Alix Ohlin explores the multitudes of motherhood in Giller-nominated novel

TORONTO — The last time she made the rounds on Canada's literary awards circuit, Alix Ohlin felt like she was under pressure to narrow the possibilities of who she could be as a writer and a woman.

On the heels of a notoriously negative New York Times review, Ohlin's sophomore novel, "Inside," was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Writers' Trust fiction award in 2012.

Cast in this stark spotlight, the Montreal-bred writer faced questions about whether the criticism of her work was related to her gender. At the same time, she was privately struggling to have a child.

It seemed to Ohlin like she was being slotted into "either-or" binaries: Either she was a good writer, or a bad one. Either she would be a mother, or she wouldn't.

"My experience was of feeling suspended between those two categories, and not wanting to be defined by the questions that other people were asking me," Ohlin said in a recent interview. "Trying to find a path toward the future and toward my sense of self that belonged to me."

Seven years later, Ohlin has once again won acclaim as one of six finalists vying for the Giller Prize next week, having been a runner up at the Writers' Trust Awards earlier this month.

Now, she is a mother. But this awards season, Ohlin is being recognized for deconstructing such labels as she explores the multitudes of what motherhood can mean in "Dual Citizens," published by House of Anansi Press.

"My hope in presenting this book that has all kinds of different avenues towards motherhood, out of motherhood — women who are resisting it, women who are craving it — is to say there is no one model," said Ohlin, 47.

"There should be limitless possibilities for women and how they want to define themselves in relation to the question of motherhood."

Ohlin said "Dual Citizens" follows the formula of a traditional "love story." But rather than a romantic match, the soulmates are sisters.

The book revolves around the relationship between Lark and Robin who, lacking their mercurial mother's attention, raise each other with the support of a revolving cast of characters.

Along the way, motherhood manifests itself in the form of mentorship, artistic collaboration, a shoulder to cry on and a gift one gives to someone else.

"I'm really against essentialist readings of motherhood, meaning deeply rooted and confined to biology," said Ohlin.

"Mothering isn't always about the capabilities of the body. Mothering is about taking care of someone else and choosing to make a family."

As they move back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, the sisters' paths are forged in relation, and opposition, to one another.

The elder Lark finds comfort in the shadow of an acclaimed documentarian, Lawrence Wheelock, whose poor hygiene and bumbling manner only bolster his reputation as a visionary.

Meanwhile, Robin, a preternaturally gifted pianist, is punished for her idiosyncrasies as she strains against the rigid expectations of the classical music scene.

Ohlin said the gender divide in how the two artistic geniuses are received shows how certain forms of eccentricity are more permissible for some people than others.

"I think it happens to a lot of artists from marginalized backgrounds when they discover that the system that they're in cannot nurture them, they do walk away," she said. "Those voices, those kinds of art are often lost, or have been at least in the past."

As the chair of University of British Columbia's creative writing program, Ohlin said she's working with faculty to welcome all kinds of voices into the classroom.

Ohlin, who previously held posts at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and Montreal's McGill University, pointed to recent hires such as fellow Giller finalist Ian Williams and acclaimed poet Billy-Ray Belcourt as potential mentors for students.

"It's a conversation we're having, and it's an incredibly important one," she said. "I think of myself as ... trying to move the program towards the future in a way that's progressive."

A dual citizen herself, Ohlin established her career in the U.S. But since moving to Vancouver for her new role, she's been thrilled to rediscover the flourishing writing scene in her home country.

"I do have a little bit of an outside viewpoint," she said. "The things that are happening in Canadian literature now feel very exciting to me."

The winner of the $100,000 Giller Prize will be named at a Toronto gala Monday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2019.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press