Alix Ohlin explores the bond of sister artists in novel Dual Citizens

Dual Citizens tells the story of two sisters, Lark and Robin, whose intense co-dependent bond is cemented by their mother's wayward, selfish behaviour. The novel is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

Dual Citizens is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Dual Citizens is a novel by Alix Ohlin. (House of Anansi Press)

Alix Ohlin's latest novel Dual Citizens tells the story of two sisters, Lark and Robin, whose intense co-dependent bond is cemented by their mother's wayward, selfish behaviour.

Lark, the eldest, is an aspiring filmmaker, but is often overshadowed by her piano prodigy of a sister. Dual Citizens describes the story of their lives from Lark's perspective, exploring the ambitions, relationships and challenges faced by two female artists.

Dual Citizens is on the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 18, 2019.

Dual Citizens is also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 5, 2019.

The Vancouver-based writer spoke to CBC Books about writing Dual Citizens.

The lives of women

"The book is about the lives of women. I was interested in writing about two sisters whose close relationship is the major love story of their lives. Even though they would have other relationships — romantic and professional experiences — their connection to each other would be the major thread of the book.

"The book is not autobiographical, but I have had intense relationships with women in my life. Friendships that have endured over many years and waxed and waned. I was interested in the permanence of that — and the way that people we're close to when we're young can be so formative to our sense of self and identity."

Women as artists

"What surprised me was thinking through how much women who want to be artists ⁠— which is another big part of my book ⁠— can look to other women who are also artists as sources of inspiration or even resistance. In this book, there's one sister who wants to be a pianist and another sister who wants to be a filmmaker and they look to each other as muses and models. 

"I wanted to write about ambition: What are some of the ways in which women receive permission to be artists and what are some of the ways in which they don't receive that permission? 

"I also wanted to write about motherhood and an array of choices women make about it."

Alix Ohlin talks to Shelagh Rogers about her novel, Dual Citizens.

The writing process

"I begin with a character and a voice. In this case, it was the voice of Lark who is this very studious, introverted but observant character. I write out from there. I try to find what I think of as hotspots or moments of energy, where it feels like something is at stake, where a relationship becomes crucial or where a theme is deeply interesting to me. Once I've completed a first draft, I have a general idea of what the book is actually about. I go back and revise and refine it multiple times to try to get closer to what the book wants to be.

I was interested in writing about two sisters whose close relationship is the major love story of their lives.- Alix Ohlin

"There were so many digressions and false starts and things that now seem hilarious in retrospect. But to me, those detours are totally part of the process. I had a whole subplot about the mother being involved in Quebecois terrorism activities in the 1970s. I had a huge thing about artificial intelligence that I spent months researching. I also had a big section of the book that was written in the voice of the other sister, Robin. None of those things wound up working or feeling integral to the the book. I took them out in the end. 

"I always tell my students that you shouldn't have a 'kill your darlings' file, you should have a 'zombies' file because you never know when these things might come back to life or you might want to use them in the service of a different story."

Write what you know

"The challenges are the same for me in almost every case, which is worrying whether you're on the right path and feeling the self doubt that's part of any writer's psyche.

"With this particular book, I felt it was important that I wanted to write about the lives of women and double down on that. I didn't doubt that goal or or mission, but I wanted to make sure that I was doing it in a way that felt personal and particular to me and the territory that I have as a writer. Whenever I felt like I was straying too far from what I knew or understood — like with artificial intelligence thing — I was like, 'Well, I tried, but I'm just not the right writer for that. I'm going to abandon ship and go back to what I know.'"

The 20-minute writing practice

"I've gone away from rituals. When I was a younger writer and I had more free time, I'd be extremely precious and ritualistic. I had to have the exact number of hours first thing in the morning, I had to be sufficiently caffeinated but not too caffeinated and all the stars had to align for me to write. Now my life isn't set up to allow for that. I build my writing around the thing I call the '20 minute spurt,' which is like interval training for writing.

"It's the idea of high concentration for very short periods of time. I'll be walking to work or out doing an errand and I'll stop in a coffee shop. I'll just sit down and try to think incredibly hard with no distractions for 20 to 30 minutes. The philosophy behind it is that if you do that enough times you can accrue a piece of writing that feels real and that works."

Alix Ohlin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?