The Missing Story: Reading Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa in the Aftermath of Bruce McArthur
by Evelyn Deshane
There's a scene early on in Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010) where the narrator Little goes to a carnival and runs into someone from her past. Little has just started her career as a sex worker, and she lives alongside a group of other sex workers who quickly become her family as they are also under the care of Arsen, their pimp, daddy, and husband. They live in Sub Rosa, a mythic place that exists somewhere in a downtown Canadian city, and this carnival trip is a temporary vacation from this world.
Dawn's novel is a fantasy text in which we're not entirely sure what is real life and what is fantasy; magic realism abounds in every sentence, and the novel is packed with neon colours, hallucinations, and miraculous tricks. Up until Little meets Eli at the carnival, we have been rolling with the changes in the atmosphere, landscape, and magical powers without grounding in the 'real world' and without a sense of certain reliable narration. All that changes when we meet Eli because this is the first tangible time we realize that Little is, in fact, missing.
It's important to note that I started to read Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa the last week of January 2018, after having it on my 'to-read' list for at least two years. I almost pushed it up in my order of reading when I found out that I would be teaching a university class on Fantasy Literature and needed an example of Urban Fantasy. Alas, I went with China Miéville's King Rat and not Sub Rosa--which was both a shame since I think Sub Rosa communicates so many of the beautiful things that Urban Fantasy can do (focus on marginalized people, emphasize hybridity, and engage with non-traditional fantasy tropes which aren't necessarily marred by racism/colonialism), and a fortuitous decision since I read Amber Dawn's story for the first time with the investigation of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur happening at the same time. McArthur was arrested on January 18th 2018 for – at the time – the murder of Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen. Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, and Dean Lisowick would soon be added to that list, and right now, eight victims in total have been identified, including a man whose image had to be released to the public in order to even attempt to identify him--a man who, like Little, had gone missing and no one knew their name. In order to fully process the gravity of the Bruce McArthur investigation, Amber Dawn's succinct and compelling treatment of such a character as Little is a must-read as it is both beautiful and brutal, hopeful yet full of despair, and provides a narrative map of how we can possibly begin to construct the names of the missing in the wake of their discovery.
After meeting Eli, Little recounts the time in her life they shared together living in an abandoned house, before she turned to sex work. Though we realize that Arsen has 'saved' Little from a more violent life on the street, we are never quite sure what Little's life before this looked like. Neither was she – at least up until this moment when she confronts this person who calls her by a different name – and she does not quite know how to respond. Though Eli calls her by it, as the audience, we are deprived of its resonance and sonic presence on the page, signalling that she, herself, is in disbelief that this moniker used to belong to her.
This tension of the real and the fantastic plays out throughout the course of the novel, especially as Little becomes fixated on finding her name and escaping Sub Rosa. In order to leave, she realizes she must go back through the Dark where she spent her first few nights. When she gets stuck halfway through the Dark's labyrinthine depths, she finds a man called The Night Watchman who has been keeping newspaper articles about missing girls. Little searches through these papers, trying to find her own name among the headlines, but she comes away with nothing. She meets another former worker on the road who coaches her through excavating a memory about Little's grandmother. Though Little still does not come away with her name, the figure in the dark tells her that that memory is the exact thing she needs in order to leave Sub Rosa for good.
So Little goes back to Arsen in order to try again. When she eventually does leave, it's with a group of women who have also gone missing. Their journey is long and harrowing, but together they make their way back into the Canadian landscape that often casts doubt on Sub Rosa's existence and the magic that did exist there. The sense of foreboding in the novel is not quite relieved, however, until we get to the very end, and Little's first name is revealed.
This is the triumph of Amber Dawn's novel: by depicting sex work through the vein of magic realism, she manages to encapsulate what is so enchanting and captivating about it, without valorizing the violence inside of it. What is captivating about sex work is not the sex, but the sense of community and the power that one feels when they do sex work. So many fantasy texts (be they magic realism or traditional fantasy) utilize the trope of the harem or brothel as a meeting point or side quest. The brothel, like the tavern or cantina, can easily be seen as a liminal place where all kinds of people flow in and out, enabling a quick stop to pick up a character needed on a journey. But the women (and men and others) inside the brothel, as the sex workers, are often never given a voice in the story. If they do, they become inspiration or the basis for a Pretty Woman Cinderella quest, where the hero's goal is to save the tragic sex worker from their life in a redemption narrative.
Though Little's main goal is to leave sex work and remember her name, Dawn does not depict sex work as a wholly evil thing to do or escape from. We are meant to see Arsen, for instance, as a friendly presence, someone who treats her well and saves her from a life on the street and gives her a community of women to bond with. Dawn depicts Arsen, their customers, and especially the workers, as a unique community with many different people existing inside of it for many different reasons. She gives them rituals to complete and even magical powers, but things are by no means enchanted all of the time.
Indeed, Little's first night on the job with Arsen – when she has to prove herself in the Dark – is starkly terrifying. But when she does survive, and is ushered into a magical realm with magical people, we want to keep reading. Dawn's prose does something intensively clever here, which is to mythologize the experience of trauma. Little survives what is ostensibly a rape in the Dark, but she emerges from the experience with a new secret power (her wandering, disembodied hand) and a new community full of its own mythology and practices, like the coming out parties and the Diamond Dowager's house rules. Mythology--and storytelling as a whole--is one of many responses to real-life trauma and it's not one I've seen talked about enough. To mythologize something, even if it's horrible, means becoming the author of it in some way; it's a way of taking back agency from an experience or situation where you were completely powerless. We change our lives around trauma, performing a new kind of daily ritual, and we imbue new objects with magical meaning. I was mugged, but I lived, so now that part of the city is cursed, and I will not walk there again. Similarly, trauma bonds people together. We both survived a mugging, and now walk home together with cans of pepper spray to scare away predators. These bonds can seem as if they are otherworldly, especially when they seem to conjure safety again. It's why support groups exist and why some people visit them so frequently; when you experience something horrific beyond language, it is tiring to explain to people what happened. Those who have experienced something similar, though, don't need the explanation. You understand one another instantly, psychically, magically.
Dawn's depiction of trauma is one of many responses to it, and it was a relief to see it presented so cogently on the page, but without valorizing the trauma that happened before it or the response to it. Sub Rosa is a place that has been manufactured through trauma, but it doesn't call the people inside damaged and it doesn't say that what happened to them should have happened to them in order for them to become magical. It's just happening. It's just there. Eventually, Little leaves because she needs to leave, and though she takes some of the other women with her, those who stay in Sub Rosa (and in sex work) are not seen as bad or malicious. They're just staying.
Why I think this book needs to be read in 2018, though, comes back to the idea of the missing person. I was fascinated – and heartbroken – by this book because it depicts what we don't often see: the narrative of a missing person from the mouth of the missing. So frequently we see these narratives from the missing person poster: an array of details about their last night seen spoken on a police interview, and maybe a body, most likely dead and perhaps unrecognizable, only identified through dental records or pleas to the public for help. The missing person story is often forever incomplete, marked by an absent presence, because we don't have the voice at the centre of the story.
But in Sub Rosa, we have Little. When Little realizes that people might be looking for her, it changes her perspective on the world and herself. She starts to view the people inside Sub Rosa differently, and starts to speak more and more about the missing. When she gets back from her visit to the Night Watchman who kept the missing newspaper reports, she tells one worker, Isabella, that she found an article that spoke about her:
The truth is, I’ve been thinking lots about the city since my second trip to the Dark. My own memories, they’re all mashed up together in my head. But you, I found something of yours out there. It was a newspaper clipping in the Night Watchman’s garage, and it was all about you. There was a picture of you and everything. Sister Mary is worried about you. She put out a missing person’s. She started a prayer group. She went to the newspapers, the police. It was all right there in the paper I saw.
Like Little, the Night Watchman is fascinated by these clippings as they represent an absence, possibly a permanent one, so holding the paper becomes a totemic object of memory. While the person may not be around, by keeping the clippings the thought of them is. It's a way to ward off the powerlessness we feel at the heart of the missing person's story since we always come to it in-media-res and there may be too many or not enough threads to sort through to determine where to go. It's the labyrinth without Adriane; an allusion that Dawn uses deliberately in her book.
Dawn's book begs the question: What about the people who are missing, but are never reported missing? Do they still exist?
In short, Dawn's book reminds me of Dean Lisowick and Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam. Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Selim Esen, Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Andrew Kinsman, and the growing number of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur's victims. Of the Highway of Tears. And of Robert Pickton's 49 murder charges, and the many women on his farm who have not yet been identified and may never be accounted for.
Dawn's book came out in 2010, only a few years after the Robert Pickton investigation was over in 2007. Though we are never exactly sure where Sub Rosa is, Amber Dawn drew on her experience as a sex worker in Vancouver to craft the world, close enough to where the Pickton victims went missing that their influence is obvious. In Amber Dawn's memoir, Poetry Saved My Life, she talks specifically of the murdered and missing women that seem to haunt Vancouver. Their memories also haunt Sub Rosa's pages – because how could they not?
Little's story is so familiar, and has been told before, but always through that effacing measure of the picture on the telephone pole; a list of names on a Wikipedia entry but unprovable in a courtroom; or a mug-shot that's been used instead of a real-life photo. There are so many Littles unaccounted for. Just like the people Robert Pickton killed, or Indigenous women that the Highway of Tears seems to swallow up, or immigrants and LGBTQ+ people that alleged murderer Bruce McArthur deliberately targeted, sex workers are often viewed as the less dead or less missing. When sex workers do disappear, or their bodies turn up, their deaths are often thought of as inevitable. Investigators often assume their job or lifestyle led them to this fate, and if there's no family present to claim the body, investigators' motivation to investigate further is sometimes diminished even more. The Bruce McArthur arrest and mounting case only re-opens this still-fresh wound in 2018, but if you had asked anyone in the gay village or in the South Asian community about missing people in the early 2010s, they would have given you the names from Project Houston that were never solved, among others not on that list. Names upon names upon names. But no story, no solution, no answer.
With Sub Rosa, we have no names, but all the stories.
Deep down, I think I find Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa so heartbreaking yet comforting because I want Little's story to be the story for all the images I see on telephone poles. These people disappeared, and where they went is secret, but they are okay. In a different place, unreachable, but in a community that takes care of them. The magical place of Sub Rosa represents the best case scenario for the missing – but even in the best case, Little still wants to go, because she wants her name back. Because no one ever wants to be missing, even if where they disappear to is enchanted.
We know Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam's name now, thanks to the public's identification of his photo. But he, and Dean Lisowick, was never reported missing. Though all of alleged murderer Bruce McArthur's victims are heartbreaking, I think of Dean Lisowick most of all in relation to Amber Dawn's Sub Rosa because he was a defender of sex workers. People remember him as a kind and gentle person, and a good friend. When he disappeared, his absence was felt, but it was assumed he moved on. Just like Eli did with Little at the carnival.
This is a common story, but it's one that highlights Lisowick's vulnerability, and the vulnerability of all homeless people. People noticed Lisowick was not there, but no one reported him missing. And though people had photographs of him, there were none on social media, so his mugshot was the one image publications used. Lisowick and Kanagaratnam both represent the huge divide between the missing world of Sub Rosa and the daily world where the telephone poles and the newspapers are the things that speak for the missing.
In 2018, we need to remind ourselves that missing people still exist, even if they're never reported missing, and keep working on bringing them back out of the dark place and into the light.
Evelyn Deshane's creative and nonfiction work has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington's, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Evelyn's most recent project #Trans is an edited collection about transgender and nonbinary identity online. Visit evedeshane.wordpress.com for more info.