Vancouver-based writer Alix Ohlin calls the sisters at the centre of her latest book “feral”; they roam from place to place throughout their lives, never quite feeling like they truly belong. They’re dual citizens not only of Canada and the U.S., but of their own family and the outside world.
“They’re like a country of two,” says Ohlin, calling the Straight from her book tour stop in Los Angeles. “Because they have such a particular upbringing and such a tight bond, nobody else can understand the particular territory that formed them.”
That bond is the stage on which Ohlin explores themes of belonging. What does it mean to belong to a place, or to a family? What do you owe to its other citizens? What happens if you leave?
With Dual Citizens, Ohlin’s third novel, she wanted to put relationships between women at centre stage, exploring all their complexity and richness. Lark, the protagonist, traces her life largely through her relationship with her sister, Robin. They’re tightly bonded while growing up in Montreal, and while going to school in the States. Then they lose contact as their lives diverge, and spend many years as adults trying to find a way back into each other’s lives.
“I thought of the book from the start as a love story between sisters, and love stories are rarely simple, and they are rarely on one plane,” Ohlin says. “There are peaks and valleys, moments of fracture and reengagement.”
There’s a melancholy in Ohlin’s prose that comes from dashing her characters through life from birth to middle age; Lark’s hindsight is bittersweet and sometimes unforgiving. For Ohlin, writing characters who change so radically throughout the book was one of the most enjoyable parts.
“They can see who they are now, but they also remember who they used to be, and that makes their relationship sometimes complicated but also really interesting,” she says. “There’s never any way to predict who you are, and I love to trace that journey.”
Lark and Robin also navigate their identities as artists throughout the book. Lark is a film editor, and Robin becomes a great classical pianist, but for each of them, the path to creative fulfillment is fraught.
“One of the things I’m interested in is: if you have some kind of talent or desire to express yourself, what are the conditions in the world that make it possible for you to pursue that, and what are the things that don’t?” says Ohlin.
Family responsibilities and identity crises get in the way. So do gender politics. Lark, who has always been uncomfortable with attention, makes herself a supporting character to her partner, a renowned film director.
“She allows herself to be subsumed into the career of a man who’s already very successful when she meets him,” Ohlin explains. “And that’s a whole truth about the film industry, which is that we know the names of male directors, but there’s a whole lineage of female editors who really have been responsible for the success of many wonderful films. A lot of the cultural messaging around art tends to privilege male identity in certain ways that can make it harder for women to feel like they have the permission or the ability to become artists.”
Contrast Lark’s passive acceptance of this with the fiercely independent Robin, who up and walks away from her career when the expectations on her become too limiting.
“Robin does not want to be an object of other peoples’ gaze, even an admiring gaze,” says Ohlin. “She finds it incredibly confining and restrictive, and it’s not worth it to her, even if she was going to receive lots of praise and adulation, because she doesn’t get satisfaction from those things.”
The dynamic Robin is in many ways the heart of the story, and the reader gets to know her through Lark’s narration. It’s such an intimate perspective, and extremely difficult to pull off effectively, but Ohlin is clearly up to the challenge.
“That’s kind of the whole project. A story doesn’t make sense to me as a book until it’s anchored in the lives of particular characters,” she says.
“This intense intimacy that we can get access to, the interior of the lives of other people, and the complexities of their emotional landscapes and what it means to be part of each other’s lives, to try to care for each other—that’s what draws me to literature.”