Reading Between the Queers

amber dawn

“You can’t be afraid to read your own writing,” Amber Dawn says.

The local poet and award-winning author tells herself this before doing public readings. To prepare, she even records her readings to play back and to show herself: It’s okay, I can do this; this is my story. But no matter how prepared she is, she always gets nervous, and that is something Dawn thinks will never really go away.

However, if Amber Dawn was nervous to read in her very first panel at the Vancouver Writers Festival on Wednesday night, it sure as heck didn’t show. She captured the entire room with two beautifully vivid and melodic poems from her latest book How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013).

Although this is her first year participating as one of the writers in the festival, Dawn says she’s been coming to the festival for years, discovering new authors, sharing ideas and sparking inspiration and conversation.

On this particular panel, Dawn was one of three established queer authors to read their works, discuss what it means to be a queer writer producing stories outside of the hetero norm and reflect on how their stories and readerships go ‘beyond queer’.

Panel moderator Anne Fleming asked all three authors for their thoughts on this new queer-themed addition to the festival and about the name of the event in particular. Poet and short-story author Nancy Jo Cullen, who read from her anthology Canary (Biblioasis, 2013), wants her writing to go ‘beyond queer’, but at the same time, she doesn’t: “I’d like for more people to look at our work who aren’t queer, but I also want to wave the flag.” Dawn grew up without these stories and felt a need to tell them. She wrote both of her books for her community, so anyone else who reads them, well, that’s just icing on the cake. Openly gay Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa, who lives and writes out of France, believes that to be a homosexual, you see the world differently. It becomes your duty to share that vision, your uniquely queer experience and voice with the world.

The night was rich with humour and metaphor. Abdellah Taïa brought us to laughter with his endearing personal accounts of growing up in Morocco, fantasizing about French philosopher Michel Foucault and believing for a short period in his youth that he was the only homosexual in Morocco. Nancy Jo Cullen’s comical short story “Valerie’s Bush” moved one audience member so much, the person felt compelled to share her own pubic hair-cutting anecdote.

Overall, Beyond Queer was a delightful event to attend; the atmosphere was light, the environment safe, and the writing shared beautifully distinct: quirky, queer and engaging.

Although this was Abdellah Taïa’s only event at the festival, Nancy Jo Cullen will be appearing in two more panels throughout the week, Looking For Love (Oct. 26) and The Sunday Brunch (Oct. 27).

Regardless of whether you’ve loved, hated, or never read the works at all, there is something so powerful and magical about hearing works read aloud by the authors themselves. The creators and Gods of these literary worlds stand before us, open and vulnerable; they give us their hearts, their words, their darlings, and then, they even answer our questions too.