An interview with Lesléa Newman: Feminism, diversity, freedom

Last night, my husband and I watched the movie, Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  It is a poignant little film that explores the concept that everything happens for a reason, something that I have long believed in myself. A few weeks ago, I got an email inviting me to interview Lesléa Newman before her upcoming Visiting Lectureship in Human Rights at the University of Alberta. I'll be honest, I did not know who she was before receiving this email. An extensive google search and a visit to the library changed all of that and then I got VERY excited about this opportunity!

Lesléa Newman is a prolific writer, poet, and human rights activist. She is the author of over 60 books and edited collections including the groundbreaking children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, the first children’s book to portray lesbian families in a positive way, and the award-winning short story Letter to Harvey Milk.

As equal marriage is enshrined across North America, the struggle for LGBT rights will shift from fighting unjust laws, to building an inclusive, LGBT-friendly culture. This work begins with our children, in our nation’s great libraries and classrooms. For several decades, Lesléa has been building the foundations of this inclusive culture. She has published board books, children's books, poetry for teens and short stories for adults. She introduces lesbian and gay characters into her kids books in a completely organic way, without being didactic or heavy-handed.

Lesléa’s poetry and short stories are loved by older audiences too. Her latest, the Stonewall Honour Book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is a poem cycle commemorating Matthew Shepard's impact in the years since his tragic murder. Last year, A Letter To Harvey Milk was adapted for the stage at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. A student of Allen Ginsberg, she is now a professor at Spalding University's brief-residency MFA where she teaches writing for children and young adults.

As intimidated as I was interviewing a writer with over 60 published books to her name, I was so thrilled to do it and am excited to share our exchange with all of you.

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NC. Your upcoming talk is titled "It takes a village to raise an activist". Without giving away all of the lecture, what does this mean? Is there a way to be or raise an activist, without conjuring up the image of someone being militant on their stance on important issues and turning people away from the issue versus towards finding a solution and common ground?

LN. Being an activist means being active in the world, taking a stand for what you believe is right, and more often than not, joining with others who share your vision, and standing on the shoulders of those who came before you. Activism can be extremely effective and every single one of us can make a difference. There is a South African provberb that says, "if you believe that one person cannot make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room." I think that's absolutely true.

NC. What does being a feminist mean to you? And what would you say to women who back away from that word for fear of its negative (militant) connotations or to those who feel that it leaves one with a chip on her shoulder?

LN. I grew up in the golden years of feminism. I still remember when the first issue of Ms. Magazine was published! Specifically, I was very active in the feminist publishing and bookstore movement, and would not have a career without it. I have always loved this quote about feminism, attributed to Rebecca West: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” I am proud of being a feminist, and truly baffled by those, especially women, who don't embrace the term.

NC. How important do you think it is having books like Heather has Two Mommies or Donovan's Big Day in school libraries and available to all kids, not just those with same sex parents?

LN. I think HEATHER and DONOVAN are important to have available to any child, teacher, or family, who wants to be inclusive in his or her reading and/or teaching in the same way that I think children, families, and teachers of all races should read about people of all races. Our planet is diverse and there is great beauty in that diversity. Wouldn't it be great if we all celebrated one another?

NC. You write for such a wide age span, from children's books, to YA, to adult fiction. How easy is it to flow from writing for one audience to the next and know just how to reach each of them?

LN. When I sit down to start something new, I never know if it's going to be something for young children, teens or adults. I also never know if it's going to be poetry or prose. I don't find any difference in the process--writing is writing and I'm always happy and grateful when something worthwhile comes out of my pen.

NC. As a writer (and fellow activist) I have to ask... What keeps you going? How do you keep the creative juices flowing for your writing and keep fighting the good fight as an activist as well?

LN. I keep writing because I'm happier writing than not writing. When the great cellist Pablo Casals was asked when he was in his nineties why he still practiced every day, he said, "Because I think I might be improving." I never know, when I sit down to write, if I am going to write my best work on any given day. What I do know is, I'm not going to write anything if I don't sit down and pick up my pen (and yes, I still do write with a pen). So curiosity keeps me going. As for activisim, outrage, frustration, and sadness keep me going. And hope of course. As Emma Lazarus said, "None of us is free until all of us are free." I look forward to the day when all of us are free.

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I will be attending Lesléa's lecture this week at the University of Alberta and I encourage you to as well. Everything really does happen for a reason. Her words have inspired me already and this was just a few questions that we exchanged over email! I can't wait to hear her speak in person and be even more motivated to continue my personal growth as an feminist, a human rights activist and a writer.

I too look forward to the day when all of us are free to be who we are, no holds barred!

natasha~