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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Opening Up

To write about class, I first had to speak about it

Deborah Dundas

Since I can remember, I have done two things that, looking back, were signposts to my future: I asked lots of questions, and I listened. Most of the time, people were delighted that anyone, even a kid, showed any interest in what they were doing. How many Blue Jays fans at the old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, for example, would ask a hot dog vendor, running up and down the stairs for hours on end in the heat, what their day was like? Or a lone service worker on her dinner break? One evening at the university cafeteria, when I offered such a woman a sympathetic ear, I heard about her disappointment at being overlooked for promotion. “They wouldn’t give me a chance,” she told me sadly.

She couldn’t have been out of her early twenties, but even at that young age she already seemed to have been defeated by the larger world. Her narrative spoke of victimhood — that life happened to her but wasn’t something she had agency in. I once tried ­putting my ­encounter with her into a short story, but it never quite worked as fiction. Still, the moment struck me as important enough that I tried to get it down somehow. That act of recording gave it a ­permanence and a prominence, even if it stayed only in my notes.

It turns out that even thirty years ago, I was most drawn to accounts that give voice to those in our society who are perhaps overlooked or marginalized or simply so much a part of our everyday lives that we barely even notice them.

My interest in hearing people’s stories naturally grew into wanting to tell them and then to helping others tell those stories for themselves. Each time I did this, I’d learn something. How, for instance, does one allow both the negative and the positive aspects of life to sit side by side, without judgment, in ways that illuminate a truth about an individual’s humanity?

This turned into my profession. For a time, as a television producer, I told feature stories — ones that said something about the bigger issues of the day. Once, during a period of high unemployment in the 1990s, I focused on Leon, a middle-aged guy who had lost his job and was struggling to find another one. I talked to his employment adviser and followed him to school, where he was training for a new profession. Leon allowed himself to be filmed, ­opening himself to judgment but also to empathy. His doggedness culminated in that piece’s final line: “If there’s a job, I’ll get a job.”

For so many years, working at a newspaper, I inserted myself into other people’s lives and then described what I saw. When I wrote about my own experiences, it was usually only for myself.

And then one afternoon I was talking with Dan Wells, who runs the independent publisher Biblioasis, about a series he was launching. Field Notes, a set of short and timely booklets, would delve into urgent societal questions. Something on class seemed like a perfect addition to the lineup — and perfect for me to write.

The idea was to start a conversation about a topic many of us avoid. But I realized that if I wanted to start such a conversation, I had to be open and honest about my own experiences of growing up poor. I had to leave myself as ­vulnerable as that young woman in the cafeteria or as Leon with the camera recording his efforts to learn a new skill. If I was going to ask other people to entrust their stories to me, I had to explore mine.

Those parts of my first book — some of them anyway — took the longest to write. I became frustrated at my writer’s block. But then I realized something: it’s a brave thing to share, to leave yourself vulnerable. The notion of ­journalistic objectivity had long allowed me to hide behind my keyboard, behind my words. This time, my pen was a tool not of distance but of intimacy.

For so many years, I’d been asking others for personal revelations, without having to offer any in return. For the first time, I couldn’t help others share their inner thoughts without also sharing mine. So each conversation I include in my book is balanced with my own story. It had to. I had to open up. I had to learn how to provide myself with the same safe landing spot I had always tried to offer others.

“So,” I thought. “This is how it feels.”

Deborah Dundas is the books editor at the Toronto Star.

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