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Transformative fiction

Author Amber Dawn talks about asking the hard questions, coming out as a sex worker and speculative fiction

Amber Dawn’s debut novel, Sub Rosa, is one of my favourite books of 2010. The Globe and Mail agreed, naming it one of the best 100 books published in Canada in 2010. Sub Rosa is described by Dawn’s publisher as a “beautiful and gutsy allegory of our times, a fairy-tale-like fantasia imbued with a grave, unapologetic realness.”

It’s also fearless, imaginative and unlike anything else I read in 2010. And I read a lot of novels. I also write novels and write about the book industry as a journalist for Quill & Quire magazine. That’s why I’m your books columnist. Hello!

Dawn is a Vancouver-based writer, filmmaker and performance artist, editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, and she’s a contributor to Arsenal Pulp’s upcoming anthology Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. She has toured with the infamous Sex Workers’ Art Show in the US. She was voted Xtra Vancouver’s Hero of the Year in 2008.

Dawn’s award-winning, genderfuck docu-porn Girl on Girl has been screened in eight countries and added to the gender studies curriculum at Concordia University. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and works as the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

I asked Amber a few questions over email.

Zoe Whittall: I think you did a fantastic job of writing a literary novel that incorporates elements of magical realism, without making the realistic and emotional experiences of Little any less real. Was it difficult to balance the real and the surreal?

Amber Dawn: Thank you, Zoe. In no way to contradict your generous comment, I want to begin by saying that the tropes, devices or even formulas used in magical realism — I’ll say speculative fiction (SF) here — do not put the writing or the story within at risk of being “storybook” or anything short or sharp, provocative and relevant. It’s no different than say, form poetry (metre, repetition, rhyme); antiquated or saccharine writing that we might associate with rhyming verse isn’t intrinsic form poetry.

It really depends on the writer and the readers. It’s up to the writer to understand and utilize the strengths of the genre. I believe it is the task of a strong SF writer to tempt the reader just far enough outside of our world to really be able to look critically at our world, to challenge the dominate culture, and to give readers permission to feel something that they may not be attuned to in day-to-day life. And the readers, it’s up to them to decide what they want in an SF novel. Do they want to be entertained or to probe current social dilemmas or something in between?

I’m weighing in on SF because I, myself, was resistant to the genre at first. Writing speculative and romance genre fiction was discouraged at my university’s creative writing department and, as a late boomer as a reader and a writer, I felt I needed to catch up on the Western canon and Canadian literature. Feminism brought me around to SF.

I became interested in subgenre SF, like separatist utopias, afrofuturism, post-colonial science fiction, gaylactica, queer fear, lesbian vampire fiction, neo pulp — SF that acknowledges and celebrates intersectional feminism (or feminism concerned with the intersection of race, class, gender). I eagerly read books by Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Monique Wittig, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Martel, Nalo Hopkinson, Shani Mootoo, Larissa Lai and Hiromi Goto. It’s an aesthetic movement lead by people of colour, women and queer writers.

I’ve never had much of a head for theory, even though I know that there are scores of great feminist thinkers who have likely influenced me and the world we live in in ways I’m not fully cognizant of. But the truth is, reading Judith Butler hurts my eyes after several pages. So I can’t contribute much to the theory [that] gender is an involuntary performance. However, I could go on and on about the significance of gender reversal and male pregnancy in Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild. Is it really so different?

When I began to write SF it was transformative for me as a writer. I felt I had the freedom to say anything. Suddenly the grave and deeply feminist content I’d been tackling had a truly unique and creative realm to unfold. SF allowed me to turn unthinkable questions into extraordinary questions. In Sub Rosa I ask, Why do women go missing? Why is something as morally despicable as underage prostitution so grossly prevalent in our society? If runaway girls were offered power, what would this power actually look like? Who will remember the lives of the most vulnerable? Questions that pretty much kill the conversation at dinner parties. Believe me, I know [that] through experience.

What is remarkable is that readers follow me through this seemingly grim exploration. They follow because the hard questions are couched in magic, imagination, fantastic alternatives and bewitching scenarios. I couldn’t have written this story of runaway, sexually exploited young women without the magic. I couldn’t have addressed the real without the surreal. It would have been too painful of an endeavour for me and would likely also have been undesirable to publishers and appealing to a very limited audience.

As for the authenticity of the emotional experiences in Sub Rosa, I can chalk that up to the very first rule of writing: write what you know. Similarly to my protagonist, Little, I know risks and trappings of being a teenage runaway girl. On an emotional level, this book is likely the closest I’ll get to writing an autobiography.

ZW: Books about teen runaways with experiences in the sex trade are often lumped together into a sort of genre unto themselves. I think Sub Rosa really stands out as an example of an imaginative and particular narrative of survival that doesn’t play to the stereotypes but also doesn’t oversell it.  Were you at any time worried about those stereotypical plot points and how to avoid them?

Amber Dawn: At the crux of Sub Rosa is a story about how trauma or neglect can estrange one from oneself. Dissociation, fantasizing or mental “escape” are well-documented psychological coping strategies of people undergoing prolonged stress. I am very interested in exploring how our imaginations protect us in times of hardship. Little, the teenage heroine, is so dispossessed from [what you and I would hope to be] a befitting youth that she has forgotten her own name. From this place of utter stress-induced dissociation she enters a fantasy world, the micro-society run by influential and powerful sex workers.

I aimed to create a story that just about everyone — even those who may tend to feel phobic towards sex work — could empathize with on some level. I hope that readers get invested in the same things that other successful stories offer: a pathos-evoking protagonist, an inciting moment that leads to a call to action, a journey to find oneself and truth.

While writing I was constantly concerned about how to “invite people in,” to get them close to Sub Rosa’s characters. I made sure that the reader did not know more about the world of Sub Rosa than the protagonist did; I didn’t want the reader to be smarter than or superior to Little. I wanted readers to need to be close to Little in order to cope with Sub Rosa themselves.

I’m not sure if the characterization of Little or the use of constant, almost bombarding, visual imagery helped me avoid teen/runaway/sex worker stereotypes. [However], the issues of sex work and exploited youth being so very near to my heart made me utterly scared to produce a “dancing bear” book about sex work.

ZW: Did you always know you wanted to be out about your experiences in the sex trade when you did media for the book? How has that worked for you, and why was it important?

Amber Dawn: “Coming out” is part of my feminist practice. I believe coming out about our marginal or vulnerable histories, in particular sex work, helps dispel stigma and gives people an opening to talk about the issue. It isn’t always easy to be the “ex-prostitute” standing in front of a classroom or mingling at a writers’ festival lounge. But it’s been five years since I exited the sex trade, and I’m certainly in a safe and privileged position to come out. The women authors who disclosed sex work histories before me — like Evelyn Lau and Michelle Tea — offered me a lot of courage in this respect.

Who knows if this personal disclosure will help or hurt my literary career. One thing that I am sure of is that my most cherished and esteemed reading of Sub Rosa was for a small group of young women trying to exit the sex trade. They were part of a peer-driven, art therapy–based support group. Their group leader read a review of Sub Rosa in The Georgia Straight and invited me to join them for a reading and creative-writing workshop.

If no other audience reads Sub Rosa or anything else I write, it’s these girls whom I want to reach.


“Zoe Whittall might just be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler…” The Globe and Mail

To keep up with all the great things Zoe is up to, check out her blog.



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