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Author and activist Naomi Klein: 'My mother becoming disabled changed how I saw the world'

She was a partying teenager, but personal and political awakenings changed everything for the Canadian writer

Image: Sebastain Nevols

Naomi Klein was born in May 1970 in Montreal, Canada. Her first book, 1999’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies became a manifesto of sorts for turn of the century anti-globalisation movement, sold over a million copies and was translated into over 30 languages. Time magazine has since chosen No Logo as one of the Top 100 Non-Fiction books published since 1923.

Klein went on to publish a string of best-selling books, including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Tactics and Winning The World We Need, and On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. In 2004, her reporting from Iraq for Harper’s Magazine won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Her new book Doppelganger finds Klein investigating her relationship with Naomi Wolf, a writer with whom she is frequently confused despite having vastly different beliefs. As Klein learns more about Wolf’s preoccupation with conspiracy theories and the alt-right, Doppelganger becomes an investigation into the way that technology has been a catalyst for the polarisation of society.

Speaking to The Big Issue for her Letter to My Younger Self, Klein looks back on a rebellious adolescence, her early impetus for becoming politically active, and the impact of No Logo.

I was a troubled teenager – 16 wasn’t my worst year, but it wasn’t my best. I was partying a lot. And I wasn’t in a good space with my parents. I was pretty erratic in school – I had certain subjects that I really loved and others that I totally ghosted. I was sneaking boys through my second-floor window. I was smoking cigarettes, a lot of them. And partying a lot, drinking a lot. Some light drugs, not too much. Using fake IDs to get into bars, lying about my age. I had pretty low self-esteem. It wasn’t a particularly happy time. 

I was not at all political when I was young [despite being brought up by activist parents who had emigrated from the US as resisters to the Vietnam War, including her filmmaker mother Bonnie Sherr Klein]. You know, it was the Eighties. Stuart Hall described it as a kind of ghostly left, and I think that’s the way it felt to me. It didn’t feel very dynamic. I think one thing I understand better now than I did then is that the Eighties were very hard for my parents. They had both been very active in the Sixties and Seventies. And I think the Eighties came as a shock. North America was so depoliticised. It was so consumerist. So the conflict I had with them was mainly over me just wanting to be a child of the Eighties. What I didn’t understand was that what I perceived as personal anger towards me, was really their own political disappointment about what was happening in the world. The fact that they just had an Eighties child in me became sort of the fulcrum for that sadness and disappointment.  

Naomi Klein and husband Avi Lewis
2OO4: With her husband, director Avi Lewis, in Venice to launch their documentary collaboration The Take Image: Claudio Onorati/EPA/Shutterstock

The last year that I had an able-bodied mom was when I was 16. The next summer a lot of things changed for me. Our whole family’s life changed pretty dramatically. My mom had two strokes. It turned out that she had been born with a brain tumour. So she had to be transported to the only hospital that could perform this very high-risk brainstem surgery to remove the tumour. And then she was in neurological ICUs for a long rehabilitation. She was hospitalised for about a year in total. Then there was a lot of caretaking. I didn’t do very well in school when my mother was sick, I dropped out of junior college because I was at the hospital all the time.  

My mother becoming disabled changed the way I saw the world. I think having a disabled parent who needs care on an ongoing basis sets up a kind of choice point about the ethos of social Darwinism at the heart of capitalism, which is basically people get what they deserve. If somebody is weaker then that’s somehow a failure on their part. I learned a lot by watching how the world treated my mom, for better and for worse. Both my parents had a remarkable network of friends who cooked for us and had a whole visiting rota. I saw the importance of both a social safety net at state level, and at community level. Both of those things were absolutely critical for my family. But when my mom was a disabled person in her 40s, navigating the world in a wheelchair, I saw a lot of cruelty. The world was not built for her. She then became politicised in the disability rights movement, and meeting some of her friends exposed me to a whole new way of seeing the world. 

I always knew I wanted to write and I was getting encouragement from some teachers. I certainly would tell my younger self that sticking with my curiosity, my obsessive curiosity about any topic, will serve me well and I shouldn’t sweat. I think my younger self would be surprised by how political I have become. But when I was younger, I always had a keen sense of fairness. I just didn’t code it as political. Political was marching and protesting. But I would speak out about racism, double standards, gender equality.  

Naomi Klein on a panel with Jeremy Corbyn at COP21 in Paris, 2015
2015: (Second left) with a panel of activists, including Jeremy Corbyn, at COP21 in Paris Image: Kristian Buus/Alamy

I think my mother always saw a writer in me. The first piece of published writing I ever had was my bat mitzvah speech when I was 12. I spoke about racism within the Jewish community, about anti-black racism and racism against non-white Jews. It was a very risky speech to give at our synagogue. But it actually went over very well. You’re not supposed to clap for bat mitzvah speeches or bar mitzvah speeches because it’s a religious context. But people did clap. The rabbi had to tell them to stop. And my mom helped me with that speech, she helped me research it. So I don’t think she was really that surprised to see me go on to do the kind of writing that I did. 

I did not have a career path. I only knew I wanted to write. And live in New York – I wanted to have a loft. And I wanted to travel. But I didn’t have any sense of the steps I should take to achieve any of those things. I joined no clubs. I didn’t work in any way to furnish a resumé. I got kicked out of high school once, I dropped out of junior college once, and university twice. I also never imagined having kids. Those people who picture their wedding or picture their child or picture winning a prize… I never did that. I was always present tense and anxious. 

When I was in high school, I was writing poetry and submitting it to Seventeen magazine and not getting published. That was the extent of my dreams. But when I started writing for university papers, I quickly got interested in the intersection of popular culture and politics. I was politicised around feminism. There was a mass shooting at a Canadian university [at École Polytechnique, Montreal in 1989] when I was in the first year that was explicitly anti-feminist; 14 women were killed. The gunman separated the men from the women and said, “You’re all a bunch of fucking feminists,” and then killed them.  

That was a big political awakening for my whole generation. That was the point where I suddenly realised I had these political skills because I’d grown up in the family that I grew up in and my mother had been a feminist filmmaker. Suddenly all this knowledge came in handy and I had a sort of natural literacy in it that some of my peers didn’t have. The day after it happened we put fliers up around campus saying, emergency meeting about the Montreal massacre. I was suddenly chairing a meeting of 500 people and managing these dynamics. That was the turning point. 

My first book No Logo [released in 1999] was such a magic carpet ride. I used to say it was a backdoor key to every city. I would go to a place like Milan and be greeted by these badass activists who would just take me into a squat and feed me and give me beers and tell me everything that was happening. But I was so young and shocked by my own success, and nervous about the fact that they were also expecting me to give a speech, that I couldn’t fully appreciate how incredible that was. I’d love to go back and re-live that whole time over again. 

Naomi Klein and Greta Thunberg
2019: In conversation with Greta Thunberg in New York City Image: SIPA US / Alamy

The track record of our political leaders in the face of the global environmental crisis is not anything to have faith in. We need to understand that it’s not just that movements demand change – we are changed by the experience of being in a movement with others. I wrote This Changes Everything in 2014. I could not have imagined Greta Thunberg or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in my wildest dreams. I think there will be a time when many more people will be making the decision to break the law over this issue. And I think our governments know that, which is why they’re going to these lengths to criminalise protest. 

Doppelganger book cover

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein is out now (Penguin, £25). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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