The line wasn’t referring to process but to the livelihood of the words. I was dead wrong, though!
Brighde: Why write this memoir in a hybrid form?
Chelene: Why not? One of the biggest issues with trauma is that as time passes, certain pieces and certain memories become fragmented, blurry, misplaced. This is just the reality of broken memory. On the other hand, some memories can be super vivid and clear (you’ll be able to get a sense of both of these examples in my book for sure). When you force all of these fragments into one chronological block of time, it just doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t work. The book took shape as the memories formed. The memories unlocked as I wrote. Some memories never came back. I wanted to write this based on what I knew to be true. I didn’t want anyone else’s recollections fogging mine, and this is why I didn’t ask my family about their memories. It was very important for me for the reader to experience this book in a way folks haven’t experienced memoir before.
Brighde: What advice would you give on writing about childhood and trauma?
Chelene: I’m not sure I could give specific advice as each person’s experience is unique to them. I definitely don’t claim to be an expert, but I can say that I wasn’t writing to heal, I was already healed. And I feel like that is one of the misconceptions about writing trauma. Yes, you may re-open old wounds, yes you will most likely go to some dark places, but you have to ready yourself for that. Sitting down and acknowledging the reason you want to write these experiences and preparing yourself for experiencing the space in between. There will be unexpected “unlockings” of memories as you write. It’s the preparation that is key when it comes to writing trauma. If you get derailed while writing, take a break. Listen. Go back to that core reason you are doing this. You have to go to the place that scares you the most. There’s no easy way around this.
Brighde: As you’re working on your third book, a novel set in 1930s – 1950s Hogan’s Alley, a historically Black neighborhood in Vancouver, how are you further navigating questions of belonging raised in this memoir? What doors does fiction open or close?
Chelene: I love this question. Exploring belonging, displacement, race, sexuality, and more through the eyes of someone who isn’t me, is fascinating. I navigate this through the relationships my characters have to one another, but also through the various ways in which the see their city. Fiction is allowing me to get really uncomfortable because now I have to do research, now I have to get the facts of that time period right. This goes beyond my own personal experiences and I am now dipping my toes into new territory. It’s terrifying and I love it.
CHELENE KNIGHT is a Vancouver born-and-raised graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU. In addition to being a workshop facilitator for teens, she is also a literary event organizer, host, and seasoned panelist. She has been published in various Canadian and American literary magazines, and her work is widely anthologized. Chelene is currently the Managing Editor at Room magazine, and the 2018 Programming Director for the Growing Room Festival. Braided Skin, her first book (Mother Tongue Publishing, March 2015), has given birth to numerous writing projects including her second book, memoir, Dear Current Occupant (BookThug, 2018). In 2016, Chelene worked with fiction mentor Jen Sookfong Lee to flesh out the first draft of a historical novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley. Chelene is currently focusing on providing manuscript consults and is also designing an online writing course for emerging writers.