Dear Current Occupant is a memoir by Chelene Knight, a Canadian writer, and it is a mixture of different forms. There are essays, poems, and letters, all telling the autobiographic story of her childhood. Her unique style invites the reader to get absorbed into her writing, empathizing with her experiences. It is a second book published by this author: her first one, Braided Skin, was dedicated to depicting the challenges of mixed ethnicity. While Dear Current Occupant also draws to a certain extent on this topic, Knight explores many other important issues in this book.
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She was born in Vancouver and spent her childhood in the city’s Downtown Eastside, moving from one house to another with her younger brother and mother, who suffered from drug addiction and was engaged in sex work. In her second book, Knight describes the houses she stayed in in the form of letters addressed to their current occupants, looking back on her experiences there (Knight, 2018). Her father was never in the picture, though she describes a visit to his house – he had another family, a good house, a wife, two younger children. He was of East Indian-Ugandan origin; her mother was African-American. This made her question her racial identification prompting her to delve into these topics in Braided Skin. In the Prologue and Endnotes of Dear Current Occupant, she also refers to these challenges.
There are several central topics Knight explores in the book. One of them is her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, a drug addict, and a sex worker. Knight seems angry and sad, and disappointed, and wishes her mother another fate. “I looked over at her, imagined her to be incredibly cultured, with white pearls around her neck. She’d have a husband. Suit and tie” – she recalls (Knight, 2018, p. 77). She also wishes another fate to herself – having a mother like everyone else’s. At the same time, Knight cannot help but care – she almost feels responsible for her mother (revealing the lack of a proper childhood). She is constantly afraid that her mother would do something to herself or that she would never come back. In Dear Current Occupant, Knight also depicts the challenges of her origin. She emphasizes that she never had a role model – a strong African-American or mixed-raced woman, so she did not know how to become one. Knight draws the reader’s attention to the fact that there were no Black or mixed-raced teachers in schools she attended.
These themes are connected to the most important topic of the book – belonging, or lack thereof. Knight’s family moved frequently, so there was no place she could call home. She felt unwelcome and out of place in her father’s house; her mother was unable to take responsibility and be there for her. Her mixed ethnical background made her feel excluded. This experience continues to haunt her – she describes being told that she is not Black enough at an event she was invited to as a guest reader. Therefore, growing up, she had no house, no race, and no family she could belong to. She did not even belong to herself since she had to follow her mother from one place to another. Thus, she had to reclaim herself. Knight writes about leaving her mother’s house, refusing to share her fate. Among other things, this book can prompt people to appreciate the privilege of having a home and a supportive family. It may also inspire since it depicts Knight’s refusal to follow in her mother’s footsteps, building a life for herself and finding her voice.
There are many other important issues raised in this book. It may make people with adverse childhood experiences, who had to grow up too early, feel that they are visible, and their stories are worth telling. It also touches upon important social issues, such as neglected children nobody asking the right questions and lack of Black and mixed-raced role models. Therefore, it can be an interesting and inspiring read for people of different backgrounds.
Knight, C. (2018). Dear current occupant. Book*hug.