V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
November 4, 2013
Review By John Belshaw
V6A is a postal code prefix in Vancouver. It is, thus, an artificial geographical space defined by a bureaucracy housed far from V6A itself. It runs from Burrard Inlet south to False Creek and Great Northern Way, and between Carrall Street and Clark Drive. As it happens, V6A actually makes some sense. It neatly encloses the city’s oldest neighbourhoods: Gastown, the dockyards below Alexander and Powell Streets, Chinatown, Strathcona, and the commercial thoroughfares of Main, Hastings, and Cordova. It contains and has contained railyards, industry, gas works, shipyards, warehouses, restaurants, big department stores, a street-level drug mart and high-end shoe-tiques, million-dollar condos and social housing projects, craft-breweries and beer parlours, pretty tree-lined streets in a little village-like setting and stunted freeway overpasses, ethnic enclaves, single room occupancy hotels, schools, churches and temples, and most of the city’s welfare industry. I could go on. The point is that, of all Vancouver’s postal codes this one neighbourhood deserves to be known principally as the most socially, economically, culturally, and physically diverse. Instead it is known across Canada as the nation’s poorest postal code, the downtown eastside, or just the blighted “DTES.”
It would be a matter for some debate as to whether V6A is more sinned against than sinning, but it is without a doubt more written about than written from. This collection tries to right the balance a bit. It brings together voices from the neighbourhood, writers whose “humanity and craft” — not their public profile or press releases — recommend their work for inclusion. The common denominator is the Carnegie Community Centre’s Thursdays Writing Collective, which was founded by editor Elee Kraljii Gardiner. This is where co-editor John Asfour encountered the circle and where the idea of an anthology took root. The thirty-three authors whose forty works appear here include members of the Collective, along with non-members; about a third of the contributions are republished from other venues, from which we may conclude that there are accomplished authors in the group. Given the number of actively productive writers in the DTES, the collection could easily run to several volumes. And this is another thing about the V6A neighbourhood: is there any other community in Vancouver wherein one finds so much creativity? A: No.
There is not a single offering in this book that will not touch the reader. In some cases (Cathleen With’s “Super Phat Angel Baby” and Henry Doyle’s “Death Isn’t Lonely,” for example), the writing will touch the reader with jumper-cables. Overall, this is not a walk in the park (unless that park is Oppenheimer). The number of stories and accounts and poems that one might categorize as positive, hopeful, cheerful, is tiny. There are haunted nights, averted glances, horrifying surgeries, depression, the spectre of suicide, and cruelty, always the cruelty of people, fate, and gods. Poverty is a constant presence. Regardless of whether one chooses an austere life in the service of one’s art (as in the case of Michael Turner’s musicians at “441 Powell”) or something that is the lot of poor immigrants, the mad, or the multiply-medicated, if resilience was truly a virtue these tales would rank among the most virtuous imaginable.
Choosing a favourite is a bit like picking out the most appealing pup from a litter of scabby mongrels. There is beauty and love but, sorry kids, no transcendence, in the work-a-day horrors that former school teacher Anne Hopkinson recounts in “The Eight Year Olds.” Try to read it without crying. Go on. I dare you. Brenda Prince’s “Dance Lightly” teaches us how not to judge, no small feat in 22 lines. “Immaterial,” by Jonina Kirton, similarly shows us standing in the shadows and footprints of others:
…what he does not know
is that days earlier
a man stood there only
to fall over the edge
the dead weight
of his despair
dragged him to the bottom…
Lara McElhinney writes about invisibility in a way that is utterly without mawkishness: “I wonder about our religion that tells us we are so small, dirty, insignificant, and wrong, and yet so loved. It’s a pimp’s line, all right” (106). And Irit Shimrat who, “from gefilte fish/ from Manischewitz wine and Strub’s pickles,” transforms “belongings” into something that approaches “bearings,” of which we all lose a few along the way. Wayde Compton provides a unifying comment about needless sentimentality in his encounters with the memory of Hogan’s Alley (one of several ghost-towns within V6A) and those who used to live there: “why, they seem to be saying, do our grandchildren and their friends — mixed, integrated, educated– care about this old alley so much, this place that seems to have been the least of our achievements?” (117).
Is there room for criticism of a collection of such heart and, in many places, anguish? Possibly. V6A, as a neighbourhood, has always been about more than marginality. The editors broaden the geographic reach of V6A but they don’t get very far from the street. Would a contribution from a John Fluevog or a Bob Rennie improve the lot? Who knows? Where, though, are the working women and men who wait tables, bash metal, and run little shops? The editors decry the “poorest postal code” epithet, what they call “a schoolyard nickname that won’t wear off,” and then present a collection of writings that exclude utterly any view of the East End that suggests a robust and functional set of human relations. Gary Geddes is critical of a “rapacious … and heartless” capitalism, and so am I; but this is a neighbourhood that housed the city’s first sawmills — it is where Vancouver capitalism began, where its main boulevard of commerce once was, and it has a voice and a place in V6A as well. The end effect of the collection is to confirm the stereotype: it’s a tough place to live. And maybe it is, but that’s not the whole story by a long shot.
By way of a final comment, the editors might have addressed the issue of appropriation of voice. In an area that knows something of residential and commercial gentrification, there is a risk for art to become similarly overtaken. As a reader, I am carried by these poems and stories; as a social scientist, a voice inside keeps asking about authenticity. Compton’s piece is the only sample of non-fiction in V6A, or is it? It isn’t necessary to say that this poem arose from the author’s own and real experience while this story did not; rather, there is honesty and necessity in saying that this is a mix. And then one may say: provenance be damned, all of these contributions bring the reader closer to the chequered soul of this city.
V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
By John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, editors; forward by Gary Geddes
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012. 150pp. $19.95