Book Review: Red Zone

“The Language of Unerasure”: Red Zone by Kim Goldberg

redzone-coverAn empty mattress. A field of flowers all around. The image is startling, surreal, unexpected, and a little beautiful.

  But on closer look, the field is shown to be just a vacant lot. The graffiti-scrawled back wall of some anonymous urban structure comes into focus as the scene’s backdrop. The blooms framing sky over the tattered sleeping place are really just weeds. 

  The distinction between weed and flower though is only one of tamed sanction, versus an unplanned springing forth. It doesn’t lessen the beauty or the power of the image caught in the pages of Kim Goldberg’s recently released book, Red Zone.

  Red Zone, is a politically aware, multimedia project: a mixture of photographs (many of them pictures of the graffiti found throughout Nanaimo’s downtown) and poetry.  Red Zone was initially inspired by the area in downtown Nanaimo known by the same name. “The red zone” is a law enforcement area/device that, according to open city council minutes, “provides a no tolerance approach to removing illicit activities and those involved”.  In order to be banned from appearing in the proscribed area, a person doesn’t have to be convicted of an offence, only charged with one. 

  The graffiti documented in Red Zone is a form of public communication. Like advertising, a different, but commonly accepted type of communication; it decks the sides of public structures and is often highly visible. Unlike advertising, it speaks a personal message (“your forever missed gorgeous”), doesn’t exist within the confines of dominant culture, and, much like some of the people whose experiences are shared through it, is constantly being removed, and covered up, to appear, often back in exactly the same spot. “The language of / unerasure (no matter how many times / it is obliterated)”, writes Goldberg. “The language /of being / of existence / of We Are Here”.

  The poems and pictures in Red Zone tell stories of our city, as seen through weeds and vacant lots. They give a voice to people who have little power; those who are living without society’s approval, and frequently, without even society‘s notice. We often take it for granted that there is a person sleeping in this doorway or that alleyway. After all, every city has these same sights. They have become as much a part of everyday urban scenery as the weeds that sway and bend in the wind in the vacant lots, or beside the train tracks, or around an abandoned mattress. “Walking to the Library”, for instance, is a familiar journey to many of us. The version of that journey shared through Goldberg’s eyes is fresh and poetic: “A kingfisher rips the blue off winter”; precisely observed: “just past the Rimini Estates (own a piece of nature / downtown!) …”; and focuses on the side of life in Nanaimo that many people barely think about; “…there is an unspoken rule that safeguards /each cart from bedroll pirates self deputized/clean up crews, bicycle police, bored teens (you don’t go / messing with another man’s buggy in these parts pardner”.

  In her book, Goldberg uses the city to contextualize the complex, interrelated stories of all its inhabitants: “only a city is big enough to hold this”. Within this urban framework, she emphasizes the innate worth of each life lived there “blood shushing past valves”, “light shushing cross galaxies”.

  Red Zone, is a unique book that spans the genres of autobiography, political writing, photography, and poetry. Deborah Torkko, an instructor at Vancouver Island University, decided to use it as a textbook for an English course after going to a launch and hearing Goldberg read. Torkko says, “her [Goldberg’s] book restores dignity and grace to people whose lives have suffered, and reminds us that the personal is political and vice versa.”


Lia Light is a freelance writer, student and assistant editor of Synergy.