Books·How I Wrote It

Why Anakana Schofield wrote an extraordinary novel about ordinary people

The acclaimed Irish-Canadian author discusses how she wrote Bina, a work of experimental fiction.
Bina is a novel by Anakana Schofield. (Arabella Campbell, Knopf Canada)

Bina is the third novel by acclaimed Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield, who was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 for Martin John and won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award in 2013, then called the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, for her novel Malarky.

Bina is an experimental novel that follows the title character, a 74-year-old Irish woman who is part of an underground group that helps people to die on their own terms. However, when her best friend Phil wishes to die, Bina is reluctant to help.

Written in brief fragments, Bina explores female friendships, love and death through darkness and humour.

CBC Books spoke to Schofield about how she wrote Bina.

Elevating people

"How do the poor survive? They have such a good sense of humour. You cannot survive the gig economy, you cannot survive delivering food, you cannot survive working 14-hour days cleaning, if you don't have a great sense of humour. I'm interested in those ordinary people, elevating them. I'm giving them status within the novel, which permits them to occupy space they don't usually occupy."

Writing as building

"I don't think you can really be a novelist, certainly not the kind of novelist I am, if you're extremely controlling. These things unroll unto themselves, within themselves, to become what they need to. It's almost like an anatomy or biology. It gets built as the book emerges. It doesn't emerge in a linear way at all.

"These books become what they need to become. I'm not sitting here pretentiously plotting how I write. I'm not interested in pointless attention-seeking, even though I'm very loud and noisy. So, likewise, I'm not interested in pointless attention-seeking on the page.

"The most important thing to me is the reader. When you write work which is interested in pushing what the novel can become — and has a formal experimentation — you can historically meet resistance. I believe we vastly underestimate readers. The thing that I absolutely love about the process is talking to someone who teaches me something about the book that I didn't know."

Polarization

"There's so much polarization at the moment; there's right and wrong. We are currently becoming so unbelievably polarized. But I think a blow to polarization is to pick it apart.

"The abortion referendum in Ireland was a highly emotional moment for me as a 48-year-old woman. The control of women's bodies has been such a feature of my life. I have no problem understanding people of deep faith, probably because I was raised in a strictly religious culture. But I realized that anybody who is a person of faith who voted yes in that referendum is ultimately closer to God. They were voting in a place of compassion.

"I want readers to understand that women are highly complicated and complex individuals — and that humans are very contradictory. I hope they're interested in the ways in which I'm working this language. I hope they're going to hear the rhythm of how Bina's brain is ticking. How she's losing her memory."

Recognition

"The truth of the matter is if you want to be a literary novelist and you want to create work that has literary terms of engagement, you better not have any material ambition. You have to be kind of monastic.

"I have always come from the point of view of I want to do my life's work. I want to create a body of work. I don't take anything for granted; I don't take readers for granted. I never forget the first time I saw someone I didn't recognize holding my book."

Anakana Schofield's comments have been edited for clarity and length.

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