Longtime friends Helen and Oonagh decided they missed the tradition of "real" letters. Their goal? To write each other a longhand letter every two weeks for a year. Week in and week out, Helen and Oonagh weave together tales of family, work, politics, motherhood, aging and creativity.
About the authors
Helen Levine is a former social worker and professor. At the School of Social Work at Carleton University, she introduced women's issues and feminist perspectives into the curriculum for the first time. She received the Governor General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case for advancing the equality of women in Canada. Helen is still energetically engaged as an advocate for women's rights.
Oonagh Berry’s short stories have been published in Canada and Ireland. She grew up in Ireland and now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with her husband, the poet Christopher Levenson.
Arch News - (Delta, BC) February 15, 2006
“Special delivery: Authors Oonagh Berry and Helen Levine revive the art of letter-writing”
by Alex Browne, Arts Reporter
The art of letter-writing isn’t dead – just resting, according to Ottawa residents Oonagh Berry and Helen Levine.
In an era of instant messaging and e-mail, they mad ea pact to write letters to each other for one year. The harvest of that frank and carefully considered correspondence is a new book from Second Story Press, Between Friends: A Year in Letters.
The collected letters, which discuss everything from motherhood and aging to politics, work and creativity may just persuade doubters that elegant discourse is still possible amid the barren wastes of technological shorthand.
They might even start a trend.
“That would be wonderful,” Berry, who will read excerpts from the book at the White Rock Library Thursday, said.
Levine and the Dublin-born Berry have been friends for more than 20years, she said. They met because of a shared preretirement background in the field of social work – Berry as a counselor at Amethyst Women’s Addictions Centre; Levine as a professor of Women’s Studies at Carleton University’s School of Social Work.
It wasn’t distance or disability that made them choose to write to each other – they live only a few miles apart, although the correspondence continued even when they traveled during the year of writing.
Rather it was a commitment to expressing themselves on paper between two lively intellects, Berry said.
“We both write on the side. I recently started to write short stories, and she’s always written articles on feminism and such issues.
“We were both stuck in our writing at the time, so I suggested to her ‘why not write letters to each other to get us unstuck?’”
There weren’t many limits placed on the correspondence other than the time limit of one year, she said, which helped them organize and discipline their efforts.
“We didn’t want to leave it open-ended.”
The major commitment was to handwrite an eight to 10-page letter every two weeks. Fro Berry, it was a step out of her comfort zone, she admitted. She’d never before sent a letter to anyone without typing and rewriting thoroughly.
“My letters to Helen were really ‘warts and all’,” she laughed.
Publishing the letters wasn’t foremost in their minds, although Berry said it did occur to her as the body of correspondence took shape.
“I think I said ‘wouldn’t it be fabulous if these were published?’ but then we both more or less forgot about it. I think it would have interfered with us writing to each other in the honest way we wanted.”
There was another ground-rule – in writing, they didn’t actually have to respond to each other’s letters.
“That way we didn’t get bogged down in each other’s stuff,” Berry said.
Among other things, the letters gave her a chance to put memories of her childhood in focus, she said.
“My intention, when I started thinking about the letters, was I wanted to have somebody listen to my stories of growing up in Ireland. I’ve been in Canada since 1968, but I go back a lot.”
Ironically, the writing, and the publication of the book, has led to her re-establishing contact with an older brother in Ireland – by email. “I use the computer,” she laughed.
“Helen doesn’t – she’s the complete Luddits.”
But while she acknowledges convenience of electronic communication, Berry is an advocate of putting words on paper.
“To sit down and write a handwritten letter, that really takes time and though,” she said.
“I love it when I receive one – it’s so different and there’s so much feeling that goes into it.
“My daughter-in-law, Karin, who’s going to be introducing me when I reading White Rock, is Swedish, and I think some of the best letters I’ve ever read have been from her.”
Peach Arch News
Via written word, these women come to the realization that they are soulmates, a connection most of us long for.
A wondrously frank, feminist manifesto.
The Globe and Mail
Elegantly written…the intimacy leaps off the page. No hasty responses, but wise, thoughtful, letters.
You will agree, Helen Levine is undoubtedly a Jewish Canadian feminist hero.
Ottawa Jewish Bulletin
…by the end of the volume the reader feels a real sense of intimacy with the world of the authors.