Jennifer Quist on the Family Saga

Book Cover Sistering

Jennifer Quist's novel, Sistering, was just published, and it's already buzzing with great reviews and suggestions that it's a contender for the Leacock Award for Humour. This the second novel by Quist, whose first book, which won her an Alberta Lieutenant Governor’s Emerging Artist Award, was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for a 2013 Whitney Award. Sistering is the story of five admirable but slightly deranged sisters, each with her own peculiar morbid fascinations, and while it's funny—"a romp," as the cover says—it's also part a genre less inclined toward hilarity: the family saga.

In this guest post, Quist breaks down what the family saga is all about. We've also made a list of some of our favourites here

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Complaining about being sorted into categories by booksellers, libraries, and anyone else has become the trite stuff of clunky interviews where authors desperately explain how their books are so much more than their labels. Categories are hated but necessary. Little orients an idly-browsing reader to a new literary find like a good label. That’s a good label—all categories are not equally meaningful. Some may be too vast and diverse to be useful. For instance, what, exactly, is a "family saga?"

Strictly speaking, it’s hard to find a story without a family. Family themes are universal themes and the "family" in family saga doesn’t tell us much about what sets a book apart. All My Puny Sorrows is a family saga. But so is The Orenda. And then, so is Anne of Green Gables.

The "saga" part of the label is slightly more telling, landing heavily with its dictionary-orthodox meaning, signalling a long, intricate story ahead. Sure enough, most of the books named in "Best of Family Saga" lists on Amazon and Goodreads would be perfect for pressing flowers. Somewhere near the top of every list is Australian author Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, weighing in at over 700 pages. It makes the label "family saga" daunting for readers not looking for a serious, lengthy commitment. Long books aren’t the rule in family saga but complex, intergenerational stories with big, fecund casts of characters tend to run up a word count.

Reading "Best of Family Saga" lists I noticed something else. The majority of writers on them are women. It’s nothing like the Everyone-But-Nicholas-Sparks saturation level women enjoy in romance writing but it is a trend. Women dominating literary lists is overdue. It’s a good thing. And it would be an even better thing if more men could resist the impulse to tip-toe backwards away from spaces—and book categories—where women might be more masterful than them.

Women can’t help but out-master men when it comes to harrowing, genuine stories about how families are made, stories of childbearing. Up until very recently, real-life stories of pregnancy, birth, and post-partum recovery have been stories of maternal and infant mortality. Family sagas are full of dead mothers and babies. That’s not a relic of a morbid female imagination. It’s the shadow under which women lived for most of human history. It’s part of the honesty of family saga.

Women can’t help but out-master men when it comes to harrowing, genuine stories about how families are made.

However, when it comes to honesty, there is one area where family sagas lose step with real-life reproduction. Most of the books mentioned here feature twins not only as characters but as plot devices. There are plenty of literary twins both inside and outside the Can-Lit family saga canon. Twins aren’t unicorns but in real families, generations often come and go without them. It was especially true in times and places without surgical suites and neonatal intensive care units to help twins survive to become viable, drama-capable people.

What does the family saga category have to offer readers who prefer short books, or who’re sceptical about convenient twins, or who want solid guarantees they won’t have to read some woman going on about gritty, tragic births? Why flag a book with a label like family saga when it could be alienating?

The strength of the family saga—if it’s a cohesive category at all—is its ability not to foster alienation but to temper it. Many family sagas unfold in settings considered "ethnic" by mainstream white North American Anglophone readers. They’re peopled with characters that would be classified by a certain North America government as "alien." I once heard an author speak of writing family saga as inviting readers "into our kitchens." It’s not just about food. It’s about being admitted into the daily lives of cultures other than our own. Reading family sagas is an act of empathy, a chance to skip the anthropological treatise and get right into the details of what it’s like to eat, sleep, marry, worship, suffer, and die as someone else. Its vast diversity is not what makes the category of family saga useless—not at all. Diversity is precisely what makes family saga worth its space on the shelf.

What are your favourite Canadian family sagas? Tweet us and we'll add your suggestions to the mix

About SisteringThe second novel by award-winning novelist Jennifer Quist is a black comedy of birth, death, love, marriage, mothers-in-law—and five sassy sisters. When Suzanne's role as the perfect daughter-in-law ends in a deadly accident, she panics, makes a monumentally bad decision, and upends her world. The bond with her sisters is the strongest force Suzanne knows, and it may be the one that can keep her from ruin. Quist's new novel is a hilarious, spine-chilling, satisfying, and original. A romp.

August 20, 2015
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