Internationally acclaimed author Barbara Gowdy’s newest novel, Little Sister, is a remarkable look at the intricacies of emotional lives and the spectre of the past. When a series of thunderstorms hits Toronto one summer, Rose Bowan finds herself inexplicably transported into the body and consciousness of another woman for short bursts of time. She bears witness to the most personal bits of Harriet’s life—and finds herself reliving memories of Ava, her little sister, who died in a terrible childhood accident. Captivating and fearless, this novel explores the extremes of our capacity for empathy, and in doing so, reaches places very few of us are willing to travel. Rudrapriya Rathore spoke to Barbara Gowdy in Toronto. (Special note to our local Winnipeg readers: Barbara Gowdy will be in conversation at McNally Robinson on May 17 and signing copies of Little Sister, as part of the Spring Literary Series.)
The premise of this novel grabbed me long before I read a word of it. It’s something I’ve said to myself maybe a million times—“I wish I could just be somebody else. I wish I didn’t have to be me.” It’s that very human conundrum of always wanting a thing despite—and maybe because—you’ll never be able to experience it. Of course, it’s very possible I would be horrified if I was involuntarily dropped, the way Rose is, into someone else’s consciousness. I’m wondering, were you thinking about having taken that choice away from her when you were writing? Giving her such an involuntary experience of empathy?
That’s interesting, because this book took me ten years, partly because of my chronic pain, and in the first drafts, I had Rose enter Harriet as a result of ingesting a powder that she found in her father’s desk drawer. She just touched a finger to it and licked it—and immediately she was inside Harriet. So it was a choice. But a few people who read that, including an editor of mine, said it was too claustrophobic. (It was also written in the first person at that point.) He said, if she does it voluntarily, then she becomes kind of a stalker, and the ethical question of her invading Harriet comes up too often. Whereas, if it just happens at random, she’s off the hook. She didn’t ask to be there while Harriet is having sex, for example. She can’t control that. When it’s involuntary, it raises issues that are more interesting to me than the issue of stalking. It raises the question of how we see the other, how we navigate our understanding of the other.
Also, I didn’t write it because I wanted to be someone else. In fact, I recently read an article about envy which said that for most people, envy is not about wanting to be someone else. It’s about wanting to be yourself, but with someone else’s advantages. Their intelligence, their beauty, their upbringing, their confidence—whatever it is that you feel you’re missing.
In a book of essays by Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams, the author places herself in proximity to many different people in different circumstances and examines what she feels for them. Interestingly enough, she talks about empathy as “a penetration, a kind of travel.”
Yes, I’d agree, it is a kind of travel. A lack of empathy stems from a lack of imagination. I think all our failings—everything we do wrong as human beings, to the environment and to others—stems from a lack of imagination, as opposed to a lack of understanding.
It has to be imagination, because you can’t actually understand other people in terms of objective truth. You can’t even understand what it’s like to be your identical twin sister, if you had one. That little bit of difference is an eternity. And actually, I think that if we could enter another person’s consciousness, there’s a possibility we’d go mad immediately, because it would be so strange and overwhelming. But it might not be, and that’s what I hope. I hope there’s enough overlap. And I elected to make that experience not too crazy or unsettling in the book.
The beauty of the novel is that it’s about writing and reading, for me. And your choice to make the experience feel so real was part of that, because it felt like it was running parallel to the experiences we all have when we read. Every time you write or read, you’re doing it to get out of yourself, to experience the world through someone else.
That’s exactly right. I had Rose do what the writer does. I have to enter people to figure out what they’re like, what their world is like. I liked that mirroring. I’m very particular when it comes to metaphor and simile, very selective, but I have one in there about Russian dolls.
Oh, that’s right, I love that line. Harriet has an orgasm, and within her, Rose does too, and she says it’s like dozens of women swooning, all stacked inside Harriet’s experience.
My favourite parts of Little Sister were the flashbacks to Rose and Ava’s childhood and the tragedy that took place then. There’s one scene where Rose is revealing how Ava died, but she’s also revealing this sort of sinister kinship that little girls often have with one another. It seems like girls of that pre-adolescent age are often trivialized in our culture or made to feel like their thoughts or feelings don’t have much weight in the world. But here, in this scene, you have their emotions and actions making the difference between life and death, not just for Ava but for a grown man, Gordon, the roofing-equipment salesman who also takes care of their property. You also have that incredible short story, “Presbyterian Crosswalk,” in which a female friendship decides the outcome of a sick girl’s life. I’m wondering, what do you think it is about being a girl of that age that can be so dark in your work?
I think little girls have to be able to read people really well. They have it in their DNA. Not only is there the awareness of violence, but there’s an early awareness of sexual violence. That is present in the atmosphere you grow up in, so you have to learn how to choose where you walk, who you talk to, who you trust—there’s all these rules, like “I’m supposed to sit in Santa’s lap, but not talk to this other man.” And so all this depth and instinct is being developed, I think, but they don’t know how to articulate it. You learn how to have intuition very quickly, maybe more than boys. I don’t know, I can’t write about boys with as much authority, because I never was one.
When I was young, I was rather odd—maybe a lot odd—I used to cut my head out of all my yearbook pictures because I thought I looked so ugly. I didn’t hit puberty or develop until much later than all the other girls, and I’d lie about having my period because I was embarrassed I hadn’t gotten it. But I’d forget whenever I lied, so I’d do it again the next week. I was known as being incredibly irregular. I felt like a real freak.
I think it’s important to remember feeling left out or excluded. Otherwise you become a person who doesn’t know what others are going through when they feel that way.
Right, you don’t vote for the right person, you don’t create policies that will help others, because you’ve never been an outsider.
Do you think women are socialized to be more empathetic than men?
Probably. I mean, there’s a whole way that women are with creatures like babies, you know. Whether you think it’s a bodily clock or that we’re socially programmed to be interested in them, it’s there. And we better be that way, we better like babies, because they cry and shit and vomit! We better love them, because they can be monsters. We wouldn’t put up with a friend of ours screaming and keeping us awake all night—we’d say, you’ve got to move out, sorry.
But there are lots of male artists who are emotional and empathetic. You have to be, if you’re a writer. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I think it might also more permissible for women to be so directly empathetic. I ask a lot of intrusive questions, personally. I like intimate questions. And I do feel I have more intimate conversations with women.
I became very attached to Rose because I saw that she has a way of processing her own feelings by being inside Harriet. She’s really a loving person. I think what makes her so complex is that there’s a flip side of that, too. I got the sense that her protectiveness and her impulse to accuse others of wronging her loved ones can turn into a kind of violence.
It can, yes. Especially because she’s the one in charge. She’s the older sister, first, and then she takes over the family business, the movie theatre, later in life. She also has to take care of her mother, who becomes childlike because of her dementia. Lots has been written about how your place in the family determines who you become. Rose is saddled with a lot, and then she becomes saddled with Harriet’s problems, too, in a way. But I think that if we could enter people—and this is part of Rose’s experience—we’d not only learn how to feel for them and forgive them, but we’d also learn how to forgive ourselves.
I was also thinking about the ways in which empathy can become a selfish act. Because it’s an act of creation, of imagination, and because Rose experiences it in a way that none of us could actually experience it, ethics come into question. What are the ethics of being so personally invested in someone for whom you have no right making decisions? Or, what are the ethics of feeling like you’re redeeming yourself for a past mistake because you’re helping someone new?
Rose can’t help what she feels inside Harriet. The issue of Harriet being pregnant was pretty tricky, for example. Rose does believe in a woman’s right to choose. But at the same time, she’s experiencing something no one else ever has—a joint pregnancy! And that combined with the fact that she herself is barren makes her very attached. She can’t help wanting that baby, whose mother looks so much like her younger sister Ava, to live. That happens with all sorts of love, intrusive love.
At one point I have her say, “How can I help but love Harriet?” She wants to enter her even at the expense of her own daily life, her work, her relationships. She’s invested in the experience and in the person, and that’s important to me because I think not enough of us are invested in others. There are those saintly people, of course, who dedicate themselves to others—and a lot of mothers do that instinctively for their children—but as a percentage of the population, it’s quite rare. Everyone loves their children, but why shouldn’t you love other people’s children? Why can’t you love a stranger?
There’s a really tangible atmosphere in this novel. Rose’s episodes are triggered by thunderstorms, and all throughout there’s an air of coincidence crackling, sort of like static energy or lightning. It sets a great pace. And the novel ends with a chance happening, too—the two women run into each other and it’s revealed that Harriet kept the baby—was that always how you wanted to end it?
I wanted to show that Harriet made her own choices. She wasn’t so subconsciously influenced by Rose’s presence that she didn’t make her own decisions. And yes, I wanted to create a momentum and a sense of intrigue, too.
Actually, I was writing from that place where there are other forces at work, forces the characters don’t understand, and, strangely enough, something similar was happening in my own life.
I’d finished the novel and somehow discovered a lump in my breast. I got an appointment at the hospital and went in with my younger sister, who drove me. We were in the waiting room, waiting for this doctor, when she suddenly got a really bad headache, which quickly turned into a seizure. And because she happened to be in a hospital, they managed to get her on oxygen right away, and whisked her off to a brain surgeon. She had a brain bleed. If it wasn’t for that immediate attention, if she’d been anywhere else, she would’ve been gone.
In a strange way, because I was so worried about my sister, I wasn’t really thinking about my cancer. It was great to have a distraction, in a way. And then—not that she had anything to do with the little sister in the book—but I got home from the hospital and saw a box that said “little sister” on my porch. Just for a moment I experienced a disorienting wave where I was wondering if I’d just gotten a box full of reading material from the hospital about my sister. But, of course, it was the book.
There is that same sense of mystery in the novel, too, where you really can’t know exactly why anything happens, but you have a distinct feeling that there’s a logic to it. Fiona’s mother, for example—her dementia mirrors Rose’s episodes. There’s a layering and erasing of memory and illusion and fantasy there for both of them.
Yes, one’s losing her memory bit by bit, losing herself, and the other’s gaining another self. That’s also why I wanted to set it in a repertory theatre, because when you watch a great movie, you leave feeling like you’re a part of it, like you’re in some parallel dimension. That first happened to me with The Wizard of Oz. I just remember being so awed. It’s wonderful to be transported like that. Also, my mother had dementia in her later years, and when I told her I was writing a character with the same condition, she said, “Oh, well at least it’s good for something.”