Our Campus: Novelist Amber Dawn is a sex worker turned UBC instructor

In 1999, The Ubyssey published an article about Amber Dawn, describing her as “a woman who wears many different hats.” This statement still holds true today. Dawn is an author, activist and professor of creative writing at UBC and Douglas College. However, before she was a successful writer, Dawn was a student in UBC’s creative writing department, and also worked as a sex worker living on the Downtown Eastside.

“My first year at UBC, I was living in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy unit) … right on Carrall and Hastings, [and] was living on permanent disability at that time, very much entrenched in Downtown Eastside life. I worked as a street prostitute for many years [and during] my first few years at UBC, I was still working,” said Dawn.

Dawn is the first to admit that she doesn't fit the typical mould of a UBC student. No one in her family has a university education, and she didn't grow up with the idea that university would be an avenue for her. But thanks to creative writing, the subject that kindled her academic passion, Dawn made it to UBC.

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge. The Ubyssey

Dawn began to get involved in creative writing through spoken word and slam poetry after moving to Vancouver at the age of 17. She became very interested in “punk rock, white girl feminism,” which revolved around the world of concerts, where openers would often give a spoken word address. For Dawn, the storytelling aspect of these performances was a way to engage with narratives that would otherwise not have been told.

“I just came alive when I would hear someone perform spoken word. And that sort of led me to slam poetry. I loved it. I loved the idea that we all have a story to tell and I feel like this was a value — like everyone’s story is important [and] everyone has a right to tell their truth. And that’s where it started — just that idea that we all have a story, that all of our lived experiences have value and should we want to, we should all be telling our stories,” she said.

After receiving her MFA in creative writing from UBC, Dawn published her first novel, Sub Rosa, which received a Lambda award, and later published her memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which won the 2013 Vancouver Book Award.

In addition to her teaching and writing, Dawn still finds time for activism, something she has been involved with since she moved to Vancouver.  

“I don’t do a lot of protesting anymore. I’m not a body on the street anymore, but I’m also noticing how writing, creative writing and shows like a literary reading can be an act of political resistance. So my activism intersects closely with the arts and with creative writing these days,” said Dawn.

That’s where it started — just that idea that we all have a story, that all of our lived experiences have value and should we want to, we should all be telling our stories.

— Amber Dawn

Dawn also makes time to give back to the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood she says still feels like home to her.

“I try to give back to the neighbourhood as much as I can through fundraising, volunteer time and supporting other artists. When the Downtown Eastside shows up in the news, we think fentanyl crisis and we think missing women, which we should not ignore. But what we don’t always see is it’s a neighbourhood of brilliant artists,” she said.

Dawn stressed that while many people in Vancouver may also want to support the area, those not from the community should be mindful of how they do it. In particular, she wants these individuals to allow the residents to shine, and not the other way around.

“It is important when we support any community, any movement, to understand who’s experiential, who the leaders are, and to learn to be a listener and a follower. So for people who maybe come from some affluence or some privilege that want to go into the Downtown Eastside and give back, you’re not going to be a leader there. And that’s great. A lot of life teaches us to lead … but it’s also wonderful to not be in authority and just be a listener and to just be supporting from a lower level. That’s an incredible space to hold,” she said.

As part of supporting artists and writers in the Downtown Eastside, Dawn facilitates creative writing workshops every Thursday at the Carnegie Community Centre.

“[It] feels challenging and it also feels like home to me,” she said. “UBC is challenging to me in different ways. I’m up here teaching once a week as well, and it’s not home to me here, but I feel very lucky I get to be here as an instructor as well.”

Dawn is running a writing workshop, Creative Self-Care, at 1 p.m. on January 11 at the UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre.