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Culture
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Media

Andrea Warner Is a Book Person

The Vancouver-based pop culture critic is all about ‘writing women and people of colour back into history.’ And soap operas.

Michelle Cyca 23 Jun 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Michelle Cyca is a writer, editor and book enthusiast living on unceded territories of the Musqueam Band, and the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, Chatelaine, SAD Mag and more. Find her on Twitter @michellecyca.

“The last 12 years of my life have been about writing women and people of colour back into history,” says Andrea Warner, a critic, author and podcaster. “Our pop culture cannot just be what white men care about. I refuse to accept that. I’ve been resisting it since I was three years old, and I know that there are countless other people resisting that with me.”

Warner’s resistance is evident in her two published non-fiction books, which braid together her twin passions: feminism and music criticism. Her first book, We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ‘90s and Changed Canadian Music, celebrates a powerhouse quartet of Canadian musicians— Alanis, Sarah, Shania and Céline — whose legacies have been diminished despite their tremendous commercial success and lasting musical influence. Her second book, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, is a revealing story of the Cree icon and activist.

“My friend Hannah McGregor named my style of writing ‘consent-based journalism,’ and I really love that idea,” explains Warner, who approached Saint-Marie’s biography as a collaborative exercise grounded in trust and respect. “I’m privileged because I work in media, and what I get to do with that space is make decisions about what I’m covering and who I’m writing about.”

“A lot of journalists want to pretend they have no power, but we know that’s a lie. We can see who used to be written about almost exclusively, and how they used to be written about. And it’s such a dangerous lie to tell yourself you have no power, because then you have no accountability, and you don’t have to look at your own complicity. I want to always, always be thinking about what my complicity is.”

Her writing explores both the impact of these female musicians and the cultural forces that sidelined their contributions and undermined their power. “It took me like 10 years to come into a place where I could appreciate the humble hootenanny of Shania Twain. Like, what a tragedy!” she says, “I love seeing how many writers now are spending time rethinking their own markers of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pop culture. Because it’s a real shock to the system for a lot of folks, to realize how much of it had been informed by sexism, racism and classism.”

A prolific music journalist, Andrea also co-hosts the delightful podcast Pop This!, which joyfully and critically explores pop culture artifacts with a feminist lens. She’s also working on her third book, for readers aged eight to 12 about musical activists who changed the world.

Somehow, she found time to tell The Tyee about what she prefers to read. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I imagine you have to read a lot for your job, so what do you like to read for fun?

All my professional and personal interests intersect. I’m really lucky in that regard. The stuff that I love to do is also the stuff I love to read about. But a book that I read entirely for myself, that I really loved, was Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Specifically, I loved the audiobook: I thought the vocal performance of the narrator, especially replicating the child’s voice, was so brilliant. I raced through it so fast. That book was entirely a pleasure pursuit — I didn’t turn it into a work project.

Another thing I read for pure pleasure recently was Jen Sookfong Lee’s The Conjoined. I know I’m a little late to that, but I love Jen a lot and I know her a little, and I think she’s just so talented. She’s so darkly funny, and I just adore that so much.

Oh, another book that I absolutely read for pleasure, which utterly changed my life in a lot of ways is Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men. I became aware of her work when she put out this EP called Part-Time Woman, which I loved so much, it’s such a fantastic record. And then her book came out, and it just happened to come out when the Buffy biography came out, so we were book sisters, just out there reading our books at the same time. And I’m Afraid of Men really got me right in the gut. It’s so brilliant and incisive, and it brought me into a better understanding of the perils of toxic masculinity and the fragility within that.

I also loved her new book, The Subtweet — I blurbed it. It’s a story we haven’t seen yet in fiction.

Do you read much poetry?

I read a lot of poetry for pleasure lately: jaye simpson’s It Was Never Going to Be Okay, Cicely Belle Blain’s Burnt Sugar, Junie Désil’s Eat Salt Gaze at the Ocean and Jillian Christmas’s The Gospel of Breaking. I know all four writers, and I think they’re all amazing.

These four poetry collections are just so different, but all of them just made me feel really uniquely about the world. Poetry was the first thing I wrote, like so many teenagers, and I loved it. It helped me make sense of the world, and it helped me come to know my own feelings about things better. And I think that’s what all four of these collections do — as the writers bring themselves to a more intimate understanding of their experiences, they bring us along with them and let us have those moments of empathy and witnessing. The way that each of them writes, with their own linguistic twists — I just loved, loved, loved each of these collections.

What’s your latest vacation book?

Lindsay Wong’s The Woo-Woo! I mean, that book just came out of nowhere and really knocked me around. And I took it on the one real genuine vacation I've had in the last 10 years. I took two books — well, three books, but the third one was something like Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters to read for the 800th time, which, honestly, I recommend everyone should read. But the other two books were Michelle McNamara’s I'll Be Gone in the Dark and Lindsay Wong’s The Woo-Woo.

So I had the choice of either being terrified that someone was going to break in and murder us in the middle of the night, or to laugh and cry and want to vomit a little bit at this deeply relatable dysfunctional family memoir.

Which one did you choose?

I would take turns — I would read one chapter of Lindsay’s book, then one chapter of Michelle’s, and then take little breaks because they were both so intense.

What did you read when you were young?

I read a lot of Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. I would buy them all and catalog them. I really loved having my own library system. And then I turned to Christopher Pike and Judy Blume. Those were really my jam for a long time. But through school I was also being introduced to all kinds of different writers. At that time, our textbooks had a real interest in exposing us to Canadian songwriters and other writers as poets. So Leonard Cohen and Maya Angelou might be in the same text for whatever reason, and that was really wild and wonderful.

As a teenager I was finding all kinds of writers — Adrienne Rich, getting introduced to Alice Munro. I was always an Alice Munro over Margaret Atwood fan. I liked the emotional complexity of the characters in Munro’s stories. And people are really my interest — I’m a “people over form” person, in terms of writing. I want to learn more about people all the time. Alice Munro just brought about a better understanding of people for me.

I also wrote books. Like I wrote these terrible young adult novels by hand, between the ages of 12 and 16. They were about teenagers, and getting in trouble, and sex and relationships. I don’t remember the names of all of them, but one might have been called Carly’s Saga. That’s where I was at.

I was also reading a ton of Lurlene McDaniel, where every kid has a disease? Also, Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan! That was an interesting book to read when you’re just learning about feminism and have just gone to your Take Back the Night rally.

What other writing shaped your feminism?

So many things brought me into an understanding of feminism. bell hooks and Maya Angelou, for sure. Even Maeve Binchy, to an extent.

But I should mention that the foundation for my feminism is that I watched soap operas all the time. I even moved to New York City and worked at Soap Opera Weekly as an intern when I was 20. Soap operas were huge to me. So even that radicalized me, because I understood that people didn’t take me seriously when I would buy Soap Opera Weekly, and they would smirk when I said I wanted to work there when I was older. I knew women’s stories, told in this way, had very little value to some people, but a tremendous amount of importance to others. Through that, I understood quickly what the gendered relationships were.

But I also feel like I was a real gatekeeper feminist for a long time. In my first book, We Oughta Know, I wanted to reckon with that gatekeeper feminism that I was pretty complicit in holding up, and think about the internalized misogyny that was part of all that. Like, thinking some women are better than others by virtue of whether they wore crop tops? That’s such a specifically gross feminism! When I was younger, I didn’t understand you could be here for the conversation around male gaze and still respect women’s rights to choose their own clothing. There needs to be room for all that nuance.

Also, the act of observing other people’s families was informative. I was always one of those weird kids having as many conversations with adults as I was with children my own age. I liked to be let into these other worlds. I was always interested in having more access to worlds that I knew I was not a part of by virtue of so many things — whether it was my age, or gender, or my whiteness.

I also think fatness is such a real significant identity marker — particularly for a teenage girl — and I have never not been fat. I came out fat, and I stayed that way. It took me a really long time to be comfortable talking about that in any meaningful way, but it absolutely played a role in always being a bit of a control freak about knowing other people and understanding them a bit better, so I could get in front of whatever judgments might have come along in front of their view of me.

I feel like that’s a good pre-requisite for becoming a biographer.

Yeah, it’s not an accident that I became a journalist. I was supposed to be a creative writer and then I became a journalist instead. It’s definitely not an accident at all.

582px version of BuffySainteMarieBook.jpg

Your Buffy Sainte-Marie biography is so remarkable partly because she has had this incredible career — the first Indigenous Oscar winner, with more than 20 albums! — and yet many people aren’t aware of her. Are there other biographies or non-fiction that you feel have elevated other figures who have been similarly underappreciated by the masses?

I don’t read a ton of the genre that I’m participating in. I’m so paranoid about plagiarism! So I haven’t read a ton of music biographies. But I’ve read a lot of articles, and I read a lot of pop culture writers who want to write people back into the canons that they’ve been erased from. I think about the many writers on NPR’s project, Turning the Tables, who did great jobs of re-assessing the ways of women, specifically women of colour, have been left out of the rock canon for so long.

I’m also thinking of Jessica Hopper’s book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. That title is so deliberate and so perfect. It’s about her, yes, but the work that she has done has been very much about bringing coverage to women who have been erased by rock criticism. And even titling her collection that is also reminding us that while rock criticism has been overwhelmingly a male-dominated side hustle, women have been there the whole time. They just did not get the same respect or platform.

Similarly, in the podcast that I co-host with Lisa Christiansen and Andrea Gin, we try really hard to do only movies and TV and books that are about women or written by women or created by women. There’s a feminist angle in most of the stuff that we do. Though not all women are feminists, we know that. But reassessing and providing a pop culture lens to all these different things we’ve covered, that ends up helping to remove some of that erasure.

So who would you never like to read about again?

I mean, there’s like 20 or 30 or 70 books about Bob Dylan. No one needs that! It’s not that I hate Bob Dylan, but I hate what he represents to certain men whose opinions — where it’s just constantly looking in a mirror, seeing themselves, and saying, “Yes, that’s genius.” And not saying, “Well, what else is also genius?” Just this self-fulfilling circle jerk of genius, it’s not helpful to the world.

I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned more pop culture books in this interview. What about the Mariah biography?

I haven’t read the Mariah Carey biography yet. I have it downloaded in my audiobooks, as well as the Jessica Simpson biography. I do have a whole list of pop culture writers who I love a lot that we haven’t talked about!

Let’s hear about them!

Elaine Lui of Lainey Gossip is one of the best writers out there doing intersectional feminist work and has talked publicly about and done a decent job of addressing her own racist writing in the past, and playing into racist stereotypes, and I think it’s important to model that work publicly. She never shies away from addressing it.

E. Alex Jung is just at the top of his game among profilers right now. Part of that is access, but part of it is just that he’s doing great work in interviewing. Sarah Hagi is just a genius and she’s so funny and smart. Elamin Abdelmahmoud is such a good writer and has a new book coming out, and I just love the way he thinks about things and puts a lot of heart into his work. His perspective is just really wonderful. Samantha Marie Nock is also doing a lot of really wonderful writing, there’s a lot of intimacy and vulnerability in her writing and she’s just so smart. Her brain is just electric and cool. Scaachi Koul, of course; she has a writer voice that I’m a little bit jealous of because she’s just so funny while still being extremely incisive about what she’s saying. Annie Zaleski has a new book out, Duran Duran’s Rio. She’s a wonderful music critic and writer, and I think she’s so smart and interesting.

Kathleen Newman-Bremang works at Refinery29 but came from Lainey Gossip and The Social. She’s been killing it for the last three years with all kinds of essays, and all kinds of important pop culture perspectives and important work on anti-Black violence and being Black in the workplace. She’s just been doing so much incredibly vital and personal work.

Also, Niko Stratis is doing incredible work. I love Niko — incredibly smart and funny on Twitter as well, and that translates into her writing. That’s a wonderful combination. It’s hard for people to bring themselves into Twitter and into their writing without upstaging the person that they’re writing about, but I think Niko does that really well.

That’s a great list. I love that we’re getting into all of these now, at the end of the interview. There are lots of funny people on your list!

I like people who can be funny but also explain the world to us. I think it’s hard to do. Like really smart comedians! I’m very intimidated by them.

I bet comedians don’t hear that a lot, and they probably appreciate knowing someone is intimidated by them.

I am! They’re so fast, they think on their feet so well. Really smart, great comedians intimidate me a lot.  [Tyee]

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