Storytelling From the DTES

So much is written about the Downtown Eastside, but rarely are the voices of the residents properly heard. V6A, often just dismissed as ‘Canada’s poorest postcode’, picks up a pen and finds a channel through this excellent anthology, written by 32 authors that have all experienced life in the DTES.

A varied mix of prose, poetry and essays explore all facets of life in V6A. Regardless of subject matter the stories all express a memory of daily life in all its technicoloured glory. Nothing is black and white here. Grey patches, like our city’s beloved rain clouds, hang over the stories and give the reader a wake-up pinch to pay attention to what these writers are saying.

The anthology is edited by poet John Mikhail Asfour and writer Elee Kraljii Gardiner. Gardiner directs the Thursdays Writing Collective, a DTES initiative that brings together authors, both established and emerging, every week. In V6A they have compiled an eclectic collection of memorable stories, punchy poems and thought-provoking essays.

V6A’s stories weave a quilt of experiences reflecting the diversity of people who live and work in the area. Subjects range from factual, such as Wayde Compton’s essay on Hogan’s Alley and the history of Vancouver’s black community, to An old Spook and his coyote, Don MacDonald’s short but memorable tale of squatting in Pacific xxx Park. Elsewhere fiction writer Cathleen With  creates haunting characters in Super Phat Angel Baby, a stream-of-consciousness account of a hermaphrodite street kid that tackles the subject of the importance of having dreams.

There’s a nod to the DTES as a breeding ground for artists in 441 Powell, a semi-autobiographical tale from author and former rocker Michael Turner  and a childhood reflection from Madeleine Thien about growing up and losing her religion in Strathcona.

Writers weren’t given a specific theme for the anthology and this means the subject matter covers a wide rainbow of the human experience. Poetry is given a chance to shine as well, with the inclusion of sharp pieces such as Vancouver Sunrise by Poetry is Dead’s editor Daniel Zomparelli and the evocative story of a mother-in-law in Ma by Elaine Woo.

Each page reveals another dimension to the DTES; a blend of the polished and the rough works well together to paint an honest portrait. The specter of poverty haunts much of the writing but ultimately it’s an uplifting experience, celebrating the human truths that affect everybody. Thorny issues such as prostitution and addiction, as well as wider cultural subjects such as Chinese culture, religion and art are all touched on in this inventive collection. The writing doesn’t get bogged down under the weight of expectation and the baggage of history; the words break through and show there are no barriers to expression and good old fashioned storytelling.

It turns out the DTES knows perfectly well how to articulate itself; the world better start listening.