The Sunday Edition

Alix Ohlin's fiction about sisterhood, art and unconventional choices

Alix Ohlin received her second nomination for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her new book, Dual Citizens, in which she explores the intensity and messiness of relationships — familial and otherwise.
Dual Citizens is a novel by Alix Ohlin. (House of Anansi Press)
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Alix Ohlin writes about family and friendship in all their messy and sometimes painful glory. Her short stories and novels have been described as "having a sharp wit that lends relief to her exploration of the sadness inherent in contemporary life." 

She's the author of five books, most recently Dual Citizens. It's set mainly in Quebec and in New York. The story revolves around two sisters, Lark and Robin, and their complicated relationship with their mother Marianne. 

Dual Citizens is one of the nominees for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which will be awarded later this month. She was also shortlisted for the Giller for her 2012 novel Inside, which was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. 

The Sunday Edition's guest host Kevin Sylvester spoke to her in Vancouver,  where they were both attending the Vancouver Writers' Festival.

Kevin Sylvester: You grew up in a bookish house [in Montreal], in a family of six. When you think back to your childhood, what books were influential for you then?

Alix Ohlin: One of the great things about growing up in a house full of books is the opportunity to just pull things off the shelf, and I would say that I read a lot of stuff that was not particularly age appropriate. I was ten when I read Hemingway. I'm not saying that I was especially precocious, more that it's just that it was available to me, and I took it down from the shelf and and I just took whatever I could find.  

The childhood books that meant a lot to me were real classics — Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. Those were huge for me. I loved books about young female writer characters. So Jo in Little Women was really formative. I was looking for models of the kind of weirdo girl that I was and would continue to grow up to be.

So, if you were a reader, were you also a writer as a kid?

I definitely started writing very young - terrible fairytale fables when I was a child, and those gave way to terrible angsty teenage poetry about the suburbs, and later on to terrible short fiction. So you can see kind of the trajectory that I was on. 

At a point, you said you were writing not very good stuff. Did you know at some  point that you wanted to be a writer?

I went back and forth on it, in the sense that I always loved writing and reading, and I did want to be a writer, but it didn't seem like a very practical career path. So the idea of pursuing it directly didn't necessarily seem feasible, and so I kind of suppressed it for a long time. 

Alix Ohlin is one of six writers nominated for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s richest literary award for fiction. Canadian writers (clockwise from top left) David Bezmozgis, Megan Gail Coles, Ian Williams, Steven Price, Alix Ohlin and Michael Crummey are this year's finalists. (Scotiabank Giller Prize)

Dual Citizens is a story of two sisters Robin and Lark and their mom, who is a nightmare, right?

Lark and Robin are half sisters. They have the same mother, and they have two different fathers, neither of whom is in the picture. So they are raised by their mother,

Marianne, who has had them very young, and, let's say, she is ill-equipped. 

I don't necessarily think of her as a terrible mother, I see her as someone who is actively engaged in rebellion against the social codes of motherhood in her era and will have no truck with them. So it comes off, I think, as perhaps negligent by our contemporary standards of helicopter parenting. But what she really is, is someone who doesn't want to conform to the expectations of being a constant, doting, cookie-baking mother. The upshot, though, is that Lark and Robin really wind up raising each other.  The book then follows these two women as their paths in life diverge.

It tries to show the choices that they make which are, in some ways, unconventional, around things like the making of art, whether or not to be a mother.- Alix Ohlin

Sometimes they're very close. Other times they're more estranged. They both want to be artists. Lark is really interested in film, and Robin is a very talented musician. She plays the piano and has a beautiful voice. She's one of those preternaturally gifted by nature people, who could really do anything that they want. 

The book is really a love story between the two of them. It tries to show the choices that they make which are, in some ways, unconventional, around things like the making of art, whether or not to be a mother, and perhaps it shows how their own unconventional childhoods prepared them to make some unconventional choices as adults.

Lark is telling the story as an adult, and she's looking back on her childhood, and she is trying to make sense of her life as people often do, and trying to figure out: "How did things turn out this way? What are the choices that I made that led me to where I am today?"  

Lark and Robin's relationship morphs improves, deteriorates it goes through so many stages. What were you hoping to get at as a writer? 

I think her sister is the great love of Lark's life. For Lark, the relationship with Robin is the thing that made her into who she is, and she's puzzled by her sister and fascinated by her, sometimes repelled. They're so different. Their identity formation is inextricable from the other person. When that happens, if you do become estranged from someone like a sibling or a best friend or a partner, then you lose a part of yourself.  

I am interested in moments when life feels a little bit fantastic, or feels a little bit like a fairy tale.- Alix Ohlin

You've said that you like stories that hover in a kind of middle space between the real and the not real. Tell me about that.

I'm not someone who writes science fiction or magical realism or any of those modes that are really out there in terms of living in an alternative reality. But I am interested in moments when life feels a little bit fantastic, or feels a little bit like a fairy tale. 

Maybe I shouldn't generalize, but it's often the case that you can feel something happening in your life, whether it's a coincidence or a strong feeling, and suddenly things feel ghostly, or the reality of your life is so intense that it's hard to process. And so things feel very strange. So I'm interested in stories that push us into that space and explore that feeling.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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