As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
The writer and musician on queer representation, empathy for our younger selves, and music for our feelings.
If you’re alive in this world, you’ve probably heard of the indie queer twin musical duo Tegan and Sara Quin. Their musical canon is nine albums deep, and if you’ve seen the LEGO movie or Gilmore Girls, you’ve heard their songs. Their most recent creative project is the jointly written memoir, High School (FSG, 2019). The book is a queer coming of age story in all of its painful and hilarious and nuanced complexity.
Both Tegan and Sara are queer, and perhaps the most wrenching part of their story is that they could not talk about it, especially with each other. High School chronicles their upbringing in suburban Calgary during the 90’s, secret, intense relationships with other girls, and the sisters’ fraught relationship with each other. The memoir dispels the common narrative around twins: telepathy, twin-speak, two people essentially being one. The authors wrote each of their accounts separate from each other before bringing them together. Their perspectives and experiences are vastly different, even as they parallel each other. After being very close as children, they fought incessantly as teenagers, only finding common ground through drugs, and later music.
One of High School’s greatest strengths is how contained it is in time, yet how expansive in detail. The Quins made full use of an extraordinary amount of archival material and their signature honesty and wit (well known to anyone who’s ever seen them banter on stage). Much of that archival material—old VHS recordings, demo tapes, photos, journals, letters—is included in the print and audio versions of the book, both of which are completely immersive experiences in themselves. The level at which the Quins reconstructed their high school world is staggering. It’s impossible not to feel both physically and emotionally present with these 90s kids, these queer kids, these hurting kids, these hiding kids, these trying kids.
— Sarah Neilson
Sarah NeilsonHigh School isn’t about coming out per se, it focuses on reckoning with identity internally—sexuality and gender, yes, but also who you are in relation to the people around you, and who you might become as you age into adulthood. In that way, it’s a very universal story, but you’ve brought up elsewhere that queer puberty is different from straight puberty—queer kids experience their bodies and emotions differently because society is so heteronormative. Is this something you actively tried to address while writing the book, or was it more of a realization that came in the process of writing it?
Sara QuinIt definitely was something that Tegan and I have talked about over the years. I don’t think we would have articulated that as teenagers and certainly in the years following our adolescence. But one of the things that has been really helpful in reframing and understanding our adolescence is being in a band and constantly listening to other people tell us about their adolescence. As our fan base has aged up and we have younger people finding the band, it’s been fascinating listening to them talk about those experiences because over the last twenty years some things have changed dramatically about being a queer person in the world and other things just haven’t change at all.
Obviously being a teenager is super awkward, whether you’re straight or gay or anywhere on the spectrum. But what has come up again and again is that there’s just not much representation reflecting your own experience. At the time, I didn’t feel that I was longing for things. I loved music and I loved movies. I felt like I was very much part of the culture. But when I looked back on it, I realized I forced my own identity and experience through a very heteronormative lens, and of course that left me feeling really dislocated.
I think a lot of queer people do this, but I was able to sort of transform my body and my identity into Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins. I could live my pain and my experience by sort of shape-shifting into him. It was so important that Tegan and I wrote about how in becoming songwriters and discovering our own artistry, we were able to finally remain in our own bodies and our own experiences.
Even now, when there are so many awesome queer stories and queer representation out in the world, to this day people tell us, “I didn’t have anything,” or, “I don’t feel connected to what’s out there.” I constantly see press and articles on new young queer artists who are like, “I had nothing growing up.” And I’m like, Well, we were around. Why didn’t you identify with us? But when there’s so much scarcity, if there’s only one or two other things for you to compare yourself to and that doesn’t completely click, it can feel that, compared to the ocean of things that are out there for other people, there’s nothing.
SNI have this theory that queer people go through adolescence multiple times, kind of in fits and starts, because it’s not really clear how we’re supposed to grow up and we don’t have enough queer-informed guidance at a really crucial time.
SQI think because we’re queer we do sort of exist outside of the standardized ways of being in a relationship, or just being in general. There’s this sort of wrestling that happens where you’re trying to fit yourself in. As I’ve become older I’ve also started to really resent that. Why the fuck can’t I just live outside of this? Why have I been trying to fit myself into this heteronormative patriarchal way of being?
I say this while standing in my backyard; I have a home, I have a successful monogamous relationship, I’ve nested, I have cats that I treat like babies. I’m very “heteronormative.” I’ve completely adopted society and culture’s way of saying that I’m a successful adult. I’m totally that person, but I also feel that unrest, or that disconnect. That constant internal struggle comes from the fact that I’m a queer person and I have experienced what it is to exist outside of this fucking cage that we put ourselves in.
As a young queer person, I would have benefitted from being told, by anyone, this is actually wonderful, you’re free, run. But instead it’s been twenty years of forcing myself to act like all the straight people around me, which is really hard on the queer psyche.
SNDo you see yourself as a queer role model, or do you feel a responsibility to be one? How do you see High School placed in the queer cultural canon?
SQI’ve always felt responsible as a public figure. I think that was somewhat ingrained in me as someone who [grew up in Canada], too. We are trained to go out into the world and be kind and polite and respectful of others. I remember as we started our public career it was no different than, like, going with my grandparents to their friends on a Friday night. It was understood, if you show up to this adult gathering and you act like a ding-dong, you’re not going to get to come back. So, we would sit very politely, eating out of a bowl of peanuts and having our Coca-Cola, and we were thrilled to be allowed in the company of adults.
We were such well-behaved kids. Of course, we were running amok behind the scenes. But I went into the world with that mentality. Even if our audience is an audience of one, we will be respectful to that audience and we will be respectful to the people who own the bar we’re playing in, and we will be respectful to the lady who drove us to the radio station, and we will be respectful to the music journalists. I think [that makes] people say you’re a good role model. When we were in our early twenties, I remember people from the record label or other managers saying, “You guys just really have it dialed in. I wish my artist was like this.”
But that’s a trap unto itself, too. I learned how to ignore our needs and our feelings and our discomfort. Because we were addicted to getting praised, addicted to getting this positive feedback from people around us. A lot of times that meant that we weren’t talking about what was making us uncomfortable. And that became our public persona. It was like, Well now we’re good gays, we talk about ourselves, we talk about positive things, and we want other gay people to be good gays.
I think when we were younger that was a bit misguided, which isn’t to say that I don’t like being an LGBTQ role model or whatever people call us. I really do. But a huge part of that came from the fact that we didn’t ruffle feathers, we didn’t make people uncomfortable. We acted like we belonged and we fit in, so people crowned us with this status, but it also seemed to hinge on us behaving, on being good and being positive.
To tie into your other question about High School in the queer canon, I think there’s always been a desire and a longing to explore our identity and who we are as individuals more thoroughly, because I think that we recognized that we weren’t just these good, nice Canadian girls who are making music. We recognized that we have had complicated personal individual histories and we’ve had a complicated relationship as sisters. During much of our career when we were being described as polite and kind and funny, we were literally kicking the shit out of each other behind closed doors.
I think to talk about the violence, to talk about the unrest and the unhappiness of our sisterly relationship, was an important part of also talking about our identity as queer people. Those things are intrinsically linked.
SNThere are so many powerful, vulnerable sections of this book, but one that really stood out to me was the transcript of the video in which you, Tegan, and your friends talk about “homosexuality.” Personally, when I read that, I wanted to laugh hysterically and also cry; I found it so profound that you and Tegan couldn’t agree on whether you would, or had, talked to other people about “homosexuality” — she insisted you had and would, and you insisted the opposite. All the while it seems clear that you can each see the queer part of each other and yourselves in that moment, but you can’t talk about it. How do you see silence as having shaped the narrative about this high school experience?
SQ It’s fascinating to watch that video. To read the transcript is certainly significant. And I really wanted it to be in the book as a transcript; I wanted the distance. I didn’t want it to be a story. I wanted it to be a document of something that really happened. I had to watch so many endless hours of us being little dick bags on videotape. But that video really knocked me off my feet because it was excruciating. The me in the video is really, really hard to watch. At times I’m being so difficult and there’s an arrogance, but I also just know myself and I know what I’m doing. I am so physically and emotionally uncomfortable with the conversation, and it’s so meta for me, because I know behind the camera, filming me, is a girl I’ve been sleeping with for two years in secret. Tegan is sleeping with the girl who’s asking the questions. And none of us have ever had a conversation about what is happening. We’ve literally never spoken about the fact that we are in the room. We all know that we are engaged in same sex relationships, and yet we are talking about homosexuality from a distance as if we are not part of the community that we’re talking about.
There’s also something cruel about the fact that these two girls—who present as very straight, are honor roll students at a French immersion high school—are sleeping with me and Tegan who are going to an average high school, under underperforming, taking drugs, drinking. We’re like the bad kids and they’re like our smart secret girlfriends who are doing a project on homosexuality.
The video is such an important artifact in representing how complicated our experience was and how complicated I think being in the closet is or whatever. I hate that. I hate saying, “in the closet.” It’s hard when we’re doing our live show because we play a piece of the video and the audience laughs the whole time. They laugh at every answer and every question. I find it so interesting, because it really has brought up this question for me of how far along we can be in our development and our understanding of ourselves as a queer community when this video, which should provoke something deeper and more empathetic, mostly just makes people laugh at us?
And I don’t mean that the audience is bad because they’re laughing at us. I think it’s because the whole show in general feels safe, because I know the vast majority of people in the audience are queer, and yet there’s an immaturity or a sort of undeveloped part of all of us, and I include myself in this, that cannot stand to look at ourselves in that way.
SN You’ve spoken in previous interviews about having empathy for your high school self, and really learning to love her. I’m wondering what that looks like for you. Do you have any advice for how people, maybe especially queer people, can cultivate that empathy for our younger selves?
SQIn writing the book, the chapters where I described myself—where I have to physically write about what I looked like or how I felt in my body or the clothes I wore and how people responded to me as a young person — those were really painful moments. I was shocked, actually, when I wrote down those first few attempts at describing the kind of clothes I wore and the way people would respond to me on the bus or at school, or adults would respond to me.
I remember writing it and then reading it out loud to my girlfriend, asking, “Can I read this to you? Does this really paint a picture for you of what I was like at fifteen?” As I started reading to her, I started crying. I couldn’t believe how lacerating it was to hear myself describe this young version of me in such a negative way. It really hurt me to think about my young self hearing me now, talking about the way I was. Over the course of writing the book, I became so enamored and admiring of the bravery it took to get up every day and put these clothes on and have people respond to us in this way.
The amazing shield of youth is that you hate yourself, but you also are the toughest, most confident thing. You can live in those two opposing worlds so easily and effortlessly. I absolutely despised myself, hated myself, felt uncomfortable in my body. And yet I would put these clothes on and I would get on the bus and have other teenagers say, “What the fuck are you wearing?” And I would be like, “You don’t like the way I look? Don’t fucking look at me.” I was so confident. If somebody now said something like that to me I would be devastated. I would move to the moon.
[The bravery didn’t come from] just having this relationship with a girl or experimenting with other girls or wearing the clothes that I was wearing. Even the fact that we were talking about racism and discrimination and stereotyping and homophobia—we were talking about those things because our mom was talking about those things with us. We would go to school and we would bring those ideas to school, and we impacted people and changed people. I really returned to that place and I suddenly experienced myself as I know other people experienced us. I go back now and I talk to my friends who I met at fourteen or fifteen and they say, “Oh my God, you guys were next level. You were so cool. You had all these ideas. You were so confident. You didn’t give a fuck.”
I suddenly realized that is who we were. We did have that impact on people and I suddenly felt so protective and adoring of that person. I wanted to protect her. I realized that I needed to get right with myself because that person is still me. When I’m making fun of me in the videos or I’m laughing at the way I dressed or I’m so humiliated by things that I said or did—I really still am that person, I’m not that different. Closing that gap and accepting and integrating young me into adult me made me feel better about myself.
SN Now that we’ve talked about a lot of heavy stuff, let’s do some fun rapid-fire questions. What are some of your favorite books?
SQ When I was in high school, I didn’t read anything queer. I didn’t have anything that I remember really impacting me except for at the end of high school, Ann-Marie MacDonald wrote Fall On Your Knees and it was on Oprah’s book list. My mom read it and said, “I think you guys would like this.” I remember starting to read it and not totally getting it. And then about halfway through the book there’s a queer story line. I remember just feeling like my heart stopped. I had never read anything like that before.
I felt sort of embarrassed, like my mom gave it to me because she must know that I would want to read this. But of course I just devoured it and read it again and again and again. That book has always remained a touchstone. I mean of course it’s about a queer relationship that ends in complete total disaster. But doesn’t matter. It gave me a way to imagine that queer people exist. People go to New York City and have relationships. And I mean, I don’t know, it sounds like I grew up in the 1800’s, but I really just needed to see something like that..
After high school, I was friends with lots of kids who went to college and wanted to be writers or they wanted to be English teachers. And somebody very early on recognized who I was and what I needed in my life and they introduced me to Jeanette Winterson, and I love all of her writing. So that was huge for me too.
I read like a million things, but of course, very early on in my young adult life someone was like, Do you realize that you only read male writers? Do you recognize that everything that you love and are obsessed with is basically a white middle aged straight man going through a midlife crisis? So, I very actively started to seek out writers who were female, queer, people of color, any kind of other voices. But it’s amazing how I had to train myself not to just gravitate towards that kind of male, white, straight writer.
SNThree Tegan and Sara songs to blast in your room when you’re home for the holidays and avoiding your family, and/or in your gay feelings?
SQ I mean, if you’re trying to hide from your family and lash out, I think our album Sainthood has some good jams on it. Tegan has a song, “Northshore,” that I find is abrasive but poppy in a really wonderful way. “Now I’m All Messed Up” off of Heartthrob I think is a good emotional mid-tempo jam. What else would I play? You can’t play “Where Does The Good Go” because your mom will come knocking to ask you what are you listening to.
SN Three non-Tegan and Sara songs for the same purpose?
SQ Sometimes my girlfriend will say people will find out that I don’t like music because I’m always like um … I like the sound of silence. Okay. I love Georgia. I love her recent single “Work the Dancefloor.” I listen to that pretty much constantly. She’s my favorite. Can’t wait for her new record. What else do I listen to right now? Oh, I like Four Tet. He’s always putting out new stuff, but I like his new single, “Teenage Birdsong.” I love Jay Som. She’s so good. Anything off of her new album, Anak Ko. Start to finish, it’s great.
SN One thing that made you laugh the most when you were digging through your high school archives?
SQ Tegan was very endearing as a teenager. I feel like I had entered into more of an existential darkness than she had. I remember her being dark at times, but the video camera would turn on and she really became, I don’t know, like a motivational speaker/newscaster. She really makes me laugh on the video. She was absolutely in love with filming and using our video camera. And she’s very witty. We always say she’s the dog and I’m the cat. She really loved filming, loved being filmed. There’s an interview between her and one of our best friends where she’s asked about how she constantly asks people what their sexuality is. It’s just amazing that we were so bold. She’s asked on film how she identifies and she says heterosexual, but she’s very open to homosexuality. It’s in the audio book and we play the clip every night during the show—it’s my favorite moment because she does this thing with her hands where she just suddenly transports into a forty-year-old body.
SN What’s one great thing about being queer?
SQI love everything about being gay. Every day I just constantly think to myself, thank God I’m gay. I really do. I love being a part of the community. I feel so grateful that I love a girl, that I love women. I feel like it’s a real transformation because when I was younger there was a part of me that wondered, wouldn’t it just be easier? What if I could like guys? And now I’m like, I hope I can’t get straight.
SN Something that you’re grateful for this year?
SNI’m very grateful that we are still relevant. Is that low expectations for myself? I just feel like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for people to be like nope, no one cares anymore about anything you do or say or think. I know that doesn’t sound like a confident person. But I understand that there’s a real limit on what people care about and are invested in, especially in a society where everything is so fast, on albums, in news cycles and life cycles, and people can feel so short. I feel very grateful that we still have such a strong, curious, invested fan base. It just feels really wonderful.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work has appeared in Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub, Buzzfeed, Rewire News, Seattle Times, and Bookforum among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.