Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Points In Between
Ceilidh Michelle’s memoir of her experience living on the streets in California is a moving story about poverty, homelessness and community. We sat down on January 23 to chat about her experiences and how they were translated into this beautiful book published by Douglas & McIntyre.
Vagabond takes place over a 3–4-month period. It’s not a long time, and yet we meet so many characters. Are there any people you keep in touch with? Any moments or people that left a strong impression or that you still carry with you?
CM: I think as writers and storytellers you’re always going to carry elements of your experiences with you. I carry everything I’ve ever lived with me all the time and some of that will come out over the years in different incarnations. Because of social media we’re able to have these pseudo connections with people and so I’ve been able to connect with some after all this happened. One of the people in the book reached out to me recently because they saw that I wrote this book. My first reaction was, shit, you’re going to read this, oh and you’re in it by the way. But it’s hard. I live in Canada and most of the people I met live in America and our lives at the time were so transient that even if I wanted to reach out to them, it would be very difficult. For our own safety, many people change their names and so, I wouldn’t know where to start.
How did you record your experiences at the time and how much of Vagabond is memory and how much is from journals or conversations after that time?
CM: I carried a notebook with me everywhere I went and I anything interesting I wrote down. Even to this day, I love writing down interesting dialogue and words that I overhear out of context. I was writing down everything sort of like a travel journal. There were so many weird things I couldn’t not write down and I’m so grateful to my younger self that I had the wherewithal to take notes because now I have this record. I was also traveling with many artistic people. There is one instance where we go on this escapade into Compton. We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth, so there were a lot of perspectives I was able to get from other people, which was cool.
“We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth.”Ceilidh Michelle
Vagabond is not a linear story. It’s not like a journal with dates and times stamped on each page. This leaves these absences or disconnections in the voice. It feels like a real experience reading.
CM: It’s kind of like now. You’re in these situations of emergency and survival. Days fall off and go past. I find a lot of weird parallels living right now and living then. I don’t really believe in the linearity of time. It doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Your life can transform in the same span of time where a week before, nothing happened.
Poverty is an important part of Vagabond. There is a sense that many cannot escape the cycle of homelessness, hunger, and addiction. At one point in the novel, you say that needing charity was a constant shame. How has that changed for you or how has your perspective changed since living your experiences in Vagabond?
CM: I think back then I felt that there was less of a cost. Homelessness for me was circumstantial and I believed I could bounce back easily. I was twenty and I had no sense of consequence. I bounced from place to place and crashed on people’s couches, and it was fine. As I get older, I’ve gotten angrier. I had to control myself when I was writing Vagabond to not make it a rant about housing being a human right. I can’t even wrap my mind around the fact that some people in this world believe that other people don’t deserve water or shelter. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to marry this sense of defeat with the injustice, like what can we do? I hate the sterility of corporate gentrification and I’m watching cities fall so it’s really and it’s just totally disheartening. But I don’t want to be defeated by that, so I focus on thinking about what I can do, as an individual.
I think you did that beautifully here. Vagabond isn’t political. It’s a genuine sharing of experience and thought. The people you met got to speak for themselves in the issues of homelessness and there were so many diverse experiences and opinions.
CM: I hope they feel that they got to speak for themselves because so much of their experiences was not my own ideology. There is a lot of like weird ageism with homelessness, like it’s something you’re just expected to outgrow. Like, homelessness is fine for young people, you know to be bohemian, to embrace poverty and this #wanderlust or whatever. I think the elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.
There are many moments in Vagabond where you were vulnerable to some scary people or situations. In one section, a character says, it’s best to be invisible, being a woman is a dangerous trade. What was the scariest moment for you?
CM: I think the scariest moment for me was when I got home. The ending of the book was also scary. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it, but the ending was very sobering for me. To realize that some people would make it and some people wouldn’t and I don’t think that any of it really caught up with me until later. I think I was quite foolish, but I was just so young that when I was out on the street it never really occurred to me to feel fear necessarily. There was one night when I was sleeping alone, and I had a switchblade with me. A group of men walked past, and I was terrified they were going to spot me. I realized that all of these true crime stories and things that you hear are real stories, they are real women, sisters and daughters who go missing all the time. As a young person I didn’t really know what that meant, but it caught up with me later, like PTSD. I can’t believe I did that.
Are there any experiences or moments you wish you could go back to?
CM: That is a complex question. I don’t know. Circumstantially, I don’t think I could really go back. I couldn’t do it physically. Looking back, I think maybe I wouldn’t have always tried to find a boy or a man to protect me. I was raised in a very overbearing evangelical environment. You needed to either be subservient to a man or you needed to find a man to protect you so even in this most vulnerable and independent living situation that I found myself in my first motivation was to find a male to protect me. That so often backfires on young women because men are dangerous a lot of the time. You have to be careful around them especially ones that you don’t know. If I could go back – and what I’ve learned from most situations – I’d seek out more women. Especially if I’m in a vulnerable situation. I’ve gotten a lot of good mentors that way.
“The elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.“Ceilidh Michelle
You embarked on this journey to find a Yogi in California and that doesn’t end up happening. I’m curious if you still practise if it is still an important part of your life.
CM: I do practice yoga, but I find a person’s spiritual journey kind of hard to talk about. I think it’s kind of private but I also I think it’s such a blundering track. Two steps forward, one step back and I think that was really reflected in my experiences in Vagabond. There’s so much subculture built up around spirituality now. It’s expensive and it’s inaccessible and you have to pay a premium or wear the right clothes. I think spirituality functions better when it’s quiet and done in private.
What are your thoughts about the ability of literature and writing to make social change? Do you feel it is still as powerful a tool today than yesterday or less so or do you think that our stories merely exist for our own personal feelings?
CM: I hope that writing has an impact when it comes to social justice. I know there are a lot of gatekeepers and I know that it’s hard for writers to survive financially. You have to hope writers have the time, which is the ultimate gift. I’m seeing a lot of people getting the ability to speak now in a way that we never have before, especially in Canada. I’m proud of what people are doing in publishing right now. They’re working hard to make sure that there’s justice and equality in publishing. I’m very grateful to everyone in Canada who’s doing that right now. Ultimately, writing should be about your personal feelings. There are so many fictional books I love to just sink into like a warm bath and I’m so grateful for the escapism so please more fantasy and fiction and all kinds of stuff.
Ceilidh Michelle is the author of the novel Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, which was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction. Michelle has had work published in Entropy, Longreads, The Void, Broken Pencil, Matrix Magazine, McGill University’s Scrivener Creative Review, Cactus Press and Lantern Magazine. Ceilidh holds an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia. Ceilidh calls Montreal, QC, home. You can find her on Instagram @ceilidh_michelle.