Alix Ohlin meditates on nostalgia and her latest novel, now longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Dual Citizens.
I’m the most nostalgic person I know. I’ll be walking down the street and out of nowhere feel overcome by it — a staggering stomach ache of longing for places and people and times gone by. The smell of freshly cut grass kills me, evoking as it does my suburban childhood. The current return of ’90s fashion means that every young woman I see in the city haunts me like the ghost of an old school friend. And songs on the car radio? Forget it, I’m done for.
I think a lot about what it means to feel nostalgia, its particular pleasure-pain nexus. People often dismiss nostalgia as cheap sentiment or revisionist history, but I believe nostalgia can be revelatory. In an age of migration, of irreversible climate change, nostalgia offers itself to anyone whose home isn’t what it used to be. Nostalgia is where love and loss braid together. If you examine your own nostalgia, you’ll learn something about the world and your experience of it.
Not surprising, then, that nostalgia threads through my new novel. Dual Citizens is the story of two half sisters, Lark and Robin, who are so close in childhood that they practically raise each other. As they grow up, life pulls them apart, then knits them back together. When Lark, who tells the story, feels nostalgic, what she’s also feeling is a sailor’s knot of entwined emotions: love and grief and forgiveness for their inadequate mother, attachment to their difficult but magical childhood, and understanding of everything she has left behind.
In college, Lark is mentored by a film professor named Olga, a Russian émigré studying nostalgia in film. Her work was inspired by Svetlana Boym, a brilliant scholar who died too young in 2015 when I was writing the first draft of Dual Citizens. Boym’s book The Future of Nostalgia is part memoir, part philosophy, part cultural criticism, and it mines Boym’s own experiences of immigration and exile as she discusses imagined homelands and constructed spaces. It’s a gorgeously melancholy book, full of longing, and parts of my book were written out of a feeling of connection to that mood.
Reading Boym’s book, I learned that nostalgia used to be considered a medical condition, like melancholy was, especially widespread among soldiers from rural areas. One doctor claimed that nostalgia was a “hypochondria of the heart” — I love that phrase. Boym also wrote, “There should be a special warning on the sideview mirror: The object of nostalgia is further away than it appears.” To me, this line captures so much of the push and pull I wanted to describe in Dual Citizens. How sometimes one sister is the object of nostalgia and sometimes the other, how sometimes one is closer and sometimes one is further away. How a woman, craning her neck to see the world in the sideview mirror, might also find a reflection of herself.