“Interweaving coincidences and reversals with historical precision in a narrative that layers, folds, zags and spikes, Julija Šukys wanders the ghost-filled streets of the present, mingling with kin, real and imagined, and corresponding with multiple unspeakable pasts. I can’t recall the last time I read so gripping and so delicate a documentary of atrocity, complicity, dispossession and survival. Siberian Exile is remarkable, daunting, and disarmingly real.” — Mary Cappello, author of Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack
“All families harbor secrets. What if, in blithe innocence, you set out to research your family history, only to discover that your grandfather was guilty of the most heinous of crimes? Šukys pursues her tragic family memoir with courage and self-examination, often propelled to her painful discoveries by what she believes is a bizarre synchronicity. This is not a book written at a safe distance.”—Rosemary Sullivan, author of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
“Riveting. . . . Beyond the historical and familial narrative, Julija Šukys ponders her own exile and her own complicity, allowing readers to do the same, comparing versions of selves and asking which version is truest, an impossible question, but one readers will find as enthralling as these pages.”—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana
About the Book
When Julija Šukys was a child, her paternal grandfather, Anthony, rarely smiled, and her grandmother, Ona, spoke only in her native Lithuanian. But they still taught Šukys her family’s story: that of a proud people forced from their homeland when the soldiers came. In mid-June 1941, three Red Army soldiers arrested Ona, forced her onto a cattle car, and sent her east to Siberia, where she spent seventeen years separated from her children and husband, working on a collective farm. The family story maintained that it was all a mistake. Anthony, whose name was on Stalin’s list of enemies of the people, was accused of being a known and decorated anti-Bolshevik and Lithuanian nationalist.
Some seventy years after these events, Šukys sat down to write about her grandparents and their survival of a twenty-five-year forced separation and subsequent reunion. Piecing the story together from letters, oral histories, audio recordings, and KGB documents, her research soon revealed a Holocaust-era secret—a family connection to the killing of seven hundred Jews in a small Lithuanian border town. According to KGB documents, the man in charge when those massacres took place was Anthony, Ona’s husband.
In Siberian Exile Šukys weaves together the two narratives: the story of Ona, noble exile and innocent victim, and that of Anthony, accused war criminal. She examines the stories that communities tell themselves and considers what happens when the stories we’ve been told all our lives suddenly and irrevocably change, and how forgiveness or grace operate across generations and across the barriers of life and death.
So, I’m about to start a major rewrite of my new book (again). I keep reminding myself that no one said this was supposed to be easy and that wanting a manuscript to be ready, no matter how hard you do so, doesn’t make it so.
But conditions for the start of the rewrite are in place: in two days, my husband, dog, son and I head north to an internet-free lake in Ontario. After a few days of visits with friends and family, my husband and I will be left alone on the lake with our work and few distractions. A sort of DIY writers’ retreat.
A couple months ago, I heard Michael Harris in discussion about his book, The End of Absence. It’s about technology and about how we are constantly “connected.” Never alone, never quiet. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I don’t carry a smartphone (we gave ours up as a family two years ago, mostly for economic reasons), so in this sense I’m far less connected than most. I thought it was funny to hear how Harris engineered an experiment in unconnectedness by duct-taping his smartphone to the kitchen counter. We still, quaintly, use a landline and our phone still sits on the kitchen counter, attached to the wall behind it. Though we have a cell phone, we rarely know where it is or if it’s charged.
All that said, I am very attached to my laptop, to email and to quick Internet searches. Possibly too attached. The laptop will come to the lake (along with the book drafts on it) but the internet connection will be left behind.
It’s not a stunt, this unplugging of ours. It just happens that the cottage we chose, perfect in every other way, is unconnected. Perhaps that too, in the end will turn out to be a perfect attribute. And though I’m not heading up to the lake to create the conditions for an essay about the internet-free life, I suspect I may have some thoughts about it when I return.
I’ll let you know what I come up with.
Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest is on! You may submit essays of any length, on any topic, in which the writer’s personal engagement with the topic provides the frame or through-line. There is no restriction on essay length or subject matter, but the author must be a Canadian citizen or resident. $1,000 prize for the winning essay; all submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine. Entry fee: $40 per submission. Each submission includes a one-year Canadian subscription (or subscription extension) to The New Quarterly.
The annual Creative Nonfiction Collective conference is coming up in Victoria, British Columbia (April 23-26, 2015), and I’m thrilled to be giving a Master Class. Registration opened two days ago, and it seems there are only a handful of spots left, so if you want to take part, hurry hurry! (Details below.)
Filling in the Gaps: Dealing with the Unknown and Unknowable in CNF
Any nonfictionist who tries to engage with the past – whether personal or public – quickly discovers that there are limits to what is and can be known. Papers disappear, memories morph and fade, eyewitnesses die. This is true of even the most well documented stories and lives. So what can a writer do when faced with gaps in knowledge and narrative? Should she fill these holes, write around them, or side-step them somehow? In this Master Class, we will explore solutions to the problem of the unknown and unknowable in CNF. We will examine and experiment with the roles of research, speculation, imagination, rhetoric, and writerly ethics in our genre. Participants are invited to bring a problematic gap in their work to discuss and to come prepared to talk and to write!
Julija Šukys is the award-winning author of two books of creative nonfiction: Epistolophilia and Silence is Death. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri where she leads both undergraduate and graduate workshops in creative nonfiction.
Date: Friday April 24th
Location: Inn at Laurel Point
Time: 1:30 – 4:00 pm
Cost: $25 for members; $40 for non-members
I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.
Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.
Stranger than Fiction: The Creative Nonfiction Cabaret
An evening of lightning readings by authors both local and from away
With readings by:
Taras Grescoe, Julija Šukys, David Waltner-Toews, Kitty Hoffman, Maria
Turner, Susan Olding, Jane Silcott, Mark Abley, Merrily Weisbord, and
Co-sponsored by the Creative Nonfiction Collective and the QuebecWriters’ Federation
Come for the door prizes (books!); stay for the readings.
Monday, June 3, 2013Doors open at 6:00 pm. Come for a bite and to socialize before the
$5.00 entrance Café Mariposa
5434 Côte St-Luc Rd
H3X 2C5 (514) 439-3190
I’m so happy to announce that Epistolophilia has won the 2013 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
Here’s the jury citiation:
Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė
By Julija Šukys Published by University of Nebraska Press
Epistolophilia presents a new type of reading of Holocaust texts. Julija Šukys, a young Montreal-based scholar, tells the story of a genuine heroine of the Holocaust recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous. Time and again Ona Šimaitė would slip into the Vilna ghetto to bring in food, clothes, medicine, money, and counterfeit documents and leave with letters, manuscripts, and even sedated children swathed in sacks. In 1944 she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured, and deported to Dachau.
Julija Šukys sifted through mounds of letters and diaries to paint a portrait of a remarkable life. Šukys injects herself into the book, writing about her more than eight year journey researching and writing the book, discovering Šimaitė and the emotional connection that comes through a link to the past.
The official reception and awards ceremony:
Thursday, June 6, 8 PM | FREE
The Bram and Bluma Appel Salon
at the Toronto Reference Library
789 Yonge St., Toronto
OMNIBUS 2012-3 CANADIAN AUTHORS SERIES EVENT, MONDAY, APRIL 29, 5 P.M.
GERALD HILL. CASSIE STOCKS. JULIJA ŠUKYS.
UPPER CRUST CAFE, SOUTH EDMONTON. 10909-86 AVE.
Gerald Hill is the author of Fourteen Tractors (NeWest Press, 2009), for which he won the 2009 Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry. He has published four other collections of poetry: My Human Comedy (Coteau Books, 2008), Getting To Know You (Spotted Cow Press, 2003), The Man From Saskatchewan (Coteau Press, 2001), and Heartwood (Thistledown Press, 1985). He lives in Regina, where he teaches English and Creative Writing at Luther College at the University of Regina.
MacEwan University grad Cassie Stocks has just been awarded the 2013 Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for her first novel Dance, Gladys, Dance. She lives in Eston, Saskatchewan.
Narrative nonfiction writer and biographer Julija Šukys is the author of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Šukys follows the letters and journals of Šimaitė (1894–1970), a Lithuanian librarian who for several years aided Jews in the Vilnius ghetto during German occupation. Eventually, her activities were detected by the Gestapo and Šimaitė was sent to Dachau. Journeying through thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings, Šukys negotiates with the ghost of Šimaitė, beckoning back to life this quiet and worldly heroine—a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honoured “Righteous Among the Nations”). The result is at once a mediated self-portrait and a measured perspective on a remarkable life. It reveals the meaning of life-writing, how women write their lives publicly and privately, and how their words attach them—and us—to life. Šukys is also the author of Silence Is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). She lives in Montreal.
OK, so as authors we are told constantly that we have to market our own books. The publishing industry, for better or worse, has largely washed its hands of promotion, except for the lucky and most commercial few. The rest of us are largely on our own.
Authors must have a website (check), keep a blog (check), have a Twitter account (yup), and a Facebook page (uh-huh), and use them regularly. Some writers have mailing lists, guest blog, write op eds and so on, all in service of selling more copies. It’s a big job and very time-consuming. If done well, it’s breathtaking to watch. If done clumsily, the result is painful to behold.
Promoting a finished book can take over your life to such an extent that there’s little room left to dream up, research, or write a new one. This seems problematic to me. After all, if we’re not writing, then what’s the point?
So, I’ve been wondering: how much flogging is too much?
It’s a question I’ve been thinking about increasingly as my inbox is clogged again and again by the newsletter (one I never subscribed to) of an author who has made it his full-time job to promote a newish book (actually, it’s over a year old). And each time the newsletter arrives, announcing a new lecture, reading, or reminding me what a good gift the book would make for whatever occasion, I find myself a little more irritated than the last. Annoying readers can’t be a good marketing strategy. The fact is, I own the book and I’ve read it, so why am I being bombarded with pitch after pitch? When is enough enough? And how can an author avoid going over the same old territory again and again?
As part of Canada Reads, Coach House Books posted what I think is good advice on how authors can use social media more effectively than the above-mentioned author has:
Just remember you’re a human being, not a marketing bot. Converse with other authors, express opinions on cultural (and other) issues, wish your mom a happy birthday—and if your book comes up now and then (a good review, a reading on the horizon), great. But remember that you’re a person first and an author promoting your book second.
Also important to remember: not only are you a human being, but so are your readers. Many of those readers are fellow authors, artists, and all-round smart people. They are not just buyers or cash cows or vehicles for gushing blurbs that pop up on Amazon. They are the reason you rewrite a sentence 12 times and the community for whom you stay in the library until closing. Talk to them. Listen to them. Don’t just bombard them with junk mail.
Now, off to work.
[Photo: lonely radio]