Bad Bitches Don’t Die

Ashley Little’s latest novel Anatomy of a Girl Gang is so fierce and raw and compelling that you won’t want to put the book down until you know exactly what becomes of the Black Roses: five “bad bitches” – runaways, strays. They are five lonely pups, forced to be wolves, so young, on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. They are five teenage girls, torn up inside, terrorized by their pasts and their presents, their memories, their secrets and their demons.

The characters are of different races and cultural backgrounds, coming from completely different places, with distinct faces and minds. Their perceptions of this world and their experiences are vastly different, but they can relate. They’ve all experienced sexism and oppression and the harsh realities of local inequality. They have been toughened by their environments and hardened by gendered violence. They’ve been threatened. They’ve been beaten. They’ve been abused, assaulted, raped. Neglected children – abandoned wolves. They have been hurt by too many men, too many times. They seek each other out to form their own pack, their own all girl gang. They become sisters – family – a thieving, car-stealing, drug-selling, revenge-seeking, loving little family with high hopes and big dreams. The Black Roses are “down for life.” They find refuge in each other.

Each character has her own unique charm and her own skill set that she brings to the group. Mac is the brains and the fearless leader who pushes them all to do better, go bigger, aim higher, always. Mercy is her right hand, a “Punjabi Princess” with quick trickster hands. She is “the invisible brown girl” who can steal just about anything, anywhere, anytime. She is a master thief who feels no guilt for stealing because in Mercy’s eyes, “stuff” doesn’t really belong to anyone. However, Mercy does feel deeply guilty about something, something that only she and Mac know about. But it is too dangerous to tell the other Roses!

Kayos also has a secret that she won’t share with her Black Rose sisters. A high school dropout, who gave birth at thirteen, Kayos is strong and tough as stone. She is an experienced martial artist who loves to fight. Her aggression drives her; she is the fire, the muscle. Sly Girl and Kayos do the drug-running because Sly Girl knows everything there is to know about street drugs. She’s seen it all; she’s done it all, and she’s cleaned up, mostly. Sly Girl is a First Nations runaway who fled from the gruesome brutalities of her life on the reserve only to be faced with the merciless realities of homelessness and addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Z is their publicist, the Chinese-Canadian lesbian graffiti artist who shows the Black Roses to the world. Z is my favourite. She talks and thinks in street slang, tags and graffiti codes. Even before the Black Roses recruit her, they all agree, “she’s a straight up G.”

It is so compelling to revisit the same scenes through each of these character’s eyes. From each perspective, Little reveals more to us and pushes the plot forward rapidly. It is never difficult to figure out whose mind Little has situated us in; their voices are completely distinct. Their memories are moulded by their experiences and their personalities. They see things in different colours, hear things in different tones. Some of the Black Roses are more aware of their surroundings; some are more aware of their own emotions, even blinded by their internal struggles. They perceive one another differently too. Their relationships are layered with truth and depth.

Four years of research and observation seep through Little’s writing and saturates every page. Little’s fascination with gang subculture and her dedicated investigative journey has translated into a well-developed, disturbing and honest story about the possible dynamics of the rarest gang of all, the female-only gang. Her straightforward, direct writing style stays true to the characters and the context. Little’s writing is no literary garden here. There are no flowery metaphors with delicate descriptive petals. Instead, in Anatomy of a Girl Gang, Little tells it how it is. She spray paints black roses on piss-stained sidewalks and dirty cement walls. She shows us what it looks like, smells like, feels like, to live and breathe and struggle to get through each day and night in the gang capital of Canada, in what is known as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” Little forces her readers out of any kind of passive or numb state and uses her sharp, poignant words like used needles or thorns, to pinch us, prick us, wake us.

Anatomy of a Girl Gang is a thrilling and frightening, fast-paced read.