2 min

Gabriella Goliger’s novel goes deep on lesbian and Jewish identity

ARTS AND LITERATURE / Unwrapping sexuality

Ottawa's Gabriella Goliger returns with Girl Unwrapped. Credit: (Pat Croteau)

Gabriella Goliger is an unassuming writer. 

She is reluctant to talk about her work, and it took a while before she relaxed into the interview and shared her one fear — the same as mine — that Girl Unwrapped was another coming-out story. 

“At a certain point I felt, Oh my God, this is just one more clichéd coming-out story — the world doesn’t need another one of these,” says Goliger. “But I felt that I needed to write it. I felt that this wasn’t quite true, that the world does — as long as I can make it new, fresh and deep enough.”

Goliger succeeded. Girl Unwrapped is more than a coming-out story; it is the story of an immigrant family making a new life in Canada. Julius and Lisa Goldblatt, scarred by the Holocaust and the loss of a way of life, move to Montreal to reinvent their lives and create a new one for their daughter, Toni. 

Toni is a scrappy tomboy who grows into a tall, gawky girl unable to hide from the world around her. Her struggle is twofold: her Jewish identity permeates her life, but at the same time, the realization that she is a lesbian pushes her onto a path that she must integrate into her traditional upbringing.

 “I wanted to explore how having the dual identity — marginal identity — can enrich someone. Toni is marginalized to some extent, certainly in the times she is growing up, for her sexuality, but her Jewish identity is something that perplexes her, and she has to wrestle with that as well,” says Goliger.

Toni’s search takes her on a winding path. It unleashes adolescent trauma at a Jewish summer camp, the striving for perfection at high school, and it takes her to Israel after the Six-Day War, where she is confronted by her sexuality. On her return to Montreal, Toni enters into an unknown lesbian world through an underground bar, Loulou’s Lounge, which is home to butch dykes and femmes.

Goliger unwraps Toni’s evolving identity with descriptive passages and well-researched details about the era. She explores lesbian stereotypes, the rise of feminism and Toni’s effort to find a place in the lesbian world. In doing so, Goliger delivers her moral: accepting one’s sexuality is only the first step on a long journey of self-discovery.

“I became aware just by doing the research and thinking about it… that we expect that everything is going to be super smooth once you come out, and then suddenly you realize that you still have to find your place,” says Goliger.

Girl Unwrapped highlights Goliger’s prowess as a storyteller. The reader is guided through the story by Goliger’s descriptive voice, the thoroughness of her research and her attention to detail. 

“To me, writing a novel is about getting into the skin of another person, to make the reader see that other person and experience their lives,” says Goliger.

Girl Unwrapped took Goliger six years to write, and at times, Goliger says, it was sheer will — and the support of her partner and friends — that got her through. She is typically understated in her opinion of the book, saying it is the best that she could make it and that it is good enough. She’s right: it inspired me to go out and buy her book of stories, Song of Ascent.

Girl Unwrapped
Gabriella Goliger
Arsenal Pulp Press, $23
Launch: Sun, Sept 18, 5pm
Shanghai Restaurant, 651 Somerset St W