DEATH OF A TWIN
"It's a very special, magical relationship and it's fascinating, even to me. Most people build armour to protect themselves from other people but when you're a twin, everything's stripped down. You know each other so intimately and you don't have that armour."
Zoe Paxton interviews Diana Evans, author of 26a.
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Diana Evans was always writing -- scribbling in a journal and playing with words -- but it was a tragic family death that finally prompted her to write her first novel, 26a: "I always hoped that I'd write a book but I never knew what my subject would be. Journalism was just the obvious way to earn money as a writer in the meantime."
It was the suicide of her twin sister, however, that made Diana reconsider her direction. "It stopped me in my tracks," she says. "I was working at Vibe magazine at the time -- writing articles about R'n'B singers, and I wasn't really satisfied with what I was doing. It threw me and made me think that life is too short."
Suddenly Diana had a story to tell and her novel 26a was her way of building a monument to her experience of being a twin. It is the story of twins Georgia and Bessie who grow up, as did Diana, in North West London with their Nigerian mother, Yorkshire father and troupe of sisters. But what begins as just another well-observed story of a multicultural family in multicultural London at the end of the last century, quickly becomes a darker and more troubling story of depression, repression and, finally, suicide.
26a is a tribute to the world of twins. "It's a very special, magical relationship and it's fascinating, even to me," Diana says. "Most people build armour to protect themselves from other people but when you're a twin, everything's stripped down. You know each other so intimately and you don't have that armour."
Diana drew upon the idiosyncrasies of her own twin-hood to create Bessie and Georgia, who enter the book as a vision of "two furry creatures with petrified eyes, staring into the oncoming headlights". She explains that when they were young she and her twin sister were timid, sharing an idea of themselves as two furry little beings. The image still fits: the adult Diana has something of the timid creature about her, with her wide, nervous-looking eyes, soft voice and inclination to pull her clothes self-protectively around her small, compact frame.
For Bessie and Georgia, the world turns out to be a pretty frightening place and for Georgia especially, the journey into adulthood is difficult. When the young Georgia watches her pet hamster, 'Ham', die she realises it is possible "to choose the time, to leave when you're ready", and we get our first glimpse of her dark final destination. It is Georgia, the shade to Bessie's light, who will later hang herself in what becomes an apparently inevitable act.
"I wanted to create a sense that there is a darkness in Georgia. The way she sees Ham's death is her own take on death from a very young age," Diana says, describing Georgia as one of those people who just didn't like it here, who finds life difficult, who can't fit themselves into society's frameworks.
"Suicide is generally seen in a very negative way and, though it is tragic and devastating, I've learnt from losing my own twin that there's a positive and magical side to it as well. It's about a person freeing themselves. It is actually a very courageous thing to do. To leave can be braver than to just stay here and struggle on, never knowing whether you'll ever be happy."
In the case of the twins of 26a, the real tragedy of the situation comes from watching Georgia rush headlong into the darkness without her family realising and, more tragically still, inadvertently confirming Georgia's belief that there is only one way out for her.
"When someone is suicidal they live in their own world with their own language," Diana says. "People outside it have no idea that something they say can be interpreted in a dangerous way and that can cause a lot of guilt."
Writing this book was hard for Diana, especially towards the end. "It became very dark and very gruelling and it couldn't have gone on for much longer. But I had a burning passion to get this book out. I had to get it out of me." Despite a sense of relief that it is over, Diana found the experience of writing the book in no way cathartic or therapeutic.
The rest of her life was put on hold while writing 26a. She was in a relationship where her partner was ready to have children and was just waiting for her. "Everything suddenly happened once I'd finished the book. It was like the rest of my life wanted to catch up." She has promised herself something less intense for her next book, which she is writing in snatches when her baby -- her first -- sleeps. Life, she says, has become more balanced now.
Was she hoping for twins herself? "God no! I would have been devastated if I'd had twins. Firstly, there's the thought of looking after two babies at once and, secondly, I think I would have had strange issues with it," she laughs, "I would have been jealous! Friends sometimes want me to meet their twin friends and I'm like, 'Er, why?' I feel strange around twins now because I'm a twin in a very different way to them. I haven't spoken to any twins yet who've read the book, but I'd be very interested to know what they make of it."
She says her family are reading it at the moment - "and that's nerve-racking enough" -- although so far the response has been good. One of her five sisters called her up the other day in hysterics, saying she was reading the first chapter and couldn't leave the house, and her dad is happy with what he's read.
For Diana herself, the book is not easy to read: "There are certain bits that make me cringe but on the whole I'm happy with it. It said everything that I wanted it to say and looking back, I feel I've achieved what I set out to achieve. The book was always about the death of a twin, that's the crux of the story. But it's so much more than I hoped it would be."
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Zoe Paxton is a London-based freelance arts journalist who contributes regularly to Time Out and Little White Lies.