10 Literary Spots to visit in Vancouver (and what books to read when you’re there)

Vancouver might be a young city, but its literary culture is deep and diverse—thanks to a rich immigrant history and strong indigenous roots. Here are ten great spots for the literary traveler, along with recommendations for what to read when you get there.

1. Douglas Coupland’s “Digital Orca”

By Philip Jama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Digital Orca is one of the first sculptures that any tourist might encounter when visiting Vancouver, thanks largely to its prime location—located adjacent to the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Cruise Ship Terminal and Waterfront Station (where trains, regional rail and rapid transit all converge). It was created in 2009 by artist and writer Douglas Coupland, who is best known for his futuristic (or modernity-obsessed, depending how you look at it) books, including Generation X, Microserfs and JPod. His voice is one that transcends the usual Canadian experience (he does not write about snow, loneliness or being a Protestant in Southern Ontario…typical Can-lit tropes.) Instead, it’s emblematically ‘Vancouver’, imbued with the forward-looking perspective of a city that faces west, instead of east, towards Pacific—where immigration, marijuana, real estate speculation and adamant secularism are par for the course.

Coupland’s writing and art tend to be obsessed by technology as well sense of place. Digital Orca, a ‘pixilated’ sculpture combines both, creating a very modern view of that definitive animal of the British Columbia coast: the orca.

Books to Read: JPod, set in a Vancouver game design company. For a non-fiction alternative, check out City of Glass (if you spin away from the breathtaking ocean views in front of Digital Orca, you’ll see why he gave it that name.)

2. Chinatown

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Ok, Chinatown isn’t really one “spot”. It’s comprised of many places, including the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the Millennium Gate, antique stores, tea shops and bakeries. But once you’ve visited all these, and want to take a rest, Chinatown is also a great place to sit and read and watch a small slice of history (and still living culture) go by. Vancouver’s Chinatown is one of the largest and most historic in North America. But it’s also endangered, not because the community is dying, but rather, because the centre of Chinese-Canadian life has shifted. On one hand, Vancouver’s Chinese population has become much more integrated into the city as whole. On the other hand, the southern suburb of Richmond has become the glitzy new heart of a very different, very modern, and much wealthier Chinese population.

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Lion dancers at the annual Chinese New Year’s Parade

Chinatown is changing, not only because of this southward migration, but also due to new arrivals: young entrepreneurs, many of whom are not Chinese, attracted to the heritage buildings and comparatively low rents that make this area unsurprisingly desirable. Some of these businesses have helped to boost the economy and vibrancy of Chinatown. But others have come across as threats—of gentrification, “whitification”, hipsterfication, or whatever you might call it: attracting condo developers, selling $4 coffee and posting English-only signage in an area where many residents are low-income and speak only Cantonese. Many threats come from new Chinese immigrants too, who are more likely to speak Mandarin and put up signs of their own, endangering the Cantonese language that has defined Vancouver’s Chinatown for over 100 years.

Chinatown’s future is uncertain, but its literary heritage is palpable. Hopefully that will not be all that remains in the future.

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Inside the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden

Books to Read: The Jade Peony, by Weyson Choy, set in 1930s & 1940s Chinatown. The book is narrated by the Canadian-born children of Chinese immigrants, exploring intercultural relations of many different kinds. Most notably, it addresses the relationship between the city’s Chinese and Japanese communities (the latter of which suffered terribly during wartime, and lost its neighbourhood almost completely.)

For Nonfiction, check out Evelyn Lau’s Diary of a Street Kid, a landmark Chinese-Canadian book which gave voice to a much more modern, and yet still very ‘Vancouver’ vision of growing up between cultures. The book is the diary of Lau’s life as a homeless teenager, prostitute and drug user on the streets of the city’s notorious Downtown East Side (adjacent to Chinatown).

3. The Public Library

By rodefeld [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

This one seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? Libraries are always an interesting touchstone of a city’s literary culture, and Vancouver’s central branch is especially unique. Designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, it bears a striking resemblance to the Roman Coliseum, making it quite out of place in its glass-and-steel-filled surroundings. But the library works, not only in its evocation of classical forms, but in its capacity to serve as a gathering place for readers, writers, festivals, and concerts.

Books to Read: Anything in the stacks! Seating abounds both inside and out, though the front plaza (facing Robson Street) is the most scenic. On sunny days it’s a crowd scene, and many outdoor festivals take place there in the summer and fall. Joseph Montague’s Roman mosaic pool and fountain, tucked a little bit to the side (against the curving wall of the library), shouldn’t be missed.

4. Siwash Rock

Siwash Rock, in 1923

Siwash Rock is a stone outcropping located in Stanley Park, along Vancouver’s famous seawall. It has been a landmark for longer than the city’s history, a place of legend for the local Squamish people. They call it Slhxi7lsh, and in their cultural tradition it stands as a testament to the dedicated fatherhood of a young chief named Skalsh. The name Siwash comes from the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trading language of the northwest coast (combining First Nations and European words), meaning “First Nations Man.” You can only get to Siwash Rock by foot, bicycle, or boat, making it an especially worthwhile and lovely place to visit.

Books to Read: Legends of Vancouver, by Pauline Johnson. Johnson was the daughter of a Mohawk chief and an English immigrant, who used her mixed background to act as a bridge between Canada’s colonist and indigenous cultures. One of her literary projects was Legends of Vancouver (which includes the story of Siwash rock). The book is a Canadian classic, but also comes with controversies—it was written a woman who, despite indigenous heritage, was not a member of a local First Nation. The stories are mostly Squamish and were told to her by Chief Joe Capilano, bringing up interesting questions about written vs. oral storytelling. For a more modern and local voice, try Lee Maracle’s Ravensong.

5. Cates Park, North Vancouver

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, is considered one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It also happens to have been written in this very park, in a squatter’s shack near the beach where Lowry lived with his wife for almost fourteen years. The setting is a bit unexpected, since the novel was written by a British man, and takes place in Mexico. As it turns out, Lowry’s arrival in Canada was unwilling. He had been forced to come to Vancouver when his Mexican visa ran out.

Malcolm Lowry outside his North Vancouver beach shack

He didn’t like the city when he first arrived, but it gradually became his lifeline and spiritual heart. Living in a beach shack on Vancouver’s rural outskirts, he had limited access to the very things that had made him most vulnerable—namely alcohol. He found a home within the cycles of nature, and called the stretch of shoreline he lived on ‘Eridanus’. Its mystic seasons, he wrote, are “like that which is called the Tao.”

Lowry became part of a squatting community that had been around for almost a hundred years, the first inhabitants being sailors who had jumped ship and married local First Nations women. Lowry’s shack is no longer there (it burnt down), but a stone marker remains to commemorate where he lived, and the nature that inspired him, of course, is eternal.

Books to Read: Under the Volcano, obviously! Also, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lowry’s posthumously published book of short stories, all set in Vancouver. One of the stories, The Forest Path to the Spring, is a tribute to Cates Park itself.

- from Malcolm Lowry's

from Malcolm Lowry’s “Happiness”

 6. Granville Island

Granville Island, as seen from the Granville Street Bridge (with Downtown in the distance)

Granville Island, as seen from the Granville Street Bridge (with Downtown in the distance)

Granville Island doesn’t need much publicity. It’s already Canada’s second-most visited tourist attraction, with Niagara Falls coming in at number one. Almost every tourist who goes to Vancouver ends up at Granville Island, a postcard perfect combination of artist studios, public market, design workshops, and shimmering waterfront (but watch out for the evil, food-snatching seagulls!). What most tourists don’t know, however, is that it’s also a hub for book-lovers. Granville Island is home to the Vancouver Writers Fest, one of the country’s premier literary festivals (several others take place at the Island as well!), along with a wonderful art library (at Emily Carr University), and a much more miniature outdoor one.

Photo Credit: vancouverisawesome.com

Books to Read: If it’s a sunny day, then head on over to the island’s “Little Free Library” in Railspur Park. The library isn’t run by any one individual, it’s crowd-sourced and relies upon the honour system. The concept is simple: if you take a book, either return it when you’re done reading it, or replace it with another. The Writers Fest quite frequently donates books, as do local denizens. Some are great, others are strange (unless romance novels or medical manuals are your thing.) Recently, the choices included Caroline Adderson’s Ellen In Pieces, Kathleen Winter’s Boundless (both Canadian authors!) and the Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine and Nursing (among many others.)

Joshua Ferris at the 2014 Festival. Photo Credit: US Embassy Canada

If art’s more your thing, check out the Emily Carr Library, where you can read local arts & culture magazines, or peruse their collection of books dedicated to the form. Visions of British Columbia is an especially intriguing title, created by the Vancouver Art Gallery in combination with an exhibit of the same name. The book combines writing and art in order to speak to the diverse visions of British Columbia, through both its peoples and its histories. Last but not least, if it’s Writers Fest season (end of October), you can check out their bookstore (behind Performance Works) or attend an event in order to see (and hear) the authors in person.

7. Café Deux Soleils

The Vancouver Poetry Slam, the city’s most popular spoken word event, is hosted weekly at Café Deux Soleils. Located on Commercial Drive, the city’s hub for activism (and old cigarette-smoking Italian men), the Café attracts a diverse and enthusiastic crowd of young poetry lovers and poets trying to make their mark. Like all slams, it’s a competition. Anyone can sign up, and they’re given limited amounts of time to get what they want to say across. The judges are chosen from the crowd, and round by round, poets are eliminated. Shane Koyczan is one of the most famous products of the Vancouver Poetry Slam. His resume includes performing at the the Vancouver Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, having his “To This Day” Project video going viral (reaching over 14 million views), presenting at Ted Talks and performing his poetry all over the world. This past year, his novel-in-verse, Stickboy, was adapted to the musical stage and performed at the Vancouver Opera.

What to read: Considering that Café Deux Soleils’ mandate is spoken word, the best thing to do would be to attend a poetry slam! Poetry slams happen every Monday night at 8pm. But If reading’s more your thing, Shane has several books in print, including Stickboy. Ivan Coyote, a storyteller whose performances are legendary in Vancouver, is also worth checking out. Many of their stories feature Commercial Drive as a main character. Loose End is a particularly evocative book, and could be in enjoyed in one of many of the cafés that line The Drive. Café Deux Soleils is nice for the poetry slam, but to truly understand the flavour of the neighbourhood, it’s important to check out an Italian coffee shop too. Café Calabria’s an old favourite, especially for its gaudy Sistine Chapel ceiling and colorful staff. Be warned: if you bring a Starbucks cup inside or ask for butter on your panettone, they will make you very, very sorry!

8. Kits Beach

Kits Beach in Winter

Kits Beach in Winter

Kits Beach is not known for its literary qualities. ‘Eye candy’ is probably its number one attraction, since it’s one of the most popular beaches in Vancouver for the young and buff. It’s also popular with dog owners (there’s an off-leash dog beach), basketball and tennis players (there are public courts), swimmers (there’s a pool too!) and just about anyone who likes a nice view. Kits Beach is also a great place for readers, at least those who enjoy their books with a little sun and sand attached! But literary? Come on! Yoga pants, old hippies, young yuppies and organic food—that’s what defines Kitsilano, apart from the beach, of course. The old hippies still maintain a few bookstores (esoteric Banyen Books among them), but there isn’t much knowledge of the neighbourhood’s place in literary history floating around.

As it turns out, however, Kitsilano onced housed one of the greatest writers of the 20th century: Alice Munro. Though she’s mostly known for her tales set in Southern Ontario, Munro lived across from Kits Beach for a year (when her husband started a job in the city), and set several stories in the neighbourhood. Her Kitsilano, and her Vancouver for that matter, was a very different place. As a recent article in the New York Times said “In Alice Munro’s Vancouver nobody eats sushi. Nobody jogs along the seawall or browses Granville Street galleries or shops for organic herbs at the Granville Island market. Ms. Munro, the 74-year-old Canadian whom the novelist Jonathan Franzen dubbed ‘the best fiction writer now working in North America,’ set a handful of her marvelous short stories in the damp British Columbian metropolis, and the urban geography is so exact you can practically map the city off her fictions. But though the addresses match, the vibe is unrecognizable. Young but hopelessly uncool, lustful without being sexy, dowdy, white, blind to its own staggering beauty, Ms. Munro’s Vancouver is an outpost where new wives blink through the rain and wonder when their real lives are going to begin.”

You won’t find that Kitsilano any more (thank goodness), but you can still map your way around the neighbourhood through her stories. Winter might be the better season to do so, however, when the rains come in, and everything feels a bit bleaker.

Books to Read: The Love of a Good Woman and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage both feature stories set in Vancouver. “Cortes Island,” a story from that first collection is perhaps her most vivid, auto-biographical fictionalization of her life in Kitsilano.

9. Hogan’s Alley

hogan's alleyHogan’s Alley doesn’t really exist any more. With the exception of a few buildings, it’s been demolished and covered up, replaced by the grey asphalt of the Georgia Viaduct. The viaduct was the first phase of a planned interurban freeway which, thankfully, never got built. The project would have destroyed Chinatown and Gastown too, part of a 1960s regeneration plan, which like so many ill-advised projects of the era, swept people out of their neighbourhoods and replaced them with cars. Vancouver’s activist community stopped the highway from being built, and the city has benefited ever since, retaining an urbanity, walkability and density that still remains rare in the suburbanized world of North American city planning. But Hogan’s Alley didn’t get saved, and so Vancouver lost a cultural treasure: it’s only predominantly black neighbourhood.

It’s a sad truth that many black neighbourhoods all across North America were demolished by similar highway projects in the 1960s and 70s. While Vancouver’s government might not have been officially racist, its policies implied, at least, a lack of care when it came to ethnic minorities. Japantown was wiped out during WWII, when thousands of Japanese were forced to leave their homes and sent to rural internment camps. Their property was confiscated, and so, when the war ended, there was very little reason for them to return. The buildings were not destroyed, but the neighbourhood, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Hogan’s Alley’s destruction was a little more subtle: a plan that claimed to be about progressive urbanization that just happened to target people for whom it was much harder to fight back. Unlike Japantown, the population did not leave, but was, rather, dispersed throughout the city, leaving a hole where a community had formerly thrived. Many Vancouverites, to this day, do not know about Hogan’s Alley, or if they do, they’re unaware of the depth of its cultural contribution to the city. But a new movement, which includes literary projects, is now bringing that awareness back, reminding Vancouverites that their cultural history is much more complex than they ever knew.

Wayde Compton, a writer, is one of the spearheads of that movement–founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, and editor of the first comprehensive anthology of black writing from British Columbia. He’s bringing new light to an old tradition: art in Vancouver’s East End, produced by people of African descent. Jelly Roll Morton, a pivotal figure in early Jazz, is one such example. He was from New Orleans, but lived part of his life in Vancouver, performing at the Patricia Cabaret. Nora Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother, was also a legend in the neighbourhood. In fact, Jimi spent part of his childhood living in her house on Union St, in one of the few blocks that has still survived (between Main and Gore Street). Less famous figures included Leonard Gibson, who choreographed and performed stage shows.

bluesprintYou can visit what remains of the neighbourhood, in the blocks just south of Chinatown, on foot. The African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel (co-founded by Nora Hendrix) is still there, though it’s now a private residence. The diners and speakeasies that onced defined Hogan’s Alley are sadly gone.

Book to Read: Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, by Wade Compton. Bluesprint is a “groundbreaking, first-time collection of the creative output of B.C.’s black citizens, and includes an astonishing range of styles: journal entries, oral histories, letters, journalism, poems, stories, screenplays, and hip-hop lyrics.”

10. The University of British Columbia

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Wreck Beach, UBC

The University of British Columbia is the most important research institution in western Canada, as well as the only major Canadian university to have a Creative Writing program, Theatre conservatory and Film school. It’s connection to all things literary is longstanding. In 1961, TISH, a Canadian poetry newsletter, was founded there, by poets who were inspired by North Carolina’s Black Mountain College experiment. Several contributing writers went on to become our nation’s most renowned literati, including George Bowering (Canada’s first Poet Laureate). TISH was also the launch pad for numerous other publications, including Vancouver’s alternative weekly, The Georgia Straight. According to George Fetherling, “The journal started by George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Jamie Reid and Fred Wah is probably the most influential literary magazine ever produced in Canada, of greater significance than even Preview or First Statement, the two that brought poetic modernism to the country in the 1940s.”

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Photo source: Carleton University Library

While the days of TISH are long over, the landscape and environment that inspired its authors remain just as powerful. UBC is a sprawling campus, with large portions of its grounds devoted to laboratories and ugly architectural relics from the 1960s. But a visit to the north side of campus (where you can find the Museum of Anthropology, the First Nations Longhouse, the Nitobe Garden and Wreck Beach) will quickly remind you of the power of this place–culturally, geographically and spiritually, all providing wonderful fodder for the authors of today and tomorrow.

What to Read: Back copies of TISH, which can be found in the UBC Library. Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems. George Bowering’s Burning Water. Fred Wah’s Waiting For Saskatchewan. In any season, it’s worth taking you reading down the steep steps to Wreck Beach, the most beautiful place on the UBC campus (beware: if you go in summer, it will be more than TISH that will give you a flashback to the 60’s!)

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