I’ve never met Amber Dawn, but a few years ago, she sent me a box of chocolates. This was not to seek friendship or court favour, but simply because I liked her first book and said so in these pages. In aid of full disclosure, I’ll add that it was a small but unusually memorable box of chocolates, matching unexpected flavours to a base of bitter and sweet – kind of like the book.
That debut, Sub Rosa, scored a Lambda Award for Fiction. Dawn went on to win the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize. It’s gratifying to know that a surreal and allegorical first novel about sex work by a self-defined queer sex worker – a book that broke multiple CanLit templates – can be anointed a certified winner.
The intro to Dawn’s new memoir of mixed prose and poetry describes an experiment she conducted while funding her master of fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia with income from prostitution. In the campus cafeteria, she talked openly about her work to fellow students, spurring few open judgments but nonetheless rendering “everyone uncomfortable and speechless.” Some Canadian templates are unbreakable.
Amber Dawn knows no shame, though she once did. Poetry helped to free her from the burden of censure. An opening poem recalls days when “even simple bird/ song threaten[ed] to tear holes in the sky.” She learned that until you own your narrative (“until you, fabulist, have spoken”) life and health will not grow.
For a time, she lived in a grimy low-rise apartment block by a Vancouver highway. The fractious family of women, some with lesbian lovers, lived by selling sex to men. Dawn was the newbie. “The first time my face was spray-painted black, I learned not to lean inside an open car window.” Fortunately, her doting mentor, Maria, had enough heft “to throw a bar fridge.” Some clients were needy and tender, even seeking tenuous commitment, though on their own terms – so, one more hazard.
While rising in the profession, she grew into an activist. Her reports here come with utter candour, from the front lines of the street and equally from her frustrating or hopeful encounters with social workers, academic feminists and politicians who mostly kept their asses covered. Throughout, Dawn never trades in pathos. Her bottom line is keeping sex workers safe and honouring their humanity, with no concessions to anyone’s hand-wringing morality.
She learned that public meetings about changing the Criminal Code or launching another HIV study offered elusive benefits to women who would be out an hour later with a client. Her modus operandi became “ghetto feminism,” her commitments one-on-one, in real time. “This corner, where I wait for Coco, is the one space where I have learned and shared the most influential tools of my life – listen, witness … be at the ready, and survive.”
Some will open this book seeking thrills, but likely will stay for its honesty, sometimes searing, occasionally comedic. One client told Dawn that he had a surprise in his briefcase, then produced “handcuffs, Tabasco sauce, and a rubber mask that looked like Larry Fine from the Three Stooges.”
Dovetailed with the workplace advisories are riffs on queer – on the relation of erotic commodity to gender, gay/straight, trans, and to the judgments that impede self-love and respect from others. A thoughtful chapter considers what it might mean to expand the idea of queer funerals, of a new ritual that can wrest grief from the control of family, religion and tradition.
Dawn neatly captures the mechanisms of privileged indifference to the suffering of dodgy minorities. “The Royal Mint does not make an Oppression Is Pervasive coin” – and the coinage of social change does not move easily between our moral pillars and the erotic demimonde. In this country, sex work still makes us clutch at our pearls and change the subject. Dawn offers an articulate and much-needed challenge to that collective averted gaze.
I am not a poet, and I believe that poetry requires poet critics, but I’ll say that the poetry here (about a quarter of the book) is often redolent with immediacy and the power to stir sense memory. Dawn’s intimate prose voice enhances the impact.
I might add that, as a whole, the book forms something of a jumble – a collection of parts more than a synthesis. It really ought to be read together with Sub Rosa, a novel that blends storytelling with the poetically surreal in a way that gets deep inside the bruised bodies and hearts, and the unique camaraderie, of women in the trade. How Poetry Saved My Life is every bit as forthright, with the bonus of being a subtly pitched call to arms.
Bartley is the author of the novel Drina Bridge.