Sex Work, Violence, and Queer Community: An Author Conversation

Authors Amber Dawn and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore discuss queer identities, cycles of violence, and how we’re shaped by the people and places that surround us in this revealing author conversation.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

April 18 2013 5:00 AM ET

Amber Dawn and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore met each other nearly a decade ago, at a Vancouver bar where Dawn was performing an original piece about her life as an out queer sex worker. Since that fateful evening, the authors’ paths have crossed repeatedly, whether they’re finding mutual friends in the queer community, dissecting the intricacies of sex work and survivorship, or, in the case of this author conversation, relating over their respective newly released memoirs. Sycamore’s third and newest book, The End of San Francisco, is now available through City Lights. Dawn’s sophomore novel, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, is available now through Arsenal Pulp Press. Read on for a revealing discussion on identity, upbringing, and finding your way "home."

Amber Dawn: I love the title of your new book, The End of San Francisco, and what it says about queer identity and location.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: San Francisco has been the most formative place for me — politically, socially, sexually, emotionally. I first moved there in 1992, when I was 19, and it's really where I learned how to create community and culture and love and lust and intimacy and activism on my own terms. It's also the place that has let me down the most — in such brutal and heartbreaking ways.

Dawn: Ah! Our dates are aligning. I moved to Vancouver in 1992, when I was 18, and — just like you — feel that my location has taught me countless lessons. My new book is as much about Vancouver as it is about my identity as a queer, sex worker, survivor, and poetry lover.

Sycamore: I love that we're about the same age. The first time we met, you were hosting a performance night at a bar in downtown Vancouver, and I came through on the book tour for my first novel, Pulling Taffy — that was 10 years ago. One great thing about rapidly approaching 40 is that now I can talk about something 10 or 15 years ago, and it can still be away from the suffocation of childhood and my parents and everything I was supposed to be.

Dawn: “Suffocation of childhood” — I can relate to your wording. The way you articulated returning to your childhood home in your opening chapter is tremendously keen, and so close to the bone for me. It is a much easier task for me to write about adulthood. In my own book, I attempt teenage memoir and write about my first queer love experience, set in my dead-end town. I’m from Crystal Beach, Ontario, an impoverished community of about 4,000 permanent residents along Lake Erie, across from Buffalo, N.Y. It was an amusement park town for 100 years, but the park closed in 1989 and Crystal Beach virtually became a ghost town. So I came from a failed amusement park community — the only daughter of my draft-dodging father and hippie mom, two dreamers who ultimately felt their love-generation dream failed. Failure was part of my upbringing. Therefore, my first glimpse of Vancouver — and of a city with an established queer community — was through the eyes of a defeated, angsty, small-town girl. Through those eyes, Vancouver was rife with possibilities.

Sycamore: I grew up in an upper-middle-class assimilated Jewish family in suburban Washington, D.C., in a different kind of failure most people call “success.” I was sexually abused by my father, and it was his financial and professional success that allowed my parents to camouflage their violence. I went to an elite East Coast university in order to get away, but then I realized I was just learning how to beat my parents on their terms, so I fled to San Francisco after a year to find other queer freaks and outcasts, incest survivors and vegans and anarchists and drug addicts and activists. That was one thing I wanted to say about that night 10 years ago when you and I first met: I could see several of the worlds that meant something to me colliding in that space — sex work and club culture and drugs and writing and surviving. I think that's one of the things that’s similar in our work, trying to make sense of these connections that are so clear in our individual lives but don't make sense to a lot of people, or make too much sense.

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