The Sunday Magazine

Anakana Schofield on friendship, assisted death and the contradictions of being human

Schofield's latest book, Bina: A Novel in Warnings, tells the story of an angry and riotously funny 74-year-old Irish woman who is part of an underground group helping people end their lives on their own terms.
Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield's latest book, Bina: A Novel in Warnings, centres on a 74-year-old woman confined to her house. (Arabella Campbell, Knopf Canada)

Bina, the furiously angry and riotously funny 74-year-old Irish woman at the centre of Irish-Canadian writer Anakana Schofield's newest novel, firmly believes that when someone says she's had enough, we should believe her.

She's part of an underground group that helps people die on their own terms, in a country where assisted death is not yet legal.

But when her best friend Phil says she's ready to die, Bina is reluctant to help her.

When Phil ends her life without anyone's help, Bina is left to deal with her grief, and to take the blame. Confined to her house, awaiting trial, she starts scribbling things down on the backs of envelopes and spare receipts.

Bina: A Novel in Warnings is Schofield's third novel. She is also the author of Martin John, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize, the Goldsmiths Prize, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her debut novel, Malarky, won the 2017 First Novel Award.

Schofield spoke with the The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong about her latest work. Here is part of what she had to say.

On contradictions

"Bina is a hugely contradictory person. We are all massive contradictions. I live in Vancouver. We have an opioid crisis and every day people are dying, and none of those people want to be dead. And, at the same time, we're very blessed in Canada because we do have the MAID [medical assistance in dying] program. But there's a whole bunch of people who are not able to access the MAID program. We are insisting that these people who have often lived long, fulfilling lives, like auntie Gloria who's 93, who says, 'I've actually had enough over here,' and we'll say, 'Well, no there, auntie Gloria, you're not going any place until we decide you can go.' Meanwhile, over here, we've got a whole bunch of people who actually don't want to be dead.

"So I find this very contradictory. Underneath, beside, around, over the top of my novels are always difficult, philosophical questions. Contradiction is the essence of human beings. You can be very pro the right to make end of life choices. But when it's your beloved friend, it's like, 'Yeah, but not you. Everybody else I'll help or I'll support, but Jesus Christ, not you.'"

On becoming a volunteer witness for Dying with Dignity Canada

"It's very difficult to be born without at least one witness. And I had this eerie feeling — what if people are dying unwitnessed? Which of course they are. And I had this emotional hiccup where I thought nobody should die unwitnessed.

"I didn't really know anything about medical assistance in dying. And so I began an email correspondence with the Dying with Dignity Canada chapter in Vancouver. And I said, 'Well, do you have people who volunteer to be with the dying?' They asked, 'Would you be interested in becoming a volunteer witness?'

"You have to fill up a form, and the form requires two independent witnesses. They cannot be involved in your medical care, and they cannot obviously be a beneficiary of your will. We have a group of volunteers, we go to the hospital, and we fill in the forms. There's a bunch of legal statements that are read aloud. The person has to be cognizant of what they're asking for.

"It can be awkward for people if, say, they ask a good friend and then maybe the good friend says 'no.' I find that very painful. What's been very interesting for me in this extremely profound experience — probably the most useful thing I've ever done, bar none — is how terrible that you would have the courage to ask for what you want, and then you might have to face a rejection from someone you love and who loves you."

On friendship

"Friendship is the best that's to be got in life. And the loss of a friend is so cataclysmic for me. The thing about love is that it's an inclement weather system. It blows in and it's really blustery and then it gets really, really hot and then it starts to rain and then it gets blustery again. And friendship, it just feels much more solid. It feels more ecologically sustainable. It's more like 12 centuries of that lovely smell after it's rained.

"Your closest, beloved friends have seen you at your lowest, and there's an incredible thing in friendship where that person is pained for you. They're there with you in whatever painful, difficult moment it is. They're there when you're sobbing on Skype, and they're there when you're scratching off a lottery ticket and excited about winning two dollars. I just love the utilitarian nature of that."

On literary form

"Bina is an ordinary woman. She lives in rural Ireland. The women of her generation would have biscuit tins full of letters in the cupboard, because people wrote letters in those days. Also, she would probably often keep every single bill. So I had to think about the materiality of what Bina has access to. I don't want to tell this story from the point of view of a writer. I want to find a form for Bina, and the form is, how would she write?

"The quandary that Bina's dealing with could not be relayed in a linear manner, because the basis of being human is not linear."

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

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.