Montreal Gazette Live Chat

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I hope some of you will join me tomorrow online with the Montreal Gazette at noon for a live chat about my book, With a Closed Fist!

Check it out!

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From the Montréal Gazette:

Making a Point about poverty

By David Johnston

There had been rumours that people were going to crash Kathy Dobson’s book launch Nov. 4 at St. Columba House in Point St. Charles to express indignation over the way they had heard she portrays growing up in the Point a generation ago in her new memoir, With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood. But it turned out to be a pleasant event, she says.

“I heard those rumours too, that some people were deeply offended that I had misrepresented life in the Point,” says Dobson, now 51 and living in Waterloo, Ont. “I think this speaks to an issue – the way we tend to romanticize poverty. That’s why I wanted to do this book – to show the ugly side of poverty.”

Dobson will be participating in a live online chat with me at noon today at montrealgazette.com. On Sunday, she is scheduled to appear at the Books & Breakfast event at the downtown Le Centre Sheraton.

A review of With a Closed Fist, by The Gazette’s Peggy Curran, was published in the Oct. 22 Books section; Curran called it “Angela’s Ashes on Centre St., without the laughs.”

After the review appeared, The Gazette received several letters to the editor defending life in the Point. Pat Digman Reff, who left the neighbourhood in 1960, wrote from Campbellsville, Ky., that Dobson shouldn’t “make it out that the Point was a tough neighbourhood. It was a good place to grow up, and even after 50 years many of us still keep in touch and have good and happy lives.” Another letter-writer said: “I am proud to have grown up in the Point. I have never been ashamed of it.” And still another wrote of “the hard-working, loving people I grew up with” in the neighbourhood.

For her part, Dobson says she shares the letter-writers’ view that the Point was a good place to grow up, in spite of the district’s disadvantaged conditions.

“If I had to grow up all over again poor – and I’ve said this over and over – I would want to do that in the Point. It was a very connected community,” she says.

Gentrification has given the Point, or at least parts of it, a fresh new look in recent years. Many older buildings have been turned into condos and lofts, including old factory buildings along the Lachine Canal.

“The buildings have changed, but in terms of the people, I’m not an expert on the Point today, but I walked around before my book launch and the people looked a lot like the people I knew growing up,” Dobson says.

Her memoir is written in the present tense, in Dobson’s own voice as she is growing up. It begins in 1968, when she is 8 years old and living with her five sisters and her mother, Eileen. It is through Eileen’s relationship with well-meaning, left-leaning social workers and medical students from McGill University, whom Eileen meets at St Columba House, that she becomes politicized puts Kathy and her two older sisters into public schools in Westmount.

“I went to Westmount Park School, and then Westmount High,” says Dobson. She left Montreal at age 22, returned at age 24, then left again at age 30. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and blogger and is a married mother of five.

With a Closed Fist isn’t the only English-language book that has come out this year that puts a focus on poverty in Montreal several decades ago. In Montreal’s Irish Mafia: The True Story of the Infamous West End Gang, author D’Arcy O’Connor describes how young families of Irish origin in Griffintown used to look to Point St. Charles as a step up in the world.

“I used to hear that, too,” says Dobson. “Just like Verdun was seen as a step up from the Point. In fact, I ended up marrying a guy from Verdun.”

“So you married up, then?” I say to her over the phone.

“Well, that’s what my husband keeps telling me.”

An open letter to the people of Point St. Charles

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

30 Days

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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!”

-Kathy