The Agenda’s year in books: 2019 edition

In 2019, that included the #MeToo movement, gender expression and identity, Black history, dire environmental issues, and of course, politics. Here are some highlights from the authors and books featured on the show this year
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Dec 24, 2019

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Throughout the year, The Agenda invites authors to discuss the topics captivating readers across the province. In 2019, that included the #MeToo movement, gender expression and identity, Black history, dire environmental issues, and of course, politics. Here’s a roundup of some of this year’s most insightful conversations.

Fiction

Esi Edugyan: Writing black histories

In 2011, Esi Edugyan won the prestigious Giller prize for her first novel, Half Blood Blues, about jazz musicians set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. In 2018, she won it again. That novel, Washington Black, follows the life of a slave in Barbados from his youth to his escape and freedom. Both novels are embedded in Black history, featuring not only a fiction writer’s keen imagination, but also a great deal of research. In a conversation with Nam Kiwanuka, Edugyan reflected on her place in Canadian literature. “Obviously, in school, you’re reading a lot of dead authors or you’re reading a lot of authors who don’t have your background at all. And so, I think there is something very subtle that happens psychologically in terms of your feeling like you have permission to do things. So, I guess I’m aware that for young women of colour that just my writing at all and being out there can be more than symbolic. It can be a granting of permission.”

Also on The Agenda this year was British writer Marlon James, talking about his book, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, which he describes as a Game of Thrones-type story that’s rooted in Black history and mythology. American novelist Colson Whitehead spoke about his novel, The Nickel Boys, which is set in Jim Crow-era Florida. Finally, in November, award-winning author Salman Rushdie joined Steve Paikin on set. Rushdie took the classic tale of Don Quixote and updated it in Quichotte, to reflect social and political change in the post-truth era.

#MeToo

Robyn Doolittle: Calling out rape culture

For her 2017 Globe and Mail "Unfounded" series, Robyn Doolittle spent two years investigating how police and the courts handle sexual assault cases in Canada. Her book, Had It Coming: What's Fair in the Age of #MeToo, picks up where her gender-based violence investigation left off. She spoke to Nam Kiwanuka about sexual harassment, assault, misogyny, and the affects of #MeToo.

The story of the allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein set off the #MeToo movement. One of the reporters behind the New York Times investigation into Weinstein was Megan Toohey, co-author of, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement. She tells Nam Kiwanuka: “We felt there was so much drama that played out in the articles that we wrote, but there was also so much drama that played out behind the scenes and that was initially off the record and kind of in hushed, secret meetings and we really worked hard with this book to bring all of that onto the record so that readers could be there with us and have a front row seat to all that behind-the-scenes drama.”

Gender issues

Joshua M. Ferguson: Life Beyond Gender Roles

Author and filmmaker Joshua M. Ferguson — the first Ontarian to receive a non-binary designation on their birth certificate — spoke to Nam Kiwanuka about their memoir Me, Myself, They: Live Beyond the Binary, chronicling their journey as a transgender person. “I’d like to push back a little bit on being the first,” Ferguson said. "Because I think we’re so used, in our society, to sort of elevate some voices. And I have a lot of privilege as a white trans person. And so, the voices we often elevate sometimes reflect that privilege. And I have to acknowledge the rich history of my community, and the people who have come before me and who are in my community now fighting and paving the path."

The Agenda also welcomed world-class cyclist Kristen Worley, who co-wrote, Woman Enough: How a Boy Became a Woman and Changed the World of Sport with journalist Johanna Schneller. It’s an account of a human rights battle to compete as a woman in the 2008 Beijing Olympic games while using hormones during the transition from male to female. She told Nam Kiwanuka, “I think the biggest part of this is — even one year from when I was in Geneva, from when I was in Unesco, one year later, I’ve now principally been able to put the foundation of human rights front and centre for all athletes, worldwide, in the global sporting system.”

Social issues

Malcolm Gladwell: Rethinking familiarity

In October, Malcolm Gladwell, the transplanted Canadian author, podcaster, and “thought experimentalist” talked to Steve Paikin about his book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About People We Don’t Know. In it, he plucks narratives out of the headlines — Sandra Bland’s random police check, arrest, and subsequent jail-cell suicide in the Texas; the pervasive problem of sexual assault on American college campuses; and the Bernie Madoff financial scam — to argue that stranger danger is a real thing. He says, “The very things that make us good at interacting with people who we love and who are intimate with us, who are family members, make it hard for us to deal with people who are outside of our kind of intimate circle. And they’re pretty formidable obstacles. So, I think we have to restructure our world around this vulnerability.”

Also that month, indie pop-duo Tegan and Sara discussed their book, High School, about their struggles with bullying at school, their rise to success, and their new album comprised of songs they wrote as teens.

Politics and Ideology

Naomi Klein: The case for a green new deal

Activist and author Naomi Klein spoke with Steve Paikin about her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, which calls for a new framework to tackle climate change and economic inequality. Klein has a personal reason for her push for a “once-in-a-century chance” to fix the climate collapse: her seven-year-old child: “I’m worried that there won’t be any salmon in the Pacific Ocean,” she says. “I’m worried that I will have to explain to him that we allowed the oceans to warm enough that we destroyed a species on the backs that ancient cultures rest, that feed the forests where he was born, in British Columbia, and the oceans. Oh my God, I’m so much more worried about that than deficits. And I really wish that we were talking more about those kinds of deficits.”

On the Canadian political front, columnist John Ivison dropped by The Agenda to introduce his book, Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister, a look at the triumphs and falters of the man once called, “just not ready.”

In the U.S., the animosity between President Trump and CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta has made headlines, and is now documented in Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America.  Acosta spoke to Steve Paikin about the difficulty the American media is having covering government in the Trump era.

Memoir

Gail Gallant: Living with my sister’s ghost

At five months, Gail Gallant died. A year later, her grieving, devoutly Catholic mother gave birth to a new child, whom she saw as a miracle baby brought to her through the power of prayer. She named her Gail. As a consequence, Gallant felt she'd been chosen for a very special destiny. The pressure to be a perfect incarnation of her immortalized sister led to confusion and depression.  Her affecting book The Changeling: A Memoir of My Death and Rebirth, My Haunted Childhood, and My Education in Sainthood and Sin recounts her story, and how she ultimately found her own identity.

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