The Miriam Edelson Interview

“Miriam Edelson’s collection of personal essays ties together family history, the impact of significant political events in the past half-century, her working life, and her own role as a mother into a coherent whole. A socially engaged activist, Edelson brings urgency to discussions of inequality, racism, and anti-Semitism. Especially moving are her essays that touch on her son’s short life, her efforts to not let grief overshadow her daughter’s growth into adulthood, and the positive self-care strategies she has learned in order to deal with her own mental health.”—Maureen Hynes, poet, and author of Sotto Voce

Miriam Edelson is a neurodivergent social activist, settler, writer, and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays, and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, various U.S. and Canadian literary journals, and on CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs” appeared in late 2005. She completed a doctorate in 2016 at the University of Toronto focused on Mental Health in the Workplace. The Swirl in my Burl is her latest book. 

The collection begins with some sharp insight into your complicated relationship/lens with/about your father, to whom you’ve credited a fair shake of both positive and negative aspects of your life experience. At the risk of going a bit too broad here, my question for you is how you think family dynamics as a topic of public and political opinion has changed over the last few decades, and how other aspects of public opinion may have influenced it.

I think there is more public interest in family dynamics than in earlier times. It certainly seems that more people are experiencing mental health or addiction challenges, and some of those people will access therapeutic relationships to help them work through difficult periods. In that sense, examining family dynamics has become part of a mainstream preoccupation. The dynamics of my family have certainly influenced how I write and what I choose to write about. It may be that a dysfunctional family background has provided me with a rich canvas on which to paint my own truths.

What’s particularly refreshing about your book is that the subjects you choose to tackle, many of them having to do with your own personal hardships, are handled with a specific dose of sweetness, humour, and hope that makes your musings incredibly attractive without flirting at all with romanticization, for lack of a better word. What do you think of the phrase “Life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view”?

I suppose it means that one’s point of view can be transitory — so much depends on your frame of mind at the point you are remembering or evaluating something in your past. The same incident can have a positive or devastating impact on your sense of self, depending how you approach it at a given time. In my writing I try to capture a particular moment or feeling by remembering it and then analyzing the dynamics that were in play at the time. A sense of humour helps a lot when excavating difficult experiences.

Your feelings on motherhood and the comparisons you’ve made between being a mother and being an artist are compelling; there’s a certain mythopoeic, esoteric ethos to that perspective that has a way of bringing readers down to Earth beautifully. Have you had any thoughts on grandmotherhood that have a similar palpability?

I have four grandchildren as a result of our blended family. They range in age from three to fifteen years old and are a challenging, joyful addition to my life. They teach me a lot about loving unconditionally. The kids are of mixed race and I always try to reflect that in the choice of books or movies that we enjoy together. The kids came years before I expected to be a grandmother but I think I am growing into the role. They affect me creatively in the delicious things that they say, especially when they’re quite young. I’m always searching for a pencil to write them down.

Your book is a very personal one, on a level that not many people can claim to have gone to. What sort of emotional work went into getting to such a place of poignant, intelligent vulnerability? Do you have any advice for writers who may be struggling to do so?

It helps to have a good friend you can confide in, to help you work out what is really going on in a given situation. I am fortunate to have that, but I’ve also invested considerable energy at different points in my life to psychotherapy. It’s not the answer for everyone, but I’ve found I can better understand my own motivations and needs with the help of a competent professional. It means digging under the surface of a situation and learning what the hurt or anger is really about. 

Writers, even those starting out, have the privilege of observing and analyzing themselves and others. I would encourage them to ‘go deep’ and where possible get help in doing so.