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writer Evelyn Lau

by DG Graham | May 15, 1998

We’ve all had one, seen him fall
I want now
to take thumb and forefinger, pinch my ears shut
against the sound of your words, panes of glass
shattering in the sink
your laughter like a kitten
licking itself dead in a corner somewhere
you may bury it here, like this, in the wide space
my arms have opened for you.

— Evelyn Lau, "Role Models" from the book You Are Not Who You Claim

Would Evelyn Lau’s book, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, have attracted as much attention as it did if it hadn’t dealt with the underbelly of life, if the girl-narrator hadn’t been a prostitute? Perhaps not. And yet one can see that Lau really does have a gift for communicating – the gift that makes a writer a capital “W” Writer, and not just a scribbler.

On the other hand, the fact that her diary – and the film based on it – drew attention to a serious social problem would have been enough justification for her fame. The situations and circumstances that lead young women and men into teenage prostitution are things we, as a society, need to look at and address. The movie – The Diary of Evelyn Lau – is powerful and graphic, and therefore difficult to watch, let alone imagine what it must have been like to live. It seems amazing that anyone would prefer a life on the streets to being at home.

In the prologue to Runaway, Lau writes, “All the events that took place during these two years were easier on me emotionally than living at home, which is why I have never gone back there to live.”

What, then, was her home like?

Evelyn was born in 1971 in Vancouver, the daughter of first-generation Chinese parents. She was a beautiful girl, although she didn't believe this growing up, partly because of the attitude of her schoolmates and because of the way her mother treated her. When she left home to work as a prostitute, she suddenly discovered that her “Chineseness” was something good, something desirable. She wasn’t the “ugly little girl” her mother had said she was.

As her diary makes clear, her perception of her mother is of a cold, hard, demanding and abusive woman whose harsh treatment of her daughter and husband drove Evelyn to the streets. Evelyn’s father is depicted as meek, unassuming, chronically unemployed and unable to stand up to her mother. Evelyn relates having her hand smacked with a ruler while her mother asked questions from a textbook, and listening to her mother verbally abuse her father beyond Evelyn’s endurance. She also talks about her mother stunting Evelyn’s personal sexual growth by engaging in certain activities that revolted Evelyn as a child (such as using the bathroom with the door open).

According to Evelyn, her parents refused to “adapt” to Canadian customs and therefore made their daughter’s life miserable as a child. She was not allowed to dress as other kids did in school, causing humiliation and ostracization. Her school marks, although high, were never good enough for her parents. Because of her unhappy home environment, Evelyn left at age 14.

What do you do to earn money when you’re 14? Not a lot of choices: you’re too young to work legally, and who’d hire you anyway? For a lot of young women, prostitution is the only answer. For those who see it as degrading, it can be appealing for that very reason; they feel unworthy of anything else. For those who feel that their bodies are a marketable commodity in the same way anything else is, it can be empowering, either as a means of independence or a defiance of social attitudes.

So Evelyn embarked on a two-year journey of whips, leather cuffs, cocaine, beatings and writing. While she was on the street, she carried around stacks of paper in a knapsack and filled 900 pages by the end. It was edited down to 341 pages for publication. The urge to communicate was matched by her urge to be a published writer – she says in the diary that she had constant fantasies of seeing her books lining the shelves of bookstores.

After the success of Runaway in 1989, Evelyn published a book of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim. The subject-matter is largely her experiences on the street and her emotional reaction to them. They are both brutal and beautiful. In 1990, she turned to prose with Fresh Girls and Other Stories. In all, she has published her diary, poetry and short stories.

She has not been universally applauded by the Chinese community, since she portrayed her parents as the “bad guys.” The CBC film too has been criticized as not giving the parents’ point of view, and perpetuating the idea that the Chinese are misfits in Canada. Nor has she been universally applauded by Canadian writers, who don’t always credit testimonial-styled writing.

But her detractors aside, Evelyn Lau is a landmark Canadian writer. Her work is very powerful, communicating with sometimes horrifying clarity. She triumphed over a downward spiral, and emerged a successful writer before she was 20 years old. She faced more than many us will ever have to face. She takes you to the raw and hidden world on the streets – a cold, unpleasant, degrading, painful and cruel place, stripped of any romantic notion some might like to imagine. The fact that Evelyn triumphed is a testimony to her own will and creative drive, not to any fictitious ability of streetlife to give birth to art.

books by Evelyn Lau

    autobiography
  • Inside Out: Reflections on a Life So Far, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2002.
  • Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, Toronto: Harper & Collins, 1989

    poetry
  • In the House of Slaves, Coach House Press, Toronto | 1994
  • Oedipal Dreams, Beach Holme, Victoria, B.C. | 1992. :: 2nd. ed., Coach House Press, Toronto | 1994. :: Gutter Press, Toronto | 1999
  • You Are Not Who You Claim, Porcépic Books, Victoria, B.C. | 1990

  • fiction
  • Choose Me: Stories, Doubleday Canada, Toronto | 1999
  • Fresh Girls & Other Stories, HarperCollins, Toronto | 1993.
  • Other Women, Random House of Canada, Toronto | 1995 :: Vintage, Toronto | 1996 :: Simon and Schuster, New York | 1996

related items

  • The Diary of Evelyn Lau, by BARRY STEVENS, et al. Dir. Sturla Gunnarsson. Starring Sandra Oh. CBC-TV movie aired at 9 p.m. prime time | March 13, 1994
  • Gold Mountain: The Chinese in the New World, by ANTHONY CHAN, New Star Books, Vancouver | 1983
  • Inalienable Rice: A Chinese and Japanese Canadian Anthology, by GARRICK CHU, et al., eds, Intermedia Press, Vancouver | 1979
  • Evelyn Lau: Wishes the past would go away, by DAMIEN INWOOD, The Province, page B15 | October 3 1993
  • The Colours of Heroines, by LYDIA KWA, Women’s Press, Toronto | 1994
  • Many Mouthed Birds: Contemporary Writing By Chinese Canadians, by BENNET LEE and JIM WONG-CHU, eds., Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto :: U of Washington Press, Seattle |1991
  • The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, by GAYLE RUBIN, Toward Anthropology of Women, ed. Ryna Reiter, pgs 157-210, Monthly Review Press, New York | 1975
  • De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, by SIDONIE SMITH and JULIA WATSON, eds., U. of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis | 1992
  • From China To Canada: A History of the Chinese Communities in Canada, by EDGAR WICKBERG, ed., et al, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, in association with the Multiculturalism Directorate and Department of State | 1982.
  • Jin Guo: Voices of Chinese Canadian Women, The Women’s Book Committee, Chinese Canadian National Council, Women’s Press, Toronto | 1992

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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