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Going beyond words

Chatelaine Magazine

Author Maggie de Vries couldn't save her sister, Sarah – a sex worker and drug addict – but her unique book club is now helping the friends Sarah left behind

My sister, sarah, started running away from home when she was 13 years old. The first time, she was gone for days, and our family couldn't believe what was happening. I was away at university in Montreal, but I will never forget my fear and the phone calls from my parents, desperate with pain and worry. By the time she was 20, Sarah was living in Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, she was addicted to heroin, and for years, she had been selling sex to survive. Eight years later, on April 14, 1998, our family's worst fears were realized when Sarah disappeared from the corner of Princess and Hastings Streets, just a few steps from where she lived. So began a journey for me that is far from over. I postered the neighbourhood. I talked to the media. I helped organize a memorial for all the women who were missing. But I did not find my sister, nor did I learn what had happened to her. Then, in August 2002, our family finally received the news that Sarah's DNA had been found on Robert Pickton's property in Port Coquitlam, about half an hour east of where she was last seen. Another three years passed before Pickton was charged with her murder and those of several other women, bringing the total charges against him to 27. Now the families and friends of all of the women await the outcome of the trial.

For me, though, waiting for a trial has not been enough. My sister's murder changed me, and all that I have seen and learned since her death has changed me further. Most important for me now is connecting with my sister's world, something that might have changed everything if I'd done it while she was alive.

Sarah came into our family when she was 11 months old, and she struggled with being of mixed race in a predominantly white neighbourhood. At school, she experienced racism, even violence. She also struggled with issues of abandonment – she'd been given up for adoption by her mother – and she had a tough time with our parents' separation, which happened when she was only nine. I think once Sarah was living downtown, she felt the kindest way to deal with her family and friends living "normal" lives was to leave us alone. Maybe she felt she could somehow erase herself from our lives.

I believe my sister wanted to see me even though it hurt her, even though she wrote that seeing family members made her feel seven years old. And I wanted to see her, even though I didn't very often. I didn't want to know her life. I didn't want to see the people she lived with and among. When I did look, I saw misery, not human beings, and I saw what I felt were the forces that kept my sister from her family and from what I considered to be a normal life.

After she disappeared, and while I was trying desperately to find her, I had to speak to people in her neighbourhood (reluctantly at first) and they spoke back as the fully dimensional people they were, not as misery, poverty or addiction incarnate. Then, when police and media together descended on Pickton's property, a horror show began, and suddenly the whole world was interested in the murders of these women whom I was starting to know and understand.

That was when, after much soul-searching, I decided to write a book about Sarah, with Sarah, since I had her letters, journals, art and poetry. In writing Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister, I wanted the world to consider the women as human beings rather than bits of flesh and bone – pig fodder.

I had to involve myself more deeply in Sarah's world. I joined the board of the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) Society, which helps sex workers to improve the conditions of their lives. In the months that followed, woman after woman (and several men) came forward and shared my sister's life with me.

Not long after my book came out in the summer of 2003, I dropped by the PACE offices with a copy. Several members were present, one in particular whom I had met a few times. I will call her Diane. She's strong and outspoken, and I confess that at first I was a little frightened of her, although she never gave me a reason to be. Diane asked to look at Missing Sarah, and that was the last I saw of the book for a while.

I needed it back as it was still my only copy. Each time I approached her, she looked up and grinned. "I'm on page 12," she said. And a little later, "I'm on page 30." She was working herself more and more deeply into my sister's story. I eventually gathered my nerve and asked for the book, and Diane handed it to me gamely enough, but I could tell she was frustrated at having to wait to read the rest.

Sarah's story seemed to resonate with women who knew her, who lived lives like hers. They were the most important audience, yet they were least able to obtain the book. Then my friend Mary Trentadue, who runs a bookstore in North Vancouver, asked me, "Do you think women in Sarah's community would be interested in a book club?"

That was it! Missing Sarah would be our first book and we would give out lots of copies. The PACE staff checked with the members and they were interested. Very interested. Our first meeting was set for May 25, 2004. As the hour approached, my stomach twisted and my head buzzed. When I entered the room, I was trembling. Tears welled behind my eyes. Participants had named the book club Beyond Words, and as I saw that the room was full, that's exactly how I felt.

About 30 women had gathered, and almost all of them carried Missing Sarah. They were snacking on donated food, drinking coffee and talking, settling into the space, but they paused to welcome me. One woman's gaze was particularly direct – I had met her before in the PACE offices, but I couldn't recall her name. My hands shook as I took my seat and pulled my battered copy of Missing Sarah from my bag.

Beverley Ranger, our president and a member of the Downtown Eastside community, called the first meeting of Beyond Words to order. Then I began to talk about Sarah and writing the book. I read aloud Sarah's poem that begins, "If you could look inside my mind/Would you like the woman you find?" and elaborates, "Don't look if you don't care/For you won't ever find me there." I love that poem. And this time I was reading it not to help others understand my sister, but to show I understood her and to connect with women living similar lives.

When I'd finished, woman after woman shared her story. Some of them had known Sarah and offered their memories. Some spoke about the parts of Sarah's story they found most like their own. One woman said my words made her think about her own family members; she wondered if she should call. Another woman gave me a string of beads she had made. I still have it. I was experiencing a connection I'd never felt when Sarah was alive. During a lull, the woman beside me, who had not yet spoken, leaned over and whispered that this was the first whole book she had ever read. I smiled and met her eyes and listened; I didn't know any other way to let her know what that meant to me.

Through it all, a woman to my left sat silent, the woman whose intense gaze had struck me earlier. She was tall and elegant, imposing. I had felt her eyes on me ever since I had entered the room. At last, she took her turn. She sat up even straighter in her chair, fixed her gaze on me even more firmly and drew in her breath. "My name is Stacey Grayer," she said, her accent distinctly southern. "And when I was reading Missing Sarah, I just hated you." She paused. "I just hated you," she said again. We stared at each other. I didn't know what to say. All around the room, I felt the intake of breath. "As I was reading," she continued, "I thought, Who does she think she is to tell my story?"

"Do you hate me now?" I finally managed, trying to laugh lightly, but failing miserably.

"No," she said. "Somewhere near the end, I decided you knew something. I decided to listen."

Stacey and I have been friends ever since.

An important feature of Beyond Words is that we choose the books together. We meet eight times a year for about two hours, discuss a new book each time and give out about 100 copies to be distributed throughout the Downtown Eastside. Meeting attendance ranges from 12 to 30. But much of Beyond Words is about what happens outside the room. Every time a woman in the community holds a Beyond Words book in her hands, the book club is happening. Every time two women exchange a few words about their reading, the book club is happening.

For our second meeting, in June 2004, we chose Going Down Swinging by Billie Livingston. The story is set near the Downtown Eastside and tells of a mother and daughter – poor, desperate to stay together, battling the mother's alcoholism. The author joined us for the meeting. That day, a young woman stumbled upon the group. She was homeless and pregnant, and I think she came into the room to get a sandwich. When she learned an author was present, she was transformed. She didn't know where she was going to sleep that night, but she stayed for the whole meeting. She had never met an author before and left with signed copies of Going Down Swinging and Missing Sarah. "I will remember this for the rest of my life," she said.

For a short time, she was lifted out of her troubles. That is my wish for every woman who attends Beyond Words even once, and for every woman who receives a copy of one of the books, whether or not she attends the meeting.

Beyond words members have been meeting now for nearly two years, and we've read many books. They are rich, satisfying reads that don't shy away from the darker side of life.

In between meetings, Beverley, our president, is out there in the community, distributing books and encouraging the members.

Everywhere she goes, she sees women reading the latest Beyond Words book and talking about it with others.

Some members, such as Char Wagner-LaFontaine, a long-time resident of the Downtown Eastside who knew my sister years ago, have been inspired to work on their own writing. Char has been writing for decades and has brought several of her pieces to the book club. Lately, the members have even been tossing around the idea of collecting their writing into a book to be called, of course, Beyond Words.

Still, weighing heavily on all of us at the book club is Robert Pickton's trial. We're facing it together; we understand one another's pain. I feel safe and supported when I am with them. And I hope they feel safe and supported when they are with me.

Go beyond words in your community

Why not start a book club for women where you live? Here's how

1) ESSENTIALS

First, make sure you have the following:

• A personal connection to the community you wish to help

• A sustainable way to raise money, such as through local bookstores (see below)

• Someone connected to the world of publishing and bookselling who can contact publishers and obtain large quantities of books

• A non-profit agency that can look after the money for your book club; an organization that works with the women you hope to serve would be best. Beyond Words works with Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE) Society in Vancouver.

• Someone from within the community to act as director or president (she gives out the books and runs the meetings); this can create a part-time paid position if you choose and keeps the ownership of the group within the neighbourhood

• A central, easily accessible, comfortable meeting place that allows food and beverages (food is an important element in any book club, but for homeless or poor women, it is essential). A location with easy access to the outdoors for smoke breaks is important as well.

2) FUNDING

• Approach local, independent bookstores and ask them to sell sponsorships; the bookstore displays posters and encourages customers to donate money toward the costs of purchasing books and running the program.

• Every month, visit each bookstore with a new poster advertising the next book and collect donations from the last book.

• Leave contact information sheets at the bookstores as well, for those clients who would like to receive a thank-you and further information.

• Once you have a list of regular donors, send them each an update about how the book club is doing and offer them the opportunity to sponsor a whole year of books at one go.

• You may also find that publishers are generous, giving a good discount or even donating some or all of the books.

3) GETTING THE WORD OUT

• This is where having a member of the community run the book club is invaluable.

• Get the books into members’ hands three to four weeks in advance of the meeting. This can be done through community agencies, by having a particular pick-up spot for the books and, most importantly, by one-on-one connections through your president.

• Label the books with stickers stating the time and place of the next meeting.

• Order enough books so many women can have a copy. Beyond Words orders 100, but demand will depend on the size of the community. If you give out 100 books, expect to get between 10 and 20 women at meetings; a great deal of discussion will take place in the community as well.

4) RUNNING THE MEETING

• Meetings usually last from one to two hours.

• Flexibility is important; members may come and go.

• A member of the community should run the meeting; at Beyond Words, the president does this.

• Meetings can be quite informal, but all who wish should have a chance to speak.

• Most important, the meetings should serve the needs and interests of the members, not the agenda of someone from outside the community.

• Group members should choose the books they will read; Beyond Words asks members to bring their ideas and discuss them. Then the president leads a discussion and everyone votes.

• I suggest that meetings remain a media-free zone.

For more information about Beyond Words, go to www.pace-society.ca or call 32 Books at 604-980-9032.

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016