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Sister Language

by Christina Baillie and Martha Baillie


Some authors
are experimental by choice; others come by it biochemically. Toronto writers Martha Baillie and Christina Baillie, sisters as well as creators of the idiosyncratic co-autobiography Sister Language, have both bases covered. Unconventional in form and content, Sister Language explores the relationship these two women – both creative, one mentally ill – have with one another and with the written word.

Martha is a Toronto-based novelist whose formally experimental fiction includes The Incident Report, which was longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Christina, who died at the end of August, lived with schizophrenia, a disorder that impairs brain functioning and social integration and disrupts one’s relationship to language, perception, and sense of self. Though for years the only person she spoke to was her psychiatrist, she was compelled to communicate, to create – “So help me God, I do need to be doing,” she states in the book.

Before Sister Language, her writing existed only in private notebooks. She and Martha dreamt up Sister Language as a collaborative project, responding to one another’s missives by passing them back and forth in a red binder. The results were distilled to a scrapbook-like format, the authors alternating verso and recto, creating a visual conversation.

Christina’s contributions, and their layout, do the most to defy typographic standards: text running in all directions, made into collages on graph paper, featuring handwritten addenda. Martha remarks upon Christina’s enigmatic use of the phrase “stateless stumps”; the latter points out that it’s a reference to Samuel Beckett.

It’s unsurprising Christina is drawn to linguistic alchemists such as Beckett and Gertrude Stein: one common characteristic of schizophrenia – formal thought disorder – encourages associations between words based on their appearance and sound rather than logic and meaning. “The less medication she takes,” Martha notes, “the more insistently words decompose.” “Language,” Christina writes, “speaks through me, spiels me out, spackles me widely, wildly, it tackles and slicks, sleeks me, I am its stippling, its spittle and slip-ups.”

Another unfortunately common hallmark of schizophrenia is an ideation to end one’s own life. Christina Baillie made that choice just weeks before this book’s publication. Her words convey some of the isolation and alienation of her life: “I experience myself as some random inanimate thing that has ‘stolen my brain’ and is controlling me from a distance with its own cruel purposes in mind.” With intimate clarity, Sister Language draws the reader closer to understanding Christina.