The Chat With Chelene Knight

Chelene Knight’s debut memoir Dear Current Occupant (Bookt*ug) takes a closer look at childhood trauma and the uncertain idea of home. It’s a haunting, experimental, and deeply moving book which follows the author as she returns to many of the apartments she lived in as a young girl.

The Toronto Star calls Knight “one of the storytellers we need most right now” and calls the writing in Dear Current Occupant “lush, lyrical...mesmerizing.”

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.

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THE CHAT WITH CHELENE KNIGHT

Trevor Corkum: Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind Dear Current Occupant?

Chelene Knight: While I was writing my first book, Braided Skin (Mother Tongue Publishing 2015), I felt that there was an unfinished thread. Something wasn’t complete. I actually started working on Dear Current Occupant in 2013, but quickly tucked it away because the realization that I was not ready to re-experience everything was quite apparent. I was not ready to write these stories.

When it comes to childhood and trauma, there’s a certain amount of healing that needs to occur, you have to distance yourself a bit, step back from the table. Every day on my way to work I’d pass ride the Sky Train and just before the train pulled into Broadway Station, I’d get this twinge as I passed one of the buildings I used to live in as a young girl. Then I’d pass another, and another, and another and the same twinges poked and prodded under my skin. Then I knew I was ready to start the work, to put the pieces together.

I stood out front of as many of the houses as I could remember and I just wrote. It was winter and I was cold. I didn’t have gloves on and the snow was coming down, but I couldn’t stop. Memories and fragments came back like lightening. There was something about being there in the space. Even though I was outside those walls I knew so well, I will still there, back in time. I had no idea the effect this book would have on people. I have received nothing but stories of change, emails, tweets, messages, and posts about how this book changed them.

And at the end of the day isn’t that what a book is supposed to do? Change the reader.

I stood out front of as many of the houses as I could remember and I just wrote. It was winter and I was cold. I didn’t have gloves on and the snow was coming down, but I couldn’t stop.

TC: It’s a deeply moving, genre-bending memoir, composed of letters, poems, prose pieces, even photos. How did the process of putting it all together come together?

CK: I originally wrote the book as poetry. And there were two reasons for this: I never had confidence that I could write full-on prose. I assumed I had to write in this very academic way, and I didn’t want to do that so I thought, oh I’ll just do what I do and write poetry. Some pieces worked and created the feeling I wanted, but most of them just felt empty and distant to me.

I knew it. My publisher probably knew it as well. Renée Sarojini Saklikar (my editor) knew it too. I was hiding. It was a combination of things that helped me create a form that worked for me. I felt like I needed permission to let loose and to tell the story I knew I had to tell. I had to go to the place that scared me the most. I needed poetry but I also needed essays, fragments, photos, maps, you name it. When you think about trauma and memory, things blur, pieces are missing, yet some parts are crisp and clear… you have no control over this and you have no control over the order. Think about how when you have a visceral dream and you wake up and things are so clear and real, but you can’t place when one part happened and when another part happened. As the minutes and hours pass, your memory of the event fade.

I wanted my book structured in this same way. It’s not chronological because my memories aren’t. A story doesn’t have to start at point A and finish at Z.

I had to go to the place that scared me the most. I needed poetry but I also needed essays, fragments, photos, maps, you name it. When you think about trauma and memory, things blur, pieces are missing, yet some parts are crisp and clear… you have no control over this and you have no control over the order.

TC: In the book, you give voice to the anxiety of a young child living with great uncertainty. You mention moving twenty times while you were young. What impact did that have on how you understand the idea of home today?

CK: What I understand home to be (and this obviously won’t be the same for everyone) is a place where you get be yourself, a place where you feel safe. This applies to the house in a physical sense but it also applies to the land your home is built on.

Whether or not we believe this, we all have an attachment to land. I’ve been a guest on the land I live on, and I am grateful to be here. Although I have been uprooted constantly and I was never allowed to lay down roots in just one physical house where I could be myself and feel safe and secure, I had a connection to a city that wrapped its arms around me. I truly believe that cities have voices too. Land and space kept me safe.

TC: You also talk about starting to write from a very young age, as a way to understand what was happening around you. Do you remember the first thing you wrote?  

CK: I used to fill up notebooks in class. I remember writing a short story called “Maggie and the Clown” I have no idea what it was about haha, but I remember that it was selected to be animated by an arts program when I was 11.

TC: The memoir is also very much a letter to East Van. What was it like to return to the places you lived as you were working on the book?

CK: I talked a bit about this earlier, but I don’t think of it as “returning” because I never really left. Like I said, I passed these places every day, I still do. But those brief seconds were never enough to bring on more than a twinge. Standing out front of those places was definitely a necessity to the completion of the book.

I’ll be honest, sometimes I wanted to abandon the project because the idea of everyone seeing what I saw, was terrifying. So I wrote these letters to these occupants. I shared my stories with the entire world. I let the entire world see me naked. Who does that?
But then I thought, everything I have done has been a triumph. Let’s celebrate that. Dear Current Occupant is a celebration. I’m still here.

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Excerpt from Dear Current Occupant

Waiting out front of the school to be picked up was torture. I never knew
how long I’d stand there. I never knew if Mama would show up or if she
would send one of her friends—or no one. I found ways to occupy myself.
I sat on the metal pole of the schoolyard fence, balancing my third-grade
math textbook on the boniness of my knees. The equations with the brackets
kept my mind spinning like bike spokes, and I loved the way this felt.
The wind was always the first thing I noticed. Its coolness, the sweetness,
the changing smell of the wind kept me company every day at 3:00 p.m. I
pulled those tiny white-and-yellow buttercup flowers from the grass. I slit
the thin stems of each one with the jagged nail of my thumb. I slipped the
bottom tip of one flower into the next. I did this over and over until I had
a chain of sliced buttercups as tall as me. I took my buttercup chain and
raised it above my head and closed my eyes. I searched for the top of my
tightly pulled hair bun and wrapped and wrapped and wrapped the chain
around my hair. I couldn’t see it but I felt like a queen. I liked my neck and
my head felt weightless.

From Dear Current Occupant copyright © Chelene Knight 2018. Reprinted with permission from Book*hug.

May 9, 2018
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