“I frequently credit poetry for saving my life,” says Amber Dawn, queer author, activist and program director for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.
“This may seem like an exaggerated claim, but my life really did take a turn for the better when I found a voice through creative writing,” she says.
“When I enrolled in my first poetry class at UBC, I was living in an SRO [single-room-occupancy hotel] at Carrall and Hastings and working in the sex trade. In many ways, writing was central to building self-respect and making safer choices. Writing my own story allowed me to see how vulnerable my story and I were.
“And being skilled in written communication allowed me to better advocate for myself as I was exiting the sex trade,” she adds.
Committed to helping other women in similar situations, Amber Dawn created a reading series two years ago called Thrilliterate, which brings together queer authors to raise money for the literacy and learning program at WISH, a centre for female survival sex workers.
“The WISH literacy program really spoke to me,” says Amber Dawn. “Through this program women learn computer skills, creative writing and they tell their stories. The very same steps I took as a young woman to empower myself.
“And so I called upon other local queer authors to join me in an ongoing reading series that would raise funds for the WISH literacy program.”
Writer (and Xtra West columnist) Mette Bach thinks supporting WISH is a natural fit for queers.
“WISH’s mandate echoes queer struggles: our fight to gain respect, rights and visibility for ourselves and for future generations,” says Bach. “It is a natural extension that I, as a queer person, should want to see these gains for workers in the sex trade as well.”
“We need to pay attention to sex workers for many reasons,” Amber Dawn says. “Of course, safety and well-being top the list, but I am also interested in combating the stigma around sex work. That is why I came out when I was still working and why I continue to come out as an ex-sex worker.
“Too often sex workers are seen only as victims,” she continues. “Survival sex workers are extremely vulnerable but that vulnerability should not stop us from seeing any woman working in the sex trade as wholly human, individual and dignified.
“That is why I chose to raise funds for the literacy program: It is designed to empower women to use their unique, personal voice. And if we honour ourselves through writing or story sharing, we are more likely to honour ourselves as we move through the rest of our lives,” she says.
WISH executive director Kate Gibson says the literacy program plays a vital role in the lives of the women it serves.
“It provides opportunities for women who face a lot of barriers. They learn confidence, literacy, how to express themselves and the ability to self-advocate. These are women who are really living on the margins. The kind of encouragement and skill development they receive through the literacy program are essential for their development.”
Gibson is quick to point out that having someone like Amber Dawn organize a reading series helps their organization a lot.
“Our hope is to keep the program going and when it is funded it is easier. We want it to be consistent. These women have lives that are inconsistent, so when we can offer reliable resources, that’s great.”
“Thrilliterate not only raises some funds but also sends a message that this program is something the queer community cares about and supports,” says Amber Dawn. “Queer folks have a strong tradition of creative, entertaining events and Thrilliterate has proven that we’ll get behind causes that aren’t necessarily queer causes but human rights issues. Our sense of justice certainly does not begin and end within the queer community. We have a common interest in social justice and creating a platform for under-represented voices to be heard.”
The fourth installment of Thrilliterate is notable, Amber Dawn adds, because for the first time the event will feature readings by both queer women and men.
In the past, she says, her queer male writer friends have attended the event to support women in the sex trade. Now she’s excited to welcome them to the stage too.
“True sexual liberation can only come from collective honesty,” Bach says. “It seems to me that with Thrilliterate, Amber Dawn is creating a platform to bolster that collective honesty.”