Family. At the most visceral level, our lives and our stories are all about family. The family we hate. The family we leave behind. The family we wish would just shut up. It’s all there, in everything we are and in everything we write.
When I began writing The End of East, I was only 24. I moved out of my mother’s house at 22, came back and then moved out again as I was starting to shape my first novel. What I was leaving–the house I grew up in, the framed photographs of my sisters and me as children and then awkwardly bespectacled teenagers, the garden my father tended as he was dying of cancer–was paramount in my mind. It’s no mistake that The End of East is about the irrevocable ties of family. Even as I was moving out of my childhood bedroom, the room itself was still wrapped like twine around my head.
As the novel grew, I kept going back to one family story in particular. My grandfather, when he first came to Canada, left his wife in their home village. He visited every few years, almost always conceiving a child before he returned to Vancouver. In 1951, after the Second World War and after Chinese Canadians were given the right to apply for citizenship, he sent for my father who was 15 years old. They had never met. They began living together in a single room apartment in Chinatown. By the time I was born, I never heard them have a single conversation. It was if they couldn’t even see each other.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Springhouse and Powell Place, theBloom Group‘s two shelters for women and children. There were many things about both shelters that touched me (not least the nursing pads and breast pumps in the supply room, which reminded me that very small babies are part of the homelessness issue), but the one that struck me the most is thatSpringhouse is the only women’s shelter in Vancouver that accepts male children over the age of 12.
I have a son. I have three nephews. Thirteen-year-old boys are children. My father, when he was separated from his mother at the age of 15 and sent on a boat to live with the father he had never met, was forced to navigate a life shaped by adults and governments who expected him to act like the adult he hadn’t become yet. And, as a result, his relationship with father grew into a silent, brooding cloud that seemed to follow both of them everywhere.
At Springhouse, these boys can stay with their mothers, can have the space to be themselves in a place that is safe and homey. They don’t have to enter foster care. They can be with their mothers and siblings. It’s so simple, but it’s perfect and what they need.
There’s a part of me that wonders what would have happened if my father had come to Canada with his mother, if my grandfather had never left China, or if these two men could have pushed over the barriers that separated one from the other. Maybe then we would have grown up being close to my grandfather instead of ignoring him like my father did. Maybe then my grandfather wouldn’t have died only one year after my father. Maybe then The End of East would be a different story–just as grounded in family, but different.
The boys at Springhouse have the opportunity to rewrite their own stories. And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.