Martine Leavitt shared her process for telling the story of prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in a keynote address of the Beauty and Belief Symposium.
PROVO, Utah (November 6, 2015)—Martine Leavitt’s book My Book of Life by Angel was years in the making. She felt drawn to Vancouver, British Columbia, where a serial killer had spent years picking off the city’s prostitutes, long unnoticed by the local police. There she researched the investigations, read personal accounts and interviews and on one occasion volunteered to give service, meeting these women in person. The process opened her eyes to the dangers they faced and what had driven them to face each day, and what sustained them when things were hardest. “I found a secret world of beauty and belief among these young women,” she said. “I found it in the ugly and infamous world of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.”
My Book of Life by Angel focuses on that beauty and belief and follows Angel, an underage prostitute, on her journey of spiritual self-discovery. As a keynote speaker of the Beauty and Belief Symposium, Leavitt described what she called four “clear white stones” she used to tell Angel’s story: a love, a language, a Rosetta stone, and an artlessness.
“I began with love, which must be the true beginning of every artistic expression,” Leavitt said, and explained that the process of loving began by forcing herself to “look and not look away.” She couldn’t shut her eyes when life became darkest for her subjects, nor could she deny any of the good that came their way. Thanks to her time exploring the world experienced by the prostitutes, it was easier to write Angel, not as a foreign mindset, but as an extension of her own perspective.
With that love, Leavitt was able to craft a language in which to tell Angel’s story. “Each book has its own right words,” she said. Searching for the right words, Leavitt began writing poetry as Angel, an exercise in finding her character’s voice. But the poems lengthened, until she was no longer writing poems but a novel in verse.
Realizing that she had stumbled upon her book’s language – the best way for Angel to tell her own story – Leavitt determined to write the entire book in free poetic verse. She explained, “The elevated form of poetry helped me reflect Angel’s beauty of soul and the beauty of soul of the women I had read about.”
With her novel’s language identified, Leavitt needed a Rosetta stone – a way to translate Angel’s spiritual experiences into something that her readers could identify with, whatever their backgrounds. “I began with the premise that my readers must have a language for spiritual things,” she said. Finding that language was just as important as finding Angel’s.
Leavitt explained, “To tell the story of Angel, love had to come first; love for my characters, but also love for my readers.” She wanted to be able to speak to her readers’ unique needs and allow them to see themselves in Angel’s story. But approach spirituality in the wrong way, and many would immediately throw up their guard against the story.
The solution came through John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Despite its subject matter – the Fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden – the text is typically seen primarily as a literary work, not a religious one. In it, Leavitt found a way to bridge between the literary and the spiritual; by inserting readings from Paradise Lost into her story, Leavitt said, “Paradise Lost became my Rosetta Stone a way for my readers to connect the spiritual questions about the nature of the Fall of man with the so-called fall of Angel.”
Leavitt’s final stepping stone was what she called “a kind of artlessness.” Many of her initial poems, she felt, were “too proud of themselves,” with prose that was too ornate or clever. Often times she came across passages that drew too much attention to themselves, forcing readers to stop and decipher them, interrupting the flow of the narrative. In short, the art got in the way of Angel’s true voice and buried her emotional journey, and Leavitt dedicated subsequent revisions to making her words more straightforward.
“A love, a language, a Rosetta stone and a little artlessness were what I needed in my attempt at both beauty and belief,” Leavitt concluded. “Eventually the story made me both strong and happy, that if someone looks and doesn’t look away, one finds God everywhere.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)