Growing up near the Crystal Beach Amusement Park in Fort Erie, Ontario, is a source of nostalgia for Amber Dawn. This mood, in fact, fed the writing of her sophomore novel, Sodom Road Exit, a chosen-family drama and ghost story set in 1990, the year after the park’s closure.
Reached via the titular highway offramp, Crystal Beach was, according to the author and advocate, “kind of a counterculture in its own way. And I’m very interested in countercultures, or in communities that operate outside of the mainstream. Amusement parks and amusement park people,” she adds, “aren’t necessarily folks that fit into more mainstream quote-unquote normal urban centres.”
Drawing on personal history is customary for Amber Dawn, who has now written four books marked by their candour and creativity. But, she tells the Straight over tea in Gastown, “going back to a place of childhood has been something that I always felt I would do, once I matured as a writer.”
In Sodom Road Exit, 23-year-old Starla Mia Martin moves back to her mother’s house in Crystal Beach in a bid for solvency. Coming off a stint in Toronto, where she explored her queer identity and nurtured a love of arts and culture, the University of Toronto dropout resents returning to the scene of her painful adolescence.
“Once upon a time, the village was famous,” Starla reflects on her hometown. “Or between the twenty-fourth of May and Labour Day we were famous. Known throughout Erie and Niagara Counties in New York State, as well as around Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, we were famous for the largest dance floor in North America, the most terrifying roller coaster, allegedly, in the world.”
Similar to Sub Rosa, Amber Dawn’s 2010 debut novel, which received a Lamda Literary Award, Sodom Road Exit uses the supernatural to address survivorship and sex work. (Amber Dawn, a Vancouver resident since 1992, details her experience in the trade in the 2013 book How Poetry Saved My Life, which won the City of Vancouver Book Award.)
Attempting to start over, and haunted by previous trauma, Starla encounters Etta, the ghost of a queer woman, an escort who died some half-century earlier during a ride on the Crystal Beach Cyclone coaster. “I needed that ghost almost as a supernatural intervention,” Amber Dawn says, “to get Starla where she needed to go, and also to get me as a writer to be able to go into that tough content and write it.”
The classic comedy His Girl Friday and lesbian archives, notes Amber Dawn, who is also co–artistic director of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, were key to building Etta’s voice, a theatrical mix of period and queer jargon. Still, despite the focus on Starla and Etta, it was Hal, a struggling alcoholic, that she most enjoyed writing.
Bobby and Rose—respectively, Hal’s wife and a grieving mother, both of whom Starla befriends while working at a local campground—occupied a larger role than Amber Dawn first intended. The “chosen-family mother-daughter dynamic that was happening there became extremely important to me,” Amber Dawn says. “Chosen family and intergenerational women became an unexpected theme I didn’t know when I started out.”
Of the three genres she writes in—fiction, memoir, and poetry—Amber Dawn names the last as the one that gives her the greatest pleasure. (Her 2015 collection, Where the words end and my body begins, was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.) “I feel the most joyful and grounded and connected to the world around me when I am writing poetry. I feel like writing a novel makes me strange, moody, isolated,” she says, laughing. “All the bad clichés of an artist, I become those clichés.”
In the novel, as she develops a romance with Tamara, an exotic dancer and former high-school classmate, Starla repurposes Etta’s demands for what she perceives as the good of her newly established support circle. Amber Dawn wanted to interrogate the idea of a hero’s quest—“Who are these stories typically about? How are they portrayed in the mainstream?”—and has written a tale about finding kinship and solace in a place that has seen its best days pass.
Each of her volumes offers her courage and clarity to further delve into signature themes. Mentoring within the Downtown Eastside sex-worker community, Amber Dawn notices the “very clinical, unemotional ways of personal storytelling. I think this is the way we destroy each other,” she says. “We reduce story to tick boxes and reports. If my goal is to work against that—and that is my goal—then my books have to be in conversation with each other.…To me, this is the antidote to having our stories be stigmatized or reduced—is to create a body of work that can all talk to, and gain momentum and strength from, each other, so that the essence of each of those books that I’ve written collectively comes together.
“And they’re elevating something that I value,” she continues. “And I’ll keep doing that.”