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Chelene Knight

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Chelene Knight on Black joy and the power of introversion in her debut novel

Chelene Knight remembers the first time she heard  about the historic Vancouver community of Hogan’s Alley. About a decade ago, the literary agent and writer was at a talk given by author Wayde Compton in which he mentioned the Black and immigrant neighbourhood in the city’s east end.

“I thought, How could I have lived in Vancouver my whole life and never have heard of this community?” she says, speaking by phone from her new home in the small town of Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia.

Compton has noted that Hogan’s Alley was the “first and last neighbourhood in Vancouver with a substantial, concentrated Black population.” The Alley emerged in the early 1900s and in the 1920s and ’30s it was known for its bustling nightlife, but in the 1970s it was demolished to make way for the construction of the Georgia Viaduct.

Knight’s curiosity was piqued, and, in 2018, she herself gave an oral history walking tour of the area, which she reimagines in her debut novel, Junie, out now from Book*hug Press.

Though Knight is deeply interested in the history of Hogan’s Alley, her goals for Junie (Book*hug Press) were not about rebuilding or repainting an earlier time. Junie is about complex, brilliant women and Black joy. The eponymous young protagonist is a careful, observant child growing up in Hogan’s Alley in the 1930s and learning to navigate the world with her mother, Maddie, a jazz singer whose drinking transforms her relationships with her daughter and others just as the neighbourhood is changing too.

“I wanted folks to be inside of this reimagining for themselves,” Knight says. “Maybe they could picture a neighbourhood that was demolished – one where folks were displaced. … I wanted folks to pay attention to the loving and living that happens in the book without being distracted … so I decided to recreate and build fictional places.”

Junie learns to embrace her senses and her keen attentiveness to her surroundings so that she can ultimately reinvent and recreate her own life. This journey is not foreign to Knight.

“One characteristic that I share with Junie is that introverted personality,” she says. “It’s something I used to hide. I had a lot of shame attached to it. But through writing Junie to life on the page, I realized, Oh my gosh, this is a superpower. … It’s through this introversion that we begin to appreciate curiosity.”

Junie’s observations of her mother – who is, temperamentally, her complete opposite – grant her the opportunity to find herself.

“She watches her [mother’s] downward spiral,” Knight says. “It’s often hard to witness, but through that turmoil and pain, Junie still tries to find love. … She’s trying to build her own language for love so that, as an introvert, she can communicate what love looks like to her in her own way.”

Junie’s coming-of-age is also the story of her becoming an artist and learning what it means to live life through paint, canvas, and gesture. For Knight, like Junie, the novel has been a second chance at life.

Recalling a conversation with short-story writer Téa Mutonji, whom Knight was interviewing for a forthcoming commissioned book from HarperCollins on Black self-love, Knight says that Junie was a chance to live more genuinely.

“[She] said that writing is a second chance for everything, and I thought, That’s brilliant. That’s exactly what I hope this book is: a second chance for anyone who is moving through the world in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. There’s another way to situate yourself inside of that and reframe it and reimagine it.”

Junie began as a short story in 2016 and grew into a novel at the urging of author and editor Jen Sookfong Lee, one of Knight’s mentors. The metaphor of water that Knight shares about her process is as much about the shape of the book as it is about her own metamorphosis as a writer: “I tried to picture this gushing water coming from the faucet in the beginning. And then, as the book moves, somebody is slowly closing that tap. And by the time we get to the end, you’re getting droplets of water.”

Chelene Knight: Jon McRae

Correction, September 14: This story has been updated from the original to reflect that Knight is writing the forthcoming book on Black self-love. It is not an anthology, as was originally reported. The story has also been updated to reflect that the publisher of Junie is Book*hug Press.