Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Alix Ohlin

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Our 2019 special Giller Prize edition of The Chat begins with our conversation with Alix Ohlin, author of Dual Citizens.

The Giller Prize jury praises the novel:

“Chronicling the wayward trajectories of two very different but equally fascinating Montreal-bred sisters from childhood into midlife, Alix Ohlin’s novel, true to its title, quietly refutes monolithic tenets that regard identity as something fixed and singular. Dividing its narrative between Canada and the U.S., the urban and the wild, solitude and solidarity, creativity and caregiving, Dual Citizens is a long-term sororal love story and affecting double-portrait of female self-actualization untethered from established paradigms of ambition.”


Alix Ohlin is the author of four books, including the novel Inside, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Best American Short Stories, and many other publications. Born and raised in Montreal, she lives in Vancouver, where she chairs the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia.

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THE CHAT WITH ALIX OHLIN

dualcitizens

Trevor Corkum: What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

Alix Ohlin: It was early on the West Coast and I was still drinking my morning coffee. I can’t really function until at least two cups are consumed so I’m pretty sure I just kept on trying to caffeinate as I took in the news.

TC: The novel explores motherhood, sisterhood, and art, among other themes. Can you tell us a bit about how the novel first came into being?

AO: For me, writing a novel is a slow, organic, intuitive process of discovery—putting scenes together, getting to know the characters, figuring out the subject and themes. At the time I started Dual Citizens, I had been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about the lifelong friendship between two women in Italy, and I was absolutely entranced by them. I loved how Ferrante wove intimate, vivid scenes into a broad tapestry of social change in the lives of women over several decades. I think a big impetus for my book was wanting to write back to that experience of reading Ferrante, figuring out my own version of that story.

TC: Tell us about one or two behind-the-scenes challenges you faced bringing the story to life.

Because I don’t really outline and rely on drafting to figure out the shape of the book, I go down a lot of rabbit holes, digressions, and wrong turns. I passed a whole summer researching artificial intelligence which I thought was going to play a major role. I had a subplot about FLQ terrorists in Montreal—I spent so much time on it and not a single sentence remains. I’ve learned to accept this as part of the process, but it’s never easy on the day you decide to jettison some major chunk of work.

Because I don’t really outline and rely on drafting to figure out the shape of the book, I go down a lot of rabbit holes, digressions, and wrong turns. I passed a whole summer researching artificial intelligence which I thought was going to play a major role.

TC: In an alternate world, if you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?

AO: I’m a teacher and I love it, so I think I would probably do that, of almost any subject except math. I am sadly terrible at math.

TC: What’s the last Canadian book that changed your life?

AO: Last summer I was talking with a student about Alice Munro’s story “The Children Stay” and how brutal the line of dialogue from which the title comes is.  
I went back and re-read it. It was every bit as devastating as I remembered and I was dazzled all over again. I realize it’s not very original to cite Munro but she means more to me than any other living writer and I don’t know that I would have become a writer myself if I hadn’t read her work as a young woman—so in a literal sense she did change my life and I still feel the same charge of electricity every time I read her work.

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Excerpt from Dual Citizens

The story of Scottie’s life — which is, of course, the story of my life too — begins with my sister Robin. It’s strange how little we talk about it now. Of the three of us, I’m the only one who dwells on our history, probably because I’m the one who chose and formed it. If I bring up that day in the Laurentians, Robin says she doesn’t remember much about it. I find this impossible to imagine. For me, the opposite is true, with every detail lodged unwaveringly in my memory, recorded in detail, like a film I can replay at any time.

It goes like this: a sunny day in June, the leafy heat of summer at odds with my frozen terror as I stood fixed to the ground. The air thick and still as a wall against Robin’s ragged breath.

And the wolf my sister had named Catherine inspecting us both with her yellow eyes.

Robin was thirty-eight weeks pregnant at the time, and she’d just irritably informed me that pregnancy lasted ten months, not nine. She was angry about this, as if there had been a conspiracy to keep her misinformed. She was angry in general, because she was hot and uncomfortable and couldn’t sleep. We were walking down a trail behind her house that led to a canopy of pine trees, hoping the air would be cooler there. Walking was all Robin wanted to do, although she complained about this, too: her hips hurt, her knees hurt, her ribs hurt. Complaining wasn’t typical of my sister, who was stoically, even savagely independent, and it worried me. We stopped every few steps so she could catch her breath, and when we did, I watched her stroke her belly; she wasn’t in other ways tender toward the baby inside her, or herself.

She frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re touching yourself,” she said.

I hadn’t realized until then that I was imitating her, making myself a mirror. My palm was flat against my own stomach, though there was nothing to stroke. I flushed with embarrassment, and my sister gave her harsh bark of a laugh.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I get it.”

But how could she get it? She didn’t live in my body any more than I could live in hers. We stood body to body, sister to sister, across an impossible divide.
 
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

October 20, 2019
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