Going Back to School with Tegan and Sara: A Book Review

by Blair Wade

“You are not alone” is single-handedly one of the strongest sentences in human conversation, and unapologetically the underlying message of High School, the newly released memoir by Tegan and Sara Quin. It is a retrospective for the authors and simultaneously a cathartic release for all the freaks, geeks, queers, and punks who have sought refuge in their discography during the long and windy road of adolescence. Released on September 24, with a holographic semi-reflective cover that further demonstrates the theme of seeing the unseen, the book continues to fly off shelves. With its sheer defiance of the traditional style and form of rock and roll memoirs, there is no surprise why.

With a tepid apprehension, I cracked open the spine of my hardcover copy, taking a deep inhale and reluctantly recalling the number of heroes I’ve met via memoir that should have been left unread. But within the first pages, it was clear to me I was about to enter into a deeply intimate conversation with old friends-or perhaps even with a younger version of myself. Alternating authorship chapter by chapter, the Quin sisters demonstrate that they truly are natural born storytellers, not merely studio sound-machines. Far from being ghostwritten or watered down to be palatable to the masses, it drips word for word with the natural candor that any fan will recognize from their shows or interviews. This forwardness proves a refreshing contrast to the stereotypical self-aggrandizing rockstar tale told in short, simple sentences of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. While still rife with all of the above, the Quin sisters write openly with a voracious vulnerability that I have not felt since Kim Gordon’s ‘Girl In a Band’, and undoubtedly with time will induct them into the same league of legends as the irreverent Patti Smith.

Chronicling their journey with a limited timeline from junior high through to high school graduation, the form of their memoir also veers from tradition in this manner. In doing so, it allows the authors to delve deeper, and more intricately, into this aspect of their life, providing insight into what fuelled them as artists far before they ever picked up their craft. Studded with the iconography of the Saddledome, Peters Drive In, and frost bitten knees from ripped jeans (the most near and dear to my 13 year old heart), their story is uniquely (but familiarly to many) situated in the heart of the prairies: Calgary, Alberta. Perhaps their story through the tumult of the teenage years is not radically different from any others. Or perhaps pronouncing themselves throughout their career and thus the memoir as queer in what is a hyper-Conservative landholding, in both traditional and contemporary times, is exactly what has lead them to become the powerful figures they are today. Their story is birthed from a place void of many queer representatives or role models, thus providing a perspective not proclaimed widely but held dearly and again offering recognition for those often left unnamed and unnoticed.

Reading their personal accounts of the many universal and unifying experiences of adolescence, it is immediately evident the care and respect they show for the pivotal life events that take place during this time. While we often are quick to dismiss teenagers as highly dramatic and emotional hormone machines, Tegan and Sara argue that this tumble along the precipice of childhood and adulthood is in fact, an objectively dramatic time. It is a period of firsts: kisses, loves, acid trips, etc., that open us up to a world of possibility while simultaneously asking us to immediately define ourselves into a narrow set of boxes. From future career paths and colleges to navigating sexual orientations, none of these are easy or simple quests to endeavour upon, least of all when you land offside any traditional binaries. As they weave their tales through these trenches, the sisters do so in such a relatable and accurate way it will wrench your heart while still leaving you in awe of the poetic way they are able to narrate it. At the same time, they balance this with a reflexive humour in the acknowledgement of more of the lighthearted dumbass moves and trifling embarrassment that are also pivotal aspects of the high school experience. Did any of our mothers ever believe the line, “it’s not our weed, we’re just holding it for a guy at school”?

One of the richest parts of their memoir are the brief but poignant glimpses at the dawn of their activism.  Through their music, Tegan and Sara have leveraged their platform to advance several social and political causes, including through the formation of their Tegan and Sara Foundation which advocates for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ+ girls and women. It has now become a tenant of their careers, garnering them an extended fan base and inspiring more individuals to pick up the torch in the fight for equality. Getting flashes of their beginnings in this advocacy, was one of the most surprising and easily devourable pieces of the book. Whether it was going toe-to-toe with their stepfather after he called Kurt Cobain a fag, or lambasting a family dinner because of inappropriate uncles, or confronting teachers for refusing to correct stigmas about the transmission of AIDS, it is evident that the foundation on which they’ve built their political platform has been sturdily established at a young age and from a genuine place. Further, these vignettes again took me back to a place of my own adolescence where the courage to speak out against injustice went from percolating in my chest to a complete boiling point. While the principle’s office may have been a lonely place for me for many a third period, through sharing their story, the Quin sisters made me realize I was maybe not so alone after all. It is a unique and affirming part of their story that is so key to their being and again, provides a collectivizing sentiment for fans such as myself to relate to.

By the end of the book, readers will have walked beside Tegan and Sara through their journey as individuals far before they became the magnanimous, dynamic powerhouse we know them as today. In doing so, readers will have done their same walk down memory lane, but this time with a hand nested in each of theirs and a quiet whisper that everything will turn out alright. As they tell their life story, so do they breathe life into each of their readers.  With a trifecta of songs, book excerpts, and home videos, the duo have just wrapped up a tour they embarked upon at the release of the memoir and the accompanying new album Hey, I’m Just Like You. Combined, it all makes for a very emotional homecoming for both artist and audience alike and truly marks the start an exciting new chapter for the Tegan and Sara family.

Banner Photo Courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Gracie Safranovich

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