CATHLEEN WITH's debut story collection âe" SKIDS âe" has garnered excellent reviews from across the country, bringing her tales of youth in Vancouverâe(TM)s Downtown Eastside, many of them runaways or addicts, to all Canadians. I first heard With read from SKIDS, before it was published, and during our stint in the Banff Centre for the Arts Writing Studio. I knew instantly that her voice was raw, alive and necessary. With is a graduate of the University of British Columbia MFA program in Creative Writing. She has travelled extensively throughout Asia, and has lived in Siem Reap and Seoul. She currently lives in Vancouver. Below is a conversation we had about SKIDS, about the writing process and much more, followed by an excerpt from this excellent collection.âe"Elizabeth Ruth
Elizabeth Ruth: In recent years several Canadian books have set out to specifically discuss gender âe" Code White, a first novel by Debra Anderson, and the Brazen Femme anthology put together by Anna Camilleri and Chloe Brushwood Rose, to name but two. In SKIDS I found the representation of gender interesting and subversive because in any given story the issues seemed to be naturally integrated into the wider context of the piece. I'm thinking, for example, of the butchy Phoebe Elliot in Detox, a cursory mention of femme businessmen in Angel's House of Ice, and of course, Sanny Tranny is Alive and Well and Living on Davie. Do you see gender as inherent subject matter for you, or as incidental?
Cathleen With: I see gender as both inherent and incidental. Inherent because I am absolutely aware that I want to portray spectrums of gender that are present in my world, and incidental because that's the way it is, all these types of people: gay, straight, lesbian, bi, trans, et cetera, they are all just there and living breathing in the city, in the detox, wherever. I don't really think much about âeoehighlightingâe a topic âe" sexuality or gender âe" because for me, that doesn't normalize it. Like Celie said in The Colour Purple, âeoeIt just be's that way,âe and that's how I feel about gender as subject matter, not something put into my writing on purpose because of who I am or who I stand for, just is, because that's the way the world is if you look closely enough.
Speaking of looking closelyâe¦ One of the devices you consistently present for your characters in SKIDS, in moments of duress or anxiety, is to show them distancing, perhaps dissociating, but certainly escaping duress through drifting into alternative realities, dreaming, using elaborate fantasies to imagine their lives differently âe" or as you call it in one instance, taking a âeoebrain voyage.âe In Pyjamas, the protagonist says, âeoeI am not in a psych ward bathtub, but at the Grand Wailea in Mauiâe where the rooms cost two-thousand dollars. Can you speak about the liberatory possibilities of the imagination?
I think distraction in the sense of brain voyages, in the sense of âeoeOkay, today I am going to wake up, and it is going to be different,âe is what saved me, and many of the characters in the book. A counsellor once told me that distraction was the best aide to recovery, and boy did I use distraction: falling in and out of love with other residents/counsellors/people at meetings and imagining different lives for us all. Whether you're stuck in a detox freaking for a drink or drug, stuck in some room sweating over a university test, going through a job interview or crisis in the family, the imagination saves it all âe" better than any Prozac around and ten times better than any other drug. I think the power of the imagination âe" or the stuff of our more airy-fairy recovery shit, like Shakti Gawain's "Creative Visualization"-- has the power to transport and create anyone into a different person, a different life. If you are able to wish long enough.
You have travelled widely. How do you understand the role of âeoeplaceâe in SKIDS? Particularly the role Vancouver plays?
Place is important, especially in today's Vancouver. Today's Vancouver is not the Vancouver I was around in, or the friends in SKIDS. It is worse. Yes, there are places like Covenant House that have great programs for youth to get off the street and find their lives. But our homeless problem, drug problems are growing. There are more drugs like heroin coming into our ports, places where meth is being cooked up and an incredible number of grow-ops for our BC Bud. Vancouver is a difficult place to get cleaned up in, and while there are some excellent treatment centres and recovery houses âe" there are not enough beds to give people the chance to truly create a new life. Place is also about community, and Vancouver has some strong communities: Davie Street Village, Commercial Drive area and, yes, even the Downtown Eastside that many people want to plow under. Many people in these places are trying desperately to get their lives together, while living and loving. While I have lived overseas and have lived out many of my own âeoebrain voyages,âe these stories couldn't have taken place anywhere but Vancouver.
The themes of âeoehomeâe and âeoehomelessnessâe âe" significantly linked to mother loss âe" sits at the heart of this collection about street kids where mothers turn tricks to get a hit, where children are apprehended by child protective services and where, as you write, "getting cleaned up is about trying to find that perfect home" and "you are all your own mothers." Why was it important to you, in writing these stories, to focus on "mother" in the ways you have?
In many ways I was really lucky to have a good mom when I was growing up, and I still got lost along the way when I was a teenager. Many of the kids in the stories did not have moms who were there for them, and I think it's an important connection. Somewhere along the way, the mother-love gets lost, and when you are doing drugs, you're not quite capable of taking care of yourself, it's like you regress so that when you come off of drugs, you need to discover the basics re: how to re-parent yourself âe" or parent yourself for the first time.
In the story entitled, The Arbutus Tree, a young protagonist finds it titillating to have stumbled upon two gay men having public sex. The scene is described erotically. Voyeurism, here, offers a glimpse into something foreign but fascinating. Because you have written a book about youth whose experiences of street life are not your own, I wonder if you can talk about the role of writer as witness and voyeur?
I think that the part of voyeur was something that helped me recover, and something we talked about in recovery. One of our counsellors once said âe" âeoeListen to all these stories that aren't your own, and tell your own, because you all share common experiences. And you don't want to go back out there.âe For me it boils down to sitting on the couch in the recovery house and listening to all these women and their stories, their hardships, many of them knowing that I was a writer already âe" I used to pull out my journal after Group and write furiously, trying to remember everything, trying to get better. It's more than being a voyeur though, it's about common experience. Sure, I might've got drunk and popped some pills every other night in a gay bar on Davie, and you might've shot heroin on East Hastings, but what was our common experience? Hating ourselves, wanting to transport ourselves out of our bodies to forget. I dedicated this book to the so-called âeoeskidsâe that I knew because many of them wanted me to write their stories, so people could know how much they struggled, how they weren't just lazy-ass druggie street slime people saw on the news âe" but strong courageous people who'd had so much shit go down for them that it was difficult to get back up outta the hole. In that sense it was more âeoebearing witnessâe than voyeur.
Related to the idea of author as witness, in Recover the protagonist says, âeoeI didn't know how to get away from it, that I was supposed to hear all the shit, over and over again, by all kinds of women, so I'd remember, so I'd record it, to save myself, and speak for the ones who didn't make it.âe Is there a way in which these lines could have also applied to you, as writer? Have you saved yourself in some way by writing SKIDS? If so, how? And, do you feel there is an obligation on the part of the author/witness to give voice to those without a voice?
Yes to all, living parts of this book saved me and writing it certainly did as well. Recover is a very personal story, one I relate to very much, as I believe that hearing, speaking, owning, living is a huge part of recovery from drugs and alcohol. I don't think it's as much an obligation as a way to pay homage to some of my friends who didn't make it--their voices were silenced too soon. But I also wanted to show the absolute FIGHT in the characters, and in the people I knew: the will and drive to live and love, despite all the shit.
How has is been for you to move from aspiring writer to published author? How has the book been received so far? What's next for you?
I think it's neat to be able to imagine a life, and then find that some of it comes true. It was great to hold the book in my hands, send it to the recovery house or to the counsellors that helped me, and maybe to some kids who are having trouble with drugs and are trying to get into recovery. The whole "reviews" process has been a little scary, as the book is pretty personal, but I guess all writers feel that way about their first book, their baby! The Globe and Mail did a nice review âe" it seemed that Jim Bartley really "got" the characters, and i am grateful for his review. You want to think The Globe and Mail isn't important (especially when you live in Vancouver), but it was an important review for me, made me cry when I read it. Arsenal Pulp has been awesome, and I really didn't want it to go anywhere else âe" I am so happy the book came out with them âe" a great alternative press. For now I am working on a novel about a girl in the Arctic. I worked up there for a while and am fascinated by the North.
Is there anything that I havenâe(TM)t asked you about that youâe(TM)d like to mention for rabble.ca readers?
Yes, just this: There are great resources for people to access for help with alcohol, drug addiction, homelessness, physical or sexual assault, and HIV/AIDS. The United Way, YouthCo, Covenant House Vancouver. There are shelters for youth and for adults who are homeless in every major Canadian city. There are 24-hour resources like the Assaulted Womenâe(TM)s Helpline in Toronto, Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and The Gerstein Centre. Many of these resources can be found in the front of your local phone book or online. There is also aa.org, Kidshelp phone, or you can call any hospital in your city and they will have the numbers for you or someone you love.
Elizabeth Ruth has written two critically acclaimed novels, but before all that worked for 11 years in front line social services, including at a shelter in Vancouverâe(TM)s Eastside.
Create a Real Available Beach, an excerpt from SKIDS:
Iâe(TM)m walking out of the Balmoral Hotel, itâe(TM)s sunny, itâe(TM)s fi-nally sunny and I got hold of the social worker, not my socialworker, but Jaymeâe(TM)s, and her social worker says that I canhave her, I can have Jayme today just for today, as a trial butonly for a couple of hours and there has to be a supervisorand theyâe(TM)re even gonna provide her with a supervisor andyou think maybe I am pissed about that, you think maybeI am thinking, What the fuck do I need a supervisor for, mewith my own kid, I never hurt Jayme, it was me that put herinto care in the first place back when it wasnâe(TM)t manageable,when I was still using and not on maintenance, cuz now I amon maintenance with the methadone program, and Iâe(TM)m at thesafe injection site now cuz Iâe(TM)m here, itâe(TM)s eight a.m. and theyâe(TM)reopen for business. Thatâe(TM)s what the nurse jokes as she opensthe door and some of the people, theyâe(TM)re coming from theBalmoral too, or the Patricia, well, those places, theyâe(TM)re gettingupscale now and some of the people that are jonesing fortheir fix, theyâe(TM)re coming from some of the welfare hotels pastMain Street, still on Hastings, but way past Main now thattheyâe(TM)ve got the construction happening at Woodwards, nomore tent squats there, I didnâe(TM)t need to go there anyways cuz,okay I believe in the protests and we got to stick together onthe Downtown Eastside, we fucking have rights too. But itâe(TM)sokay now, itâe(TM)s okay cuz Iâe(TM)m not on the junk anymore, I got ajob, Iâe(TM)m singing again, nights at the Balmoral and they giveme some paycheques, okay theyâe(TM)re not that good but then Iget a room and itâe(TM)s kind of higher than the rooms right abovethe band that plays after us, cuz I need my sleep, and the bosssays I look like I could be nineteen, he says I got this old lookabout me, but I have fake ID anyways, the cops never comebother us too much, and Iâe(TM)m here now at the clinic cuz I needmy methadone and Iâe(TM)m one week into it, Iâe(TM)m doing good, Iâe(TM)mdoing good, I get to see my girl today, I canâe(TM)t fucking wait.
So I do my shot of methadone with the orange juice andsay goodbye to that funny nurse, and then I grab my purseoff the counter and I got my bankcard in there cuz I have abankcard now, itâe(TM)s a kind of power, well, you know they takeall that shit away when you go to juvie and then in the detox,they just lock your stuff up for you, cuz I was only in juvie fora couple of weeks for doing some B and Eâe(TM)s down by FraserStreet, well, you know Iâe(TM)m not too into stealing, I never gonewith a ring before that.
Well, but Jaymeâe(TM)s grandma, not my mom, but Jaymeâe(TM)sdadâe(TM)s mom, Jaymeâe(TM)s dad been gone a long time, but me andTracey, Jaymeâe(TM)s grandma, we got along great, and she had anold house on Fraser and she was nice to us and helped me,cuz she looked after Jayme and you know I didnâe(TM)t really wantto turn tricks, but why give up a good thing? Better thanworking at that Burger King, well, I didnâe(TM)t think Grandmaknew, and then that one girl on the street, Carly, well, shewas turning tricks too, I kind of always came home early,didnâe(TM)t I, but still she started talking, that Carly, about howwe could get together with her boyfriend and do some homeinvasion kind of deal, like theyâe(TM)ve been making lots of moneydoing this home invasion ring and wouldnâe(TM)t you know whatwith my luck that one fucking time I get caught doing it.
And then Jaymeâe(TM)s grandma says, I ainâe(TM)t staying hereanymore with your shit, Iâe(TM)m moving to Jennyâe(TM)s in Winnipegâe" thatâe(TM)s her daughter, her real one âe" so I know sheâe(TM)s gone forgood, and then Iâe(TM)m sitting on the porch and even the newpeople are moving in and I just started walking, well, youknow it was then I had to go to the clinic and ask them couldthey take Jayme. I just wanted it to be for a little while, honest,cuz then the court case came and my juvie time, actuallythey were pretty decent to me, only possession and solicitationoffences before on my record, no priors for B and Es, sothen I was sitting in juvie and a nice social worker told memore about detox, sure Iâe(TM)d heard about it from the street andshe was saying how Jaymeâe(TM)ll be looked after, and fuck itâe(TM)staken so long, two months since I seen her, but guess what,todayâe(TM)s the day, Iâe(TM)m seeing my little girl.
Sheâe(TM)s only three. When I had her it was a cold, cold Novemberand I was in the hospital and she was so quick, I onlyreally had about four hours of hard labour and it killed, butthe doctors said that wasnâe(TM)t much cuz usually girls who arefourteen take a long time to have babies, like some girls arestill too small inside to have babies, but not me, so then I rememberher eyes, so brown, was kind of funny cuz the nurseswere all like, Oooh look how alert she is, and by then I alreadyhad all them drug talks about how taking junk while I was pregnant wasnâe(TM)t good for the baby, but I stayed clean forher, those last few months I did, I did, and now sheâe(TM)s three.
And her social worker said, We canâe(TM)t meet you at theBalmoral, itâe(TM)s not an appropriate location, so I said, Where?and she called me back, I was at the pay phone just waitingfor her to call and telling the old guy to just fuck off cuz Ihad a call coming in, I think he was waiting for a crack deal,but he coulda just gone out on the street, donâe(TM)t know why hewas bothering me, and she called back and said, Meet us outat Portside Park, down on East Waterfront Road, and I saidOkay, then thought Where the fuck is that and asked the oldguy and he said, Thatâe(TM)s what they named it before they calledit Crab Park.
Weird how they wanted a beach down here, DowntownEastside Vancouver, they were probably thinking ahead toall this primo land, you can see all the buildings are alreadychanging and sometimes thereâe(TM)s these rich west side kids outin the audience when Iâe(TM)m singing at the Balmoral and theyâe(TM)reslumming it, cuz yeah the crack whores and the meth freaksand the nod-offs on junk and the alleyways are filled withdruggies that would just as soon knife you for a three dollarrock of crack than care, but every day I walk out the door, itâe(TM)schanging down here, itâe(TM)s changing, but theyâe(TM)ll forget aboutus.
But I donâe(TM)t care, cuz I know what park the old guy istalking about, I know which park my little girlâe(TM)s going to beat today, itâe(TM)s the create-a-real-available-beach park, itâe(TM)s CrabPark, and I donâe(TM)t care who wants their hands on it, richiesand west siders and people who drive Beemers and fancyfancy cars and who eat out of those hotel restaurants you seeuptown, who the hell cares, cuz my little girl is at Crab Parkand I get the day with her today and I can almost see her, herhair is shining in the sun and thereâe(TM)s the Lions, and theyâe(TM)vegot snow on them, and thereâe(TM)s the city and itâe(TM)s got so muchgoing for it, cuz today Iâe(TM)m gonna play on the beach with mylittle girl and we have the whole fucking day.
Excerpt from SKIDS, an Arsenal Pulp Press book.
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