Having just reread this marvellous book, and being moved even more by it this time than I was the first time, I am reposting this review I wrote back in January 2011.
Subtitled “Diary of a Street Kid”, this is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a Chinese-Canadian who, at the age of 14, ran away from an oppressive, loveless home, only to end up, a few weeks later, in a psychiatric hospital. Why? Because she had swallowed thirty aspirin in an attempt to commit suicide.
I remember feeling superior in the waiting room, dismissing the psychiatric patients as crazies I’d never have to join. There was the scrawny Chinese woman with the greasy hair, the mumbling Caucasian woman with the wiglike hair she brushed from her face with nervous hands. Loonies. I was going to get out; I belonged to the outside world.
Then they hand me hospital clothing, dull blue, and the walls begin to spin. […] The Chinese woman runs to me in her fluffy yellow slippers that remind me involuntarily of Big Bird (just another way of degrading the patients here), holding me, her sharp face begging, ‘Don’t hurt her. Please don’t hurt her.’ The man on duty drags me to the floor, so used to doing it that he no longer needs a reason. […] I make a run for the washroom […] A nurse forces her way through the bathroom door, then another; white-clad nurses spill into the bathroom, murmuring, hands searching my pockets for sharp objects. I’m kicking, screaming, crying, wrenched from former freedom.
I’d rather be living on the streets, standing in puddles of glistening black and neon – at least I’d be free. […]
A deaf, dumb and blind woman performs the Thorazine shuffle endlessly, methodically, from early morning till bedtime.
At last she is released into the care of the parents she has come to hates. And immediately runs away again.
Two a.m at the bus depot. […] Unshaven men are my company tonight, picking out items from the garbage can in front of me. […] Two strangers pull up in their car and ask if I need a ride and do I give head […] It’s graduation night for three of the High Schools in the district, and everyone is either drunk or high. The girls laugh at Death, hair wild in their faces in the limousines, while the guys in their tuxedos feel like men. I’m sure the men in this depot don’t feel so grown up […]
Now I’m in a restaurant; at least it’s warm. […]
The staff in this place just kicked out a derelict in his tattered, stained clothing, who apparently seeks out this restaurant each night to slump into a chair and try to sleep. I beg them to let him stay, offering to buy him food, but they refuse and then gossip in the kitchen. […]
The restaurant closes and I migrate to a twenty-four hour coffee shop, where I meet the derelict again, drinking coffee and shaking. Beside me at the counter, he asks tentatively, ‘Can I touch your leg?’ and places his fingers there in a curiously obligatory manner, as if he had to because I was female. I shake my head tiredly. He takes his fingers back in silence, and doesn’t try again.
That is just the beginning. Soon the drugs begin. Then the “giving head” to get money for the drugs … She too becomes “a derelict”.
But I am not approaching this right. I am giving the wrong impression. Let me start again:
This is the diary of Evelyn Lau, a writer who had it much harder than most. Living in a garret is nothing to this. Her day job was giving head to jerks who picked her up in their cars, then, gradually, as she became known, her own clientele. The day job, I stress. (Or should I say night job.) Because all the time she was writing. This wonderful diary is only the half of it. She was also writing poetry. Winning prizes! Even giving readings!
When she first ran away, at the age of 14, the Vancouver Sun splashed her on their front page with the words “I’ve never met a kid who could write like that” – “the only kind words they allow,” Evelyn comments. But the reporter was right.
And the closing paragraph of the book says it all: If I had saved the story of my adolescence to write when I was older, it would have been a very different book …
It would indeed. And that it was written at the time is its beauty. It is not a book by a writer about the life of a street kid. It is not a book by your ordinary, everyday, inarticulate street kid. It is a book by a writer written while she was living as, no, while she was a street kind. It reminds me of Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. He was down and out in London and Paris. Like Evelyn, he had known the comfortable life of the relatively wealthy. Like Evelyn, he was now authentically down and out, on the street. And like Evelyn, he was a great writer.
Think of it, then, as Down and Out in Vancouver and New York. (Yes, she spends a while in New York, too.)
It is really something very special.