The countdown continues and there are 6 days left until the Festival of Literary Diversity descends on Brampton for another year! We had an opportunity to speak with Amber Dawn, Canadian writer and activist who you can find at the FOLD on May 5th’s The Edge of Suspense Panel. Amber will also be at the FOLD on May 6th’s Stitching Stories Panel. You can visit her website: www.amberdawnwrites.com
We also encourage you to support Brampton’s Literary Festival, and pick up your ticket on the FOLD website.
What was your favorite part of writing Sodom Road Exit?
Remembering and writing about the natural world in Southern Ontario were my favourite parts. The landscape, flora and fauna on the West Coast—where I’ve been living for the past twenty-six years—is very different than where I grew up. I loved remembering at what time of year I’d start hearing crickets in the evening, or when young Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles would be leaving the nest, or when trout are spawning. My protagonist works a graveyard shift job, so she is hyper-aware of nocturnal birds, like Owls and Whip-poor-wills, and their night songs give her a comforting sense of place.
Where did the idea for it come from?
Fort Erie/Crystal Beach area is where I spent the first seventeen years of my life, and I’ve always thought of it as a strange and magical place. I can’t even begin to quantify how many strange tales I heard growing up. Bertie Hall (a.k.a. The Doll House Museum) is haunted and a water serpent lives in Lake Erie, etc. Fun fact: there’s a theory that places the Fort Erie/Crystal Beach area along a “monster belt” or the Boreal Forest Belt, which is a shared latitude where strange creatures are most commonly sited. Both Lake Erie and Loch Ness are located along this monster belt. So cryptozoologists have taken an interest in my hometown, and quirky texts like Loren Coleman’s The Field Guide to Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep became part of my research. Similarly, many ghost hunters have visited my hometown. There are many acclaimed haunted places throughout the Niagara Region, so much so that a Niagara Area Paranormal Society was formed a decade ago. Truly, my home- town is perfect for any kind of horror or speculative fiction. Many of the creepy, supernatural details in my book “wrote themselves.”
In another interview you said that writing, “may not bring in the big bucks, but it does bring in the big joy.” Tell me more about what this means for you.
Ha! I was talking about writing poetry when I said that. When I was working on my poetry collection Where the words end and my body begins I did experience profound inner joy. I cannot say that about writing a novel, which, to me, is miserable labour. I slipped into some critical emotional lows while writing Sodom Road Exit. I had to frequently remind myself that sadness isn’t “good” or “bad”—sadness is just another emotion that wants my attention and care, and I hope I put that care onto the page.
You said in your memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life, that you were a sex worker and in other interviews I’ve read, you mentioned that there need to be more sex worker representation and stories available. When we talk about diversity and inclusion, I’ve found that sex work and sex worker needs aren’t even considered as part of the conversation, let alone given a place at many tables. How are their needs and experiences something we must have at these tables?
Thank you for considering this lack of inclusion, Cheryl. The barriers to that table are real, most critically for Indigenous, racialized, migrant, transgender, disabled sex workers, and workers who are parents. This is why the few of us who do come out publically are primarily white and cisgender, like me. Therefore, when I answer this question, I am answering from a very narrow and privileged point-of-view. What I recommend is for allies to mobilize and become articulate around sex worker justice issues and combatting anti-sex work attacks. Take for example, the 2018 Women’s March in Vancouver. The core organizers understood that sex workers were not being represented at (indeed we were actively shut out from) Women’s Marches across North America, and they responded by inviting trans feminist, sex worker Hailey Heartless as a key speaker. There was backlash! All kinds of anti-trans and anti-sex work backlash, mainly aimed directly at Hailey. And then there were articulate, prepared allies at the ready to speak up against this hate. I’d like to see more of this vocal allyship. I’d like to see allies acutely understand that we are indeed hated and shut out, and to be ready to speak up. I actually think we have more allies out there who just don’t know what to say or how to nurture sex worker inclusive spaces. But these are skills that can be learned.
What would you tell others who worry and wonder, as you said in How Poetry Saved My Life, “Did I survive my story to die in a publishing house slush pile?”
Cautiously optimistic statement: The publishing world is changing … maybe … with demonstrated books sales and more major awards that recognize diverse authors and narratives. Bestsellers and book awards are not the measure of change in the publishing world, however. We still see mid-sized to large publishing houses mainly staffed by straight, cisgender, white people, often men. Executive directors and programming team of most major literary festivals across Canada are white. And while I respect and hope to humbly participate in the learning and relationship building that goes on in Can Lit, the real change I observe is at the festivals like The FOLD, Growing Room (Vancouver) or Naked Heart (Toronto) that create intentionally diverse and inclusive programming that are lead by diverse literary professionals themselves.
What would you say to someone writing about hard, traumatic things who is trying to understand how to take big hurt and heal it through writing’s “big joy”?
I think some reductive ideas about survivors and healing exist—that healing occurs on sort of clean trajectory and that we can expect certain outcomes from a healing process. I think it’s more honest to say that healing is unpredictable and manifold. So I’d hesitate to offer advice in this area because each survivor is unique. I am quite willing to share aspects of my own process as a trauma survivor who writes, however. I try to be mindful of who I am, what life is bringing to me (offerings, hardships and everything in between), and what I want with the time I’ve been gifted to the very best of my capacity. Writing has helped me witness this, so I write. Writing and publishing has also connected me to other survivors and artists, and the sense community I’ve found has been invaluable.
What are you working on next? Where else can readers find your upcoming work?
I’m taking a break to recover from writing Sodom Road Exit.
If there are any sex workers who write reading this interview, I strongly encourage you to keep an eye on my publisher Arsenal Pulp Press; we’ll be making an exciting announcement this summer.