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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > November 2019 > Of rebels and writers

Of rebels and writers

In a new novel and an essay collection, Johanna Skibsrud proves herself a versatile and poetic author and thinker



Johanna Skibsrud Hamish Hamilton Canada

The Nothing That Is: Essays on Art, Literature and Being

Johanna Skibsrud Book*hug

IN HER 2001 MEMOIR, A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand recalls that her grandfather told her “he knew what people we came from.” Despite the 13-year-old Brand’s prodding, which included rhyming off various African peoples in the hopes of jogging her grandfather’s memory, the man was not able to recall the lineage he claimed to know. “Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and present,” Brand writes.

Johanna Skibsrud’s third novel, Island, opens with questions of ancestry similar to the one Brand struggled with. In the novel, Lota is a white teenager on the fictional, eponymous island. Lota, who has her grandmother’s pale skin and has “been teased for it, sometimes mercilessly,” first realized she was white in Grade 7, when she encountered in a history textbook a chapter titled “Colonial Society and Economy.” The information and her schoolmates’ taunts incite Lota’s curiosity about her ancestors, but when she questions her mother about it, the only reply is unsatisfactory: “You’re an islander, Lota.”

From that opening, Skibsrud crafts a fast-paced story of identity and insurrection told through the alternating perspectives of Lota, a worker at a fish factory, and Rachel, a diplomat stationed on the island, who yearns to return to the mainland where her husband and daughter live.

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