I first stumbled on Amber Dawn a few years ago when I by chance picked up her first novel Sub Rosa (2010) at the local library. It’s a fantasy based on a band of magical prostitutes in an alternate universe. It was one of those books that have stayed with me: one of the most stunning pieces of writing I’ve ever read. After I finished Sub Rosa I scoured the Internet looking for more of Dawn’s writing. And while I tumbled on a few short pieces I was unable to find anything else because, shockingly enough to me, it was her first book.
Last week a friend invited me to the launch of Amber Dawn’s newest book, a memoir entitled, How Poetry Saved my Life: a Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013). Lucky enough for me my friend actually knows Amber Dawn and introduced me to her. And while I wanted desperately to say something witty and charming all I managed was a strangled, “I’m a big fan” (oh I’m soooo smooth).
In interviews after Sub Rosa was released Amber Dawn was very forthcoming that most of the fictional story was based on actual events from her time as a sex trade worker. It’s a large part of her identity and How Poetry Saved My Life takes the reading through her experience and her identity as a queer, feminist, sex worker, and a survivor. For me the underlying message of the whole book was the importance for women to share their stories, especially those of trail and survival as a way to heal and help others.
In the introduction Dawn writes:
“I am extremely grateful to the young woman I once was had the tenacity to write shit down” (p.15)
Separated into three sections – Outside, Inside, and Inward – the prose and poetry revolves around Dawn’s sex work as a youth at street level, “safer” indoor sex work, and the personal journey of reflection she has taken in the past three years.
And while Dawn uses some powerful and vivid anecdotes of her time in the sex trade it does not come off as voyeuristic. Rather they are used (as uncomfortable and disturbing as some are) to rise up Dawn’s powerful voice and make her experience heard.
“The story you are reading right now is not about how I exited the sex trade- it is the one I recount to remind myself that I survived and that the worth of my life can be paid back with the truth of my stories” (p.118)
The most powerful piece for me was with Dawn’s struggle to reconcile all of her selves (sex worker/lesbian/writer/feminist/femme). It’s something that many feminists find themselves facing. And how for many of us we make our own feminism in our communities.
“I realize that this is the place that I discovered a kind of ghetto feminism, a street social justice. This is the place where I understand the impact my actions have. Where I trust myself; where I do not question my voice or the voices of other women here. This corner, where I wait for Coco, is the one space where I have learned and shared the most influential tools of my life- listen, witness, pass information forward, be at the ready, and survive. Survival may be the most radical thing I do.” (“Ghetto Feminism”, p. 54).
How Poetry Saved My Life is an exquisite piece of work. It reaffirmed to me why I’ll never stop advocating for women to use their voices. And too write their lives down, especially the painful parts, and share those stories with others. And why I need to be brave in my own work with my own voice.