Sodom Road Exit haunted by trauma

> BY DAVID CHAU

The Georgia Straight - - Books -

Grow­ing up near the Crys­tal Beach Amuse­ment Park in Fort Erie, On­tario, is a source of nos­tal­gia for Am­ber Dawn. This mood, in fact, fed the writ­ing of her sopho­more novel, Sodom Road Exit, a cho­sen-fam­ily drama and ghost story set in 1990, the year after the park’s clo­sure.

Reached via the ti­t­u­lar high­way of­framp, Crys­tal Beach was, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor and ad­vo­cate, “kind of a coun­ter­cul­ture in its own way. And I’m very in­ter­ested in coun­ter­cul­tures, or in com­mu­ni­ties that op­er­ate out­side of the main­stream. Amuse­ment parks and amuse­ment park peo­ple,” she adds, “aren’t nec­es­sar­ily folks that fit into more main­stream quote-un­quote nor­mal ur­ban cen­tres.”

Draw­ing on per­sonal his­tory is cus­tom­ary for Am­ber Dawn, who has now writ­ten four books marked by their can­dour and cre­ativ­ity. But, she tells the Straight over tea in Gas­town, “go­ing back to a place of child­hood has been some­thing that I al­ways felt I would do, once I ma­tured as a writer.”

In Sodom Road Exit, 23-year-old Starla Mia Martin moves back to her mother’s house in Crys­tal Beach in a bid for sol­vency. Com­ing off a stint in Toronto, where she ex­plored her queer iden­tity and nur­tured a love of arts and cul­ture, the Univer­sity of Toronto dropout re­sents re­turn­ing to the scene of her painful ado­les­cence.

“Once upon a time, the vil­lage was fa­mous,” Starla re­flects on her home­town. “Or be­tween the twenty-fourth of May and Labour Day we were fa­mous. Known through­out Erie and Ni­a­gara Coun­ties in New York State, as well as around On­tario’s Golden Horse­shoe, we were fa­mous for the largest dance floor in North Amer­ica, the most ter­ri­fy­ing roller coaster, al­legedly, in the world.”

Sim­i­lar to Sub Rosa, Am­ber Dawn’s 2010 de­but novel, Sodom Road Exit uses the su­per­nat­u­ral to ad­dress sur­vivor­ship and sex work. (Am­ber Dawn, a Van­cou­ver res­i­dent since 1992, de­tails her ex­pe­ri­ence in the trade in the 2013 book How Po­etry Saved My Life, which won the City of Van­cou­ver Book Award.)

At­tempt­ing to start over, and haunted by pre­vi­ous trauma, Starla en­coun­ters Etta, the ghost of a queer woman, an es­cort who died some half-cen­tury ear­lier dur­ing a ride on the Crys­tal Beach Cy­clone coaster. “I needed that ghost al­most as a su­per­nat­u­ral in­ter­ven­tion,” Am­ber Dawn says, “to get Starla where she needed to go, and also to get me as a writer to be able to go into that tough con­tent and write it.”

The clas­sic com­edy His Girl Fri­day and les­bian archives, notes Am­ber Dawn, who is also co–artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Van­cou­ver Queer Film Fes­ti­val, were key to build­ing Etta’s voice, a the­atri­cal mix of pe­riod and queer jar­gon. Still, de­spite the fo­cus on Starla and Etta, it was Hal, a strug­gling al­co­holic, that she most en­joyed writ­ing.

Bobby and Rose—re­spec­tively, Hal’s wife and a griev­ing mother, both of whom Starla be­friends—oc­cu­pied a larger role than Am­ber Dawn first in­tended. The “cho­sen-fam­ily moth­er­daugh­ter dy­namic that was hap­pen­ing there be­came ex­tremely im­por­tant to me,” Am­ber Dawn says. “Cho­sen fam­ily and in­ter­gen­er­a­tional women be­came an un­ex­pected theme I didn’t know when I started out.”

Of the three gen­res she writes in— fic­tion, me­moir, and po­etry—am­ber Dawn names the last as the one that gives her the great­est plea­sure. “I feel the most joy­ful and grounded and con­nected to the world around me when I am writ­ing po­etry. I feel like writ­ing a novel makes me strange, moody, iso­lated,” she says, laugh­ing. “All the bad clichés of an artist, I be­come those clichés.”

In the novel, as she de­vel­ops a ro­mance with Tamara, an ex­otic dancer and for­mer high-school class­mate, Starla re­pur­poses Etta’s de­mands for what she per­ceives as the good of her newly es­tab­lished sup­port cir­cle. Am­ber Dawn wanted to in­ter­ro­gate the idea of a hero’s quest—“who are th­ese sto­ries typ­i­cally about? How are they por­trayed in the main­stream?”—and has writ­ten a tale about find­ing kin­ship and so­lace in a place that has seen its best days pass.

Each of her vol­umes of­fers her courage and clar­ity to fur­ther delve into sig­na­ture themes. Men­tor­ing within the Down­town East­side sex-worker com­mu­nity, Am­ber Dawn no­tices the “very clin­i­cal, un­emo­tional ways of per­sonal sto­ry­telling. I think this is the way we de­stroy each other,” she says. “We re­duce story to tick boxes and re­ports. If my goal is to work against that—and that is my goal—then my books have to be in con­ver­sa­tion with each other.… To me, this is the an­ti­dote to hav­ing our sto­ries be stig­ma­tized or re­duced—is to cre­ate a body of work that can all talk to, and gain mo­men­tum and strength from, each other, so that the essence of each of those books that I’ve writ­ten col­lec­tively comes to­gether.

“And they’re el­e­vat­ing some­thing that I value,” she con­tin­ues. “And I’ll keep do­ing that.”

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