The Next Chapter

How Chelene Knight used an unconventional mix of photos, prose and poetry to write an award-winning memoir

The poet and author describes growing up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in her memoir Dear Current Occupant.
Chelene Knight is an author based in Vancouver. (Chelene Knight, Book*hug)

Vancouver-based poet and author Chelene Knight digs into themes of home in ways that are unusual and inventive. In her memoir Dear Current Occupant, she describes growing up poor in Vancouver with a mother who grappled with addiction and struggled to provide for her family.

Knight writes a series of letters addressed to all the present day occupants now living in the 20 different houses she moved in and out of with her mother and brother. She uses prose, poems and photography to deconstruct her past and establish a foundation for her present and future.

Dear Current Occupant won the Vancouver Book Award in 2018 and it was also named as one of the best Canadian nonfiction books of 2018 by CBC Books.

Moving frequently

"Usually it was an issue of safety. We didn't get a lot of notice. But, at that time, it just seemed like this was a regular thing that we did. We didn't usually move far. A lot of the houses are on the same street. My mom did so much to keep us safe. She had her own personal struggles but, when I look back now, I think I could never have been able to do that if I were in her position; to just always sort it out for us."

Memory and place

"When I was writing the book I went to all of the houses and wrote outside in the winter in the cold, just seeing what came to me. I think memory is connected to place, so there's something about being there. I need to unlock memories because a lot of them are fragmented and not necessarily crisp and clear.

"That's why the book is structured as fragments, because that's how the memories come: they come in little pieces. I feel like this book isn't really finished because there's more to be said and, as more memories open and come to light, then maybe there's something else connected to this initial burst of memory."

Family bonds

"As folks read the book they'll notice there's not any anger really there. There's a lot of love and there's this thread of strength and hope. I talk a lot about the relationship that I wish I had with her at the time because now I look back and I see that strength when I didn't really see that when I was younger. Looking back now, I think she is an incredible woman.

    "My father and my mom separated when I was about two or three. I don't have a lot of memories of them together, but I do remember a time where he picked me up, I went over to his house and I spent some time with his other daughter, son and his wife. I just remember feeling like this is not home, this is not for me and I'm not wanted here. Now whether or not that's true, that was just the feeling that I got." 

    Form and authenticity

    "I talk a lot about hybrid genres and the need to tell your story authentically. What that means to me is listening to the story and recognizing that it might not take a traditional shape. It might not fit that template and you have to be okay with that as the author, but also recognize what the engagement might be and how different it might be compared to traditional chronological memoirs.

    "Someone looking at this and flipping through it might think this is not a memoir, this is not what I expect. But, as a writer, I have to own my story and the shape that it took. So I needed photos to speak to some of the broken pieces and I needed the fragmented memory in chunks to speak to the sections that I don't remember."

    Chelene Knight's comments have been edited for length and clarity.