Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

CBC Canada Reads Interview Series: Stephen Lewis

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Stephen Lewis

Today we continue our CBC Canada Reads interview series with one of Canada's foremost humanitarians, and former UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis.

Mr. Lewis is defending no less than our first lady of Canadian letters, Margaret Atwood, in the competition — specifically The Year of the Flood (Vintage Canada), the second instalment in her recent dystopian series.

Mr. Lewis speaks to Open Book about Atwood as a Beatnik, the book he almost chose and issues to which all Canadians should be paying attention.

Hosted by CBC personality and author Jian Ghomeshi, Canada Reads pits five fantastic Canadian books against one another in a (mostly) friendly competition, with each book championed by a Canadian celebrity in a series of broadcast debates. The 2014 debates run from March 3-6 and are centred around the theme of "What is the book that could change Canada?".

Stay tuned to Open Book: Toronto for interviews with more of the Canada Reads panellists and authors as the debates approach!

Open Book:

Tell us about why you chose this particular book as "the book to change Canada".

Stephen Lewis:

I chose it ultimately after a feverish examination of three or four possibilities. I guess I chose it ultimately because it speaks to an issue which both engages me and makes me feel that Canadians should be a part of, and that's the overwhelming issue of climate change, or global warming.


What is your strategy going into the debates? Is "all fair" in books and war?


You know, I'm only now beginning to understand the sense of battle which engages Canada Reads. I thought it was a civilized, literary exchange. It turns out to be an uncivilized, brutal literary exchange! I'm not sure I'm up to that, so I haven't thought through my strategy yet, but I gather you have to lacerate your opponents willfully. God, all of the negative instincts I have will come to the fore.


Where were you the first time you read your selected book?


Actually, I was in Marathon, Florida, which is in the Florida Keys, on a vacation with my family.


What was it like meeting the author of your book? Did you know one another previously? How would you describe the author?


Yes we did know each other previously, although interestingly, only tangentially. In fact, at the time of the interviews when Canada Reads for this year was launched upon the world, Margaret recalled our encounter at university. We have seen each other incidentally since then, but not as other might think, closely. I am, as others, filled with admiration for Margaret Atwood. I love her activism and her advocacy and the nobility she conveys around issues which are important in this day. Nothing stops her from engaging, even though she is always writing the next literary masterpiece. I think what I love most about Margaret is her wit. It is so ineffably dry.

I certainly remember that I was in a suit, straight-laced, and largely, classically self-centred. My university days were not commendable in any way, and the evidence of that is that I never graduated. I remember Margaret Atwood as being part of the fairly frivolous Beatnik generation — she'll kill me for that — but then, so was my wife. This description of artsy, cultural, lack of interest in those of us who were politically obsessed, that's right, that's true. Margaret is quite right about that. We were opposites not so much ideologically as culturally.


Apart from your chosen book and the others in the competition, tell us about another book you'd love to see all of Canada reading.


I came very close to choosing A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which is an extraordinary study of the genocide in Rwanda. And I came close to choosing it because the description of human depravity in the book mirrors consistently what is happening in Syria and in the Ukraine and in Mali and in Zimbabwe, and would be a very strong message to Canadians, I think, that Canada should be cognizant of and involved with these struggles. In the sense that our government should be at the United Nations speaking about them and talking about them and all Canadians should be concerned about them.

I ultimately didn't choose A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali because it was so sexually explicit, it was so terrifying violent in sexual terms, that I didn't think I could read portions of it, I didn't think I could refer to certain portions of it without deeply unsettling Canadians.


If your writer wins the competition, how will you celebrate?


I'll go back to work [laughs]. To celebrate with Peggy? I'll ask her what she would like to do and I'll follow her prescription.

My life is such that when I finish one episode, I turn to the next. And that's celebration enough.

Stephen Lewis is the co-founder and chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which works with community-based organizations that provide care and support to women, orphaned children, grandmothers and people living with HIV and AIDS. He is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, and he is co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World in the United States. Stephen Lewis' work with the United Nations spanned more than two decades and he holds 37 honorary degrees from Canadian universities, in addition to honorary degrees from Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins University in the United States. In 2003, Stephen Lewis received Canada's highest civilian honour: Companion of the Order of Canada.

For more information about The Year of the Flood please visit the Random House Canada website.

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

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