In Conversation with Chelene Knight
Author Chelene Knight discusses her first novel, Junie
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Chelene Knight wears many hats in the publishing world — from head of literary studio Breathing Space Creative, to editor, to literary agent, to poet, memoir-writer and now, novelist.
Chelene Knight’s third book but first novel, Junie, brings the lost Vancouver neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley back to life with the story of Junie, her mother, and a delightful and complicated cast of characters that make up this Black and immigrant community in the 1930s. Told through the lens of observant and introverted Junie, Junie celebrates the life in the thriving community against the undercurrent of its slow disappearance.
Chelene Knight is one of many authors who provided exclusive content for Thin Air 2022, the annual Winnipeg writers’ festival, running this year from Sept. 20 to Oct. 18. All exclusive author content and details of in-person and virtual events for the writer’s festival can be found at thinairfestival.ca.
WFP: Junie is set in the neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver’s east end, which is a neighbourhood that was demolished in the late ’60s. What do you hope to accomplish by bringing the stories of this lost neighbourhood back to the forefront of people’s minds?
CK: It was my hope that folks who were unfamiliar with the area would be inspired to walk through it and picture the living that took place there. It’s easy enough to follow “fact” and resurrect a place on the page but I wanted to do something different. Something bigger. The other day I received an influencer review that captured my hope for the book. In the review Lindsay Wincherauk says, “Thanks to Junie, when I walk under the viaduct now, in the now nondescript area once known as Hogan’s Alley, the area springs to life. I can hear cheerful souls rejoicing, jazz floating through the air. The fragrance of different scents tickle the senses. Chelene Knight is masterful at bringing what once was to life.”
To me, that’s exactly what I wanted this book to do and if just one person got it, I’ve succeeded.
WFP: In Junie you play around a lot with the narrator’s point of view, switching from first-person to third-person, past to present tense. Why did you choose to tell this story in so many different ways within one book?
CK: Junie sees the world in a very different way. She slows down, she is present. For the most part, the rest of the world is not. In order to accurately capture Junie’s way of seeing and tasting the world, I had to use a complex string of vignettes in addition to the main narrative. This was not easy work. To me, it was meant to be a choreographed song or dance. Yes, I break the traditional rules, but Junie is a non-traditional character. I had to not only build a world for her to thrive, but I had to create an environment where she could feel safe and seen. In everyday society, many of us have to conform or squeeze ourselves into boxes we don’t fit in. I didn’t want to do that to Junie. I had the power to build her something perfect for who she is.
WFP: You intentionally wrote Junie as an introverted character. How did Junie’s introverted personality inform how you wrote Junie?
CK: I suppose I answer this above, but being an introvert is so much more than being shy or insular. I wanted the world to be so curious about Junie’s way of moving in the world that perhaps they’d investigate this superpower a bit more. Introverted people process things slowly. They can see and predict things that others cannot. So when Junie tries to build a colour for love she needs to pay close attention to energies, sounds, feelings … everything. Introverts are often empaths, absorbing pain and strong emotion from others. Getting that down on the page was very important.
WFP: You talk about your process in terms of a water metaphor, that at the beginning of a book, the water is gushing, then “as the book moves, somebody is slowly closing that tap.” How does it help you to connect writing and water together?
CK: Writing for me has always moved in waves, often creating soft ripples that more often than not we never get to witness. But the gushing water metaphor also speaks to what happens when systemic racism causes a community to change from a tap gushing with water to a slow and steady drip pooling at the bottom of a greasy salad bowl, just like I mention in the early pages of the book.
WFP: What themes always seem to show up in your writing, and why are you drawn to those themes?
CK: Complex mother-daughter relationships, joy and fresh ways to explore love. I have no answer for why, it’s just what comes.
WFP: Writing necessarily involves excavating deeply personal, possibly even traumatic, experiences and putting them on the page for others to read. How do you integrate caring for yourself into your writing process?
CK: All writing is personal, even fiction. It comes from the individual and therefore it’s like someone constantly scooping water from our wells. As writers we have to refill, we have to replenish. I’ve built plenty of tools for myself and other writers here through my literary studio, breathingspacecreative.com.
WFP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
CK: I am reading manuscripts! As someone who works in publishing, there’s so much reading to do! I am currently drafting a commissioned project for HarperCollins Canada… a book on Black self-love and joy.
Junie is out now with Book*hug Press.
Alyssa Sherlock is a Winnipeg writer.