Writer finds her voice and shares her story as a published poet
Chelene Knight. Photo by Greg Ehlers.
“That’s what I want to do—share something and have somebody say it helped them in a positive way. That’s amazing.”
It took Chelene Knight a while to be comfortable calling herself a writer. You could say she’s now making up for lost time. While she always knew she wanted to write, the hardworking single mom didn’t give herself the chance to pursue her passion until she joined The Writer’s Studio (TWS) at SFU. With one book published (Braided Skin, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015) and another on the way (Dear Current Occupant, to be published by BookThug) today Chelene wholeheartedly embraces the career she always wanted. Fully immersed in the literary world, she also serves as managing editor for Room magazine and poetry editor for emerge, the TWS student anthology. Having focused on poetry in her first TWS experience, Chelene is now rejoining the program to try her hand at fiction.
We sat down with Chelene to chat about her experience in The Writer’s Studio, what inspires her, and some of her goals for the future:
Chelene, have you always wanted to be a writer?
Always did. It’s so cool, you want to be something when you’re a kid and then, look, you’re doing it. It feels amazing. And when I was younger I was told I couldn’t do it, which makes it even sweeter. Some of my family said, “What are you ever going to write? You can’t write a book.” And now I have a book, and when I held it, it was pretty amazing.
You got published quite quickly. How did that happen?
I think I had the book contract before I finished the program. Within two weeks of me sending it to Mother Tongue, the publisher sent me an email saying she loves the manuscript and wants to take more time with it over the holidays. So after Christmas she let me know that, yes, she wants to publish it. It was the best day.
How did you feel writing the first book compared to the second book?
Writing the first book was easier, because I had the support of The Writer’s Studio. I had that structure in place. I had someone pretty much always asking, “What did you write today?” And we had to share a lot of our pieces. Dear Current Occupant was written 100% on my own, so I felt like it was a lot harder. I did workshop a lot of the pieces, but it was just a big struggle for me to get it out. And because it was so personal, sometimes I’d have to stop for months and put it away and then go back to it again. It was a different process but it was also amazing.
Was The Writer’s Studio program what you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect going in, and orientation day was pretty eye-opening. Everyone was sharing their experience, their educational backgrounds, and you would hear some people were already lawyers, they were doctors, they had their MFAs already. I didn’t have any of that. So right away I was intimidated, like, is this the right spot? Am I supposed to be here? But I think because of that I was a little bit hungrier. I wanted to absorb everything I could.
How was it for you going back to school?
The program gave me structure in a super supportive environment. It was also nice that it was part-time, because I’m a single parent. That was a big pressure, but I found out there were other single parents in the program, so I could relate to people immediately. I was worried it was going to be a bunch of young folks who are just doing this to kill time, and I’m taking it so seriously. It actually worked out really well. It was a good mix of people in their sixties, their twenties, thirties, mid-career. A really diverse group of people.
What did you gain throughout the program? How did it help prepare you?
The Reading Series was my first real introduction to sharing my work with an audience, which was terrifying. But had I not done that, I don’t think I would be where I am right now. You have to do interviews if your book comes out. You have to do a whole bunch of press stuff. So they include that focus in the program, but they don’t pressure you, and I think that’s nice.
What was your biggest challenge and how did you navigate it?
I had two major issues and one of them was I felt I didn’t have enough experience to contribute to conversations. A lot of the discussion would often be on writers I hadn’t read or heard of. So that was a big struggle. I also felt like a few people were too advanced for the program. But then I thought, I can just learn something from them. So I kind of latched onto those people. I overcame that fear of not feeling good enough by just absorbing more. I felt like if I didn’t know something I just asked more questions, and people were so willing to give me answers. They didn’t feel like I wasn’t good enough to be there, and that was really key for me.
Do you still keep in touch with your classmates?
We’re all still really close, and I think that’s the best thing—having that sense of community that doesn’t end when TWS is over. You take that with you if you choose to. So when you have success you can share it. It’s really nice.
Who have been some of your writing influences?
I have a few writers I always go back to. Toni Morrison is one. I think she’s in her 80s now and her writing just keeps getting better. You know you can’t really run out of steam unless you choose to. And Jamaica Kincaid is pretty amazing. Music also inspires me a lot.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your writing?
Being able to share my experience and then have someone come up to me and say I’ve helped them in some way. The last time that happened I was doing a reading and I was talking about my book Braided Skin. I got really deep into the poems about hair and ethnicity, and afterwards one girl came up to me and said, “It’s like you told my story.” And I thought, yes, that’s what I want to do—share something and have somebody say it helped them in a positive way. That’s amazing. You can’t put a price tag on that.
What projects are you working on now?
I am in The Writer's Studio again working on a novel. It's set in the 1940s–1960s in the Strathcona neighbourhood, back when there was a large Black community in Vancouver. It's about an artist and how she navigates her life while trying to find her footing in her own family, community, and within herself.
How would you describe your goals for the future?
One of my biggest goals is to teach writing at some point. I want to work with youth. I feel like if I had had some mentorship as a teenager, I would have been writing earlier, instead of waiting until my 30s. Just looking back three years ago, if I had set these goals for myself that I’ve already achieved, I would’ve said there’s no way in hell I’m going do any of this. When I start feeling like I can’t do any more, I look back and think, ‘Look what you’ve done in a few years, of course you can do more!’ So I have to keep reminding myself that it’s all possible, and it’s good to have these goals. No matter how big they are, you can get there.
Chelene Knight. Photo by Greg Ehlers.
More about Chelene
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading six different books at once, because that’s how I read. I’m reading a couple of poetry books. I’m reading Jennifer Zilm’s book again, Waiting Room. I just started Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Love, and a few non-fiction books. It’s nice to have a book in every room—you go in and read a bit, you get bored and switch to something else.
Morning person or night person?
Night person, definitely. Mornings are tough. You’re not allowed to talk to me if I haven’t had a coffee when I get up. When my daughter was younger she would come into my room and just stare at me. I could feel her staring and not saying anything, and then I would wake up. But now we’re the same. She doesn’t like to be woken up either. So we wake up in the morning, we don’t talk, we just grunt and walk past each other. Give us an hour and then we’re okay.
If you could have a drink with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Does it have to be someone inspiring or writerly? Because then I would probably just say Tom Hardy.
You said music inspires you. What sort of music are you into?
I’m into ’90s R&B, a lot of the soulful stuff. I’ve been listening to Lauryn Hill since I was a teenager. I pull a lot of my writing from music lyrics.
So besides your very obvious talents, do you have any hidden talents?
I did a lot of hip-hop and reggae dancing when I was younger. I love dancing, and I think I’m pretty good. And cooking. I actually went into culinary arts after high school, but I didn’t finish because everything they were teaching I already knew.