On Oct. 27, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented bilingual writer Lola Lemire Tostevin reading from her latest book, The Other Sister. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.
If memory was a two-headed woman recording the past with a quill, Julia was now determined to extract hers from her laptop…
from The Other Sister
by Lola Lemire Tostevin
When Lola Lemire Tostevin taught creative writing at York, her standard advice was: “Write what you know." After returning this fall to present her latest novel, The Other Sister, for the Canadian Writers in Person series, she would now add, "but not necessarily everything you know.”
Left: Lola Lemire Tostevin
Part of Tostevin’s process is to start with the small seed of something she knows and build on that with imagination. The first idea for The Other Sister began at a conference in Germany when someone asked her pointedly, “Do you like Jews?” Her daughter-in-law is Jewish and had recently given birth to twins. This led her to wonder, “What would have happened if they were born in a different era? Suddenly those things could happen to me.” The thought kept gnawing at her until she said she “couldn’t do anything else until I wrote about it.”
Though she had no direct experience with the Second World War or being Jewish, Tostevin began to explore the idea of empathy for other people and cultural identities. In her research, she learned that “there is a part of the brain that is receptive to empathy: some people have more and some have less but it can be changed over time.” This is perhaps the case for the book’s central character Julia, who begins to discover common ground as she explores her own past. Tostevin stretched both her empathy and imagination to create her main character, a retirement home resident who has dignity, intelligence, and a feisty personality despite her physical frailty. She did this partly through research at Bayview Retirement Community but also by asking herself, “If I were in my 90s, how would I like to be?”
Recalling who she used to be, Tostevin talked about growing up with poor Catholic parents in a northern Ontario mining town. There, she lived in a convent where she plagiarized definitions from the dictionary to impress the nuns. Despite this early interest in words, she held the belief that “writing was something other people did, not me with my background.” Leaving the convent at 16, she followed “the usual route” by getting married and having children. After moving to Paris however, she discovered a feminist bookstore called Les Femmes and began to write poetry in a little maid’s room while her kids were in school. Tostevin said she was lucky to find publishers soon after.
As she matured, Tostevin moved on from poetry to novels, and she’s now at work on a stage play. Just as she doesn’t like being pinned down to one form of writing, Tostevin says she is also “against fixed identities: being fixed in one skin colour, culture, religion.” This is perhaps why she is pleased that “we no longer have a Canadian identity. It’s now a very diversified literature, which is wonderful.”
Despite her exploration of the power of memory in her novel, Tostevin is nonetheless cautious of getting too wrapped up in past selves. “Identity does change with time,” she said. “You don’t want to be six, 20 or 30 years old again. I like who I am now.”
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. The course returns this evening with Canadian author Richard Wagamese reading from his novel Ragged Company.