Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Michele Landsberg

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Michele Landsberg

Michele Landsberg is one of Canada's foremost voices for equality and progress. Best known for her column in the Toronto Star, she is the author of four books, most recently a collection that charts the progress of Canadian feminism through 30 years of columns. Writing the Revolution (Second Story Press) is essential reading for social justice junkies.

Michele Landsberg talks to Open Book about her new book, how far we've come and how far we've still got to go.

And don't miss Michele Landsberg's launch with venerable event series This Is Not A Reading Series on October 18 — that's tomorrow! Check out Open Book's event listing for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Writing the Revolution.

Michele Landsberg:

Writing the Revolution traces the arc of the Second Wave of feminism through a selection of my columns, written in the Toronto Star between 1978 and 2003. I wove the columns into a continuous narrative, with self-reflective and anecdotal commentaries and anecdotes, focused on the key themes and issues of the Second Wave. The columns, I realize in retrospective, were reporting history as it was happening, and have all the urgency, vividness and occasional short-sightedness of that immediacy.


How did you go about selecting columns to include in the book?


Choosing a mere 100 or so columns from a total of 3000, spanning 30 years, was a unique form of mental torture. I selected by theme, liveliness and poignancy of the writing, the resonance any particular column might still have today — and also those about which I still had quite a lot to say. My editor, Sarah Schwartz, wielded a sharp axe, forcing me to jettison anything repetitive or too irrelevant, but at the same time managing to include, seamlessly, a number of more personal and lyrical columns.


Are there any particular issues where your views have evolved or changed over the years?


Changes in my views are more a matter of tone or depth of feeling. For example, I always defended gay rights, but my feelings about the issues became much warmer and more accepting over the years, along with the rest of society. In 1978, I actually wrote a column hotly defending the presence of gay men as classroom teachers, but parenthetically wishing gay couples wouldn’t “flaunt their sexuality”. Ouch!


What central issues do you see facing Canadian feminists today?


The central issue facing women today is that we are still excluded from and underrepresented in every sphere of real power (banks, government, etc) and thus our vital concerns are ignored or trampled on, for example — high quality, universally accessible child care; universal access to reproductive choice; prompt and effective remedies for harassment, battering and other forms of violence directed at women.

I would say that the most grievous injustices are inflicted on aboriginal women and girls, and immigrant and refugee women. The poverty and harms they face are sickening and a disgrace to our democracy.


You must have encountered significant resistance over your career. What advice do you have for writers who find themselves intimidated by the idea of controversy?


I did face resistance in my career — but the overwhelming support from women readers was my armour, keeping me resilient and focused. (Their huge and loyal readership was also my strength at the newspaper. Very popular columnists rarely get fired or even interfered with.) Also, if writers are intimidated by controversy, they probably should not become opinion writers. There’s no point to doing it unless you are fuelled by passionate beliefs and authentic ideals, and are also willing to learn from your mistakes.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


The solid rock beneath my feet was Simone de Beauvoir, whom I read as a young teenager. She was the first person in my world who was as angry as I was about the situation of women and made me feel that I was not the crazy one. When I was even younger, E. Nesbit, the great children’s author, made me realize that one could dream of a different and better world — it was a revolutionary realization for a child in the monochrome, strict, patriarchal 1940s.

Later, my editor Doris Anderson at Chatelaine demonstrated the virtues and strengths of staying tuned in to the readers and paying attention to (and respecting) their values and reactions. My husband, Stephen Lewis, was a superb editor of my columns, always telling me when I was failing to make my point clearly enough.


In your opinion, what news outlets (large or small) in Canada today provide valuable and vital points of view for readers concerned about social justice?


Among the news outlets that still care about social justice and provide the lively analysis and research one needs are: The Monitor, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Briarpatch;, Herizons Magazine (one of the last feminist magazines in the country), Shameless,

Of course, the Star and the Globe and Mail occasionally do eye-opening investigations into issues of the public interest, and these are invaluable.


What are you working on now?


I’m not writing anything at the moment, but I’m thinking about my next project, which might be a light-hearted memoir about my beautiful Aunt Milly, who ran away with the Baron Maurice de Rothschild at the end of World War Two, and changed the destinies of her entire family.

Michele Landsberg began her career with the Globe and Mail in the 1960s. She joined Chatelaine Magazine in the 1970s, under the editorship of leading feminist Doris Anderson, before moving to the Toronto Star. Her time as a columnist for the Star spanned twenty-five years and won her two National Newspaper Awards. She is also the recipient of the Governor-General's Persons' Medal for her tireless advocacy on behalf of women. She is the author of three best-selling books: Women and Children First, Michele Landsberg’s Guide to Children’s Books and This is New York, Honey! Michele lives in Toronto with her husband, Stephen Lewis. She continues her work as an activist, and is a regular reviewer of children’s literature on CBC Radio.

For more information about Writing the Revolution please visit the Second Story website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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