Hello readers! Welcome to the first of many posts on my blog, featuring reviews of and news about books by and about queer Canadian women. If you’d like to know more about this site, see About This Blog; if you’d like to know more about me, see the Lesbiography. Pretty simple! Before I jump into my first review, here’s a piece of exciting news: Toronto-based author Farzana Doctor recently won a Lambda Literary award for her second novel Six Metres of Pavement. Stay tuned for a review of Doctor’s book on this site. I’m ashamed to say I had never even heard of her until reading the anouncement of the award winners. Sad times. Without further ado, here is my review of a debut novel whose author I’ve been watching for a while:
Vancouver writer Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa, published in 2010 by the radical and remarkable publishing house Arsenal Pulp Press, is a fantasy novel that is both familiar and fantastic. It deals with (what should be) a recognized reality in its depiction of gutsy, gritty, strong women doing sex work in Vancouver’s East end. But Dawn—a writer gutsy, gritty, and strong like her characters—has imagined a world that is a glittery yet tough fable twist on the story of a teenage runaway turned sex worker. Little, the ironically named plucky protagonist, is one of those so-called lost girls whose stories the newspapers tell after it’s too late to save them. Little, however, does not need saving: she is decidedly capable of negotiating her options, no matter how slim they might seem. When Little is initiated into the magical street called Sub Rosa, home to a community of eclectic (female and male) sex workers, she is soon a legend. In fact, she is the heroine of her own story, navigating her position in her new found family of sister-wives, her house Daddy, her often eccentric colleagues, and her new-found magical power. Little also battles the literally and figuratively shady area known as the Dark, where she confronts a few different kinds of zombies: men from whom she must earn her dowry in order to become a full-fledged Glory (the term for working girls on Sub Rosa) and her own haunting memories from her past in the city, which are suppressed by the amnesiac climate of Sub Rosa. The surprise ending of the novel is like Little herself: complex and both inspiring and difficult.
What was a little surprising for me in a different way was the relative lack of queer content in the novel—obviously something I’m looking to highlight for this site and a reason why I was particularly interested in this novel in the first place. Sub Rosa is a fascinating read nonetheless and I wouldn’t say it suffers in any way or that I enjoyed the novel less because of this lack. But because Dawn is a queer identified writer, was voted Community Hero of the Year in 2008 by Xtra! West (Vancouver’s gay and lesbian newspaper), and is the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, I was expecting a bit more queer content in her debut novel. And, while Arsenal Pulp doesn’t exclusively deal with queer authors and topics, the press does have a fantastic record of publishing queer writers’ stories, like Dawn’s; they generously sent me a copy of Sub Rosa to review for the blog (thanks to the impressive team at Arsenal!). That said, Little does have a short-lived school-girl flirtation and a few make-out sessions with a fellow Glory named Isabella, who is reliving recently recovered memories of a relationship with another girl at her Catholic school for orphans. I also thought that Little’s relationship with the character First—the first recruited woman/wife of Little’s family—was a tad homoerotic even though it was mostly one of maternal mentorship. In short, Sub Rosa is a full banquet of feminist sex work activism and dark sparkly fantasy with a little dash of queer on the side. If this sounds like an appetizing meal to you—and it should—then let yourself fall, like Alice did long ago when faced with the rabbit hole, into the world of Sub Rosa.