Hank Tobin is a very good dog.
The black, curly-haired miniature poodle belongs to comedian and writer Alicia Tobin. He is already Internet-famous thanks to Retail Nightmares, the weekly podcast Tobin cohosts with musician Jessica Delisle. Hank is a frequent topic of conversation and is usually Tobin’s regular choice for “Puppo of the Week”. But with the release of Tobin’s first book, Hank is about to hit the big time: literary fame. He’s a major part of So You’re a Little Sad, So What?: Nice Things to Say to Yourself on Bad Days and Other Essays, particularly the final essay, “Three Dogs”.
“The dog essay, I can’t get through it without crying and I think that’s because dogs are just these innocent, beautiful, bright lights,” Tobin tells the Straight, sitting on the couch in her apartment. “They really have shaped my life so deeply. So that one’s really hard. I’m tearing up talking about it.” She laughs and wipes her eyes.
So You’re a Little Sad, So What? is Tobin’s first foray into personal-essay writing, and her voice is a unique addition to the new CanLit landscape. Like Tobin’s comedy, the book is funny in big ways and small, quiet ones. There are laugh-out-loud revelations, stories, and anecdotes, but there are also countless moments of gentle hilarity, wry observations, and fun weird jokes about animal butts. You can feel her heartbeat on every page, whether she’s writing about city animals or mental health, chronic illness or sexism in the local standup scene, working retail or her personal relationships.
“I didn’t know what I would share, and then suddenly I was just sharing big parts of life,” Tobin says, thinking back over her writing process. “There’s things I hadn’t thought about since I was a kid. There were parts of the book that allowed me to see myself in a new light, as well, like all these options to become a better person, too. That was probably the hardest part, but also the best. Like, I can be shitty.” She laughs. “And I don’t get a pass on that. So there was really deep personal work that was happening at the same time and I hadn’t made space for that in my life. But you have a deadline. You just work that deadline until something good comes out of it, and this is just what came out of it.”
Writing the book forced Tobin to come to grips with things she thought she’d already dealt with, specifically her complicated relationship with her volatile mother, which she details in the heartbreaking essay “Christmas”. It’s a piece she’s only been able to write over the past year, Tobin says, because she’s finally letting go of their relationship.
“Most people that can’t have healthy relationships never had an example themselves,” Tobin says. She’s gentle but fair when writing about her mother’s troubling and unpredictable emotional swings, the rage and cruelty juxtaposed with moments of lightheartedness and laughter, the trauma of abandonment, and how all of these events contributed to a childhood marked by precarity and anxiety. Tobin also has compassion for her mother and knows how hard she has struggled with her mental health. “As a woman in that time, where she grew up in the world and how she grew up in the world affects how you can be happy and healthy, too. There were no resources for people. There aren’t a lot of resources for anybody now for mental health, but at that time, zero. And it’s not something that we can even talk about. She did so many things so well, and she tried so hard, and I can’t take that away from her even though it was really painful and really hard.”
What’s made it easier for Tobin is learning to treat herself with a little kindness, too, affording herself space in her own narrative, allowing herself to be seen, finally, after all this time.
“I gave myself permission,” Tobin says. “I felt very disloyal at times [to her mother], but I have a story to tell, and there’s other children like me out there. When I meet other children like me, it’s a really big deal, because a lot of growing up like us is shame-based. I want to know people. I want to know people’s stories, I want people to feel like their story is important, and that they deserve better. And also I want people that are like my mom to know that they can get help, and they’re not alone, either.”
Alicia Tobin will make three appearances at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest, which runs from October 21 to 27. For more about the festival, head here.