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The de Bres and Bollinger twins (Image: Supplied)
The de Bres and Bollinger twins (Image: Supplied)

BooksMarch 22, 2024

Two sets of twins discuss queerness, disability and ‘twintersectionality’

The de Bres and Bollinger twins (Image: Supplied)
The de Bres and Bollinger twins (Image: Supplied)

Twins Henrietta and Sally Bollinger talk with former babysitters and fellow twins, Julia and Helena de Bres, about a life in pairs.

In 1996 my twin Julia and I got the best-ever babysitting gig: a matching pair of identical twins who lived a few minutes from us in Island Bay. Their house was perched on a very steep hill overlooking Tapu te Ranga. Julia and I would go up there on dark winter nights, screaming in unison when we exited our car, as the south coast winds threatened to hoist us in the air and pitch us over the cliff. Then the front door would open and warmly admit us to a magical twin haven. 

Julia and I were eighteen and Sally and Henrietta (known as “Etta”) were three, so in several ways we had little in common. In some big ways, though, we had everything in common. Alongside being twins, Julia and I were disabled, like Etta, and, like Sally, we both had a disabled twin. I don’t think the four of us directly addressed any of this, but to me it seemed like our eight eager eyes were constantly conferring about it.

We weren’t aware back then of how much more we’d later twin. We all came out as queer, Sally and Julia became illustrators, and Etta and I became personal essayists, both publishing books (here and here) last year on twinhood, queerness and disability. While I was visiting Wellington this past January, the four of us met together for the first time since those blustery nights in the 90s. Though we hadn’t hung out for two and a half decades, we got on famously. “Let’s do a four-twin interview!” I squealed halfway through lunch. One of the nicest things about twinhood is that when you have a great idea you can usually be confident that someone — in this case, some three — will instantly sign up.  / Helena de Bres

Julia and Helena: Okay, so first, the most important question. Were we incredible babysitters?

Etta: Omg yes — we still remember it, even though we were only three. Mum tells a story about how all our parents came back one day and our Barbies had had twin babies. She finds this fascinating and funny, but I still think it’s completely logical. For us the world has always come in pairs.  

Sally: I remember those Barbies! For the sake of fairness, this family friend gave us identical dolls, with the same blonde hair, noxiously pink skirt and pink high heels. To us it was obvious those Barbies were a pair of twins. They were also evil, if I remember? That was perhaps some misplaced anti-femininity proto-feminism that was knocking around in my toddler brain. 

The du Bres twins then and now.

Writing / drawing together

Etta: Helena, your book necessarily includes both of your lives and bodies. How did you navigate claiming your own version of your twinship and being conscious that it belongs to someone else too? 

Helena: I’ve been very lucky in that department, because Julia gets what memoir is: a necessarily subjective recounting of an experience that’s open to multiple interpretations. When she disagreed with something I wrote, she’d say “I see this differently, but that’s okay, I understand you’re talking about what it feels like to you.” I did change some stuff in response to her feedback, because part of our twin division of labour is that she has a way better memory than me. 

Etta: Sally was so generous about our different perspectives too. 

Helena: Sally, your main creative gig is illustration and Etta’s is writing, but you told us you did an MA in creative writing as well. Did you feel some pressure when you were younger to specialize or was it more organic than that? As you get older does it feel less important to you both to have well-defined differences? Am I projecting??

Sally: Certainly when we were kids I drew and Etta wrote. That’s slowly shifted, partly because I draw comics, which have a written element. I don’t think I felt pressure to define our differences, because with Etta’s wheelchair we already had one big, obvious difference. If anything, there were times when I wanted to prove our twinness to the world. I think my main feeling was that between us we had it covered. Together we could make the coolest picture books in the world.

Julia, you illustrated Helena’s book, which feels so perfect for a book about twinness. What was the process of collaboration like?

Julia: Lena and I also spent a lot of our time as kids creating things together. When we were twelve, Lena hand-wrote a novel about a Victorian orphan called Alice who lived with her rich cousins, and I drew pictures of the characters wafting around their mansion and running through the fields. It was one of those times as a twin where it felt like we could create a whole world together, and making this book was a return to that space where our imaginations were connected and boundless.


Julia: Do you think it’s fun to be queer twins? I came out first and I was excited when Helena joined the team a couple of years later. It felt good to be matching again, like something was put back into alignment. Not sure why it even mattered, but somehow it made me feel closer to her again.

Etta: Yes! I was a bit too proud when Sal came out. We did grow up with a picture of the Topp Twins on our literal bedroom closet so… 

Julia: *applauds in twin*

Helena: I was low-key reluctant to come out to Julia, because I thought she’d be too into it and also try to give me big-gay-sister advice. But actually it’s been so helpful, eyeroll. 

Sally: Honestly, same! I knew Etta would be vibrating with excitement. It took me much longer to figure that stuff out, maybe partly because of our twinhood. Etta came out with a triumphant fanfare, buying rainbow socks and shaving their head. I’m less demonstrative. So in this funny way I was looking at someone the same age as me, with loads of the same experiences and going “Oh, but I don’t feel like that, maybe I’m not gay gay…?’’ I relate to this bit in Hannah Gadsby’s show when she asks where’s the Pride Parade for the shy queers who just want to drink tea and stay home. 

The Bollinger twins, Sally and Etta, then and now.


Helena: Etta, like me and Julia, you experience two kinds of “twintersectionality” (a word Julia made up that I told her was dorky but now admit is handy). We three are all queer twins and disabled twins. Do those minority identities feel connected to you?

Etta: I’m sure this word is about to be adopted by the academy and I’m here for it. I love the parallels in your book between twinship, disability and queerness. It’s the triangle of identities I live in but haven’t seen written about much, not all three together.

I’ve thought a lot about the common questions that queer and disabled folks are asked – Why are you like this? How does that work? Would you change yourself? — and the ways we can subvert and find pride in those things. 

For me disability, particularly, is indivisible from being a twin. Both because our premature birth was part of why I ended up disabled and because I was born with a buddy who helped me navigate the world. She lessened the impact of ableism in my childhood by showing other people how to include me and by bringing me the spoils from things like trick or treating when houses were up hills in Wellington. When you’re the same age you can look at this person beside you and anticipate having the same kind of opportunities at the same time, so it kept my expectations of the world high in a way that might not have been so easy if I wasn’t a twin. 

Julia: Sally, Etta mentions in their book that they felt they had “able-bodiedness on permanent loan” from you while growing up. What was it like for you, being the able-bodied wing of your twin duo?

Sally: The wheelchair makes us look very visually different, less like a conventional pair of twins, and our parents never dressed us the same. We used to chase that a bit. I remember us being really keen on buying two of the most boring blue t-shirts just so we could match sometimes. We also used to trick Etta’s teacher aides. Like I’d come into school in Etta’s wheelchair and Etta would walk in with a walker and they’d get us confused.

When we were little kids Etta’s disability wasn’t really a big deal for me? I knew we were different in that way, but I grew up with it so there was never something to overcome or acclimatise to. Adults in my life often thought it was sweet when I’d go get a biscuit for myself and bring a second back for Etta. But to me it was just the logical thing to do. I was on autopilot.  

When we got older and the ableist world outside our home posed more challenges for Etta, I became more aware of Et’s disability. As adults we don’t live in each other’s pockets so much, so I’ve had to consciously adjust how and when I can help Etta. In the last few years I’ve got to a really zen place about it where, like, if a support worker can’t make it, I’m happy to drop what I’m doing to help Etta out. For me it’s a minor hiccup in a day, whereas for Etta it’s a huge inconvenience, like not being able to get out of bed. So yeah, I’d say it’s come full circle and my able-bodiedness is still on loan to Et, it just looks a little different these days. 

Etta: Julia, Helena paints you in the book as the twin who’s more comfortable in her body. Is that true for you and what, if anything, does it have to do with identities as disabled or queer? 

Julia: Even twins are susceptible to binarising twinship, and Lena does that to comic effect in the book at times. Yes, I’m probably more comfortable with my flesh prison than she is with hers — but let’s just say that’s a low bar. Because I was more functionally disabled than Lena from my twenties on, I had to reckon with the full impact of my disability earlier. I’ve given up expecting my meat sack to do or be what I want. Sounds dark, but being disabled and being queer are both ways we fail at meeting social expectations and there is joy to be found in that, because conforming to expectations is oppressive and boring.

Sally, Etta, Julia, Helena: AMEN.

Articulations by Henrietta Bollinger ($28, Tender Press) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, and How to be Multiple: The philosophy of twins by Helena de Bres can be ordered from Unity Books.

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