Sharing Secrets

Last Friday I was in Montreal attending the launch of my book, “With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood.” Today I’m back in Waterloo, sitting at my kitchen table, and chewing my nails.

Within the next few days I expect to get a sense of how the people of the Point feel about the book. Do they hate it? Did it make them laugh? How many saw their own story in some of the details of mine?

For many of us who grew up in Point St. Charles, the Point remains a special place and feelings can run deep if we think someone is misrepresenting ‘our’ neighbourhood. Or telling secrets.

I admit, my book is filled with secrets, including a few ugly ones. So I understand that some people might prefer I had remained silent and just kept my mouth shut. The truth is like that sometimes. It makes people uncomfortable. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that secrets are bad. Especially those secrets we sometimes ask children to keep.

I hope everyone who reads my book from Point St. Charles loves it. But I don’t expect that of course, and nor do I require it. Just the fact that the book is now out there means I’ve already achieved a really important goal. I’ve given that kid in the book a voice.

You might not like what she has to say. But I’m glad she’s finally being able to say it. Today she is no longer invisible.


An open letter to the people of Point St. Charles

After this review of my book recently appeared in the Montreal Gazette, I understand that a lot of people from the Point are upset with me. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them. If I believed every word in that review, I’d probably be deeply offended as well.

I mean, how could they know that the book is written in the voice of an eight-year-old child, with that child’s limited point of view, ending when that child is still only a teenager in high school? Since they haven’t, you know, actually read the book?

Okay, maybe I would have actually read the book first before threatening to pull my support from Saint Columba House, a non-profit organization in the Point which has been dedicated to making an enormous difference in the lives of countless families for decades now, if they continue to allow my book launch to happen there as planned for November 4th.

But I also understand that feelings can run deep when it comes to many of us who grew up (and still live) in Point St. Charles.

Yet as I recently said during an interview with a writer from Maisonneuve magazine, if I had to grow up poor anywhere, the Point was the best place.  I mean, where else could you have watched a hockey game while walking home, as I often did as a kid, on all of those small TVs perched on chairs on the sidewalks?

I think we all know that terrible things can happen to people no matter where they live. And as I believe I made clear in my book, the ‘enemy’ isn’t Point St. Charles. Of course it isn’t. The enemy is poverty, and what happens when people are powerless, lack hope, and have no voice.

Of course, not everyone growing up in Point St Charles in the 60s and early 70s felt powerless, lacked hope, or were filled with shame over the secrets they were forced to keep as a child. And if my adult self could go back in time, I would tell my eight-year-old self that yes, some people in the Point actually were eating oranges. But that’s the funny thing with children, they believe that what they live is a mirror of the rest of the world. As adults, we know that about kids. I figure everyone who reads my book will also figure that out, too.

I expect, and have always expected, that not everyone will like, agree with, or approve of my book. I’ve never claimed, nor am I promising now, that no one will be offended by what I have to say. But what I have also always been clear about, including in the book, is that this is only one person’s story, and a very personal one at that. I would never presume to speak for anyone else.


Now on Twitter!

I’ve finally stepped out of my learning-curve-phobia zone and created a Twitter account! Well technically my daughter did, but I’ll be tweeting updates on my book’s release, book tour dates and other information about With a Closed Fist.

“With a Closed Fist” a staff favourite with Literary Press Group of Canada

With a Closed Fist has been called a staff favourite by the Literary Press Group (LPG) of Canada! Here’s what they had to say:

“A very good memoir is Kathy Dobson’s With A Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood (from Montreal’s Vehicule Press)This title is a staff favourite here at the LPG. Dobson, a CBC reporter, tells very candidly, from the perspective of her young teenage self, a wrenching, sad and also at times hilarious story of living in Montreal’s Pointe St-Charles (“The Point”) with her mother, five sisters and part-time father, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Amidst poverty, squalor, violence, and sexual abuse, the only things that matter are the bond between sisters and the fight for a better life: it’s a fight that Kathy’s mother saw as the only chance to give her daughters a better future, but also to give hope to a whole neighbourhood.”


To read the whole article by LPG on Fall 2011 must-reads from Canadian authors, click here.


Advance review of “With a Closed Fist”

The Montreal Review of Books has written an advance review of With a Closed Fist. 






With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood 

Back to the Point – Reviewed by Anna Leventhal


A current Montreal real estate website describes Point St. Charles as an up-and-coming neighbourhood, a good bet for potential property owners, and an opportunity for “more house for your money!” The irony is surely not lost on writer and journalist Kathy Dobson, whose memoir With A Closed Fist recalls a time when the Point was the last place anyone would willingly choose to settle. In the 1960s and 1970s, “Canada’s toughest neighbourhood” was neglected, disenfranchised, and prone to outbreaks of fire, roaches, and gangs of kids warring over territory. It was also Dobson’s childhood home. It was where her mother became politicized over her family’s abysmal living conditions, and where a young Kathy and her five sisters would regularly be recruited for lie-ins on the street and protests against an indifferent city hall.


With A Closed Fist is a kind of grassroots history of a time and place fast disappearing. Condo developments and gentrification are changing the face of Point St. Charles, from a one-time working-class slum and literal dump into the kind of place that gives developers a particular eye-gleam: it’s cheap, “authentic,” au courant, and, most importantly, marketable. But Dobson’s book records a much different transformation.As Kathy fights with an oblivious teacher over a school uniform she can’t afford, the women of the Point hold protests outside the school board office to get their kids better educations; as Kathy explores an abandoned building where the roaches form “a large wiggling carpet,” her mom joins an Informed Citizens group and meets with social work students from McGill to teach them how to listen to the poor. The memoir chronicles a true people’s movement, one that led to the autonomous Community Clinic being created to serve the neighbourhood, and Kathy and other Point kids being allowed to attend better schools in Westmount.


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Dobson doesn’t write as an adult looking back on childhood with the insight of experience, but “straight up, in my own voice, as a kid growing up in the Point.” For the most part, younger Kathy’s voice is strikingly believable: candid, scornful, funny, unadorned with the sentimentalism or preciousness some writers feel toward their younger selves. It reads like fiction. She speaks with the same frankness whether she deals with sexual abuse and near-starvation or talks about pranking the neighbours, hiding from the bailiff, and falling into a seething stew of cockroaches. Her harshest stories lack the gravity that more decorous, middle-class approaches to dire circumstance seem to require, and the effect is unsettling.


Dobson illustrates class tensions shrewdly. She shows how poor kids who get rerouted to middle-class schools or neighbourhoods don’t become middle-class by association – there are still and always deep divisions that isolate Kathy and the other Point kids from their peers at Westmount High. She systematically avoids the heartwarming tropes of the coming- of-age story.The charming teacher, the kindhearted social worker, the prospect of a new job all fail to transform Kathy from a troubled, shiftless kid to a self-actualizing, stable grown-up; unlike an after-school special, there are no sim- ple solutions here.The one exception is the book’s ending, which feels like a breathless rush to deliverance. It’s like Dobson ran out of time and had to engineer a boyfriend ex machina so we’d be able to sleep at night. It’s a little disappointing for a book that otherwise avoids easy answers, and whose struggle is of a neighbour- hood as much as a single person.


With A Closed Fist shares the time and place of David Fennario’s groundbreaking 1979 play Balconville, and the two works have a close sensibility. In 2005, Fennario revisited his setting and characters in Condoville, where the changes to the neighbourhood play out in tensions between the older residents and the new, gentrifying class, represented by a mixed-race gay couple. It’s a complicated dynamic, between those whose hard-won victories are under threat and those with their own struggles to find a tolerant space. But personal differences fall away in the face of structural inequality. A system that bars the poor from controlling their own possibilities will never serve anyone well, not even those who, at first, seem to prosper from it.


In one passage, Kathy’s mother Eileen speaks to the student social workers from McGill gathered at her kitchen table:


“You’re being taught to tell us, preach to us, how to fix our problems,” Mom says, “instead of asking us, the real experts…. Don’t tell me how to fix my problem – first we need to find a common ground….We need to find a common language.”

After all Eileen’s agitation, passion, and community organizing, it’s sad to think that her dream of a common language is as elusive as ever. At the very least, this memoir is a powerful tribute to her and a reminder of how difficult and essential is the work of speaking, and listening.


Anna Leventhal is a writer living in Montreal











The journey of writing my first book: Part 1

I’ve learned a lot during this long journey of writing my first book and finally having it published. And there have been lots of surprises along the way. For example, I thought the hardest part would be…well, actually writing the book.

Boy, was I wrong.

The world of publishing holds many of its own unique challenges and, as I’ve recently learned, writing the book is actually only the first step. Once you finish bleeding all over the page, next you need to find an agent, followed by a publisher.

Oh, and then the real funs starts, the most important stage of all:  finding your readers. Because of course, without readers, what’s the point? I’m not one of those writers who writes just for myself. Yes, I know there are plenty of writers who do just that, saying they aren’t necessarily interested in a wider audience for their work. They write simply for the pure joy of…ahem, writing.

I admit, I write to be read. I need to feel connected to a reader. I need to believe that someone, somewhere, is eventually going to read my words. And although my ideal reader is one who also likes, hell, maybe even loves what I’ve written, it isn’t a necessity for me to write.

I just need to be read.


“With a Closed Fist” is at the printers!

My publisher will be getting my book back from the printers on October 27th! Whew. I was getting a little worried that it wouldn’t be printed in time before the book’s launch in Montreal on November 4th!

For anyone who already pre-ordered the book from Amazon or Chapters online, I’m sorry for the delay. I know it was claiming the book would be available on the 1st of October, but now it’s more like the end of October. So thank you to everyone for all of your patience, I really appreciate it.

I can’t wait to finally hold that baby in my hands. It really does feel a little like giving birth.

Okay, having giving birth to actual real babies at least a couple of times, that’s not quite true, heh. But still….


Book Launch Announcement in Globe & Mail

Here is the ad that will be running in the October issue of the Montreal Review of Books. It will be inserted in Quebec edition of the Globe & Mail, and the Ottawa edition too. With a Closed Fist hits bookstores November 1st. Don’t miss the official book launch!



Friday November 4, 2011

Saint Columba House

2365 Grand Trunk, Montreal



30 Days

If everything goes according to plan, in less than 30 days, I should be finally holding an official published copy of my book, With a closed fist: Growing up in Canada’s toughest Neighbourhood. 

Now I’m starting to think about the fact that other people, including complete strangers, will soon be reading my words about growing up in the Point. It feels scary and exciting and unbelievable, all at the same time. What will people think of it? How will my readers react? I can’t help but cringe a bit at the thought of certain people, like the newspaper and magazine editors I work for, reading about some of my most embarrassing, even humiliating, moments from when I was a kid.

But more importantly, I hope that if anyone from Point St. Charles reads my book, they’ll be proud to be able to say, “Hey, I grew up there, too!”