Interviews

The Tragedy of the “Two-way Mirror”: Q&A with Dionne Irving

Dionne Irving says of the multiple voices and the invented archival materials in her engrossing debut novel, Quint (7.13 Books) “I came to realize that the book is structured like a kind of scrapbook.”

It’s a scrapbook that documents a riveting yet sad mid twentieth-century story, beginning with the marriage of a dreamy young French-speaking Canadian woman and the near miraculous birth of her quintuplet daughters. Loosely based on the true history of the famous Dionne Quintuplets, the novel employs multiple voices, including the haunting voice of a sixth baby, who died, to show the dark side of humans’ desire for spectacle. I read the novel with admiration for the convincing characters, the wealth of research it involved, and the deep understanding it reveals of what it must mean to always be engaged in a performance rather than living a life.

Dionne Irving is originally from Toronto, Ontario. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Story, Boulevard, LitHub, Missouri Review, and New Delta Review, among others. She earned her PhD in English and creative writing from Georgia State University. Her novel Quint is out from 7.13 Books, and her short-story collection Islands is forthcoming from Catapult Books in 2022.

Evelyn Somers: Quint is a book about exploitation. You preface it with an epigraph from Yeats: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned. . . .” In the novel, the innocence, and ignorance, of the Phalene Quintuplets about the ordinary lives they were entitled to falls victim to essential human greed. How aware were you at the start of the project that this book would so pointedly explore and protest human exploitation?

Dionne Irving: Growing up in Canada, the story of the Dionne Quintuplets was always a part of my consciousness. It was for most Canadians, I think—certainly those from earlier generations. But the idea for the book really took hold of me when I started seeing commercials for the show Jon & Kate Plus Eight when I started grad school. I couldn’t believe that this story that I knew so well was being revised, recreated, and—in a way—reenacted on television. While the children on the show hadn’t been removed from the parents, echoes of the idea of a living museum and the possibilities for exploitation resonated with me. Much as with Quintland, the show looked into the lives of a family of multiples as a kind of spectacle, as something that begged the viewer to keep looking. It read for me very much like an updated version of a two-way mirror, which is —for me—an important symbol in my book. I went back and started reading about the lives of the Dionne Quintuplets again and started thinking about how I might tell a similar story—one informed and inspired by history but that moves away from it—to highlight the ways in which this kind of exploitation is still so much a part of our culture.

ES: It’s also a novel about the rise of modern marketing and the cult of celebrity—to that end you include “archival” ads for products the quints represent, snippets of interviews, and other media, etc. At the center of it is the monstrosity of Quintland, where the five young Phalene girls are displayed to public voyeurs. Do you think the novel comments more on the midtwentieth century in this way, or on our current cultural moment?

DI: Well, I think the novel comments on both, one directly and one indirectly. To what extent is probably dependent on the reader. The exploitation of family (and of self) for consumption is now so much a part of our contemporary culture. (I often hear my students talking about ‘building their brand’ with hopeful, excited voices.) But over the years, when I have talked about my book—about the story of the commodification of the Dionne Quintuplets—people have often been horrified. Yet our personal commodification in updated forms (e.g., influencers, mommy bloggers, reality TV families, and so on) seems to me the logical conclusion of what became of the Quintuplets’ lives. It’s simply been updated for the digital age. So, for me, the resonances in this story were both historical and cultural. We like to think that as a culture/society, we have evolved beyond the freak show, yet we do it now in many other ways. Often, we don’t just want to look at the freak show, we want to be part of it.

ES: As I read the novel, it felt universal in its conflicts; yet there are points at which the narrative voice indicts Canada—specifically with respect to the guardianship act that removes the quintuplets from their family. I know this is based on the history of the Dionne Quintuplets, but I still couldn’t help but feel that the story could happen anywhere. Are there ways in which you see the book as very specifically Canadian?

DI: What for me is essentially Canadian about this story is the way that, even in the telling of its story, Canada kind of absolves itself of guilt. It only glances at its complicity in passing. Many Canadians, myself included, are both habitual apologizers and kind of vainglorious about our “enlightened” treatment of people. The problem with being Canadian is that we are often holding ourselves up against Americans, so if we are slightly better when it comes to social injustices, we feel like heroes. I’m sort of exaggerating for effect here, but there’s some truth to it, I think. And this is a problematic position to be in because it sometimes doesn’t allow for a frank discussion of our own problems as a country. Ultimately, though, and at its core, it isn’t so much that Canada is a specific country to blame. (And a country is such a massive entity that making it accountable is almost meaningless.) Rather, there’s probably an indictment regarding Western culture and capitalism more broadly. The idea that everyone has a price or that everything can be sold is so deeply embedded in the culture that it’s sometimes hard to even recognize it. And this is normal, I think. We don’t always recognize our own flaws as quickly as we recognize those of others, and we resent it—sometimes—when they’re pointed out to us. For some people, COVID has made us look at that darker aspect of our cultures in ways we’ve often avoided. Unfortunately, I don’t think that life during the pandemic will result in some massive cultural sea change. A lot of what we talk about when we talk about “getting back to normal” is inherently linked to our engagement with capitalism. In a lot of cases, normal (and getting back to it) simply means spending money.

ES: What first interested you about the Dionne Quintuplets, before you ever thought about writing about them?

DI: It is a story that has fascinated me since I was a child. The Dionne Quintuplets’ story is well known by a lot of Canadians to this day. But their story doesn’t seem to be a part of the historical fabric of that time in America. I remember going to the Dionne Quintuplets house-turned-museum as a child, and at the time, what most fascinated me, more than their exploitation, even, was that there were five of them. Even in the ’80s, that still seemed so extraordinary. And, too, my father was an identical twin, and when I was a kid, it spooked me that there was someone out there who looked exactly like him but who was not him. Humans have seemingly always been interested in twins, in multiple births. We have record of this fascination throughout history and across cultures. That fascination pulled me toward them from a young age.

I grew up with a younger sister. I’ve always loved her ferociously, but we were and still are such fundamentally different people. As a child, I remember wondering if you would be closer with, would feel more connected to, someone who shared all your outward qualities, your physicality. How might that inform an emotional connection, too?

When I came back to the story as an adult, seeing it with adult eyes, I was drawn to thinking about the lives these girls lived. As a Black woman, my decision to write about five white children might not seem the natural choice to some. But the Quints’ story resonated with me emotionally in a host of ways. But perhaps most particularly, when you are a person of color, as I am, who consistently inhabits a host of predominantly white spaces, which I do, you sometimes feel like something of a spectacle yourself. This is familiar to me. And that everyday, ordinary sense of being a spectacle is so deeply woven into the fabric of my own lived experience that I was drawn to and familiar with the idea of these girls’ day-to-day lives as a series of performances and displays.

ES: The story of the Phalene quints is related through multiple voices, some of them collective, such as the voice of Quint, as a group, and the voice of the village where they are born, Tèmiscaming. When/how did you arrive at this choice of perspective?

DI: It was a very gradual process. When I started working on the story, I kept writing from the perspective of the individual girls, but I found it to be a claustrophobic way—too claustrophobic!—to tell the story. They couldn’t understand their own captivity because it was their only lived experience. And as I started telling the story, it became important to me to try and understand how and why Quintland existed. Sometimes we think about ideas and institutions as monolithic; but in every institution, there is someone somewhere who has an idea or who makes a decision that affects another person’s life in irrevocable ways. In stories as in life, actors take action, actively. It isn’t passive. Things weren’t simply done to the girls. People did things to the girls. I felt like that story was equally important. There are always architects for exploitation and subjugation, and I felt like it was important to understand not only who engineered the Quints’ exploitation but also to understand the apparatus that sustained it. And for me that apparatus included the town, the parents, the bureaucrats, the doctors, the people who worked at the park, and so on. So the various voices became important to me. More and more important, actually. There is no exploitation (or worse) unless there are people who are quietly complicit. That is the nature of human subjugation. And the truth is that people both good and bad let bad things happen to others through both action and inaction. Complicity is a ghost haunting this story. And part of the work I felt compelled to do was not just to explore the girls’ exploitation but also to illuminate the ways in which that exploitation was supported by institutions and by individuals.

I also came to realize that the book is structured like a kind of scrapbook. Scrapbooks filled with news clippings and mementos (etc.) relating to a favorite celebrity (Shirley Temple, for example) were very popular at the time, so the structure of the book almost mirrors that practice. I may’ve been doing it unconsciously for a time, but when I recognized it, I tried to employ it usefully.

ES: Is there a feminist aspect to the novel? I wonder if male quintuplets could have been capitalized on and objectified to the same degree. Also, there’s the seduction—or perhaps rape—of one of the girls, and her forced abortion when she becomes pregnant by their manager, Anthony Rhys-Osborne.

DI: I’m a feminist, so I do hope there are feminist aspects radiating outward from the novel. But for me, part of this exploration absolutely has to do with the ways in which female bodies are commodified, and they always have been. Had the Quintuplets been boys, might they have gone less noticed? Who knows? But I think that’s entirely possible. In a farming community on that rugged land, boys were going to be a source of additional labor. Soon enough, they would actively contribute to their own support. It was important for me to articulate the ways in which women’s bodies are commodified because they weren’t viewed as physically valuable in most of the ways boys’ bodies were. And in some ways, the heart of the novel begins with the mother. She is a dreamy kind of girl, one who might have had a different sort of life had she not been made to believe that her primary value would be announced through marriage. In many ways, she rejects the notion of motherhood completely. And that fascinated me. There is no deep maternal desire in her as much as there is a sense of duty to have children.

ES: Speaking of Rhys-Osborne, I reflected on the fact that it’s very useful to have a human villain in one’s story, someone who embodies malice or, at least, ill intent. Can you talk about his character and how it developed?

DI: It was important to have a person who was making these choices. I talked about this a bit above. Also, in an effort to show how trauma reverberates across time and place, I hope that I also show that the choices that Rhys-Osborne makes are informed by how he is himself a deeply damaged person. It was important to me to have a character we could get to know well who was making decisions about the girls’ lives for his own very complicated (and often very selfish) reasons.

ES: I know this book involved substantial historical research. Did the research change the story as it developed? And if so, how?

DI: The impulse to understand the world never leaves us. And as a fiction writer, I think that is partly what I am trying to do, to make sense of the world and the people in it. This is where research comes in. Research allows us specific views of individual moments and people, all of which sharpen our understanding of the world, at least from a particular perspective. In a way, that’s what research uncovers: particular perspectives, often in conflict with other perspectives. When you engage in research, you have to leave yourself open to discovery. And for me, uncovering something that might’ve been a throwaway detail ended up becoming another voice in the novel. And to my way of thinking, it’s a powerful and important voice. While reading about the Dionne Quintuplets, I found a small reference to how the Quints’ mother passed what she thought was another baby at some time around the six month of her pregnancy. This really caught my imagination. It haunted me, in a way, and it became a voice that haunts the novel. With an odd number of multiples, it seemed to me that there would always be one Quint who is unpaired. Or perhaps all of them would be unpaired in a way. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a voice for someone who is angry about being left out of the story but who is also sad and bitter. Toni Morrison does this so expertly in Beloved. I’m not comparing myself to Morrison, but I’m inspired by her, and I wanted to capture that complex mix of feelings in the voice of the sixth sister .

ES: In the end, I felt that this story is a tragedy of circumstance and condition—the Phalenes’. Is that what it is to you?

DI: I think that it is absolutely both those things. Also, I guess, for me it demonstrates that old Flannery O’Connor line: “When you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” I think that the story could have been different had these people been different. The characters in this story at their core are lonely and sad. There is something very contemporary but also timeless about that feeling, something that seems woven into the fabric of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first century. I’m sad to say that our recent history as a species is imbued with a malaise or perhaps even a collective trauma. The transatlantic slave trade, two world wars, the Holocaust, various genocides, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, foreign and domestic terrorisms of all kinds. . . . We could go on and on, right up to our recent pandemic. And all of this is coupled with the leaps and bounds in technology that catalogue in old and new modes the ways in which we have been cruel to each other. Maybe there is a century’s worth of nihilism in all of us. But I’m not a pessimist. I think people want goodness; but the problem comes in that the idea of goodness has never been objective or devoid of self-interest. That is the prism through which I see many of the characters in the book. The Quints themselves might be the only innocents in the novel, but at what cost?

ES: You’ve now debuted as a novelist and have a collection of stories forthcoming. Can you say anything about your current writing project?

DI: I am currently working on two (!) books. One is a collection of personal essays, many of which use my personal history as a jumping-off point to look at larger arcs of history. Some of these essays have appeared in journals; others are in process. I’m also working on another novel, this one set largely in Jamaica. I have a decent chunk of it completed, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. I’m excited about both projects and about the short-story collection coming out next year.

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Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals, and her work has been longlisted for Best American Essays. She recently finished a comic novel about an empty-nester and her supernatural pet and is at work on a new novel, a love story about animal rights.

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