Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Writing Your Life: Amber Dawn, Iain Reid and Miriam Katin

Entering the side entrance of the Knox Presbyterian church I see what looks like over 100 people seated in perfect rows facing a large stage.  The stage has four empty red chairs facing outwards, a large blue screen in the background and a pale wood podium on the right, where a woman with a long shock of red hair reads her work, “I learned that I’ll get my head stuck under the steering wheel for a blow job.” And then I quietly find an empty seat in the audience while everyone is still being transported by the reader and I hear her again, “No kissing, no real names, no playing house. I hold my breath and stare at the wall until he’s finished.” And it’s all too clear what she’s describing. 


Amber Dawn is reading from her gritty and powerful memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life .  It’s a frank, painful and sometimes funny account of a woman’s life as a hustler on the streets of Vancouver: what it did to her and how she was saved by poetry. After her compelling read, Ms. Dawn is followed by Miriam Katin, the author of a debut graphic novel called, We Are On Our Own , who reveals herself as a short woman with salt and pepper hair pulled neatly into a bun in the back of her head.  She’s wearing a plain black jacket and large round eye glasses.  While standing at the podium, the screen beside her projects an image of a two or three-year-old girl who is standing next to a home with a short iron railing in front of her while Ms. Katin tells us about her life with a strong Hungarian accent, “The shadow of that iron railing cast a shadow on my body and I always thought of it as an omen of things to come.”  She laments over the hardships during the Second World War and the passing of time, while stunning drawings of this woman in front of us are depicted with many different prompts and people in movement, torment and toil on the screen beside her.  Then she calls out in exasperation, “I thought it was over and then my son announced that he wanted to live in Germany.” But, she admitts, there was one consolation, “Dry martinis were my nice personal savior,” and the audience bellows out loud as she ends her reading and sits down.  


In stark contrast to Ms. Katin’s stature, she is replaced at the podium by the much taller, Iain Reid, writer of the The Truth About Luck , a memoir on a birthday gift-road trip to Kingston, Ontario with his 92 year-old grandmother. Dressed in a brown sweater and a blue shirt and tie, the stoic balding figure with glasses begins to read a comical and touching tale about how his brother Jimmy and he, sat in the Manx Pub in Ottawa, Ontario, and through a process of elimination, conspired to take his grandmother to Kingston for her birthday and have her pay for it.  The audience exploded with laughter at the hilarious banter of these dueling brothers.  The evening ended with the host and three writers sitting in the red chairs and responding to audience questions where even deeper truths were revealed about things like their first writing experiences, how they wrote about real people in their lives and what it takes to write about their own lives, “It is an act of bravery” called out Amber Dawn.  “We just hope that people appreciate it.  I get thanks all of the time and it gives me courage.”