Evelyn Lau started to write when she was six years old in 1977; at fourteen, her self-described obsession with writing led her to run away from her Chinese Canadian family, who did not permit her to pursue this passion. Keeping journals and penning poetry kept Lau’s spirit alive while she descended into a nightmare world of juvenile prostitution, rampant drug abuse, and homelessness.
Lau left the streets at sixteen, and wrote Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989, 1995) about her experience. She also published her first collection of poetry, You Are Not Who You Claim, in which her harrowing ordeals find artistic expression. The persona of Lau’s poetry is often a woman who resembles Lau, and her voice hauntingly evokes the mostly futile search for human warmth and genuine affection in a nightmare adult world.
In Lau’s poetry and fiction, lovemaking can end sadly. Thus, “Two Smokers” ends on a note of complete alienation: While the sleeping lover of the persona “gropes at the wall” and “finds flesh in his dreams,” the woman “watches the trail of smoke” from her cigarette “drift towards the ceiling,/ hesitate, fall apart.”
The haunting lucidity, freshness of imagination, and stunning power of Lau’s writings have earned for her important literary prizes. Her first poetry collection won the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry award, and her second collection, Oedipal Dreams, which contains many interrelated poems reflecting on a young woman’s relationship with her married psychiatrist and lover, was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor. Perhaps most important, Lau’s youth has given her writing a sharp awareness of the startling coexistence of mainstream and alternative lifestyles. Her poems and stories feature many a professional man who shows pictures of his children to the teenage sex worker whom he has hired to be his dominatrix. Similarly, the persona of In the House of Slaves watches a squirrel as a customer drips hot wax on her body. As has the author, the main character of In the House of Slaves has lived simultaneously in the world of pop culture adolescence and in hell.