Amber Dawn operates with a very specific audience in mind. “I definitely write for women who are struggling,” the author says, “to find something that’s not easy to find.”
This elusive element is a sense of community, some reflection of the self in words on a page. “I can’t tell you the number of women who say, ‘This author saved my life,’ ‘This book changed my life,’ ‘This book got me through a very hard time,’ ” she says. “And I’m one of those people.”
Stepping away from her office at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, where she is director of programming, Amber Dawn has settled into a downtown café to talk with the Straight about the success of her debut novel, Sub Rosa, and the inspirations behind her gratifying writing life.
An easy conversationalist, she speaks with relish when recalling the first literary reading she attended, in the mid ’90s, at the now-closed Lotus. The following years have done little to dull the event’s formative impression, and she lists the presenters—Persimmon Blackbridge, Chrystos, and Lizard Jones—with obvious admiration.
Naming Vancouver author and poet Larissa Lai’s 1995 novel When Fox Is a Thousand as a favourite read, Amber Dawn credits the tale with stirring her own literary pursuits. “It’s such an amazing blend of magical realism and, you know, a very East Van and quite queer story,” she says. “The idea that a writer could mix something so personal and everyday with something so speculative and magical really resonated for me.”
Since Sub Rosa’s publication in 2010, Amber Dawn has reaped acclaim for the night-blooming allegory that portrays a magical district where prostitutes reside, beyond the regimens of the outside world. Among the accolades she has received are the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian debut fiction and, only weeks ago, the Dayne Ogilvie Prize from the Writers’ Trust of Canada, an honour bestowed annually on an LGBT writer of promise.
Fiction, the 37-year-old author acknowledges, can be a remarkable device for exploring both the personal and the political, and she does so in this modern fable. Comment on exploited youth at a dinner party, she says, “and you’re automatically the bummer.…It’s not because people aren’t interested. They just don’t have the tools, necessarily, to comfortably talk about marginalization, about abuse, about violence and their communities, about missing women or girls.”
Prior to Sub Rosa, Amber Dawn was recognized for material that unblushingly broached queer identity and sex work. Her explicit narratives are included in 2005’s With a Rough Tongue and 2009’s Fist of the Spider Woman, anthologies she respectively co-edited and edited.
Her transgressive subject matter raised concern during her initial publication process with literary journals. Early on, she did “shift a story so it was a little less queer” because a periodical suggested doing so would result in something more “reader-friendly for them”. She has never done so again.
Remarking that numerous queer female authors scramble to find homes for their efforts, Amber Dawn relates the importance of local institutions like Little Sister’s bookstore and the shuttered feminist publisher Press Gang. Previously, the author admits, she would have “perhaps complained about how siloed the queer literary community is from the larger Vancouver literary community”.
Lately, Amber Dawn feels that the broader literary scene has extended her a warm welcome. But while venturing that the increased presence of queer voices here has led to further visibility, she does express an ongoing awareness of the ghettoization some writers face. “Especially if you’re an emerging author and you’re working with queer content, there is an idea that your work is going to live in a particular space for a particular audience,” she says. “Your book may not even be carried by [the] mainstream writers’ and readers’ community.”
Outsider status is a major theme addressed in Sub Rosa. Regarding the titular domain, one character concedes: “The ugly truth of it is, we all find ourselves here ’cause we got stories we wanted to forget.”
Next spring, Amber Dawn’s publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, will release How Poetry Saved My Life, a volume collecting the author’s “personal essays, memoir and poetry that is memoir-based”. In the meantime, there are her September nuptials, the Queer Film Festival’s run (August 16 to 26), and this weekend’s Pride celebrations.
Recounting a pleasant memory of past revelries, she smiles. “Coming from Pride, going to Powell Street Festival [the Japanese-Canadian heritage festival that happens on the same weekend] in a bikini and full drag makeup and glitter, and being safe,” Amber Dawn says. “Being able to ride a bus in a bikini and glitter and full drag makeup, and having the other transit riders just carry on a conversation, like it’s any old other day, and then arriving at Powell Street Festival, which is this other festival that I really love—I love that about Vancouver.”