BOOKS

The pen is mightier than the sordid

October 11 1993
BOOKS

The pen is mightier than the sordid

October 11 1993

The pen is mightier than the sordid

BOOKS

“I was walking along South Granville. He spotted me from his car because I’m sort of busty for an Oriental person. He turned into an alley in front of me and called my name. We talked a bit. He was the first trick I had when I returned to prostitution—that was after I worked for the phone-sex line. I was with him maybe three times. I realized how much I had changed. I used to be pretty nervous just walking down the street, worrying that people might recognize me—johns, whatever. But I didn’t feel threatened at all. I had been writing that morning since 6, and this was about 1 in the afternoon. I felt very productive; that was not something he could intrude upon. Years ago, I would have thought, ‘Do I look good enough? Will he call me again?’ Now it was, like, I felt vaguely sorry for him. ”

— Vancouver author Evelyn Lau, 22, a former prostitute, describing a recent incident

She has balked at the notion, but Evelyn Lau’s story seems an indisputable case of redemption by writing. At 14, after clashing with the traditional values of her Chinese-immigrant parents, she ran away from home. Off and on for the next six years, she was a prostitute. A frequent user of LSD, methadone and, later, sedatives, Lau was rushed to hospital several times—she has lost count—after mixing downers with alcohol. She has a Grade 9 ed-

ucation. There has been no contact with her family for several years.

But Lau’s long-standing desire to be a writer—one of the main reasons, she says, that she ran away—never abated. At 16, she approached literary agent Denise Bukowski with the 900-page manuscript that, reduced by about one-third, became the best-seller Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, first published by HarperCollins in

1989. Still doubting herself as a writer, however, Lau eventually went to work on a phone-sex line, and then returned to prostitution. In

1990, she published her first collection of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim. She continued to turn tricks. Last year came a second collection, Oedipal Dreams. As a result of that book, at 21 Lau became the youngest poet ever to be nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. With her self-esteem reinforced (literary veteran Irving Layton has called her “the poet I’ve been waiting for”), and with enough money from government grants and freelance writing to pay the rent, she was finally able to give up prostitution. Eight months ago, she says, she ended her dependence on prescription tranquillizers.

Now, Lau is enjoying the kind of success that many mature writers can only dream of. Her first short-story collection, Fresh Girls (HarperCollins, $20), has just appeared to enthusiastic reviews. On the strength of that debut in fiction, Lau now has a three-book deal with New York City publisher Hyperion, which will release Fresh Girls in the United States next year. And Chinese-American literary superstar Amy Tan has paved the way for Lau’s penetration of the American market by praising the Canadian writer in the influential trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Next January, meanwhile, CBC TV will air The Diary of Evelyn Lau, a two-hour drama based on Runaway and directed by award-winner Sturla Gunnarsson (Final Offer, Diplomatic Immunity).

Toronto-based Bukowski, who continues to be Lau’s agent, marvels at how the writer has changed in six years. “She was an unstable street kid when I met her,” says Bukowski. “Now she’s, like, the most normal person I know. She’s always been focused on her writing; it saved her. It pulled her back from the brink a number of times, and she’s doing very well now.”

In person, Lau does have an assured manner. During a recent interview in a Van couver restaurant, she seemed happy and vibrant, not nearly as serious as the photo on the cover of her new book. She looked like a fashionable student, dressed in a flowing black blouse, black denim shorts and an kle boots. Between sips of ice tea, Lau said she was tired of being identified as "that girl who wrote that book about being on the streeL" She hopes that Fresh Girls will "make people for get about Runaway."

Yet the new collection was inspired by Lau’s time in the flesh trade. The 10 stories centre around women who are involved in prostitution or in tortured relationships that make them feel as if they were prostitutes. Often, the female protagonists are much younger than their male partners. There are novice hookers like Carol in the title story, who is shaken by her realization of what she is doing and needs to shoot up with drugs before seeing a client. Or non-prostitutes such as the woman in Marriage, who cannot refuse her married lover’s gifts of cash.

Alienation and misery permeate the stories like a Vancouver rain. Many of Lau’s women are split in two, in agony over their relationships or transactions with men, yet unable to extricate themselves. In Pleasure, Lau describes a female who is tied down and about to be whipped with a riding crop. “She was spread like a star on the bed, the cool comforter under her and the wind flying across her body,” the author writes, capturing the sense of excitement that has drawn her character, a successful career woman, back to an apartment where she was whipped before. But as the story progresses, the protagonist begins to feel detached from herself. “Someone was still crying,” Lau writes. “Shut up, shut up, she wanted to say, but the sobs kept coming and wouldn’t stop.”

Kinky sex abounds in the collection, but Lau is evasive about whether that has been part of her own life. “I experienced the emotions in the stories when I was a prostitute,” she says. “And, of

course, I read a lot,” she adds, laughing. “Also, I have talked to people involved in the S-and-M lifestyle, and when I worked for the phone-sex line it was a fairly common fantasy.”

Lau recalls that during her long nightmare in the sex business, she always had a sense of invulnerability because of her writing. “From the time I was a very small child I used to believe that writers were special beings and that normal earthly rules did not apply to them,” she recalls. “Even when I turned tricks, it was because I had this thing inside me that I was carting around, that was almost larger than myself—I could put it at risk infinitely and still be all right.”

Lau says that she learned to read before going to school and decided to become a writer when she was six. She started sending out her poems, stories and essays to various publications when she was 12, winning youth competitions around the country. But the girl’s parents did not share her enthusiasm. All that Lau will reveal about them is that her father is a white-collar worker and her mother is a homemaker; she has heard through the grapevine that they still live in East Vancouver with their younger daughter. According to Lau, they were adamant that she pursue a more conventional career, like law or medicine, and would not allow her to write. So the 14-year-old honors student ran away.

Lau then spent 22 haphazard months on the street, getting her introduction to prostitution in downtown Vancouver. She lived in group homes or with friends, continuing to write poetry and to keep the diary that became Runaway. Its success, however, did not translate into big royalties. Lau tried to establish herself as a freelance journalist, but eventually the sex trade beckoned again. “I was ashamed of so many things,” says Lau, “and when Runaway was published that made things tougher. I was worried that no one would ever want me because of what I had done. Also, I used to feel like I didn’t belong in the writing community. I had very few friends, very few people that I trusted. I wasn’t seeing anybody from my past, but I hadn’t had enough time to create a present. The only thing that made me feel different, stronger, was that I was working [as a prostitute] . That gave me a sense of safety.”

Lau was also bewildered *by the media assault that Runaway pro-

Writing saves a woman from a life of degradation

voked. Interviewers were anxious to meet someone who had so thoroughly upended the stereotypical image of the clean, young Chinese-Canadian. The frenzy of sensationalism peaked with Lau’s appearance on TV’s Geraldo in the fall of 1989. A banner flashed in front of her chest saying, “Hooker at age 14.”

But now, Lau says that she can’t imagine returning to prostitution, or to drugs. “The more I feel better about myself, the fewer crutches I need. I have other things in my life now. I don’t have to depend on them [johns] to make me feel better about myself, even though, as a prostitute, they made me feel bad at the same time. I found I wasn’t powerless any more.”

The past has left its marks. On the evidence of Lau’s poetry and fiction, she has a fixation on older men. ‘Ves, she has a father complex,” says Bukowski. “She knows that. We even joke about it. She’s still very much recovering from her father’s withdrawal from her as a kid, and she’s attracted to 40-year-olds.” Yet even as she continues to work through her personal traumas, Lau is also extending her imagination to the wider world. Last December, The Globe and Mail printed her poem The Killer, about a Serbian soldier accused of assassinating 29 Muslims. Evelyn Lau is still drawn to harm. But now, she moves towards the darkness as a writer, and lives it primarily in her mind.

PATRICIA HLUCHY with ROB HOWATSON in Vancouver