Amber Dawn on Writing a Contemporary Ghost Story
Author: Nahshon Dion
September 18, 2018
Amber Dawn is a writer and creative facilitator that resides on unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, Canada). Sub Rosa, Dawn’s debut novel, won the 2010 Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction and the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize. Her memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (2013) won the Vancouver Book Award, and she was a 2015 finalist for BC Book Award’s Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for Where the words end and my body begins, a poetry collection. Presently, she teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and is a guest mentor at several drop-in, community-driven spaces in the Downtown Eastside.
Dawn’s sophomore novel, Sodom Road Exit was published this spring. The unorthodox novel is simultaneously a snapshot of Generation X malaise, a character focused supernatural thriller, and an examination of unresolved trauma. The novel’s debt-ridden protagonist Starla Mia Martin returns to her economically depressed hometown to live with her difficult mother, after dropping out of college. But her economic and familial inspired angst soon take a back seat to a literal haunting. An uncanny supernatural force begins to trouble Starla’s already upended life; pushing her to come to terms with startling and unsettled emotional wounds.
Dawn took some time to talk with The Lambda Literary Review about her new novel, her work advocating for sex workers, and her upcoming writing projects.
While you were growing up was literature a dominant part of your life? Do you recall the first books you feel in love with?
I was a back-of-the-class kind of kid. “C” grades all the way—just enough to pass. “What was your favourite book as a child or youth?” is a fairly popular interview question, and I always answer The Chrysalids by John Wyndham because it is literally the only book I remember reading in elementary or high school.
I moved to Vancouver at age seventeen. I was still too young to get into any of bars, but there was Little Sisters Bookstore. I first visited Little Sisters in a state of hyper excitement. Was everyone in the store queer, like me? What did queer people say to each other when in a room together? I raced through the aisles, not letting my eyes focus on any one book or product, and I left without purchasing a thing. A few visits later, I took a deep breath and picked up Jeanette Winterson’s quintessential lesbian novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The staff person at the counter told me I had made a good choice as she slid the book into a brown paper bag.
My love for books grew from there, alongside my queerness. The first authors I fell in love with were Sky Lee, Larissa Lai, Sapphire, Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, and Gregory Scofield.
We met in spring 2013 at Audacia Ray’s Red Umbrella Project, an NYC-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of sex workers and strives to empower them by giving them a voice. You visited and discussed your book, How Poetry Saved My Life. How did you become involved with Red Umbrella Project?
In 2005, 2006 and 2008 (damn, that seems so long ago!) I toured with the Sex Workers Art Show, which was a national sex workers’ cabaret-style tour. It was a life-affirming experience and showed me that sex workers truly are genius creative thinkers. I understood then that I wanted to build lifetime connections with other sex worker artists. Audacia Ray and Red Umbrella Project’s Red Up reading series and the publication Prose & Lore brought together some of the best artists ever (yourself included, Nahshon). Sex worker brilliance everywhere.
And, of course, the creative brilliance goes hand-in-hand with justice. A primary tool of oppression is to steal, change, falsify or erase whole populations’ stories and truths, right? A systemic erasure that harms racialized and trans sex workers the most, that is purposefully designed to do ongoing harm. Projects like Red Umbrella, that center sex workers first-hand experiences and stories, are critically needed in the fight for justice.
I have privilege and gradually increasing stability in my life, and my goal is show up as an invited guest or as a witness in sex worker creative communities, to mentor or uplift or listen
Do you feel that your work as a guest mentor at the drop-in communities affects or influences your writing?
Being a guest mentor influences everything about me, being around other artists always brings change and reflection. When I was studying creative writing at university, I learned a lot of narrow and bias ideas of what a writer should be and how we should approach writing and publishing. As a mentor now, I try to lead with an inquiry into how our writing practices can have unique benefits, apart from publishing. How our values, beliefs and identities are actually more important than craft on the page. I encourage writers to embrace process before product—we’re so often valued by what we produce and not for who we are and where we come from.
Your latest novel, Sodom Road Exit probes themes of systemic poverty, trauma, vengeful ghosts, and lesbian desire, all set in a failed amusement park town in the early 1990s. What made you choose that location as the setting?
Crystal Beach, Ontario is the setting of my novel, and it is also where I was born and raised. I grew up with that amusement park, and was fourteen years old when it went bankrupt and shut down. That amusement park shaped who I am. It shaped the whole community where I grew up. After it closed, Crystal Beach did feel like a ghost town. All the boarded-up and abandoned businesses and houses featured in the novel—that’s all real. The big Sodom Road Exit highway sign that leads to Crystal Beach—that’s real. The historic details, like North America’s largest dance hall during the 30s and 40s being located in Crystal Beach, or our Cyclone roller coaster being so terrifying it had to be torn down—those details are real.
What is your personal relationship to fear, trauma, and danger?
I find my childhood, youth and 20s difficult to talk about because I had multiple abusers, and many of my abusers were being hurt themselves. It’s difficult to address trauma and abuse, and I think this is especially true for those of us who experience patterned or systemic trauma. In Sodom Road Exit, I wanted to simplify or “refine” my protagonist’s trauma to give her pain more of a central focus. She has one abuser, who is no longer a part of her life. But as I was writing her narrative, it felt false–too simple. So I channeled the fear and complexity that is more true to trauma into my ghost character. The ghost is something of a metaphor for how complex healing and facing fears actually are.
What should readers expect from Sodom Road Exit?
I hope readers find Sodom Road Exit to be a page-turner—it is a ghost story after all, and a sexy ghost story too. I also wrote it to disrupt the idea that queer life and urban life are synonymous. I wanted show a small, poor community not only as queer-friendly, but as community of different characters, with different traumas and identities, who find ways come together ways and support each other. It’s not an individual hero story like a lot of horror or thriller novels are. The “hero” is a whole community.
What’s your next project?
For my next project, Métis poet and filmmaker Justin Ducharme and I are teaming up to co-edit an anthology of sex workers’ poetry called Hustling Verse, which will be published with Arsenal Pulp Press in fall 2019.