Defying Definition

  • Elee Kraljii Gardiner and John Mikhail Asfour (Editor)
    V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Arsenal Pulp Press
  • Diane Buchanan
    unruly angels. Frontenac House
Reviewed by Erin Ramlo

These two collections arrived in my mailbox for review bound with an elastic band and a post-it note inscribed with the letters ’DTES,’ the now ubiquitous and sometimes notorious short-hand for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community. Yet, V6A and unruly angels are not really about the DTES, per se: one is about addiction in general, while the other seeks to open the rigidly encoded borders that surround the community. Both collections essentially disrupt the long-held beliefs, definitions, and expectations about people whom society labels as ’homeless,’ ’addicts,’ or ’criminals,’ and break through the boundaries of the marginalized spaces to which such populations are often relegated.

While the first piece in Diane Buchanan’s unruly angels is set on Vancouver’s infamous Hastings Street, the actual inspiration for this collection of poems was Buchanan’s attendance as a spectator—for four years—at weekly meetings of Edmonton’s Drug Treatment Court. There are eleven such programs in Canada: dedicated court proceedings for “drug dependent offenders who have agreed to accept treatment for their addiction.” Drug courts offer a community-based alternative to incarceration, giving participants the opportunity to earn both their sobriety and their freedom. For her part, Buchanan sought to bring attention to this system and to the diversity of its participants, travelling to the courthouse each week to be a silent observer of both their plights and their triumphs, before representing those experiences in her own poetry. The poems in unruly angels are, at times, challenging: they speak of the myriad daily traumas experienced by people pushed to the edges of society and subsequently ignored. The poems are beautiful, often provocative accounts of the process of recovery that highlight the importance of community and social justice in the context of addiction.

And while unruly angels seems to advocate, throughout, for the value of this alternative model, I cannot help but feel a bit of unease with the project itself. In her foreword, when describing Courtroom 267, where the proceedings took place, Buchanan states “I found poems there!”—not people, not people’s stories, but poems. There is a risk, here, of appropriation, especially when penning first-person poetic accounts of addiction and recovery based on the lives of other people. I do believe that Buchanan cares deeply for the people whose stories she witnessed and recorded—the care and pathos evident in these poems is testament to that. Yet, I must ask: did she consult these participants for permission to immortalize their stories in poetic verse? Ultimately, these are beautifully crafted poems that would have benefitted from a more nuanced discussion of their origins and motivations. While the collection raises important questions about who represents whom (and how and why), as it stands, the ethical impulse of this work remains a bit elusive and troubling.

In contrast, V6A directly asks how and where in a neighbourhood so long defined from the outside can self-definition occur? Their answer: prioritize the voices, experiences, and stories of a host of individuals through self-representation. The project is rooted in the Downtown Eastside—inspired by a weekly meeting of local writers, the Thursdays Writing Collective—but editors John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner made no requirements that submissions need be about the neighbourhood itself. Rather, submissions range from poetry to essays, from fiction to memoir, by both established and amateur authors alike, all of whom have some kind of relationship to the community of the Downtown Eastside: past, present, resident, or friend. As such, the collection has no real narrative arc, other than that the pieces are humblingly honest and stirring. These are strong, affective, and sometimes confrontational pieces of writing that throw open the rigid expectations of the Downtown Eastside and allow all kinds of people to express how this community might live in them. This is not merely a collection about Hastings Street SRO’s, as one might expect of the DTES; rather, it is a collection about families and history, about bike rides and coyotes and watermelons.

Perhaps the bundling together of these texts under the label of ’DTES’ says something about the tacit assumptions we make about the neighbourhood and the people who reside there. As these volumes teach, though, the Downtown Eastside is a vibrant community that defies definition, and addicts come from everywhere with every conceivable kind of story. There is a lot to be gleaned from the pieces in both collections: they deserve to be approached slowly and considered with care as they insist on a re-definition of our assumptions and our labels.

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