Two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize-winner Esi Edugyan says, “Bracing, intimate, Junie explores what it means to be young, black and gifted in 1930s Vancouver. Through the eyes of the budding artist, the thriving and electric community of Hogan’s Alley comes alive in all its vibrancy and splendour. This is a vivid, indelible world, one made more poignant by its coming loss.”
Vancouver-born Chelene Knight is the author of Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals and newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and The Walrus and her work has been widely anthologized. Her poem ‘Welwitschia’ won the 2020 Contemporary Verse 2 Editor’s Choice award. She was shortlisted for PRISM's 2021 Short Forms contest. Chelene is the founder of her own literary studio, Breathing Space Creative, through which she has launched The Forever Writers Club, whose members are writers focused on creative sustainability. Chelene works as a literary agent with the Transatlantic Agency. She lives in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia.
Junie tells the story of a young woman coming of age in Hogan’s Alley, a thriving Black community in 1930s Vancouver. How and when did the story come to life for you?
Originally, the book started out of a dream to rebirth or resurrect the displaced community in Vancouver’s East end. But as the story evolved, I realized that there was something more powerful yet to be unearthed. And that was twofold.
First, I wanted to reimagine and bring back the living that took place in the neighbourhood, not the places themselves, but the pulsing life. The everydayness. As the story grew I realized that this was a story about a girl searching from home and belonging. a girl searching for love, self-love. I have also had Junie’s character in my head my whole life. Placing her lovingly into this novel was how the story started to unfold with ease.
It’s written in such an experimental style, alternating the perspectives of various characters with shorter poetic chapters and sections. The result feels almost like a piece of music. Can you talk more about structure and why you decided to put the novel together this way?
I don’t really like the word “experimental” because it almost insinuates the possibility of error. I often say uniquely-shaped. But I was incredibly intentional about the shape and the movement of the book. (it’s actually so much harder to do that than traditional structures). Junie sees the world in a very different way. She slows down, she is present. For the most part, the rest of the world is not.
In order to accurately capture Junie's way of seeing and tasting the world, I had to use a complex string of vignettes in addition to the main narrative. This was not easy work. To me, it was meant to be a choreographed song or dance. Yes, I break the traditional rules, but Junie is a non-traditional character. I had to not only build a world for her to thrive, but I have to create an environment where she could feel safe and seen. In everyday society, many of us have to conform or squeeze ourselves into boxes we don't fit in. I didn't want to do that to Junie. I had the power to build her something perfect for who she is.
Junie’s voice grows and changes over the space of the many years the novel unfolds. She grapples with her relationship with her mother, her own creative ambitions, and the painful first steps of love. How difficult was it to capture these evolutions in her age and consciousness over time?
It wasn’t difficult in that sense because I’ve carried Junie in my head for so long. I truly know everything there is to know about her. When you are that connected to a character, you can put them in certain spaces, time periods, and in rooms with specific people and you’ll know what they will do. They can still surprise you, though just like a real life person can.
I loved all of the reach detail about the Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood, a place I had walked through so often when I lived in Vancouver, but whose history I did not know well. What did you learn as you researched the stories of the neighbourhood? Is this history becoming better known in Vancouver?
There honestly isn’t very much documented about the area, aside from the usual Youtube clips and images, and this has become what we expect when systemic racism is at the heart of the decisions to demolish communities. Sure, I could easily learn about some of the historic places and happenings, but what was really important was the everyday living and loving that took place there. The community. They way folks looked out for each other. The way they had each other’s back. How often do you get to walk through a neighbourhood that’s been demolished, and immediately feel a sense of connection?
I wanted my readers to visit the area where Hogan’s Alley once was, and feel and sense my characters coming to life. I don’t know if the story of what happened in Hogan’s Alley is becoming better known, but in order to learn, one has to be curious. So one of my core intentions behind the book was to pique curiosity.
In particular, I loved the scenes in the various jazz and music clubs of the area. You really seemed to capture a particular mood and atmosphere of these rich social spaces. If you could suggest a couple of tracks or albums to accompany the novel as a soundtrack, what might they be?
I love this! In fact, I just put together a Junie playlist of songs that inspired me while I wrote:
What a Little Moonlight Can Do (Billie Holiday)
Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton)
Stormy Weather (Lena Horne)
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (Nina Simone)
When Will We Be Paid (The Staple Singers)
A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke)
Excerpt from Junie
i help cinch a thin tea-rose stretchy garment with a
thousand mini eye hooks around Mama’s broad waist and
the lower half of her body. A lit cigarette flaps between her
lips as she grunts, pries, stretches, and pleads with the fabric.
The veins in her neck stand guard. “Come on, Junie, now pull
that other end!” Mama stands in front of her vanity, the room
dismal. Me, on my knees, I fasten the first three eye hooks
as Mama takes another inhalation and then quickly secure
the other teethlike hooks in between. I feel hot ash land on
my head. I brush it away without a word and stand up. I step
back and look at Mama. It’s eating her. The skin around her
waist is pulled in so tightly but I can’t stop my imagination
from spinning. I picture the flesh folding over itself like an
unplayed accordion. A squeezebox. I see all the air in Mama’s
body vibrating, flying up into her throat and back down to her
toes, her torso a concave hollow shell. Why would anyone want
to suck the sound out of themselves like this?
mama’s storytelling takes hold after she’s had a few fin-
gers of gin. Now I know the signs. Mama’s eyes lower, her lips
crease, then the stories rush. Tales of her looking down on
those who don’t live like she lives, who don’t spend all their
dollars buying the best fruit spreads, tinned salmon, and lard
for skillet-frying their chicken. Mama wants to have what
others don’t have just so she can say she has it. The world
needs to pay attention to Mama and give her all the money
she deserves because she is a star after all. This is what she
tells me, and I don’t know how to swallow her words down;
they scrape the insides of my throat as they go. Mama turns
her nose up at anyone who doesn’t worship her or at least
agree with her. She talks about the men who spoon them-
selves around her body most evenings when she steps off the
stage. She tells me how their strong arms keep her warm at
night, but when the golden halo of the morning tiptoes in
through her curtains, she sends them running home. She
tells me how she tosses their worn shoes at them in disgust.
Everyone wants a piece of Maddie Lancaster, she says. The
more the stories fly from Mama’s mouth, the more I retreat
into myself just like the folded accordion skin held back by a
thousand teeth-like eye hooks. At breakfast I see two nickels
on the table. To erase the stories she can’t remember telling.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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