Author Tags: Downtown Eastside, Fiction

A former skateboarding athlete and writer for Color magazine, Michael Christie of Galiano Island earned his MFA from Creative Writing UBC and laid the groundwork for a first collection of linked short stories, The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins 2011), about disparate lives in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. It earned him the City of Vancouver Book Prize. It was later shortlisted for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature, sponsored by both Okanagan College and BC BookWorld, long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

His second book If I Fall, If I Die (McClelland & Stewart 2015) is about a young boy embracing new-found freedom from his agoraphobe mother and the small house he shares with her. Life "Outside" as the protaganist, Will, calls it quickly grows complicated. When Will comes face to face with the criminal underbelly of city life, his mother must face her biggest fears and decide if she can be brave enough to save her son. According to the book's jacket cover, the story encompasses ideas about "family and friendship, overcoming fears, and learning when to protect the ones we love and when to let them fall."

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Beggar's Garden


The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins 2011). 9781554688296 $24.99

If I Fall, If I Die (McClelland & Stewart 2015) $29.95 978-0-7710-2365-1

[BCBW 2015] "Galiano"

Beggar's Garden

from BCBW 2001
by Cherie Thiessen

Michael Christie’s literary debut of nine stories takes you where you’ve never been before—most likely—inside dumpsters and rat-infested backyard sheds. Or outside to steal a car, or buy crack in Oppenheimer Park.

In this collection we encounter a poor sod who gets stomped in the alley for the sake of his crack pipe and a 14-year-old car thief who takes off to Kelowna with the woman who picked him up at the gas station—to mention just two of Christie’s all-to-real characters.

An MFA graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing programme, Christie has respected the adage, “Write about what you know.” He has worked in a Downtown Eastside homeless shelter and has also provided outreach to those with severe mental disorders.

This work experience explains why the mentally-challenged protagonist of his story Extra comes off so believably. But it doesn’t explain how Christie has skillfully presented the reincarnation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, now a nattily dressed gentleman in a porkpie hat. Oppenheimer, a scientist, meets up with one of the local denizens, Henry, who, in the spirit of scholarly inquiry, requires assistance in the “procurement and consumption of crack cocaine”.

Henry in Goodbye Porkpie Hat helps his neighbour out by calling 911 whenever the neighbour ODs. Henry has one sleazy basement room in an Eastside tenement, but even then thieves break in to take his old TV and a can of butts. Henry’s proud possession is a Grade 10 science text he ‘dumpstered’ two years ago. That’s how he was able to recognize Oppenheimer when he appeared at the window.

The world as seen from the inside of a dumpster, or from behind the eyes of a crack addict, is a view worth seeing because it is often surprising. The people we meet in Beggar’s Garden are surprisingly gentle, some victimized time and time again by those worse off then themselves, or simply much more intelligent.

A nameless waif on disability, in The Extra, thinks he’s teamed up with a real hero, Rick, who really helps him out, while the ‘landlord’ above him, rents him an unserviced slab of his basement. But both men prey on the mentally challenged guy for his disability pension. In earlier, kinder times, he would have been securely living in a supervised home. Now he’s out on the streets.

Not all stories in this collection are going to resonate equally. I enjoyed Christie’s ‘grimey-side’ stories much more than his tales of a condo-owning website designer who gets a dog and finds himself a new friend besides (An Ideal Companion) or the kindly retired woman who used to work in the shoe department of Woodwards but now runs a thrift shop in the Eastside (The Queen of Cans and Jars).

Similarly, I much preferred the grandfather in Discard to the bank manager of the title story (Beggar’s Garden). Somehow a widower stricken with memories of the grandson he and his deceased wife brought up and then discarded rings much truer to me than a bank manager who moves into his shed, stops going to work, creates a marketing and financial plan for a beggar, and then ultimately kicks in his front door.

But I, for one, was happy to be given the opportunity to go dumpstering without risk. I now know that dumpster has become a 21st century verb meaning to look or crawl into a large trash container for the sake of finding food, objects, or shelter.