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Dual Citizens

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Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin
Paperback $16.00
May 19, 2020 | ISBN 9780525563556

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  • May 19, 2020 | ISBN 9780525563556

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Praise

“Revelatory. . . . Evocative . . . with equal amounts grace and wit.” Vogue

“A precise, subtle, sad and graceful story about how we care for each other.” —Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror

“Touching. . . . Dual Citizens has a lot in common with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl.” The Wall Street Journal

“Ohlin’s prose and insight are luminous.” Shelf Awareness

“Alix Ohlin’s gorgeous prose and deeply drawn characters pull readers easily through the decades, creating an unforgettable portrait of two women who find that the bonds of sisterhood transcend even the most conflicting definitions of happiness.” San Francisco Book Review

“[An] engrossing, intricate tale. . . . Ohlin smartly chooses a broad scope and expertly weaves disparate lives into a singular thread, making for an exceptional depiction of the bond between sisters.” Publishers Weekly

“A lovely, deeply moving work. A lyrical account of the lives of two women, their failures and hopes, and ultimately their quiet redemption.” Kirkus Reviews

“Luminous. . . . Ohlin’s touching, beautifully crafted story traces the unbreakable bond holding the sisters together, even when miles apart, through many changes.” Booklist

 “Compelling and subtle. . . . Spare and thoughtful. . . . A gentle and moving exploration of what bonds us to those we love.” Sewanee Review

“[A] compulsive read. . . . Ohlin asks questions about sisterhood, motherhood and self-knowledge in this novel about how we care for one another.” The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Alix Ohlin’s novel, true to its title, quietly refutes monolithic tenets that regard identity as something fixed and singular. . . . Dual Citizens is a long-term sororal love story and affecting double-portrait of female self-actualization untethered from established paradigms of ambition.” —Jury Citation, 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize

“With supreme confidence, Ohlin’s quicksilver-prose and brilliant characterization at once seize and pull the reader into the wide-ranging and complex world of half-sisters Robin and Lark as they struggle with questions of identity, the slow burn of mental illness, and the need to leave your mark on the world. . . . A compulsively readable novel about family, sisterhood, and those uncontrollable forces that drive and haunt us.” —Jury Citation, 2019 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Awards

Scotiabank Giller Prize SHORTLIST 2019

Author Q&A

Q: What inspired you to write this particular book: was there an idea or event?

A: For Dual Citizens, I began with the idea of a love story between sisters. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we tell the stories of women’s lives, and how much space in the long history of the novel has been devoted to romance and the marriage plot. In my own life, the bonds I’ve had with women, my friendships and family relationships, have been so enduring and important—and also complicated and turbulent at times!—and I felt a craving to read and write fiction that does justice to the intensity of that experience. So I chose to write a book that presented the relationship between two women as the major scaffolding for their identities and their lives. The structural concept was that the novel would imitate and subvert the three acts of an old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But instead of boy and girl it would be about sisters, and their relationship would rupture and then be repaired.

Around this time I’d fallen in love with Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which place a female friendship at the center of a rich narrative world: the novels are about the connection between Elena and Lila, but they also encompass politics, class systems, intellectual and sexual comings of age, and more. In Dual Citizens, while writing about sisters, I also wanted to write about the complexities of art and ambition for women, motherhood, sense of place and belonging, and other themes.

Q: This story of two sisters is about the ties that bind, but also how different family members can be from each other—at the positive end complementing each other’s personalities and characteristics. But you also grapple with the ways in which family can make things difficult for each other: the different temperaments between the sisters, Lark and Robin; their narcissistic mother, Marianne, who’s often scary and unpredictable; and even, early on, Lark’s step-father, who so doesn’t like her that

A: Part of what interests me is the idea that there’s no single way to define what a family is or can be. In childhood Lark and Robin are pretty feral—they have to raise each other because they don’t have present or helpful parents. But as they grow up, all kinds of people do parent them—sometimes by offering mentorship, like Robin’s piano teacher and Lark’s film professor, and sometimes by offering other forms of guidance and support. For women in particular I think overly restrictive definitions of family can be harmful, and I’m interested in opening up definitions of mothering to a wider range of experiences. In Dual Citizens, there’s a narrative thread about Lark’s obsession with the blurred lines between documentary or reality-based film and fictional storytelling, and I hoped to connect this, in the reader’s mind, with some threads about natural and artificial reproduction in form of fertility treatments. Because no family is “natural” or inevitable; all families are constructed, and the stories we tell about those families are constructed too. There are all kinds of ways to be a mother and to be mothered, and none of this caring is limited to biology or to the containers of our families of origin. By the end of the novel, Lark and Robin make a new family in a way that’s perhaps unconventional, but that works perfectly well for them.

Q: The older sister, Lark’s love of movies is a fun part of her personality, as is Robin’s amazing musical talent at the piano. Do you ever share any of the talents or interests of your characters?

A: I grew up immersed in both movies and music but my gifts there are meager at best. I guess part of the reward of fiction is getting to place more and better talent in the hands of my characters. My father was a professor who taught film classes and we watched anything and everything he showed us as kids—I remember him setting up a Super 8 projector in the living room and screening Nanook of the North, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, kids’ movies. Music was equally all over the place, from Mozart to Frank Zappa to Swedish folk music. Meanwhile my friends and I were using cassettes to tape Madonna off the radio. In Dual Citizens I was thinking about how the movies and art and music we encounter can be so hugely necessary, especially when you’re isolated, or struggling, or lonely, all of which Lark and Robin are at various times. And which I’ve been too. In the novel I slipped in tributes to a lot of my own enthusiasms. Robin’s playing music in a barn full of pianos is an homage to Neko Case’s The Middle Cyclone, one of my favorite albums, and a lot of the movies Lark falls in love with, like Vertigo, are ones I love and return to again and again.

Q: You now have five books and are Chair of the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but you started your career in the editorial dept. of a well-known publishing house. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Or was editor a thought too?

A: I always wanted to write, but I never thought being a writer was a very practical life plan (which it isn’t), so I looked for ways to support myself that would be writing-adjacent. I clerked in bookstores and libraries, wrote for an online newsletter, did all kinds of proofreading. My first real job was a paid internship at Random House where I circulated through all the major departments—sales, marketing, rights, contracts, editorial. Even though I wound up leaving book publishing, I still think that experience was the best possible foundation for a writer’s career, seeing how it all worked close up. Now I feel very lucky to have found teaching, where I get to talk about writing all day long.

Q: What are some books that have meant the most to you as both a reader and a writer?

A: For Dual Citizens, Elena Ferrante’s work, as I mentioned above, were hugely influential, as was Swing Time by Zadie Smith. James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” is one I go back to again and again, for the way he writes about siblings, and music, and loss. Lastly, I always kept close Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which evokes with such startling mystery the formation and dissolution of a female-only family.

Q: What’s next for you as a writer?

A: I’m finishing a collection of short stories and starting to dream my way into the next novel.

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