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Tabassum Siddiqui is an editor at The Globe and Mail.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of what I’m grateful for – not in the gratitude-journaling, self-help sense, but rather the more tangible recognition of the people, places and things that uplift us.
In two decades as a journalist, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a wide array of people – from heads of state to rock stars to those working quietly to make their communities better. And I’ve kept in touch with some of them – particularly creative, thoughtful women who continue to inspire not only me, but everyone around them.
I realized recently that several women I know, whose work and approach to art and life I’ve long appreciated, had written books published this fall. Each of these three authors are as different as can be, with distinct paths to bringing their stories to the page. But their books have something in common: They all reflect the lived experiences of these women, and offer a glimpse of their unique perspectives.
Singer-songwriter Emm Gryner stands out for her soaring voice, sharp lyrics and hummable melodies. But she’s also an example of the do-it-yourself ethos, having created her own label and produced her own albums over the past two decades after an early major-label deal went sour.
She continued to make music as a fiercely independent artist, with milestones including singing backup in the late David Bowie’s band. But the highs were also tempered with some serious lows – including a painful divorce while parenting two young kids.
Now in her 40s and balancing her music career with working as a voice and life coach and being a mom, Gryner has distilled the wisdom of what it means to find your voice in her new book, The Healing Power of Singing.
So what lessons did this creative powerhouse learn along the way?
“Gratitude! When you’re a pop artist and you want the world to adore you, it’s this thing you skip over – but it’s the most important thing,” she says. “Without it, you can’t appreciate what’s going on around you – and without appreciation, nothing grows. Also, maintaining curiosity. It’s harder as we get older because we think we’ve ‘been there and done that,’ but every time I approach something with a kid’s eyes and heart, it ends up a thing of beauty.”
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Toronto journalist Carlyn Zwarenstein is another trailblazer who has let curiosity guide her throughout her career, covering the tough and tender stories underpinning the social justice issues she cares about.
Zwarenstein, also a mother of two, spent the pandemic writing late into the night to finish her recently released book, On Opium: Pain, Pleasure, and Other Matters of Substance. Expanding on her first book, Opium Eater, she weaves her personal narrative of using prescription opioid medication to manage spinal arthritis with a deeply reported look at why people use substances and the causes of drug-related harms.
Just as peers like me are inspired by her work, Zwarenstein draws on her admiration for the women in her life – her mom, sister, sister-in-law and family friends, but also those she encountered while writing the book.
“I learned that some of the people taking the greatest risks to end the war on drugs are working-class and poor women, often Indigenous and Black women and others who experience dramatically disproportionate harms from it. The women I met and learned about are incredibly brave. They are working through great personal suffering to save lives and undo a century or more of racist, classist drug policy.”
Unlike Gryner and Zwarenstein, Toronto theatre artist and youth counsellor Eliza Martin is only just starting her career – but still has plenty of stories to tell. I first encountered Martin when my sister, a high-school English and drama teacher, cast her in a school play many years ago.
She went on to theatre school and acclaimed performances, eventually writing her own material, including a solo 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival play staged in an alleyway garage, Harvey and the Extraordinary. The show, about a young girl coping with her father’s absence, caught the attention of Claire Caldwell, an editor at Annick Press, who encouraged Martin to adapt the story into a kids’ book.
Which she did – finalizing the draft during the pandemic while also juggling graduate school. Talk about extraordinary.
“I think books can help us feel seen, feel less alone and sit with us in the dark – literally and figuratively,” Martin says.
Martin’s debut novel, aimed at middle-grade readers and featuring illustrations by artist Anna Bron, comes out Nov. 2 – no small feat for someone only in her 20s.
Martin says she’s fortunate to have plenty of role models, including the many strong, smart women in her large family.
“But the heart of the story comes from many of the young people I work with,” Martin says. “So many children and youth I work with face a lot of adversity, and I am stunned by their strength. I wanted to represent that resilience and strength can look different for everyone – and, most importantly, it doesn’t need to be graceful or typical.”
I recently finished reading all three books by these remarkable women – and am thankful not only to know each of them, but also for the gift of their stories, which share a bit of their heart with all of us.
What else we’re thinking about:
While nobody is giving up their work-from-home sweatpants anytime soon, it’s still a thrill to daydream about the put-together outfits we’re going to sport when we return to the office or cocktail parties or live shows or … (Can you tell I’m getting tired of being mostly at home?) As someone who loves beautifully made things but doesn’t have much patience for shopping or fast fashion, I’m drawn to independent designers and shops with a quality-over-quantity approach. Two women-owned Canadian boutiques who walk that talk are Ottawa’s Victoire and Toronto’s Coal Miner’s Daughter – both not only carry homegrown clothing lines and female designers, but also lend their vocal and financial support to causes in their communities. Their well curated Instagram feeds will have you itching to get dressed up to leave the house – matching fabric mask and all.
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