How Poetry Saved My Life (Cover)

How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir

by Amber Dawn
(UBC adjunct instructor, Creative Writing Program)
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013
156 pp.

With the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is a timely book. Dawn offers intelligent, well-written and poetic insight into the world’s oldest profession. There is no mincing of words, no soliciting of sympathy, neither guilt nor guile.

Dawn takes inspiration from writer Jeanette Winterson, poet Evelyn Lau and film maker Bruce La Bruce, whose website is prefaced by a warning that you must be 18 years or older to enter, otherwise “go away.” The same goes here. But rather than return when you are of age, read only if ready to engage in dialogue with yourself not just about prostitution but also disassociation and denial.

How Poetry Saved My Life alternates between short personal stories and poems. The book is written in three sections: Outside, where Dawn works on the street, Inside, where she works in massage parlours, and Inward, a personal meditation on what this all means.  Dawn uses rhythm, repetition and poetic license to sum up or unearth not only her own experience but also the invisible lives of sex workers and survivors who were silenced, murdered or went missing.

Dawn does not purport to present an objective analysis of her profession, though she does include statistics.  For example, two per cent of the female Canadian population is engaged in prostitution at any given time.  Currently, that amounts to almost 700,000 women. Dawn’s own story often aligns to the academic findings she layers on top of her tale, but rather than state outright whether or not she is among the 90 per cent of prostitutes who were abused as children, she leaves it open to interpretation. Dawn says that what she does is “tell – not confess – a selected few of her truths.” So, the reader must read between the lines.

How Poetry Saved My Life won the 2013 City of Vancouver Book Award. Amber Dawn’s first novel, Sub Rosa, received the Lambda Literary Award – previous recipients include Edward Albee, author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Armistead Maupin, whose 1976 series Tales of the City is heralded as having brought “gay life into the mainstream.”  Amber Dawn’s memoir also includes queer culture but not the kind that has floated in the mainstream.  It is true that Dawn’s content and delivery may be hard to handle, but there might come a day when How Poetry Saved My Life will have inspired a new understanding of the world’s oldest profession. Perhaps the MPs (and anyone else) deliberating over the next steps in determining Canada’s prostitution laws might want to crack open this book and, in turn, their own preconceptions and self-deceptions.

Fresh Hell (Cover)

fresh hell: motherhood in pieces

by Carellin Brooks
(UBC Instructor, Arts Studies in Research and Writing program)
Demeter Press, 2013
85 pp.

If you have endured the first year of a baby’s life, especially as a caregiver, Carellin Brooks’ fresh hell: motherhood in pieces will make you laugh out loud.  Like Adam Mansbach’s 2011 viral sensation Go the F**** to Sleep, Brooks’ memoir is made up of things not often said in company, let alone written down and distributed for mass consumption. Where the two books diverge is not in content but bravery. It is one thing to openly complain about childrearing as a father, but a completely different dynamic comes into play as a mother. If you want to be considered a good mother, there are things you do not admit.  But anyone who has been a parent, or even the late-night or early morning confidante of one, knows that the truths of parenthood are not always pretty.

Carellin Brooks’ meditations on motherhood are frank and unforgiving. She carves out scenes in unerring language, at times academic and at others intentionally childish. Each of the book’s 52 short chapters follows the weekly development of “the tewwible baby.” Despite the presence of a male partner, dubbed her “loved one” throughout the book, this baby was born of a sperm bank. After a flamed-out marriage and the complicated custody of her nine-year-old daughter, Brooks desired something of her own.  The fear of birth defects and risks associated with having a baby late in life trumped her misgivings.  She decided to conceive and raise the child on her own.

fresh hell reveals a nugget of truth all parents know: the abstract idea of a baby is nothing like the numb reality. The imbecility of sleep deprivation, the incessantly voracious suckling, the anxieties associated with being the baby’s safe keeper and “the unbearable fact of being trapped” accrue week after week.  Brooks describes it all in fits and starts – the only way one can think in that first year of an infant’s life.  She is snarly and snappy, but her words are a salvation. That another woman could feel this way and write it down might make those sleepless nights more bearable, those thoughts of running for the hills easier to dismiss.   It is the intelligence and honesty, as well as self-deprecating summary and loving dedication to her daughters, that make fresh hell: motherhood in pieces all okay.

the orenda (Cover)

The Orenda

By Joseph Boyden
(UBC Lecturer, Creative Writing Program)
Penguin Books, 2013
490 pp.

Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda is a disturbing, poignant and powerful novel set in the 17th century amidst the chaotic, careless and arguably callous arrival of Europeans in North America.  It weaves together the story of Christophe, a Jesuit missionary, Snow Falls, a young Iroquois girl with spiritual powers, and their captor, Bird, a Huron warrior of esteemed standing. Snow Falls’ kidnapping is retribution for the brutal but long-past murder of Bird’s own family at the hands of the Haudenosaunee.  The Huron Nation fought the Haudenosaunee for generations, and the ruthless murder of family members repeats in an unending ritual of revenge. After he murders her parents in front of her, however, Bird decides not to kill Snow Falls but take her as his own daughter.

The book alternates between the three main characters’ points of view. Christophe sets himself apart from what he sees as the hellish practices of these demonic peoples he is determined to convert. But it becomes apparent that the biggest threat to the well-being of these opposing tribes comes from Europe. Christophe is a bargaining chip. His presence is tolerated because Father of France, Samuel de Champlain, is interested in an alliance with the Huron Nation and Bird is interested in opening up trade. As Christophe is incorporated into Snow Falls and Bird’s story, the larger narrative of the Europeans creeps in.  It is the weaving of these three stories that keeps the simplistic notion of good and bad at bay.

According to Aboriginal journalist and hip hop artist Wab Kinew, who will defend Boyden’s book in the 2014 Canada Reads competition, The Orenda is the one book that will change the country. He says it asks readers to reflect on the biggest social issue facing this country: reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.

For Today I Am A Boy (Cover)

For Today I Am a Boy

By Kim Fu, MFA’11
Harpers Collins, 2014
239 pp.

Kim Fu’s debut novel, For Today I Am a Boy, is a gender-bending bildungsroman that tells the heart-wrenching story of a first generation Chinese-Canadian whose birth name is Juan Chaun, meaning “powerful king.” Despite the implied expectations, the crown is removed almost immediately. Everyone knows Juan Chaun as Peter.

The story starts inside his mother’s womb.  Peter’s mother writhes in pain on the floor of the butcher shop in Fort Michel, the small town where he grows up. But the baby about to be born is actually Peter’s sister, Adele.

Adele is who Peter, the only boy in a family of three girls, would like to be.  He spends both his childhood and adult life in adoration of her feminine beauty. Peter also yearns for acceptance from his father, a patriarchal tyrant whose desire to fit into his adopted country negates his Chinese heritage, disallowing Peter to use his given name and forbidding his family from speaking Cantonese or eating Chinese food.

With his father’s death, Peter is able to find acceptance within himself for both father and son. This acceptance allows Peter to be the daughter he always dreamed of, but the conduit for this is John, an annoyingly self-aware boy-born-girl whose parents supported his transition from female to male.

Peter’s story is lovingly crafted but there is nothing soft or saccharine about the prose. Fu’s writing is spare and the storyline is solid. It is as though Peter whispers his story into your ear, as though his is a confession told to you alone.  As he ages, Peter says very little. His failed romances are described as though they happened to someone else. There is very little of the reflection he had as a child.  It is the sad scenes that make Peter’s story so potent, like when he stuffs the wig his sister sent him down the garbarator of his pathetic Montreal apartment. Fu exhibits such a deft hand that it is hard to believe this is her first novel. Her topic treads some dangerous territory but she carries it off with graceful execution.


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