By Tiffany Johnstone
Amber Dawn (1974-) is quickly becoming a Canadian icon as a Vancouver-based award-winning experimental writer, filmmaker, performance artist, and outspoken advocate for women, members of the LGBT community, and sex workers. Dawn’s cutting edge, humanizing portraits of Vancouver’s sex work community express her longstanding activism. She is very open about her own conflicting and overlapping identities as a retired sex worker who self-identifies as a queer feminist activist. In literature, she is a triple threat as a writer of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Her life, art, and politics infuse a feminist poetics.
Born in 1974, Dawn was raised in the small community of Crystal Beach in Fort Erie, Ontario. She describes her parents as American hippies and war resisters who left New York and crossed the border in 1969 to settle on land in Fort Erie bought as a “sanctuary” with friends (Memoir 125-126). After graduating from high school in 1992, Dawn felt restless and out of place in small town Ontario and, in a classic gesture of youthful ennui, left with a visiting carnival to travel around North America. Like many youth, she gravitated to the climate and politics of the west coast where she spent many years as a Vancouver sex worker on the streets and in massage parlours, while actively engaging in community activism and securing a liberal arts degree and an MFA in creative writing at UBC (140). She eventually retired from sex work to focus on her writing and activism.
Dawn’s film Girl on Girl: A Documentary premiered at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in 2004 where it won the Zed People’s Choice Short Film Award, and was then screened at international festivals and incorporated into the gender studies program at Concordia University (Yuen). Along with Vancouver writer and activist Trish Kelly, she also co-edited the short-story collection, With A Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (2005). Her first novel, the supernatural fantasy called Sub Rosa, was published in 2010 (2011 in the United States). This volume, which was based on her own experience in sex work, went on to win a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Debut Fiction from the Lambda Literary Foundation. Dawn’s next effort was rather different, the editing of an anthology of horror stories, Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire (2009). It was similarly nominated for a Lambda. In 2012, she was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize presented to an emerging LGBT author by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. From 2008 to 2012, Dawn worked as the program director at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. In 2013, she began teaching ‘speculative fiction,’ an umbrella term for different types of supernatural literature, at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC. In 2013, she published the explicitly autobiographical How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which reflects on sex work, activism, and art, and survival in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES), a community that she suggests we collectively exploit, repress, and stigmatize. She remains an author, activist, and teacher.
Dawn has an impressive grassroots track record. She promotes an intersectional feminist perspective that takes into account race, class, and sexual orientation. Her contributions challenge a city that has become notorious for sex trafficking and violence against sex workers. She is frank about the stigmas associated with prostitution even within lesbian and activist communities. In 1995, she was part of a feminist anti-violence collective in Vancouver that she remembers as anti-sex workers, despite her resistance (Memoir 51). In time, however, she also witnessed feminist activists gradually acknowledge and participate in sex work advocacy (Memoir 51). Dawn lived through the disappearance of addict and sex worker Sheila Catherine Egan (1978-?) and the horrific murder of her friend Shelby Tom (1963-2003). The death of Tom, an Asian transgender sex worker, highlighted the complex forms of prejudice experienced by sex workers.
In response to the difficulties of being taken seriously as an advocate of sex worker rights, Dawn carved out what she describes as her own multifaceted “ghetto feminism, a street social justice” (Memoir 46). This saw her doing outreach work during outbreaks of diseases such as hepatitis and syphilis and working with immigrant sex workers (Memoir 52). She participated in the Change the [Criminal] Code Committee, an activist group that championed decriminalizing prostitution (Memoir 53). In 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008, Dawn travelled throughout the United States with the Sex Workers’ Art Show, an activist performance art group run by participants in the sex industry (Yuen). She has won multiple awards for activism, including the Hero of the Year award from the Vancouver LGBT newspaper, Xtra! West in 2008.
Her landmark volume How Poetry Saved My Life joins modern classics such as Angela Davis’ Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974), Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed (1973), and Evelyn Lau’s Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989), which mark autobiography as a site of personal and collective liberation. How Poetry Saved My Life challenges readers to rethink assumptions about sex work, our cities and ourselves. Combining poetry and essays, it avoids a homogenous or linear narrative structure. Very importantly, she refuses to succumb to clichés of sensationalism or sympathy despite the powerfully dramatic story of personal survival and artistic and political growth. Stopping in the midst of her account of a narrow escape from a violent John shortly before she retires from the street trade, she asks the “dear reader” not “to worry about [her] life” (Memoir 117). She continues, “[r]emember that pity is an emotion that doesn’t really get us anywhere. And we (you and I) will get somewhere with this, won’t we?” (Memoir 117). Dawn interrupts the passive voyeurism and consumption involved with the sex trade, making us recognize how easy it is to be complicit in dehumanizing sex workers. Instead, she invites identification and engagement with the daily realities of women in the trade, and a sense of the complexity—the ups and downs, the strengths and vulnerabilities—that she lived and witnessed first hand.
In the fallout of endemic violence against women in the DTES, with its dozens of related serial killings and unsolved disappearances, Dawn asks her audiences to recognize that challenging collective trauma requires acknowledgement and mourning (Memoir 117). This does not mean passive (and passing) judgment or sympathy, but rather sustained listening, debate, and dialogue. In a move that echoes influential humanitarians such as Canadian Jean Vanier (1928-) and even Mother Teresa (1910-1997), she argues in her essay entitled “How to Bury Our Dead,” that humanizing society’s most stigmatized is the first step towards restoring our common humanity and forging a humane society. Silence in the face of violence is in fact complicity and Dawn’s story invites us to break that silence.
Bartley, Jim. “Amber Dawn’s New Memoir a Subtly Pitched Call to Arms.” The Globe and Mail. Phillip Crawley. 24 May. 2013. Web. 16 July. 2013.
Dawn, Amber. “Does a Lesbian Need a Vagina Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle? Or, Would the ‘Real’ Lesbian Please Stand Up!” Canadian Woman Studies 24.2 (2005): 92-101.
– – -. How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013.
– – -. Interview by Leah Horlick. Radar Productions. N.p. 6 March. 2013. Web. 16 July. 2013.
—. Sub Rosa. Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2010.
Takeuchi, Craig. “Amber Dawn Leaves Vancouver Queer Film Festival for Literary Life.” Straight.com. Vancouver Free Press. 27 August. 2012. 16 July. 2013.
Yuen, Joanna. “Joanna Yuen on Amber Dawn. Amber Dawn Dances the Vivacious Life of a Queer Editor. Joanna Yuen Spotlights her Amazing Talents.” Douglass College. N.p. October. 2010. Web. 16 July. 2013.
*This quote comes from Leah Horlick’s interview with Amber Dawn in which Dawn states: “Writing is activism. There’s no other reason for me to write nonfiction, I think, than making some sort of statement that I hope will help the communities that I have in mind when I’m writing.”