Women, Words, and Leadership
I was delighted to be invited to participate this evening. Coming to Blue Metropolis, as I do every year, is like coming home for the holidays, full of memory and emotion.
I’m a literary woman, inspired by books. My reading is not only what inspired me to become a writer; it also helped provide the tools that allowed me to do so. Not just the literary tools—the awareness of how to put sentences together, how to structure a novel—but also the idea that it was possible to be the person I am.
That’s what books do. Whatever the book—fiction or essay, biography or history, drama or poetry—it provides us with a sense of the possibilities in life. The reason I read books, and write them, and publish them is that books provide us with heroes and heroines, villains and scoundrels, tricksters and mixed-up kids, and they show us what happens to these characters as a result of choices they make. They allow us to dream and sometimes to recoil, to appreciate the risks and decide for ourselves, to judge and laugh—or weep. They teach us how a person should be—and should not be.
A man can learn what’s it’s like to be a manly man, say, from Ernest Hemingway, or a thundering moral force like Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. A woman—any reader—can learn about integrity from Jane Austen, about independence from Mavis Gallant, and more than you might ever want to know about dysfunctionality and survival from the wonderfully comic Miriam Toews.
To the extent that we know about the life of the writer—and I love literary biographies—books can help us in other ways. For a literary woman, especially, books written by women help us figure out how to juggle life and work—and other people’s expectations—in such a way as to make it possible for a woman to become a writer.
By the time i was in my early thirties, I had a Ph.D., a husband, three sons, a house, a dog called Hector, and a full-time career. A full life, in other words, but I wanted even more. My career was teaching literature—teaching books—but what I really wanted was to be a writer and have a circle of brilliant men and women—a literary salon.
What inspired me were some marvelous European women—women who wrote, who had salons, Madame de Staël, George Sand—but their lives were too remote from mine to be of any practical help. My life was not theirs, nor could it ever be.
There were dangers, too: women writers assailed by demons—Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Smart, the matchless novelist and publisher Virginia Woolf. But there were also women with enviably brilliant careers—Margaret Drabble, say, and her sister A. S. Byatt—both of whom I was able to bring to Blue Metropolis—at different times, these being famous sisters who famously do not get on, perhaps because both are role models—leaders—with so much in common. Mavis Gallant is the writer I admired above all others, and it was a unique pleasure to be able to bring her back to Montreal in 2002 for what turned out to be her very last visit, to present her with the Blue Metropolis prize.
“We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly,” Margaret Atwood has said. She is a winner of the Blue Metropolis prize, too, and—this being Blue Met—the 2007 opening event included inspiring readings from books of hers that had been translated into French and Spanish and half a dozen other languages.
It’s books, and events like Blue Met—the very best literary salon there is—that allow young women to see Atwood, and other powerful women, like the women you’ll now hear this evening, as born leaders—and that allow us all to figure out what kinds of lives we should lead, how to be.
© 2016, Linda Leith
Photo: Judith Lermer Crawley