In each issue of Capital Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, writer and multimedia artist Sandra Alland recommends Cathleen With’s Skids (Arsenal Pulp, 2006).
Short stories are the new poetry of the literary industry. People fear their unwieldiness, and no one wants to publish them because they don’t make millions. This is a particularly sad state of affairs for gay and trans people, as short fiction is a staple in communities that depend on small and unusual publications.
I’ve been racking my brain for a list of important queer Canadian collections. I came up with Marnie Woodrow’s In The Spice House, Greg Kearney’s Mommy Daddy Baby, Shani Mootoo’s Out On Main Street, Ivan E Coyote’s general storytelling genius, and Cathleen With’s Skids. With the exception of Coyote’s work, these stunning books have pretty much disappeared from the shelves. In an attempt to keep at least one of them alive, I’ve chosen the one you’re most likely to still be able to get hold of: Skids.
Skids was published in 2006 by one of the last remaining publishers of queer and trans short fiction, Arsenal Pulp Press. Cathleen With’s first book, it consists of 12 linked stories about street youth in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. Inspired by friends she met in rehab, With writes with compassion and admiration, getting into each character’s head with a palpable integrity.
The short story is a perfect location for experimentation, and With rises fearlessly to the challenge. Some stories are plot-based, whereas others focus more on character, tone or atmosphere. We get a glimpse of the variety of people who end up homeless, the pros and cons of drug treatment centres and the terror and loneliness of child sex work.
With has a knack for dialogue and the vernacular; she captures the vastly different voices of her characters with ease. A 16-year-old lesbian survives detox by creating elaborate fantasies about a woman she has never spoken to. A 14-year-old girl and her brother dream of their escape from a travelling freak show. The son of a trans woman hospitalized for kidney failure contemplates organ donation. A 10-year-old girl counters the horror of gang rape with an image of two men she saw making love in the woods.
The links between stories are subtle at first. Wasn’t that character two stories ago also named Jesse? Could it be the same person at a different time? These connections become clearer as the book progresses, and we find clues about where certain characters come from or end up. In the first story, Jesse is in detox, and in another she’s cleaned up and working two jobs. In yet another story, we gain some perspective on why she may have turned to drugs in the first place.
The reappearance of characters throughout the book gives it the feeling of a novel, but one where plot is not the focus. Instead, we get the impression of a large and complexly connected community, of parallel struggles for survival, of the messiness and strange serendipity of life. Jesse is a touchstone through whom With skillfully channels a sense of balance and hope.
Skids is not a light read, but an excellent one — particularly important for its rare focus on queers and class. With manages to examine difficult subject matter without sensationalism and with an adequate dose of humour. Above all, she creates characters who haven’t given up, who still believe in their own worth and dream of a better life.