A poet’s identity report, with always the chance of unraveling

Just like a braid, identity can be complex, intertwined and sometimes fragile. That is one of the themes Vancouver poet Chelene Knight explores in her collection Braided Skin.

Alongside fellow writer Dina Del Bucchia, Knight will read some of her work as part of the Lunch Poems at SFU series on May 20. This event is sure to flip the audience’s perception of identity upside down, as Bucchia’s most recent work, Blind Items, disrupts the usual assumption of celebrity, and Knight’s work is deeply rooted in her experiences of mixed ethnicity.

If one were to try to trace the trajectory of Knight’s career, they might begin with her experience as a child and the perception of her hair. This is when she first began to ask questions about identity that remain pertinent in her work today. Falling down the side of her shoulders in soft, tight ringlets, her hair is a blunt objection to any assumption about her ethnicity.

“Growing up in a black family, I was the only one with this ‘good hair’,” Knight says. “Was I supposed to be more ‘privileged’ in some way? That’s how I felt.”

Layered identities

Poet Chelene Knight. | Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Poet Chelene Knight. | Photo by Ayelet Tsabari

Knight grew up in a single parent household with an African-American mother. Her father, an East Indian from Africa, was a victim of the 1972 Asian expulsion in Uganda, where Indians were given 90 days to leave the country in an attempt at ethnic cleansing.

Venturing into the notion of what it means to be black, Knight uncovered her passion for creative writing at a young age. And like the many great poets that came before her, writing about the struggles and politics of identity, Knight is adamant that “it’s all about voice.” Telling stories, her stories.

Self-proclaimed as “someone who was (statistically) not supposed to make anything of herself,” Knight unveils the turmoil of living as a mixed-ethnic minority in a landscape full of questions and assumptions by the general public.

Over the course of writing her most recently published work, Braided Skin, released this April, Knight became clear about her identity. Feeling as though she did not have claim to her East Indian identity due to an absentee father, Knight began to take back her heritage in writing poems.

“There is no one way to define someone. We are all layered, complex, 3D in a way,” says Knight.

Identifying success

Now Knight is swooning from the accomplishment of her first published book, assured that she is fulfilling her purpose in life. With limited supply in bookstores, and a long list of holds at the Vancouver Public Library, Braided Skin is a difficult-to-get-a-hold-of, underground work of literature that encapsulates the delicacy of identity. Even the title is telling of the nature of Knight’s stories, braiding identity with always the chance of unraveling.

Knight is currently working on her second book, Dear Current Occupant, which is a loosely autobiographical story written in the form of letters, sonnets and poems. As a child, she moved to upwards of 20 different homes, and in the winter of 2013 she went back to those places to stand out front and write.

“I use the character ‘Cora-Lynn’ to speak through. She’s my vessel,” says Knight.

Her writing is meant to make the reader think about complex issues, and get clarity.

“My words will always belong to me. But when a writer hands her words over to the world, she becomes free,” says Knight.

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