I’m a writer and journalist based in Toronto. My writing has been described variously as compelling, sensuous, measured, rage-inducing, radical, and gorgeous. My second book, On Opium: Pain, Pleasure, and Other Matters of Substance, may be some or all of these things. It was published by Goose Lane Editions in September, 2021. It’s a look at opioids, pain, the nature of dependence, the overdose crisis, and what we all need to be well. The print (Canada & US) and e-book (Canada only) versions are available now. The audiobook, narrated by Christine Horne, is available worldwide from ECW Press: 15 hours of my honeyed words for your e-reader, tablet, Android or iOS. The Walrus Magazine adapted an excerpt of On Opium, so you can try before you buy! Or read on for reviews and interviews about the book, below.
“A beautifully written meditation on opioids, addiction, joy, and pain — and the cruel and rigid policies we devise that mainly serve to make suffering worse.”
Maia Szalavitz, author of Undoing Drugs
“Carlyn Zwarenstein provides a voice previously missing from the overdose crisis. With empathy and urgency, she takes us inside the world of people who use opioids at a time when they are dying in record numbers. On Opium captures people’s pain, hope, and resilience, and in sharing their stories, provides a blueprint to end the crisis.”
Travis Lupick, author of Fighting for Space
“Zwarenstein not only plumbs the depths of pain and relief and dependence on relief but traces the blurred lines between writer and subject on that — perhaps needlessly — charged question: What do we do for pain and its wily life-thieving-or-enabling remedy? What would happen if we turned our focus to the prevention and elimination of suffering, rather than the demonization and criminalization of sufferers?”
Anna Mehler Paperny, author of Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me
“Captivating, rage-inducing, and most important of all, helpful… I found this revelatory… CBC Books listed this as one of the fall’s must-read nonfiction books, and I agree… its compassion, accessibility, readability, radical proposal, and examination of privilege will leave you the tools to demand better.”
the Miramichi Reader
“Rarely have I felt so trusted as a reader.”
Literary Review of Canada
“No one who wants to understand non-medical use of drugs in this society should fail to read this book… Part memoir, part history of the lures of opium across the ages, part deep reflection about what it is to be a writer, part meditation on the meaning of pain, part plea for reform, the book takes readers by the hand and leads them gently (but firmly) on… It’s possible to disagree with parts of this book. It’s impossible not to recognize its power.”
“Zwarenstein has a very special and specific writing style. At times, it’s intoxicating. I felt swept into her world, whether on a trip to Venice or at a supervised injection facility … the urgency in this book is transcendent.”
“A valuable tool for the promotion of harm reduction.
Quill & Quire (p. 27)
Required reading … this volume belongs on every library shelf”.
WordCity Literary Journal
- podcast interview with Joseph Planta on thecommentary.ca
- detailed interview with People First Media
- a long podcast interview with Scott Stoneman on Pretty Heady Stuff
- long interview on Aaron Akulis’ The Peace on Drugs
- Carlyn answers caller questions on how we can address the “opioid crisis” on CBC Maritime Noon (starting about 20 min in).
- a sweet little profile with Tabassum Siddiqui in the Globe & Mail’s Amplify newsletter:“Carlyn Zwarenstein is… another trailblazer who has let curiosity guide her throughout her career, covering the tough and tender stories underpinning the social justice issues she cares about”.
- Carlyn reading from On Opium and in conversation with Garth Mullins at the Vancouver launch
On Opium expands upon its novella-length predecessor, Opium Eater: The New Confessions, a brief meditation on opioid painkillers & pain that was a Globe 100 Best Book of 2016. That shorter book was also shortlisted for the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada book award.
“In her Confessions – a 21st-century update on De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) – Zwarenstein achieves that rare thing: a dispassionate account informed by deeply personal experience. Readers will benefit from this measured look at the causes of our increased dependence, which doubles as a critical memoir on the relationship between opioids, creativity, and pain.”
Opium Eater is taught on graduate and undergraduate university courses in both English literature and addiction studies. Find out more about teaching Opium Eater.
I live in Toronto, spend time in Mexico City, and write about a lot of different things, both in books and as a long-time independent journalist.
Right now I am working on my first novel, and on a new non-fiction book. Current journalism and essay projects touch on subjects as diverse as kindness, visual arts, harm reduction, evidence in medicine & climate science, and literature.
Member, Writers’ Union of Canada and IWW Freelance Journalists Union.