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Poetic License

Personal meets political in Amber Dawn’s memoir of a hustler

How do you follow a debut novel that was dubbed a cult classic in the making? If you’re Amber Dawn, acclaimed author of Sub Rosa, it’s with a brilliant warts-and-all memoir. How Poetry Saved My Life (Arsenal Pulp Press) tells the story of Dawn’s former life as a sex worker in Vancouver using a magical mix of poetry, prose and polemic. She spoke to IN Toronto about what inspired the book, and the transformative power of writing it.

What moved you to write a more personal book after Sub Rosa?
The book’s title, How Poetry Saved My Life, is by no means figurative. It quite literally addresses the primary impetus for writing this book. Creative writing—especially poetry and memoir—has been both my lifeline and the thread that connects me with a larger community of voices, in particular those of other women, survivors and queer folks. My own voice is that of a queer sex worker—an experiential identity that is often misunderstood. It is my goal to make issues of sex work and sexuality more tangible and human. I’m pretty tired of seeing that the majority of writing about sex workers is academic or critical narratives, rather than narratives of experience. I also want to demonstrate that marginalized or queer stories are literary stories. I feel a sense of duty and a joy in speaking up.

How did the book come together?
Well, I certainly did not say to myself, ‘I want to write a mixed genre prose and poetry book about sex work.’ I have read a number of sex-work memoirs—some that I treasure and some that I feel sensationalize sex work—and I knew that I wasn’t capable of writing my story with a traditional narrative structure. I don’t think that most people’s lives are that tidy, and mine certainly isn’t.
I started writing bits and pieces, mostly therapeutic literature at first. Then, I wrote pieces to submit to sex worker anthologies or other feminist publications. I would often write just to be included in any publication or festival with other sex workers’ voices. I was so desperate to be a part of a vital conversation that is all too often silenced or stigmatized. And eventually realized I had a book’s worth of writing. I’m grateful that my memoir was written over a longer period of time. It gave me time to reflect upon and reconcile with my experiences, and to truly stand proud with my story.

Female empowerment is a thread that runs through the book. How did you maintain such a strong sense of your own sexual identity?
I credit other women authors for allowing me to draw inspiration from them. Beth Goobie, Lynn Crosby, Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Barbara Gowdy, Hiromi Goto, Persimmon Blackbridge are some Canadian authors I adore. What do all these authors have in common, you may ask? They all unflinchingly understand that complex identities and sexualities and literature make wonderful companions. I wanted to be balls-to-the-wall sharp and strong like these authors. As a writer (and a human) I am keenly interested in the relationship between empowerment and vulnerability. I’ve explored this relationship so darn much that “tough” and “tender” have become synonymous for me. If I want to show my reader strength, I must show them true vulnerability.

What was it like being a lesbian in the world of sex work?
Being a queer femme has meant that I have the privilege of being part of a community of social justice-minded folks. I have been out about being a sex worker for a very long time, largely due to the inclusive nature of my communities. I also love that my communities are keen on mentoring and information and skill sharing. This queer cultural value of peer-to-peer support has really helped me face some barriers, like doing my taxes or completing my grad school application. There are certainly anti-sex-work lesbians in our communities, too, but I have a highly developed knack for blocking out bullsh*t and focusing on loving ally-ship.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?
I wrote this book with sex workers and survivors in mind. I think a sex worker is one of many examples of a stigmatized identity where the speaker—in this case, me—takes a risk and sticks their neck out to tell a story. So I wrote with those brave voices in mind. Further to this, I consider the majority of us to be brave voices. The survivor in me sees the survivor in so many of us. And so, if an entire population, like sex workers, is made silent or stigmatized, then who else is also being made invisible? Many of us receive societal messages that it’s not safe to present our whole selves. So what I hope readers will take from the book is less of an understanding of the politics of sex work, but for them to hear the call to speak up. I spoke up about sex work (and am all the better for it) and likewise they may choose to speak up about themselves.