A feminist, activist, queer, femme, teacher and writer, Amber Dawn is a Vancouver-based, award-winning writer, receiving the Lambda Award for her debut novel Sub Rosa. Dawn uses her latest book, How Poetry Saved My life: A Hustler’s Memoir, to write about her past as a sex worker on Vancouver’s east side.
Originally from Ontario, Dawn left prostitution and pursued her passion for writing in the late ’90s. Dawn studied for eight years, achieving a masters degree in creative writing from UBC, and now teaches at Douglas College and UBC.
In her memoir, Dawn takes readers into a comfortable, more human place of her experience as a sex worker.
I sat down with Dawn at the Wilder Snail in Strathcona, a close-knit community placed between Vancouver’s east side and downtown area, to talk about sex work, feminism, her new book and being queer.
Sarah SchuchardDo you find there is a social stigma when people talk to you about prostitution?
Amber Dawn: I do find that prostitution is something that’s talked about so little that there tends to be the two kinds of sex workers. That’s sort of the victim, or wildly sexual “happy hooker” kind of identity. It’s hard for people to imagine anything outside of those two opposites. But, I think that people always want to see outside of that black and white. They really do, they just might not have the tools to. So often times I feel that people have started with a bit of a, poor you, sort of stance. I can acknowledge that, that comes a place of concern, and then hopefully try to shift them into just having a more broad, human way to relate to it, as opposed to pity. Pity comes from a well-intended place, right. I don’t blame people for having pity, but it doesn’t help people necessarily see each other as fully human.
SS: Your memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life, came out in April. How has the touring experience been?
AD: Normally with the book cycle after the spring launch, you know, by late summer it’s kind of over; things start to quiet down. But, I had the good fortune of being invited to the Victoria Writers’ Festival and the Vancouver Writers’ Festivals. So, I feel like it gave me the second chance to tour with the book and meet audience members and to talk to people. I’m up for a Vancouver Book Award right now, which is a really nice thing to happen after the book has been out for several months. That book still feels really close to me. Content-wise, I don’t think sex work or the downtown eastside can be mention in a book or even a conversation without it becoming a much larger conversation. So, I find I’m really talking to people about this book a lot more than my first book.
SS: Did a lot of past emotions come up during the writing process for the memoir?
AD: I didn’t revisit pain, I guess. I didn’t feel ashamed. I don’t really have many regrets. My emotional process was more like imagining myself as a reader, and how is the reader going to take in this information. Is it going to be too intense for them? Is it going to be too alienating for them? Like, my goal was to bring the reader as close to my experience as a way that was comfortable and palatable for them as possible, still with all the sex and some violence and the marginalization. But I didn’t want my story to alienate. So a lot of my process before I put the book out was like, how to I get the reader comfortable with who I am and what I have been through.”
SS: In your memoir, you talk about the labels that you fall under. Do you feel there is empowerment in certain labels?
AD: It is a multi-sided coin I would say, even more than a two-sided coin, if I was to use that metaphor. Well, first of all it depends on the user. I think there is a sense of empowerment in choosing what we want to call ourselves. From the minute we’re born, we’re automatically given two names, perhaps more, that we didn’t choose … like gender, our given name, our birth name, perhaps any other religious or cultural tradition that we’re born into immediately, and for many of us that is a gift. We receive that gift at birth and it’s a gift that we keep throughout our lives and honor, and then for others it’s a longer journey, of saying what I’ve been labelled or given at birth doesn’t suit me. I’m going to explore gender, I’m going to explore my belief system, I’m going to explore my sexuality.
I think that journey can be really empowering, it can also be an intense journey for some people. It can bring up a lot, it involves a lot of courage, and then, if other people start to weigh in, it gets even more tumultuous. Say, for example, I’m on my journey, and I want to explore gender, and I take on a word like genderqueer and I say I am a genderqueer femme, which is the name I’ve called myself, and people say you’re not that, you’re just a femme. It can be both; it can be a lot of things. From a strictly feminist perspective, I think that people should have the right to call themselves, call their body parts, call their beliefs, what they want to call it. Naming is a great tradition, but it seems that we never get to do that as a solo project.
SS: What led you to label yourself as queer?
AD: I like the pause that the word queer has caused historically, maybe not so much now. Perhaps more in Vancouver, and East Vancouver, people have become a bit acclimatized to the word queer, so it doesn’t cause people to stop and wonder about that word. But I think that queer has been an uncomfortable word for a lot of people, a word that makes us say, “Well, what exactly does that mean?” Whereas gay, for example, we’ve come to associate with a strictly homosexual identity, particularly [an identity based on] men who love men, and men who are openly partnered with men. But, queer is kind of like, what is that really? What does it mean to be queer? It’s sort of a movable definition, which I really like, and admittedly I like that bit of discomfort. It’s not like I want to make people feel uncomfortable, but I like the discomfort because it draws attention to itself.
What made you go back into school?
AD: I love learning. I always saw school as the big prize. At first, it was a foggy, distant dream. I wasn’t sure what I would major in, and then it just occurred to me that I could write, Like people go to school to learn to become good writers and good communicators. That’s all I wanted, that’s all I wanted for a long time. I started writing in the ’90s and I was hooked, absolutely hooked. I’ve cleared a lot of things from my life away, just to be able to focus on writing.