Where they Wrote

I have this fascination with where writers lived—it is as if seeing where they dwelt, called home, and took up a pen and paper gives remarkable insight into the words they wrote and helps me understand them a little better. I like to know the space they were inspired in—and, I’m sure, equally struggled in, fighting the demons of distraction and a blank page.

This was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village — just a sliver of a building between the two trees. According to my NYC guidebook, “rising real-estate prices inspired the construction of this house—the city’s narrowest house at just 91/2 feet wide—in 1873.” Millay was an American writer best known for her poetry–perhaps you’ve come across this sonnet before?

Sonnet XLIII

What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply,

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone,

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

The oval plaque on the brick exterior above the door reads,

The irreverent poet, who wrote “my candle burns at both ends” lived here in 1923-24 at the time she wrote the “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Staying in New York and the same time period, I’ll show you another literary abode—that of American author John Steinbeck famous for The Grapes of Wrath (for which he also won a Pulitzer Prize) and Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck lived at 38 Gramercy Park from 1925 to 1926 where he apparently struggled as a reporter for a New York newspaper.

Moving to Canada and the West Coast now, I’ll take you to two places Vancouver author Wayson Choy lived in on Keefer Street when his family first arrived from China. The mixed-use space on the left consists of a grocery store on the bottom and a Taoist church on top. As it was cramped, his family shortly moved to the house on the right in a more residential section of Keefer Street. The house has been dramatically fixed-up since the time he lived here, and he didn’t do his writing there, but still, visiting these sites helped me better understand his characters who grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s that he describes in his book All that Matters and that I analyzed in my master’s essay. Space played such a big role in forming the characters’ friendships and sense of community.

Sneak preview of next week’s entry — I’ll invite you into one of my former writing spaces (where I wrote about said spaces above), so check back later!

Maybe the Grass Really is Greener When you Cross the Fence (or Porch)

It’s crazy how one evening takes you from 2011 to 2012, and yet time feels no different. All that has changed is signing the date with a 2 at the end of the year instead of a 1, which always takes a little while to get the hang of.

New Year’s Eve is a liminal or in-between time, on the cusp of two different years. Thinking about liminality brings me back to 2011 where I spent the majority of the year reading, researching, and writing about liminality – not in temporal terms, but spatial ones in the city.

Part of my Master’s essay discussed the role of liminal or threshold spaces in shaping characters and community. In Wayson Choy’s fictional novel All that Matters, which narrates the challenges of a Chinese family settling in Vancouver’s racialized Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s, porches play a surprisingly major role in fostering encounters and even friendships between characters of different ethnicities, such as the Chinese boy Kiam-Kim and his Irish neighbour Jack. You can tell why when you look at the spatial proximity of these Chinatown houses and their porches:

While maybe some people don’t like being that close to their neighbours, I’ve lived in a couple of apartment buildings over the years and have regretted the fact that I didn’t even know my neighbours – let alone their names – and here we were living in the same community! Sadly, I didn’t make that much of an effort either. I’m not saying space or design necessarily solve the problem of parochial living, but they certainly help foster neighbourly interaction.

I think it’s a shame that in the post-war era of suburban sprawl, patios replaced porches. Why? Richard Harris explains: “After the austerity of the post-war years, houses and lots soon expanded. As family life turned inwards towards the backyard and the rec room, porches lost their purpose.” Patios are accessed by going through or around to the back of the house. They don’t face the street, unlike porches, which, as a result, have more potential for creating a dynamic street life. The patio is a retreat; the porch is an invitation to meet passers-by, extend a greeting, and maybe even strike up a conversation.

Porch on a Chinatown house in Vancouver

Suburban House in North Van with a Patio

We’ve all heard it said that good fences make good neighbours, but I would challenge that maxim by saying fences don’t make neighbours at all, especially if you never cross them and meet the people with who you share a border.

Why are we so content to stay in our safe bubbles and not to reach out to the “other”? Do we really have so much, if anything, to lose? On the contrary, urban theorist Richard Sennett thinks we have everything to gain:

“We need to see differences on the streets or in other people neither as threats nor as sentimental invitations, rather as necessary visions. They are necessary for us to learn how to navigate life with balance, both individually and collectively.”

This would be a good New Year’s resolution actually, for myself and for others (if you’re the New Year’s resolution type): Get to know your neighbours this year. Cross that fence. See what happens.