In conversation with Chelene Knight



It's with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to talk with writer, mentor, and literary agent Chelene Knight before the release of her new book. Born in Canada, Knight is the author of Braided Skin, and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, which won the 2018 Vancouver Book Award, and was long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature.

Publishing today, Knight's latest novel, Junie, is set in Vancouver's former Hogan's Alley neighbourhood in the 1930s. The book took Knight six years and seventeen drafts to write, and the main character is one she's carried throughout her life.

Talking with Chelene, I learned more about the writing process for Junie, how she separates her work and personal life, and Breathing Space Creative, a literary studio she founded.

Chelene Knight by Jon McRae

Tell me about the research and writing process.

My research left me with hundreds of pages of material (and not specifically on Hogan's Alley, but also relating to the era and what was happening at the time). But I started to ask myself, what do I want people to sit inside of? The history or a reimagined truth? I wanted to emphasize the female relationships in the book and encourage folks to dream up a new world for brewing Black love and joy. My joy won't look like your joy and vice versa. This book, hopefully, shows us this, and reminds us all that building a dream is not something we have to ever let go of even in the most uncertain of times. 

Writing it took about 6 years and 17 drafts. It was difficult to find the shape and movement I wanted but when I did, the revisions flew.

Was Junie a character you always imagined writing about, or did she come to as you started to pen your novel?

As a character I've carried Junie with me in my head for what seems like my whole life. She has always been there and I never had a home for her. I knew what she looked like, and I could hear the inflection of her voice when she laughed, I could see her deepest and darkest dreams.

Everything in this book is fictional, but there are parts of Junie etched in my own heart and I cannot begin to express how happy I am with how she turned out on the page. 

The book itself takes a unique structure and it unfolds like a gushing water tap that is later abruptly shut off and this is the movement that I hope readers pay attention to. There's a very specific and intentional manipulation of craft here and I know it will appeal to a very small group of folks who just get it, and I am here for that conversation!

Chelene, you're an award-winning writer, literary agent, teacher, and mentor. Your next book, an exploration of Black self-love and joy, is forthcoming with HarperCollins Canada next year. 

How do you balance personal life and work?

Balance to me is tethered to my consistent work around firming up and clarifying my boundaries. This is lifelong work. I say no a lot, I step back a lot. I prioritize often, and I give myself the grace and love I deserve. I work in publishing and have one of the most unique vantage points possible, and this isn't by accident. 

I think about what I need as a creator and as a visibly marginalized publishing professional and I speak openly about author care, mindset work, and how to write forever in a healthy way. As an industry, we need to start paying more attention to the storyteller and not JUST the stories themselves. In fact, in my new coaching program I've decentred writing craft and instead focused closely on mindset, boundaries, and building healthy practices as a core program.

What are some of the most memorable books you've read?

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Jamaica Kincaid's Autobiography of My Mother, and Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler.

From the publisher

A riveting exploration of the complexity within mother-daughter relationships and the dynamic vitality of Vancouver’s former Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood.

1930s, Hogan’s Alley—a thriving Black and immigrant community located in Vancouver’s East End. Junie is a creative, observant child who moves to the alley with her mother, Maddie: a jazz singer with a growing alcohol dependency. Junie quickly makes meaningful relationships with two mentors and a girl her own age, Estelle, whose resilient and entrepreneurial mother is grappling with white scrutiny and the fact that she never really wanted a child.

As Junie finds adulthood, exploring her artistic talents and burgeoning sexuality, her mother sinks further into the bottle while the thriving neighbourhood—once gushing with potential—begins to change. As her world opens, Junie intuits the opposite for the community she loves.

Told through the fascinating lens of a bright woman in an oft-disquieting world, this book is intimate and urgent—not just an unflinching look at the destruction of a vibrant community, but a celebration of the Black lives within.

Available from Book*hug Press.