Book on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside wins social awareness award

Jeremy Hainsworth
Canadian Press

Sunday, August 06, 2006

VANCOUVER (CP) - A book of the life stories of seven women who have triumphed over addiction, poverty and illness on Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside has won The George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Writing and Publishing.

Leslie Roberston and Dara Culhane compiled In Plain Sight: Reflections On Life In Downtown Eastside Vancouver in an attempt to counter what they saw as the misconceptions that surround Vancouver's inner city.

"Readers will have found neither the idealized nor demonized images of the junkie, the prostitute, the underclass hero, the victimized woman, the AIDS sufferer, or the homeless aboriginal woman in these accounts," the editors say in the afterword.

"Rather than these conventionalized figures," they write, "you will have met seven women exhausted by their daily struggles who have for reasons of their own, chosen to tell you their stories."

The book is gritty, at times dark and depressing, but is also pervaded by optimism, though the optimism is painted across a backdrop of mental illness, drug addiction, prostitution and desperate poverty.

One of the women whose tale is told is Anne. Sexual abuse, mental illness, trauma and poverty are threads woven through a life in which she is trying to raise a child alone. The father is long gone, a heroin addict somewhere.

"I don't know if our stories will help," writes Anne, "but that's my hope. I need to leave my child a better place to live in. If I don't actively work in my community to change things and make them better, even some to some small degree, then I believe that, as a parent, I have failed."

Ryga was a powerful advocate for recording the experiences of immigrants and indigenous peoples, his most famous work being The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe.

The work is considered a seminal Canadian play. It was first performed at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1967.

In The Ecstasy Of Rita Joe, a young aboriginal woman arrives to the city only to die there.

The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia says "the villains of the work are not so easy to pinpoint: the violence of white culture is to blame, to be sure, but so is the patriarchy of native culture."

Ken Smedley runs the George Ryga Centre in Summerland, B.C.

He said the women portrayed in In Plain Sight are the kind of people with whom Ryga, who died in 1987, could easily have sat down and enjoyed a long conversation over coffee.

He said the book displays the "multi-dimensionality" of people often discarded by society as down-outs and losers.

"It was so much of what (Ryga) represented in all of his work," Smedley said, "the disenfranchised and the marginalized.

"This piece was representative of that kind of multi-dimensionality," Smedley said. "Things have not looked up for that segment of the population."

Among previous winners of the award is Maggie De Vries for Missing Sarah, the author's story of her sister who vanished into the Downtown Eastside.

Sarah De Vries' DNA was later found at the farm of accused serial killer Robert William Pickton.

The award was presented July 27 in Vernon, B.C.

 The Canadian Press 2006

Awards night connects the arts-July 24, 2004



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