Review and interview with

Brave new voice:
Cathleen With’s debut story collection SKIDS excavates layers of pain and courage in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

CATHLEEN WITH’s debut story collection — SKIDS — has garnered excellent reviews from across the country, bringing her tales of youth in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, many of them runaways or addicts, to all Canadians…

I first heard With read from SKIDS, before it was published, and during our stint in the Banff Centre for the Arts Writing Studio. I knew instantly that her voice was raw, alive and necessary.

With is a graduate of the University of British Columbia MFA program in Creative Writing. She has travelled extensively throughout Asia, and has lived in Siem Reap and Seoul. She currently lives in Vancouver.

Below is a conversation we had about SKIDS, about the writing process and much more, followed by an excerpt from this excellent collection.
—Elizabeth Ruth


Elizabeth Ruth: In recent years several Canadian books have set out to specifically discuss gender — Code White, a first novel by Debra Anderson, and the Brazen Femme anthology put together by Anna Camilleri and Chloe Brushwood Rose, to name but two. In SKIDS I found the representation of gender interesting and subversive because in any given story the issues seemed to be naturally integrated into the wider context of the piece. I’m thinking, for example, of the butchy Phoebe Elliot in Detox, a cursory mention of femme businessmen in Angel’s House of Ice, and of course, Sanny Tranny is Alive and Well and Living on Davie. Do you see gender as inherent subject matter for you, or as incidental?

Cathleen With: I see gender as both inherent and incidental. Inherent because I am absolutely aware that I want to portray spectrums of gender that are present in my world, and incidental because that’s the way it is, all these types of people: gay, straight, lesbian, bi, trans, et cetera, they are all just there and living breathing in the city, in the detox, wherever. I don’t really think much about “highlighting” a topic — sexuality or gender — because for me, that doesn’t normalize it. Like Celie said in The Colour Purple, “It just be’s that way,” and that’s how I feel about gender as subject matter, not something put into my writing on purpose because of who I am or who I stand for, just is, because that’s the way the world is if you look closely enough.

ER: Speaking of looking closely… One of the devices you consistently present for your characters in SKIDS, in moments of duress or anxiety, is to show them distancing, perhaps dissociating, but certainly escaping duress through drifting into alternative realities, dreaming, using elaborate fantasies to imagine their lives differently — or as you call it in one instance, taking a “brain voyage.” In Pyjamas, the protagonist says, “I am not in a psych ward bathtub, but at the Grand Wailea in Maui” where the rooms cost two-thousand dollars. Can you speak about the liberatory possibilities of the imagination?

CW: I think distraction in the sense of brain voyages, in the sense of “Okay, today I am going to wake up, and it is going to be different,” is what saved me, and many of the characters in the book. A counsellor once told me that distraction was the best aide to recovery, and boy did I use distraction: falling in and out of love with other residents/counsellors/people at meetings and imagining different lives for us all. Whether you’re stuck in a detox freaking for a drink or drug, stuck in some room sweating over a university test, going through a job interview or crisis in the family, the imagination saves it all — better than any Prozac around and ten times better than any other drug. I think the power of the imagination — or the stuff of our more airy-fairy recovery shit, like Shakti Gawain’s “Creative Visualization”– has the power to transport and create anyone into a different person, a different life. If you are able to wish long enough.

ER: You have travelled widely. How do you understand the role of “place” in SKIDS? Particularly the role Vancouver plays?

CW: Place is important, especially in today’s Vancouver. Today’s Vancouver is not the Vancouver I was around in, or the friends in SKIDS. It is worse. Yes, there are places like Covenant House that have great programs for youth to get off the street and find their lives. But our homeless problem, drug problems are growing. There are more drugs like heroin coming into our ports, places where meth is being cooked up and an incredible number of grow-ops for our BC Bud. Vancouver is a difficult place to get cleaned up in, and while there are some excellent treatment centres and recovery houses — there are not enough beds to give people the chance to truly create a new life. Place is also about community, and Vancouver has some strong communities: Davie Street Village, Commercial Drive area and, yes, even the Downtown Eastside that many people want to plow under. Many people in these places are trying desperately to get their lives together, while living and loving. While I have lived overseas and have lived out many of my own “brain voyages,” these stories couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Vancouver.

ER: The themes of “home” and “homelessness” — significantly linked to mother loss — sits at the heart of this collection about street kids where mothers turn tricks to get a hit, where children are apprehended by child protective services and where, as you write, “getting cleaned up is about trying to find that perfect home” and “you are all your own mothers.” Why was it important to you, in writing these stories, to focus on “mother” in the ways you have?

CW: In many ways I was really lucky to have a good mom when I was growing up, and I still got lost along the way when I was a teenager. Many of the kids in the stories did not have moms who were there for them, and I think it’s an important connection. Somewhere along the way, the mother-love gets lost, and when you are doing drugs, you’re not quite capable of taking care of yourself, it’s like you regress so that when you come off of drugs, you need to discover the basics re: how to re-parent yourself — or parent yourself for the first time.


Elizabeth Ruth has written two critically acclaimed novels, but before all that worked for 11 years in front line social services, including at a shelter in Vancouver’s Eastside.
> Read the full review and excerpt at

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