In a community where women are often isolated and marginalized, creative writing group offers friendship, support and solace
BY LAURA KANE, VANCOUVER SUN SEPTEMBER 17, 2011 4:03 AM
For one woman living in the Downtown Eastside, reading and writing are more than just hobbies. They're the key to survival.
A lifelong reader and writer, Anne-Marie Monks poured her emotions into a journal after a 1987 mugging that sent her life spiralling downhill. Reading a battered book of poetry and Bible verses became her only escape.
After the mugging, which left her in a coma for four months and shattered her hip, she was evicted from her home.
She began living on the streets of Vancouver's most troubled neighbourhood, surrounded by drug addiction, mental illness and the sex trade. The damage to her hip left her hobbling on crutches.
"I had nothing left," she said. "I was really depressed and felt like life wasn't worth living."
It was her journal and her reading that saved her.
"I think it's my lifeline. I couldn't live without books. They take my books away, I would die."
She began advocating for women's rights in the Downtown Eastside and speaking at missing women's marches. She even reunited with her estranged son after he saw her on the news.
Monks said speaking on behalf of other women gave her the courage to carry on.
"All of a sudden, it's not just me. There are other women worse off," she said. "If I can put my little voice out there, if I can make it better for somebody else, why not do it?" Now, the 64-year-old Monks is a core member of Intrepid Pens, a writing and book club for women in the Downtown Eastside. Women meet weekly to discuss literature and share their own writing.
Monks said the group offers her some solace from her "jail cell" in the Portland Hotel. Recently she wrote a poem called I am a rock, about a stone tumbling down a hill.
"A rock is something solid, which I would like to be. It's a survivor," she said. "It rolls down the hill, getting smaller and more banged up, but it still battles on."
TELLING STORIES, CHANGING LIVES
Every member of Intrepid Pens has a story to tell.
There's Ghia Aweida, who spent hours in the Vancouver Public Library to escape her troubles at home. Shurli Chan, who found she could write creatively after working for years as a biochemist. Sandra Pronteau, who went back to school after raising four children.
Sharing those stories can change lives, says Intrepid Pens founder Amanda Grondahl.
"When we write and share our stories, people are stripped bare. In that position, you open up yourself to receive support that might not have come if you hadn't been so vulnerable," she said.
Grondahl was working as a freelance writer and editor when she offered her services to organizations in the Downtown Eastside three years ago. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre asked her to teach a business-writing seminar, which eventually morphed into a book club.
Intrepid Pens quickly grew from two members to a group of 14 or so regulars. Last month, they moved from the Women's Centre to the W2 Media Café in the Woodward's building.
Members range from age 18 to 86. Some have university educations, while one woman in her 60s was illiterate before joining the club, Grondahl said. In a community that is often marked by isolation, women in the group listen to and support each other, says Grondahl.
"It takes courage to tell your story, but also to listen, to say, 'I know how you feel, I've been there.'" Maggie de Vries knows the danger of isolation in the Downtown Eastside. Her sister Sarah de Vries disappeared in 1998. Robert Pickton was charged with her murder in 2005 after her DNA was found on his farm.
"Part of the reason she died was because of that marginalization, because we as a society aren't able to hear the voices of women like my sister," said de Vries. "Therefore many people can disappear and the powers that be don't take action."
De Vries, a creative writing professor at the University of B.C., published dozens of her sister's poems, diary entries and sketches in her 2003 book Missing Sarah.
"Sharing Sarah's voice was a way of showing people who she was," de Vries said. "We are just filled as a society, especially with street-level sex workers, with stereotypes. I knew that if people could hear Sarah, that would help."
De Vries often reads to book clubs in the Downtown Eastside, including Intrepid Pens. She said the groups empower women through literacy.
"[Reading and writing] are at the heart of how we as humans express the deepest parts of ourselves," she said.
"For women in a marginalized community to have those opportunities, it's potentially life-changing."
Members of Intrepid Pens said meeting de Vries was especially poignant.
"Many in the group knew Sarah," said Shurli Chan, 62. "There's trauma being brought out again and again, but it's become therapeutic for the women."
Intrepid Pens recently became a registered charity. Donations and volunteers are necessary for the group to survive, Grondahl said.
The group's new space at W2 includes a printing press, which members hope to use to publish a collection of their work. Now, their writing is published on the Intrepid Pens blog.
But in the meantime, Intrepid Pens members continue to meet every Saturday and learn a little bit more about themselves each time.
"That's the extraordinary thing about it," said Chan. "It even surprises me some of the things that just come out. 'Oh, is that what I wrote? Thank you, Amanda.'"
WRITING BY THE WOMEN OF INTREPID PENS
You Are Here
Where ever you have been in the past, All memories still intact brings us all to where we are at Not yet to pass.
Yesterday has but past us away and tomorrow has not appeared over the horizon to as today is God's gift to where we are at[: ] The present.
- Debbie Louise James, who died Aug. 31, 2011 at age 46.
Read more women's writing at http://intrepidpensreadingandwritingsociety.wordpress.com
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