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Chelene Knight's new novel, Junie, is a lyrical and intimate portrayal of Black girls and women trying to thrive in a unique neighbourhood.Jon McRae/Handout

  • Title: Junie
  • Author: Chelene Knight
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Book*hug Press
  • Pages: 334

It is 1933, and Junie is dreaming in colours.

She is in a new neighbourhood, one of cramped buildings and noisy sidewalks. The area comes to Junie as an array of colours – flamboyant plants, a community garden, curbside furniture – that she sees when her single mother, Maddie, a singer, relocates their small family of two to Vancouver’s East End.

Their old neighbourhood, Junie notes, was a cold place where sidewalks stood empty and “tight-lipped” white people walked dogs on leafy streets. There, she was afraid, often alone. Not so in their new East End neighbourhood.

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“This neighbourhood,” she explained, “was already a sweltering hug around her shoulders, it was like she were in the midst of some big family gathering where everyone had something to shout out from across the room.” This is the world created by Canadian Chelene Knight in her new novel, Junie – a lyrical and intimate portrayal of Black girls and women trying to thrive in a unique neighbourhood.

Hogan’s Alley (formally known as Park Lane) in Vancouver’s eastern Strathcona neighbourhood was once home to the city’s Black community. In the 1970s, the community – families and all – was removed to make way for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

The official historical record on Hogan’s Alley is found in newspaper clippings depicting it as a centre of crime and squalor. In city documents, it’s a similar story: In 1931, a city bylaw would label it an industrial area and by 1957, a city study would label it a “Blighted Area.” Absent from those official documents, however, are the memories and oral histories of the inhabitants of what was once the beating heart of the community for Black Vancouverites.

Knight’s version of Hogan’s Alley retains that spirit, but is fictionalized: She invented the cafés, stores, bookshops and characters of Junie. Rather than tell the story of Black settlement that’s flawed and needing that dreaded renewal and revitalization, Knight opts to portray the vibrancy that happens when Black folks gather in a place.

In an author’s note, Knight writes that she wanted “not to focus on the destruction … and instead bring back a small moment in time where everything was in full bloom.” What the book lacks in historical specificity is made up for with its verisimilitude; there were – and are, one hopes – homes for the dreams of Black girls.

Junie’s fictional East End is alluring, lush and warmly drawn. Rather than at home, with Maddie’s temper and drinking, Junie’s sanctuary is the neighbourhood itself: “When day turns to night, I watch the East End come alive. I feel free, in this hidden world.”

Junie and Maddie’s presence among the neighbourhood’s riot of colours and busyness, however, is a sign of Maddie’s fall from grace; they are relocating because it is cheaper to live by Hogan’s Alley. And Maddie, tempestuous and haughty, has lost yet another singing gig at yet another club.

For her part, Junie wants nothing more than to turn the colours she sees into art. She’s aided in her quest by an East End bookstore owner and a teacher at the local school, Miss Shirley. Blossoming, too, is not just Junie’s talent, but her sexuality. She dreams of loving women openly, of living freely.

While Junie is the coming-of-age novel’s main voice, it is also a multivocal journey with the perspectives of the Black women she knows rounding out the story. At school, Junie makes a new friend in Estelle, a pretty and privileged Black girl; Estelle’s mother, Faye, owns the popular East End nightclub, the Coal Club. It’s Junie’s story, but other Black women and girls also dream. In the chorus of voices, Miss Shirley’s is the smallest. Though, arguably, it’s her decisions that help propel Junie forward.

In addition, Knight lurches backward and forward in time, pulling the reader around the 1930s to depict the pasts that haunt Junie and Estelle’s mothers, in particular. It’s an unexpected effect that gives life to the tensions between the mothers and their daughters. Knight’s skill at poetry and her own experiences with parental addiction disorders seem to come out in Junie, who asks about her mother, “When did her hurt wrap its throat round her neck?” Loping backward in time, Knight takes the reader to the days when a mother’s dreams become vapour. Through the wounds of the mothers, one can begin to understand the scars borne by their daughters.

Knight’s Junie takes readers to the under-documented world of writer Saidiya Hartman’s errant Black women and girls. Their experiments in living freely – as singers, nightclub owners and artists; as mothers and daughters; as members of a small, tight-knit Black community – are tales of “the beauty of black ordinary,” as Hartman writes in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Outside of Hogan’s Alley and the East End, these girls and women are surveilled and threatened, but within it, they can be their flawed and fantastic selves.

Despite society’s tacit limits on Black women, Junie, Estelle, Maddie, Faye and Miss Shirley dream and hope. Knight’s Junie catalogues the ungovernable dreams and aborted hopes of Black women and girls. Like Hogan’s Alley, they too contain possibilities.

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