Anakana Schofield’s new novel Bina begins with a dedication of sorts: “For every woman who has had enough.” The book, a reader might quickly conclude, must be dedicated to all women (because what woman has not had enough?). But, enough of what?
Abusive men might be your first thought in this #MeToo era. It was mine. Systemic inequality? Sexual harassment? Yes, all of that. Enough.
But what if you are a woman who has had enough of life itself? Because this was what was on Schofield’s intensely active, and at the time tormented, mind as she wrote the book. And what if the woman who has had enough of life is not you, but your dear friend, and it is hard to imagine the world without her? “One of the reasons I wrote the book was we’re not having intelligent conversations about death,” Schofield said during a recent interview at Vancouver’s Trout Lake (a fine place to walk around and contemplate death, she called it).
“I’m firmly in favour of the right to die,” Schofield explains. “And then somebody takes their life and I’m just broken. Broken in a way that I just never thought I could be broken. And you know, I’ve been broken. Being broken is not new.”
Death has consistently been a fact of life for Schofield. Her father died when she was 6. Today, she is a volunteer witness for the Vancouver chapter of Dying with Dignity Canada (DWDC), a role she took on after completing the first draft of her new book.
Bina (pronounced Bye-na, not Bee-na) is the third novel by Schofield, 48, who was born and raised north of London, in the Irish diaspora in Britain – with frequent trips to Ireland to visit her grandmother. She moved to Dublin in her 20s and has lived in Vancouver since 1999. The Irish-Canadian has the gift of the gab and the gift of the pen. Her first novel, Malarky, published in 2012, won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Her second, Martin John, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. More recently, she gained international notoriety for her critique of Marie Kondo’s book-clearing advice.
Bina concerns a group of characters from Malarky and is set in the same rural Irish world. Bina was a peripheral character in that novel while her friend Phil was the central character, referred to as “Our Woman.” The impetus for Bina came from a review of Malarky, where the critic singled out the character of Bina as “bonkers and entertaining.”
In Bina, Schofield gives her readers a great deal of bonkers and entertaining – but Bina is so much more.
She is feisty and funny, smart and strong; a no-nonsense woman in her 70s. But she has found herself putting up with a great deal of nonsense from Eddie, the “sorta son” she has taken in, after rescuing him from a ditch. Eddie treats Bina like garbage, yet she can’t bring herself to toss him back onto the street. (“I had this … question in my consciousness about the people that women lumber themselves with; the way in which we lumber ourselves,” Schofield says during our interview.)
One source of refuge is Bina’s closest friend, Phil. But this refuge is threatened. Bina has had enough of Eddie, but Phil has had enough of living. She has suffered too much loss with the deaths of her husband and son (both detailed in Malarky). She understands that Bina’s Meals on Wheels driving gig has evolved into something much more serious: clandestinely bringing compassionate death to people who are suffering, which is illegal in Ireland. But when Phil asks for Bina’s help in this regard, Bina balks. She cannot imagine life without her friend.
If this book is “about” anything, it is not assisted suicide or medically assisted dying or rotten men. It is a book that honours female friendship and its extraordinary gifts. “I just really do feel that friendship is the best that’s to be got in life,” Schofield says. “There’s just something so enduring about friendship. There’s something so forgiving about friendship. That you’ve been at the lowest points of your life and those people have carried you across that puddle, right?” Friendship was very much on Schofield’s mind as she wrote the book, having lost several friends, including a very close one, to suicide.
These personal tragedies and the writing of the book’s first draft, which led her to be in contact with DWDC, compelled Schofield to become involved in the medical assistance in dying (MAID) program as a volunteer witness. The law requires people who choose to end their lives to receive sign-off from two independent witnesses who are not involved in their health care and in no way stand to benefit from the person’s death (they cannot be named in their will, for instance). It is not always easy or immediately possible to source such people. That’s where Schofield comes in, visiting homes and care facilities to act as an independent witness for people she does not know, as they sign their consent forms. (The volunteer witnesses go in pairs, and a patient’s request can be withdrawn at any time.)
“I’ve never been more in favour of the right to end-of-life choices as I am now I’ve done that volunteering. I’ve never been once in any situation where I had an iota of a doubt that that person didn’t know absolutely what they want. And the palpable relief from them when you sign those forms with them, and their gratitude,” says Schofield, who has served as a witness in more than 20 cases. “It’s the most useful thing I’ve ever done in my life, bar none. It’s tremendously profound,” adds Schofield, who says the loss of her friend sent her reeling. “Whenever I go in, I feel that she’s with me. She kind of lives again every time I do this witnessing.”
Bina’s narrative is not linear; it is an economical sort of roundabout puzzle. You can finish it in a day, but you had better pay attention, and it will stay with you for a good deal longer.
It is billed as “a novel in warnings” and it comes at the reader in efficient but powerful snippets (which have been recorded on the backs of envelopes and receipts). Schofield also employs footnotes, often to hilarious effect.
One can only imagine what Tidying Up guru Marie Kondo would think of Bina’s writing system. Schofield attracted international attention in January, after tweeting that Kondo was misguided about books and advocating for the clearing of them in the pursuit of decluttering.
“What I was expressing was about art and the value of literature,” Schofield says. “It was to do with the fact that I think the idea of chucking out your books and treating books like they’re Tupperware is ill-advised.”
It was the tweet heard around the world, with more than 4,000 retweets, 700 comments and 22,000 likes. She wrote an essay about the topic for The Guardian. Interview requests poured in from the likes of The Los Angeles Times and Radio Australia. “And I kept saying I have nothing to say about this topic. I’m not an expert on being tidy or being messy. My concern as a working writer is the position of literature in our culture. And I think it’s very alarming that the position of literature now, and art, seems to come in somewhere around laundry baskets.”
Online, she was trolled. She was accused of being racist and anti-Japanese. (Particularly galling considering that her son is part Japanese, a point she declined to make to her accusatory trolls; why bother?) “It wasn’t a conflict at all. Me and Marie Kondo, we’re grand. If Marie Kondo wants to ring me up and tell me she’s upset with me, I will heartily apologize to Marie Kondo. If I’ve upset Marie Kondo, give us a ring.”
Schofield would much rather discuss almost anything else, but especially death, our collective thanatophobia (fear of death) and societal squeamishness at addressing the inevitable – for both ourselves and the people we love. “That group of women that are doing their exercises,” Schofield says, pointing to a fitness class where older women were marching in a large circle under the May sunshine – “every single one of them has lost a significant friend.”
We discuss the excruciating grief that comes with the loss of a friend, and how that can be viewed as a “lesser” loss than the death of a family member – when in fact our friends may be the people to whom we are closest. We all have a Phil in our lives, or we will – someone who has rescued us or could have rescued us, but is no longer with us.
When the person we have lost has decided to end their life by suicide, we are left not only with crushing grief, but also agonizing questions. We might be angry at the decision, while at the same time believing strongly in the concept of medically assisted death and the right to access that. This was Schofield’s experience. “I want to be clear, I’m certainly not conflating the two circumstances,” she says. “Just for me, emotionally, creatively, whatever, all of these questions seem to collide for me.” That collision led to Bina. “Of course I don’t have solutions, I don’t have answers,” Schofield says. “But fiction is the place where we can posit these contradictions.”
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