As part of our upcoming Issue 28, we are thrilled to present a commissioned interview between two of Canada’s best-loved writers of their generation, Madeleine Thien and Heather O’Neill. In this brief excerpt, Thien and O’Neill talk about their hometown, Montreal, O’Neill as a native and Thien as an adopted daughter of the city. Stay tuned to Issue 28 (which goes live on November 7) for the entire conversation.
Madeleine Thien: You have this very deep history and intimacy with Montreal, whereas I still feel, after ten years, that I’m moving through a city that is always slipping through my fingers, and that imagines itself very differently from any other city in North America. With this intimacy you have, do you feel free writing about Montreal? Or do the constraints/possibilities of freedom relate at all to how you exist and write here?
Heather O’Neill: I didn’t choose to live in Montreal. As a child, I always had dreams of leaving and escaping and going other places. I wanted to be free. Where you are from dictates a lot of your narrative and is often trying to define you or threatens to define you and I didn’t like that. I wanted to be a whole other person, completely of my own creation. I think it’s in the nature of a novelist to balk at constriction and refuse to live a single identity. But I never had that luxury in real life. I was a single mother at twenty years old and my father was disabled, so I had to look after people full time. I couldn’t even have a weekend getaway my entire twenties, never mind packing my bags and moving to another city. I never got to escape my childhood landscape. I’ve been buying cupcakes at the same bakery my whole life. I’ve read paperback books in the same parks. I bought small yellow cartons of MSG at the same grocery store in Chinatown until one day I went and it was burned to the ground. I’ve seen alley cats come and go. So the landscape does become so personal. I see the house that my dad was born in the 1920s. I pass the school where my grandmother worked as a janitor every day. So there’s a sense of belonging that developed naturally, whether I liked it or not, and because I’m at heart an optimist who turns situations to my advantage. I looked at the small watercolour paint kit I was given, and thought, I will still paint my epic canvas. I was like, Montreal, you think you can imagine me, well I will imagine you. And you think you will define me, nope, I will define you. It’s like any intimate relationship, where you have to stand your ground and ask for things and demand to have a voice and proper agency.