Far beyond “A Very Ordinary Life”
The winner of the 24th George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award grew up in B.C. logging camps.
June 30th, 2017
Rolf Knight’s writing career began in 1973, making him the foremost historian for the working class in B.C. Now he finally gets his due.
Here are Rolf Knight‘s comments on receiving the $5,000 WOODCOCK AWARD FOR AN OUTSTANDING LITERARY CAREER IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, presented to him by fellow historian Jean Barman at the Vancouver Public Library, June 29, 2017
Books and reading have always been important to me. Along with playing around the docks and rail lines of East Vancouver I voraciously read titles by Max Nomad, George Orwell, Theodore Plievier, Upton Sinclair and hundreds of other authors whose names I have now forgotten. I lugged home packsacks of books by the hundreds from the old Vancouver Public Library at the corner of Hastings and Main. I now would like to thank the librarians of that institution for the wide and varied fund of human knowledge they preserved and presented to us. It really was the fundamental school of my childhood and youth. It was a major center of my town. Down near the Rex cinema and the White Lunch, which I’d also hit if I had any cash. A little of this is preserved in my own accounts of the region. It was an important part of working class Vancouver then.
I certainly didn’t think that so much of my life would be taken up by writing. In fact until well after I’d taken a PhD from Columbia University I looked up at most writers, at least those I appreciated, and thought that producing a book was a marvelous endeavor, something that probably was beyond me. My first volume was a life history of my mother. Something that I knew would trigger snotty commentaries of undergraduate Freudians and their ilk. It sort of surprised me, the amount of appreciative and sometimes insightful commentary it generated. Even the ingrained anti-German racism it attracted was minimal. After more than thirty years of writing it’s still one of the best of my books, A Very Ordinary Life.
Ruichi Yoshida’s A Man of Our Times is the life history of an 89 year old Japanese Issei-Canadian who came to British Columbia in 1910 and who worked as a logger and fisherman most of his life. Although he once had a certain fluency in English, over the years he had returned to using Japanese so I had to address my questions and translate his replies through a speaker of that language. My use of Maya Koizumi in that role proved to be a fortunate one since she could translate what I was trying to get at both fluently and incisively. We interviewed Yoshida and his wife in their home in the Kootenay’s over the course of a week and then went off to work up the material gathered. A Man of Our Times proved to be a moving endeavor. And despite Yoshida’s initial qualms it proved to be a fairly accurate account of his life and times. It did not, however, find favor with those who find every member of every distinguishable cultural group as conveying some unique view of the world. Yoshida was a socialist and a leading figure in the Japanese Labour Union and as such did not cater to those eager to find unique cultural views in every distinguishable group. It was an honor to work with him. He died shortly after the book came out but not before he could send copies of it to his remaining friends and associates.
Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the U.S. is a select bibliography of that topic while Stump Ranch Chronicles was a brief life history of two men, both of whom I knew personally, who had emigrated to Canada and who worked on and established themselves on stump ranches in western Canada from 1910 and on. In a sense, it was a giving back to what had been offered me as a child.
Traces of Magma was a very different kettle of fish from my earlier books. It is an annotated bibliography of select left wing novels from around the world during the twentieth century. The amount of work and research that went into it was absolutely phenomenal. It lists some three thousand odd titles from the Soviet Union to Guatemala and reaches far wider than socialist realist works. It took me three years of research, sometimes working twelve hours a day, to dig up the material. It was a hell of a task, but apparently no one except me wanted it. I finally wound up printing some five hundred copies under the imprint of Dragerman Books. But no one reviewed it or felt it necessary to refer to it. With that I almost stopped writing. However, I didn’t. Instead I wrote something called Indians at Work, An informal history of Native Indian labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930. That was a topic I had been collecting material on for ten years. It also took me about three years to research to write it up. It attempts to weave together scholarly accounts with autobiographies and life histories and deals with various phases of BC history but it is about the history of native workers. It was about the only one of my books which received serious mention, and for a few tears had some impact on those writing about native people in this province.
Following that I turned out something entitled Along the No. 20 Line, an account of the street car line running along the Vancouver water front between 1913 and 1945. About one half of it presents my account of people, sights, sounds, aromas and places you’d meet on the trip along the Vancouver industrial water front from Hastings Park to Hastings and Granville in mid 1945, the year the line closed down. It contains mini life histories of ten people then living or working along the No. 20 line in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1998 I turned out a life history of fishermen’s union leader Homer Stevens (Homer Stevens: A life in fishing). It was a difficult work to produce. But finally I turned out an autobiography which was acceptable to both of us.
My final published work is a book entitled Voyage Through the Past Century. It is a kind of autobiography but one in which most chapters are divided into sections called archives which are intended to be more or less objective accounts of the times and places dealt with (coastal logging and construction camps in the 1940s to colonial Nigeria in the 1960s to New York and Columbia University in the later ’60s, etc.) and a more subjective account dealing with my personal involvement with them. That didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. But still I’m happy to claim the work as mine. It runs from early 1940s to the end of the twentieth century. A century I’m proud to have been a part of.
Well, that’s about it. So long for now.
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront
Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing
Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Labour in British Columbia, 1858-1930
Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia
Voyage Through the Past Century
Knight, Rolf & Phyllis Knight. A Very Ordinary Life (New Star, 1974).
Knight, Rolf. Work Camps and Company Towns in Canada and the United States (bibliography, 1975).
Knight, Rolf & Maya Koizumi. A Man of our Times: A Life-History of a Japanese-Canadian Fisherman (New Star, 1976).
Knight, Rolf. Stump Ranch Chronicles and Other Narratives (New Star, 1977).
Knight, Rolf. Indians at Work: An Informal History of Native Indian Labour in British Columbia 1858-1930 (New Star, 1978, 1996).
Knight, Rolf. Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront (New Star, 1980; Re:release New Star 2011).
Knight, Rolf. Traces of Magma: An Annotated Bibliography of Left Literature (Draegerman, 1983),
Knight, Rolf. Voyage Through the Mid-Century (New Star, 1988; Re-release New Star 2013).
Knight, Rolf & Homer Stevens. Homer Stevens: A Life in Fishing (Harbour, 1992).
Knight, Rolf. Voyage Through the Past Century, Non-Fiction, (New Star, 2013)336 pages, 6×9 inches. $24 9781554200689
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I just happened to be reading Rolf’s “Voyage through the past Century” which I had read about in an older B.C. Bookworld when I saw that he was to receive the G.Woodcock Lifetime Achievement award! We hustled down from Pemberton and I was lucky enough to speak with him…I’m sorry his introduction wasn’t a little more detailed as it seems to me that his life and writing career is truly a remarkable for our times…thank you, Rolf for introducing us to all this history.
We are SO lucky to have Rolf Knight!