11 min

The red fingernail of authority

"I have countless experiences where social justice and sex work issues have played out in a ways that have blindsided me," says Amber Dawn.
The sex-worker memoir is to queer femme-identified writers of a certain generation what magic realism is to Latin American writers of a certain generation. So it is daring to write one, with so much mismanaged self-reflection piled up in front of your efforts. Even more bold to admit in the introduction that you offer trigger warnings when you do public readings of some of the pieces — assuring readers what they come across will potentially be ponderous and heavy-handed.
These obstructions do nothing to diminish the true and shining genius of Amber Dawn’s sex-work biography, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Half poetry and half essay, the book chronicles 15 years of her life as an outdoor and indoor prostitute.
Dawn writes with profound clarity and eloquence; these poems and essays would be compelling even if they didn’t plumb the native intrigue of the half world. Her words do not profit off the squalour inherent in leading a stigmatized life. They approach it with measured tolerance and, in so many cases, love — real, bare, unobstructed love. Read these pieces and you will know what it is to be fearless when looking into one’s most humble and unarmed self. If any trigger warning is to be issued, it is that it is unsettling, at first anyway, to be faced with such emotional fluency on such intimate self-reflections.
Town Dyke had a heart-to-heart email with Amber Dawn before her appearance in Toronto on April 21 to promote How Poetry Saved My Life.
Town Dyke: This book pleases me so much. It elevates the genre, letting people know that a memoir written from the point of view of a social renegade and an outcast (I’m thinking specifically of the sex worker trope) is simply not enough to garner attention. Now it has to be brilliant, too. Still, I find it interesting that in the introduction you discussed your concern that this would be a sub-genre, because it seems that more than half of work produced by those who identify as queer femme is sex-work based. What are your thoughts on this?
Amber Dawn: I like your yardstick, Alex! Maybe if I saw “more than half” the work of femmes being based on sex work I wouldn’t feel like I’m sticking my neck out to tell my story. Indeed, a slate of wonderful queer femme authors — including Michelle Tea, Lisa Foad, Rhiannon Argo, Melissa Febos, Carol Queen — have tackled the topic of sex work in their writing.
When I was thinking about How Poetry Saved My Life entering the “big literary world” I more so viewed it as sub-genre or an underdog book because there are still comparatively so few books about sex work, especially from authors who once worked street, like I have. Disclosing to working street-level sex work still feels risky to me. Apart from Runaway by Evelyn Lau (published in 1989), I have yet to read a first-person memoir about street work. More of these stories must be out there — perhaps I just haven’t found them yet.
Why did you choose to include trigger warnings at the readings of some of this material? Isn’t literature and art supposed to elicit a strong reaction? How do you think this helps the reader/listener and how does it service the work? When did we begin to require so much cosseting when consuming art? Personally, I’m more with the Dutch artist Ronald Ophuis, who said in the latest issue of Elephant, “I want to work without morality.”
I suppose Ronald Ophuis would need to say that — a white Dutch painter who depicts extreme violence, frequently perpetrated amongst people of colour (like Rwandan prisoners) would have to live and paint by an anti-morality credo. His quote from Elephant is the antithesis of what I hope to achieve with my creative practice.
My creative practice is part and parcel with my daily life and reflects my core values, identity-politicing and social justice-speak. After being pronounced female at birth, being a survivor was the second identity I’ve ever claimed. Survivorship came long before queerness. I pay homage to survivor communities by offering a trigger warning in the introduction of How Poetry Saved My Life, as I often offer trigger warnings before I read at literary events. I want my readers and audience to know that their own personal responses and self-care can be part of my work, if they choose. Once I had an audience member shout “time out” during a reading. I paused my reading for several seconds, thanked her for speaking up, the audience took a collective breath, and then the reading continued. This does not dilute my art in any way, or render my work precious or overly cautious. Rather it shows that my work is part of a larger forum. It is connected to those who read or hear it. 
I think what Ophuis meant was that he does not want to inflict morality on the exchanges in his work. He explores the idea of civil war and what that does to people, how ordinary people can shift so radically in certain contexts. Of course, this deserves a larger discussion about how colonialism and imperialism impact tribal communities and relationships. And yes, of course, there is always something offensive about Dutch people doing anything like this given our history of pillaging and cultural decimation.
When I say I want to work without morality, I mean a morality enforced by what I refer to as designated hand wringing. For example, for someone like me who has almost always been poor and will continue to be so as far as my eye can see, accessibility has always been primarily determined by a space being free, with free sound and lighting equipment so that when I’m doing a show I can pay my performers and tech people. I can’t afford to rent all this stuff from the outset. This is the case with so many artists. We need to get the space we can and then figure out ways to make it accessible. So I’m talking more about working without the spectre of poorly thought out moralizing. The same spectre of moralizing that so many of us (I’m thinking of those of us who have been sex workers) have already been privy to in more conservative/mainstream settings. I am always very wary about this.
I’ve learned that being an artist is about answering to more than just the person/organization that pays me. When called upon, I’m expected to answer to everyone who reads or hears my work. This makes being an artist a job that is rife with responsibility. The transition from sex work — where the money was fast and I tried not to think too much about how I earned it — to being an artist was a huge learning curve for me. I’m still learning. Right now, my current lesson is to find the balance between responsiveness to my audience and personal self-care.
This is your unique story in the end, and it is bold, in a community that constantly demands accountability at every turn, to tell your own story. We risk the ire of the queer sex-positive community when we tell of the complexities of our experiences, but we also risk giving something for abolitionists to wave around as proof of the stress inherent in sex labour. Thoughts?
In the late ‘90s I was dancing burlesque at a queer cabaret — sex work was a theme of this particular performance and I used condoms and dildos, et cetera as props. In the audience were members of a local abolitionist and anti-porn feminist collective. Several of these women threw ice cubes from their drinks at me, and one hopped onstage and smacked my ass so hard I fell over. They shouted their second-wave feminist slogans to heckle me. This is my inciting moment, the moment that I learned nowhere — not even a queer event — was I safe.
The thing is these hecklers freed me. They made me realize that my art and my story would never be viewed honestly or fairly by them — or anyone with extreme, unyielding opinions. Since this incident, I haven’t given abolitionists or the Christian right or other haters any consideration in my creative practice. I don’t care an iota about their opinion. Too often sex workers are denied the opportunity to be three-dimensional people, with all the hopes and stresses and brilliance and flaws of anyone else. I certainly won’t be rendered one-dimensional by abolitionists.
I found fellow queer women a goddamn menace when they all started entering the sex trade in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Many of them rallied around the popular concept of sex work as a labour issue, yet they had no problem lap dancing and doing handjobs in clubs because they all bought into the feminist theory of establishing their own boundaries around their bodies. So while they were busy upholding the theory of sex work as legitimate labour they were tramping all over the informal yet highly coded labour structures that were already in place.
Have you had any experiences with activism and sex work that people might find atypical? I loved the story about the PhD student absconding with your hard-won exchanges. This is something that really needs to be addressed in scholarly social justice around sex work, I think.
I have countless experiences where social justice and sex-work issues have played out in ways that have blindsided me. In the story you are referring to, “Ghetto Feminism,” I elude to but one example of a researcher wanting to study sex-worker populations without offering any tangible outcomes that actually support the workers they are studying. I do believe this is gradually changing, though. At my alma mater, University of British Columbia, I’ve seen a shift towards community-based research and methodologies — where researchers need to have clear ways of empowering their interviewees and building a more just society. This change makes me want to do a PhD myself; I’d like to be Dr Dawn.
When I first got involved in sex-work activism, I did so in the USA. I’d travel to Seattle or Portland, where more established groups of activists existed — and there I’d attend conferences and festivals for sex workers. I quickly noticed that many of the leading voices were employed as strippers or doms — very few women disclosed prostitution. I felt stigmatized in admitting I exchanged actual sex for money. But as I got to know some of these activists better, I discovered many of them performed “extras” with their clients but were not disclosing it. It’s ironic what is considered a “dirty little secret” even within sex-worker activist communities. Stigma runs deep! That is why it was so important for me to delve deep into my story when writing How Poetry Saved My Life. I know my experiences aren’t uncommon — but silence certainly is.
It is interesting to read from someone that early Riot Grrrl spoken word had such an impact on them. It actually made me want to stab my ears out. I always found the cadence so manufactured and so many who performed it took advantage of the seriousness of the content and delivery to suppress any critical response to the quality. Many people in the lez spoken-word community, as far as I’m concerned, have gotten away with abominably crafted content for years based on this (perhaps unwitting) tactic.
Still, I envy the fact that this work appealed to you. I wonder if I wouldn’t be less of an asshole now if I’d just let the message reach me or wasn’t so unduly horrified by the poor level of the content. Now, on that note, I want to ask you, if some of this work, if it had been preceded with a trigger warning, do you think that would have changed your reaction to it? Would being prepared for its impact have made you digest it differently?
Riot Grrrl — as I remember it — happened nearly 20 years ago. So, it’s hard to say how a trigger warning might change my reaction. What I can say is that I needed the raw, earnest power of Riot Grrrl music, zines and spoken word. Riot Grrrl was accessible. It was un-glamorous. I could do what those artists were doing; I could publish a zine. I might not have ever spoken up if it wasn’t for a scrappy, yet loving movement like Riot Grrrl. A movement so willing to pass the microphone to me. Sure, my creative practice evolved beyond ranting — but Riot Grrrl was my root. I hope young women today have something like Riot Grrrl that makes them feel heard.
I’m more interested in good writing than strained treatises on identity politics, and I find a lot of queer writing suffers from highlighting the latter. I think where the book falters for me in this regard is in your “To All the Butches” story. It always piques me to watch femmes diminishing themselves at the altar of the tenuous butch ego.
For example, you talk about how your sex life suffered because you were unable to have rough-ish sex because you didn’t want your knees marked up for work the next day. Meanwhile, you speak about graciously learning and abiding by the very specific codes around off-limits corporeal geography that so many butches enforce. Tell me how this is different in terms of how it limits intimacy? Why is it okay to accept one person’s boundaries, study them and respect them, and not your own? Why is one code acceptable and the other not? Do these internal body politics have no effect on these unions?
“To All the Butches I’ve Loved” was originally published in Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme — an anthology that probed these identities. So, yes, an identity politics book!
Your interpretation of the story interests me. I will have to go back and read it with your question in mind to see how it sits with me. As the author, I wasn’t diminishing myself, and in fact my emotional disclosures are far broader than not wanting to scrape my knees. I also don’t describe my butch lovers as having “enforced” anything on me by simply having the boundaries that they had. At the beginning of the story I note that — like myself — all of my butch lovers had come from working-class/poor, survivor backgrounds and that I saw them very much as kin, not opposites. Naturally, it is not okay to accept one set of boundaries and disregard my own — and thusly, I haven’t done so. My story is about learning what my boundaries were — not disregarding them — and pondering how these boundaries related to sex work and how to communicate all this to my butch lovers. It might be a tad didactic, but I wanted to illustrate how complex talking sex and boundaries really can be. It’s a communication skill that we are not taught to develop. We must make it up as we go. Add complex identities (like “butch,” “sex worker,” et cetera) and the communication becomes even finer. I like that you asked several questions, Alex, about respect and codes. I hope this story generates those kinds of questions for others, too.
From the last story: “Through this window you’ve watched the moon disappear and return a hundred times before you understood the message. There is artistry to self-perpetuation — the moon’s had a lot of practice. You, however, are still a tenderfoot when it comes to beginning again. Now you stand in this world as someone who is completely loved. From this point of view, who knows what poetry is yet to come?”

I’m pretty sure this is one of the most beautiful paragraphs I’ve ever read, Amber Dawn. It is a bit of a mantra for me over the past week. Will you talk to me a little bit about how you crafted this idea, how it came to you and how you hold on to it?
I hope my answer doesn’t ruin this passage for you, Alex, but here it is: last year, around this time, I was preparing to get married. Whatever marriage may or may not mean to others — one thing I can say is it truly made me rake through every damn thing I felt about my then-wife-to-be and my own capacity to love and be loved. I started to journal potential wedding vows — and this is what came out. In the end, my wife and I didn’t exchange hyper-personal vows at our ceremony, and so I ended my book with some of the writing from that journal. Sappy, eh? Can’t help myself. Love has softened me and I am happy for that.
Amber Dawn reads from How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir
Sun, April 21, 2pm
Glad Day Bookshop
598 Yonge St