Skip to main content
on culture

A straight-up cup of coffee will cost you almost $3.50 at the chic café next to Pigeon Park, where Amber Dawn sits marking her students' papers. She is pretty sure that some 15 years ago, when she lived across the street – you can see her old building through the large window she is sitting next to – this place was a fried chicken joint.

"You could get chicken and fries and a pickle for five bucks or something like that," she says. "I remember I loved coming here because the old men that hung out here told me I looked like Marilyn Monroe. I was blonde at the time and I'd be like, 'Yeah, I do; buy me some chicken.'"

As the Downtown Eastside has changed, so has Ms. Dawn's life – from small-town Ontario girl to Vancouver sex trade worker to poet, author, teacher.

She tells her story in How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir.

It is not a detailed, chronological read. The thin volume of poems and essays is thick with truths rather than facts, with passages that express much with few words – about how she came to writing, the women in her life (Ms. Dawn is a lesbian), her sex work.

"… I have been asked many times how this 'prostitution thing' happened to me. Often the question is augmented with what I am meant to take as a compliment: How did this 'prostitution thing' happen to such a nice girl/such a smart girl/an exceptional girl/a girl with such potential?" reads one passage.

In an interview, Ms. Dawn, now 39, filled out the details of her life only hinted at between the lines of her book. She grew up in Fort Erie, Ont., in the Crystal Beach community, with its famous amusement park. Her father was a ride operator before becoming a teacher.

She left town at 17 and made her way to Vancouver. She is very matter-of-fact about how she got into prostitution. With no job and little money, it was difficult to resist the constant propositions she received near her East Vancouver home.

"What would the average person say if they're living so close to the bone? I was never homeless and I'm so thankful for that, but it took everything I had to be able to stay inside," she explains. "I think that many people, if they were given the option: do you want a meal today for a service, a moment that will take maybe 15 minutes, what will you do? Most people are going to choose the meal. It's just survival."

As she continued her sex work, she also gave serious thought to the things she wanted out of life – chief among them, an education.

She was making good money, with some wealthy regular clients. She saved up, stashing cash in her apartment. (To this day, she says, she will take a book from the shelf and find a $100 bill inside.)

Where once she had typed résumés on a typewriter from a dumpster, she was able to buy a computer at London Drugs.

Looking for a trade, she studied theatre at Douglas College, thinking she would go into lighting design. She had to take a theatre history course and write a short play. Her instructor told her she could write. She took a poetry course. She was introduced to the work of poet Kate Braid and became a devotee.

In Ms. Braid, she found a champion. Ms. Dawn – still in her fried chicken days – signed up for Ms. Braid's summer poetry class at UBC and excelled. Ms. Braid wrote her a glowing letter of reference. Ms. Dawn got her MFA in creative writing at UBC. The money she earned as a prostitute helped put her through school; she often paid in cash. "I lived the double life," she says. Her professors knew, she believes, based on what she wrote about – sex work, addiction. Her clients knew too. "They knew that they were becoming patrons of the [arts]," she laughs.

A very bad date in an ocean-view house documented in the memoir helped her give up the work for good. Five years ago, she met Ms. Right. They got married last year.

She published her first book, the novel Sub Rosa, in 2010. She won awards.

She faced writing the memoir – exposing her life without the armour of the fiction label – with some trepidation.

"I thought about my family, I thought about my wife, I thought about what it will be like just to go to my neighbourhood coffee shop and know that other people have read this book. But I also thought … I have been given a platform. I'm not going to neglect it."

Next week, Ms. Dawn will be at the Vancouver Writers Fest with the memoir – which was recently nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. She now teaches creative writing at Douglas College and undergrad poetry at UBC. She is working on her third book.

"I got very lucky," she says. "The moment I screamed for help, there were people looking out for me. … Not everyone's heard when they write a poem and certainly not everyone's heard when they ask for help. So I understand how privileged I am."