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Review and interview with rabble.ca

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

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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.

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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 rabble.ca

Street illegal: ‘Skids’ reviewed in The Globe and Mail

“Street illegal” JIM BARTLEY, The Globe and Mail

When we think of detox, we think of celebs breaking a pill or coke habit, or of an ordinary drunk desperate to not lose wife and kids. In the first story of this impressive debut collection, Cathleen With introduces a keener sense of waste… Jesse is 16 and a street kid, or “skid” in the unofficial parlance of social work. After a bona fide suicide attempt, she’s being weaned off not only drugs, but the selling of her body to pay for them.

In the dry-out, she takes a shine to a new resident, Phoebe, and soon her regular “brain voyages” — escapist fantasies to a tropical paradise — are filled with romance, culminating in an idyllic birth scene on a balmy beach, with Phoebe as tender midwife.

In Angel’s House of Ice, crystal meth is the fuel that keeps Kevin perilously aloft as he turns queer tricks in Vancouver. He does mostly high-end tourist trade. Kevin’s other sustaining drug is Daniel, his native boyfriend. Heading for druggy burnout, the boys have no incentive to slow down. “The cash flow is too good.” Every bad patch has a crystal promise around the corner.

In The Arbutus Tree, Jesse and her best friend in foster care, Ali, obliquely acknowledge an erotic attraction to each other even as they exhibit both fascination and disgust over gay men having sex in a beach-front park. They’re in that teen middle-land of burgeoning hormones and minds addled by the body’s surging needs.
Later, on the beach, they flirt with some callous older boys who mercilessly take what’s been offered. It’s rape, but the girls know it must never be spoken of. They huddle in bed later, holding each other, fearing that their cop foster dad will force a confession. But Jesse is secretly musing on the gay encounter they witnessed. We’re left with a sadness tempered by budding love.

Drive Uncle Randy is a road story ripe for a film deal (think Gus van Sant or David Lynch). The hands-down standout of the book, it splays wide the secrets of a family plagued by desperate addictions ranging from beer to heroin to ranting religious fervour. Pubescent Anja has been kidnapped from her Vancouver trailer home by her mom’s lover, who’s also her uncle. Randy is a sexual predator on a lunatic mission to bring his lost brother (Anja’s dad) back into the fold of Yahweh. His tool of spiritual coercion is the shotgun in the back seat.

Anja is our tale-teller, her numbed, dully incredulous voice perfectly matched to the nightmare of her days on the road (she’s obliged to cook hits of smack in the car and shoot up gibbering Randy while he drives.) and her nights in shared motel beds. This tale is horrifying and mesmerizing. It surges ahead on the surreal leaps and illogic of dreams, all carried within a larger, neatly crafted narrative arc.

The stories are loosely linked by setting and some characters, which helps to underscore the anarchic drift of lives in this community of the dispossessed. We lose characters, then find them again, usually no better off — but more familiar, and more worth knowing.

Review of ‘Skids’ in Quill & Quire

“Skids” is the slang term for street kids or runaways living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of them are native Canadians, many are HIV-positive, and many are addicted to heroin, crystal meth, or alcohol. They are unwed teenage mothers or victims of sexual abuse at the hands of family members or surrogate family members. They turn tricks for drug money; they float in and out of detox and rehab clinics.

The dozen stories in Cathleen With’s new collection focus squarely on the lives of these marginalized urban denizens, sketching their existence in language that is raw and immediate, yet also infused with compassion and understanding. There is a marked lack of sentimentality to these stories. The characters do not retreat into maudlin self-pity, but instead cling desperately – almost defiantly – to whatever rays of hope manage to shine into their dark lives.

With locates a certain nobility in the lives of her dispossessed and forgotten characters. The narrator of “Create a Real Available Beach,” a drug-addicted skid who has done a stint in juvenile detention for breaking and entering, gets a chance to visit with the daughter she gave up to social services (because keeping her “wasn’t manageable”). The HIV-positive male prostitute in “Angel’s House of Ice” refuses to perform certain sex acts with clients because, as he says, “I am no kind of HIV murderer.” And Charlie, the protagonist of “Sanny Tranny Is Alive and Well and Living on Davie,” finds redemption in helping his transvestite father, who is suffering from kidney failure.

The stories occasionally feel too brief and underdeveloped, more like sketches than fully realized pieces. A reader is sometimes left wishing that the author had chosen to include fewer stories, and to flesh them out in a more deliberate and detailed manner. But the stories largely succeed, thanks to the author’s voice, which is original, fresh, and authentic. With inhabits her characters from the inside out, and presents them to us with a clear, unblinking gaze. These stories feel lived rather than imagined.

Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
Price: $19.95 paper
ISBN: 1-55152-215-2
Page count: 152 pp.
Size: 5½ x 8½
Released: Oct. 2006

Reviewed by Steven Beattie (from the November 2006 issue)
> Read the full review