CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: Send Me Your Titles and Come by for a Chat

A few months ago, I started a feature on the site called CNF Conversations, where I interview other writers of creative nonfiction. (CNF stands for creative nonfiction.) I was looking for a way to do something of substance, to build community, to meet fellow writers, and to learn more about what was happening in the genre.

Writer interviews seemed like a good way to accomplish all that.

I also wondered if writers talking to writers might not yield more interesting and in-depth conversations about the creative process, research, and our understanding of what we do when we sit down to write nonfiction.

I think it has.

So far, I’ve interviewed Susan Olding about her fantastic book of essays called Pathologies. Susan was a great first interview: she answered my long and numerous questions with grace and clarity, and weathered the technical bumps of my first attempt.

Next came conversations with Myrna Kostash and Daiva Markelis. Each exchange sparked new ideas and questions for me about the first-person voice, about truth in nonfiction, about memory and memorialization, and our responsibilities to those we write about.

The process has also taught me that I really like the interview as a form in and of itself. Dynamic and economical is how I think of it.

In a few days I’ll be posting my conversation with Toronto writer Beth Kaplan, whose book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare tells of her archival hunt for traces of her once-famous great-grandfather, the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin.

Then comes my conversation with Nancy K. Miller, a giant in the field of feminist (auto)biography, about her new book called What They Saved.

Please come back to read both chats.

If you have published a recent book of creative nonfiction you’d like me to consider for the CNF Conversations, please drop me a line via the Contact page here on the site. Thus far, I’ve only interviewed women, but only by accident. Men are welcome too! (Note the photograph I chose, above, as proof.)

Spread the word, send me your titles, and keep writing.

[Photo: Paolo Margari]

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CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading

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Packing Up My Library: A Love Story

The books that have surrounded me in this room for six years now go into boxes to make space for our tenants. The books – mine and my husband’s – are all mixed together. Our collection includes books of theory from our student days, Lithuanian novels, linguistic studies of Sanskrit, Chinese literary anthologies, memoirs of Soviet politicians, Latin dictionaries, Greek histories, atlases, grammars, English poetry collections, academic journals, and entire shelves of bound photocopies whereby we reproduced the rare and out-of-print books that our respective research required.

The books are heavy. They are dusty. I’ve only managed to get a third of them packed, and already the hallway is full of boxes. And though I pride myself on my habit of discarding and donating things we no longer need – clothes, dishes, toys – I can’t get rid of books. So far I’ve only put five or six aside to discard, donate, or recycle. As I take our books from their shelves, I note with slight shame how many of them I’ve never read. But even stronger is the pleasure of coming across much-loved yet forgotten books, books that have changed me, and volumes that made me want to be a writer.

These books all around my desk provide a kind of record of my life, and of my husband’s, whom I met in a graduate seminar on the language of poetry. We fell in love in the chaotic, sometimes grungy but wonderful Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Even now I love that place, with its concrete walls and dim stacks, because it’s where our life together began.

Considering how oppressed and harassed (by bureaucratic tasks, thankless editorial work, and this heavy summer heat) I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised to find how much packing books lightens my mood. This dusty and tiring work has reminded me of how much beauty and pleasure words, writers, and quiet hours of reading have given me.

It has also reminded me of love.

At our wedding, my husband said to me, “Julija, you are the book I read, and the light I read by.” I think it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever said.

I used to have a fat cat, obsessed by food, to whom I would say: “Food is not love. Only love is love.” Packing my library reminds me that, for us, books too are love.

Happy summer reading. If the heat gets to be too much, invite your bookshelves to tell you a love story.

(NB: For a really good essay on packing and unpacking books, of course, see Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”)

[Photo: F.B. (pg 155), No 3061, page 11 Originally uploaded by Digital Sextant]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Myrna Kostash (Part I)

Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.

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Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Myrna Kostash is a fulltime writer, author of All of Baba’s Children (1978); Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980); No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987); Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993); The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir (1997); The Next Canada: Looking for the Future Nation (2000); Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River (2005); The Frog Lake Reader (2009); and most recently, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey into Byzantium (2010).

In 2008 the Writers’ Guild of Alberta presented Kostash with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement. In 2009 she was inducted into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded her the Matt Cohen Award for a Life of Writing.

Prodigal Daughter

A deep-seated questioning of her inherited religion resurfaces when Myrna Kostash chances upon the icon of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. A historical, cultural and spiritual odyssey that begins in Edmonton, ranges around the Balkans, and plunges into a renewed vision of Byzantium in search of the Great Saint of the East delivers the author to an unexpected place—the threshold of her childhood church. An epic work of travel memoir, Prodigal Daughter sings with immediacy and depth, rewarding readers with a profound sense of an adventure they have lived.

Prodigal Daughter has been awarded the 2011 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the 2011 Writers Guild of Alberta Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Nonfiction.

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Julija Šukys: Like all good texts of creative nonfiction, Prodigal Daughter is a hybrid text. It’s part travelogue, part historical exploration, and partly a narrative of a personal and spiritual journey. The unifying thread and the organizing metaphor (if that’s not wrong way to think about him) is Saint Demetrius. He’s a complex figure who is appropriated and venerated by a number of cultures and historical narratives. Can you talk a little bit about how Saint Demetrius came to be at the centre of this book for you?

Myrna Kostash: There are 2 versions of this “origin” narrative:  the one in the book and the one that is the more truthful story, which out of discretion I have not used. But the published version is close enough: in search of an entry point into a book about Byzantium that I had wanted for years to write, I came across the figure of a saint venerated in the Orthodox Church whose story as told by the Church was exactly the perfect “hook” for me. St Demetrius, according to the hagiography, was martyred in the northern Greek city, Thessalonica, in 304, for the crime of professing faith in Jesus Christ. A couple of centuries later, however, he reappeared in the form of a saint working various miracles in defense of his beloved city, Thessalonica, which was under sustained attack and siege by barbarian marauders. Historically, these barbarians were Avars and Slavs from beyond the Danube, and they never did succeed in taking the city, although they settled in the region, Macedonia. It was this coherence of Slavic ethnicity and the Orthodox spirituality of Byzantium (I was baptised into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada as an infant) that inspired me to begin this book’s journey: I had a subject.

What did Saint Demetrius stand for when you began the journey of Prodigal Daughter, and what does he stand for now that you’ve come to the end of this particular chapter of writing and life?

For the first three or four years of the project (it did take ten!), I was obsessed by the ethnic implications of “my” saint, namely that a Greek saint, who performed miracles to defend his people, eventually also became a saint venerated by his enemies, the Slavs, my people, when they became Christians. But, as the book discloses, there were a number of turning points in my journey with Demetrius that complicated this simple ethnic formula, points which rerouted my journey, first into an enfolding within the Byzantine world in the Balkans and Constantinople, and second within the Church herself. Having written the book, I am now a faithful member once again of the church of my childhood, and the travelling icon of St Demetrius still goes with me where I go. What he “stands for” is of neither an ethnic nor historical nor even cultural significance but for what all saints stand for in Orthodoxy: an ideal representation of a human being “who is what he ought to be.”

In part, this book is about your somewhat reluctant return to your childhood roots in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. You’re a feminist, a leftist, and a humanist. All this makes for a fraught relationship with your childhood church, so you naturally moved away from it as a young adult. After what you describe as a number of failures of the core ideologies of your youth (the Left, student radicalism, even feminism), you recently found yourself yearning for something else: new meaning and a sense of the sacred.

Can you talk about this path back to Orthodoxy? How did your journey across greater Macedonia and the history of Byzantium help repave an old path differently for you?

I certainly had no spiritual intention for this journey. As with all my previous books, I was initially motivated by intense curiosity about history, and, in the case of Prodigal Daughter, by all the narratives – stories – that have been told about Byzantium, the Balkans and Eastern Christianity, all of which form a kind of cultural grammar for me (and which for most other people, I imagine, represent a triple whammy of exoticism if not downright weirdness). But even so I admit that on previous travels through the region I was always drawn to Orthodox churches as spaces of genuine repose and reflection. Even socialist feminists need that! Perhaps it was just the familiarity of them that drew me in; I certainly wasn’t very interested at that point in the content as opposed to the form of the life of worship they embodied.

But, when it came time to write the book, I realized that, if I were to understand the Byzantine world in which St Demetrius came to be venerated, I had better reacquaint myself with the closest representation of that world in our own time, namely the Orthodox Church. I was living in Saskatoon at the time, as writer-in-residence at the public library, and so I decided to go to a Ukrainian Orthodox church there, to Sunday services on a regular basis. There was much I had forgotten about the forms of worship and much that I never had known or understood (in my childhood in the 1950s the services were entirely in Ukrainian, a language I barely spoke), so I began to read seriously about the history and theology of the Church. For the first time in my life, I read the New Testament, in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible, had a host of questions about what I was reading, and sought the conversation and counsel of a Ukrainian Catholic, Byzantine rite, priest and theologian at the University. He was absolutely brilliant – a deeply consoling mixture of intellectual erudition and spiritual intuition – through whom I became aware of and was prepared to acknowledge something which I mention only glancingly in my book, a deep yearning for the Divine.

Of course, this journey back into Christianity would not have succeeded had I not been convinced, and remain convinced, that there is no contradiction between the core and enduring values of (socialist feminist) humanism and those of the basic Christian teachings. The elaborate mysticism of Orthodox theology is something else, however. I’m still on that journey.

One of the purposes of this book, it seems to me, is to shed light on an ignored and forgotten era: the 1000-year history of Byzantium. Prodigal Daughter is an attempt to engage seriously with the Balkans, a place that still today is so often dismissed as backward, laughable and even murderous. What was the impetus to fix your attention on that time and place?

When I was travelling around eastern and south-eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s (for my books Bloodlines and The Doomed Bridegroom), I became aware of a persistent mythology about “where Europe ends.” Wherever I was – Athens, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Prague, Cracow, Warsaw – people locally insisted that where they were was precisely where Europe “ends.” Which is to say that, where it ends, “Asia” begins. “Asia” signified Turkey in some cases but mostly it signified the Europe that was Orthodox, used the Cyrillic language, had been included in the Ottoman or Czarist Empires, had fallen within the Soviet bloc of countries, had been inflamed by “ancient communal hatreds” well into the 20th century, or some combination of these.

What struck me most was that, first, my relatives who still live in Ukraine were thus “outside” Europe, apparently, and, second, that a large part of the territory “outside” Europe had fallen historically within the borders of Byzantium or been contiguous with it. I was incensed. How was it possible that such disdain and ignorance could be expressed about a thousand-year Empire of astonishing political, cultural and spiritual achievement? (By the way, Byzantines never called themselves such – the term was first applied by a Renaissance German scholar – but named themselves Romans right to the end, as successors to the Late Roman Empire. The city of Rome “fell” in 476 to a Germanic army but the Roman Empire just kept on going, from its new capital of Constantinople, until its defeat in 1453 to the Ottomans.) So began my project to bring into view through a work of literary nonfiction at least some aspects of this world of European otherness.

It’s interesting (actually, maddening) that the first publisher I approached with a proposal to write under the working title Demetrius: Seduction by a Saint, turned it down on the grounds that “we’ve never heard of St Demetrius and we don’t care; write about St Francis.” Of course this did force me to think about how I would make anyone care about St Demetrius – by making the reader care about the narrator, that is me, as it turned out – but I admit that if I read about one more narrative of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, I’m going to scream.

This is Part one of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: www.myrnakostash.com]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Myrna Kostash (Part II)

Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2010.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Myrna Kostash about her book, Prodigal Daughter. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: You are a writer who is very rooted in Western Canada and in the Ukrainian Canadian community, and as such, there’s a sense in which you write from the margins of margins (just as I do). You too write from an Eastern European tradition that largely goes ignored in this country and in the English-speaking world in general. You work in Edmonton, a place that remains on the margins of most Canadians’ imaginations. You write as a Canadian, and we ourselves constitute one big margin in the English-speaking world. Finally, you write as a woman, and if the recent VIDA statistics on women and publishing are accurate, then this last fact too still makes us marginal.

What does this kind of marginal perspective bring to you as a writer? How does your gaze encounter the world differently because of your marginality? And are the margins moving to the centre at all? Do you see more space for stories like yours now than before? For example, you recently won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen lifetime achievement award (congratulations!). Should this award give other marginal writers and writers of nonfiction hope that our work may find a more central place in the world of reading and publishing?

Myrna Kotash: These are big questions I’m not sure I can cover here except in short-hand as it were. To begin with: the Matt Cohen prize for a life of writing came as a huge surprise. Frankly, I didn’t realize anyone at the Trust (jury members are all in Ontario) had noticed that one can have a “writing life” in Edmonton. As Matt had been a friend, this award meant a lot to me. But I cannot say it’s resulted in my work receiving any more attention (any less marginalized): for instance, to date, ten months after publication, Prodigal Daughter, has received only three reviews, two in Alberta and one in Winnipeg.

So as far as this book is concerned, I don’t feel the least that there is “more space” for stories like mine, but it’s a gamble I have to take as these are the stories I want and must write. It’s no good wishing I were on the Globe’s bestseller lists when I’m not willing to make concessions to being there, namely living in Toronto in the thick of things and writing about market-friendly subjects. The only one of my books that was a bestseller was my very first, All of Baba’s Children, which was based on interviews with Ukrainian-Canadians in Two Hills, Alberta, of all places. To this day I cannot tell you why I chose the subject (I was still living in Toronto as a freelancer in 1975 when I returned to Alberta to do the research, and never went back to Toronto) or why it made such an impression. It’s still in print, being read by a new generation. For awhile in the 1970s, being a women’s liberationist or “women’s libber” as feminists were called back then, was a boon for a young writer like me in Toronto when feminism was so new and provocative and creative. A number of us women writers came into our own then thanks to Canadian magazines that were trying to keep up with the movement. But that’s all over and, as the VIDA survey revealed, women are again vastly underrepresented in the magazines.

My second book, about the 1960s in Canada, was an almost complete flop (lots of reviews but mostly negative) as it managed to be celebratory about left-wing radicalism just as the Reagan and Thatcher era was opening. Since then, I’ve written back and forth between what I call my New World and Old World subjects, all of them until Prodigal Daughter receiving the kind of attention that has disappeared from the publishing world for mid-range writers like me: the reviews, the promotion trip, media interest. Add to that the fact that nonfiction even in its literary or “creative” mode is largely neglected at festivals, conferences and writing programs, and no one should be surprised that a Ukrainian-Canadian left-wing feminist nonfiction writer is not at the epicentre of Can Lit.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the writing process of creative nonfiction. I’ve heard you say that the hardest thing about writing CNF is finding (or imposing) structure. In your book, you had to bring together a vast amount of historical data, competing narratives of Demetrius’s life, a travel narrative, and spiritual journey. Talk a bit about your struggle to find structure in this book. Is structure always the key struggle for a writer of nonfiction? If so, why? What, in your view, makes for a successful piece of creative nonfiction?

Creative or literary nonfiction is rightly called a hybrid genre, as you pointed out at the opening of this interview. The problem of structure is central, as the various elements of this hybridity – travelogue, memoir, historical summary, reflection, scene-setting – each demands its own kind of structure. How then to unify them all within an overarching structure?

My first thought was to organize the material chronologically, that is following the historical development of St Demetrius himself, from early Christian martyr to saint in the Byzantine church to his reception among the Slavs. All the other material I had gathered from my travels, interviews, reading and note-taking would be sorted accordingly. This was my first draft. I sent this this to an editor I had worked with on Bloodlines, an editor perfectly in tune with what I try to do with nonfiction. Her suggestion was the single most important intervention into the question of structure: that I organize the material not according to (impersonal) history but according to how it had happened to me. Thus: I had first approached Demetrius from a remembered childhood memory of the Slavic Orthodox church, then I had sought him by travelling around the ancient Byzantine world in the Balkans, and finally had encountered him in his most spiritualized aspect, the young martyr whose story could not in fact be known. The next seven years of writing were simply the effort to order and reorder within that overall structure.

They also involved the arduous process of allowing myself to speak more intimately about myself than I’ve done since The Doomed Bridegroom. In the case of that book, my most experimental work of creative nonfiction, it was merely a question of revealing myself as an erotic subject. It was even harder to reveal myself as a seeker of the sacred within the Orthodox Church. (Somehow I think it would have been less fraught had I been on a spiritual journey with yoga, say.) I’ve taught writing classes in creative nonfiction for years and I always tell participants that we writers of creative nonfiction must always answer two questions before we’re done. One: why am I telling you this? Two: what does it have to do with me? I’ve never had trouble with the first, as my subjects have always been urgent or intriguing; but the second has demanded a closer introspection than I have been prepared to undergo, until St Demetrius made me.

Myrna Kostash
Edmonton
July 3, 2011

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part II)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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This is Part II of a two-piece interview with author, Susan Olding. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: You describe leaving Maia for the first time– it’s not an easy thing to do, but necessary and desirable for your work. There, after having received positive feedback regarding an essay you’ve written about Maia, you decide to change course and run with the idea of writing a book about your relationship with her. When you workshop this idea, you find yourself harshly criticized by fellow writers and even a revered memoirist and mentor, who compares your project with her own unsavoury idea of writing a book about a pedophile. I recognized so many of my own anxieties and experiences in this piece. Please talk a little about your view and experience of writing and mothering. How did becoming a mother change your relationship to writing?

Susan Olding: In the short term, it made it a lot harder to get any work done!

But over time, it has been the greatest thing possible for my writing life. First, because our daughter brings enormous joy into our lives, and joy begets joy. Also, at times she’s been a muse. And she has taught me so much about myself and my limits, and also about creativity. She’s profluent and spontaneous in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such deep pleasure to share her in her quicksilver spirit. I’m so grateful to be her mother.

You point to how writing about one’s own life is sometimes seen as unseemly, solipsistic, narcissistic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. What, in your view, is the piece that sets successful autobiographical writing apart?

Successful autobiographical writing invites readers to draw comparisons to their own experience; it prompts and provides occasion for a kind of deep reflection that may be increasingly rare in our fragmented lives, and reminds us of where we stand in a historical or cultural context. Somehow, it affirms the possibility of making meaning. So it’s all about the author—and yet not about the author, at all! Strange paradox.

How does this work? Subtext, subtext, subtext. Language and structure create this subtext. Which is why Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” counsels that it is “no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless…you…know how to write.”

Adam Gopnick claims that the memoir and personal essay are actually the least self-indulgent of genres. You can’t get away with flourishes or padding if you are writing about yourself.

You have changed some of the names in the book and have retained others, like Maia’s. How do you decide when to do this? Do you allow the people you write about any veto power?

My decisions about retaining or changing names weren’t terribly systematic. I went with my gut.

I asked the people I’m closest to—my husband and my daughter. Of course I knew there was no way to get anything like “informed consent” from an eight year old, but Maia knew generally that I had written about our struggles, and her decision to go by her own name seemed consistent with her character. Right now she is pre-teen shy, and would probably balk, but in general she is a very open person and always has been.

I also asked several friends. Most chose to go under their own names but a few preferred to remain anonymous. I respected their wishes.

I changed students’ names and a few identifying features so they wouldn’t be recognizable and their privacy would be preserved. These people didn’t know I was writing about them; it didn’t seem fair to identify them by name; nor, for that matter, did it seem necessary.

As for my parents, I felt their privacy was already protected to some degree (among strangers) because I don’t share their surname. For extra protection, I changed their first names.

I gave veto power only once, to my brother, for  “On Separation,” the piece about my sister-in-law, and I also asked him if I should change her name. He generously allowed me to publish and encouraged me to retain her name because he felt she would have liked that.

Do you still worry about hurting those you write about?

Of course! Although “worry” probably isn’t the right word. I hope I won’t hurt those I write about. And I do my best to prevent that. But I have in fact hurt people that I’ve written about, and suspect I may do so again. And ultimately, I’m loyal to the work.

I want to touch on the issues of critique and courage. I found the description of your devastation and confusion in the face of you peers’ criticisms very moving. The workshop participants (fellow writers) told you that it would be unfair to write about your daughter, and that you risked ruining her life by doing so. After sometime, you came to the conclusion that, despite their objections, you had to or wanted to write about her anyway. I think that this essay tells some deep truths about the writing process: both about how vulnerable writers are, but also how fierce. Even when we are racked with self-doubt, every writer who manages to bring a big project like a book to fruition also needs to have a rock-hard belief in the value what she does. How has that moment of doubt, after you received such criticism for your plans to write about your daughter, shaped your subsequent work and way of thinking?

Such a good question.

The simple answer is that I have not written the book that I proposed to write at the conference. Because in a way—and this is the hardest thing to acknowledge—that teacher was right! It wasn’t the right time to write a book about Maia.

Not because I might ruin her life. Not because it would say something awful about me as a person if I chose to write it. But because I wasn’t ready. And on some level, I recognized this at the time, and my recognition made my peers’ objections and the teacher’s objections cut more deeply. For the fact is, if I had been ready, nothing they said would have stopped me.

I may never be ready. Strangely, perhaps, that possibility doesn’t bother me. The need to write that particular book has passed. I have sometimes mourned other “lost” books—the novel that I set aside 100 pages in, the book of poems that I didn’t manage to finish. But I don’t mourn the book about Maia.

Having said all that, although I may not have written a whole book, I did write about my daughter. And I published what I wrote. So in that sense, I ignored what my critics said. I also wrote about the conference itself. Did I say writing well was the best defence? It’s also the best revenge. [Insert evil chuckle.]

Seriously, though—I hope there’s enough irony in “Mama’s Voices” to suggest that while my hurt was real, and to some degree justified, I also see humour in the situation. The essay includes a parallel narrative about Lana Turner, queen of the melodrama. I had my own little melodrama going on in that workshop!

But “fierce” is such a great word; we really do have to be fierce. People will tell us that what we’re doing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or that we’re not good at it, or that it isn’t worth doing. And usually, we’re advised to ignore these critical voices. But I don’t believe we can ignore them. Or at least I can’t ignore them, so I’ve made necessity a virtue.

I say we need to learn to listen, for blanket criticisms can disguise meaningful objections, and we need to cultivate enough humility to recognize when that’s the case. At the same time, we need to hang on to some sense of the worth of what we’re doing. And we need to trust our own inner vision, and constantly measure our work against our felt sense of the beautiful and the true.

“My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,” said Keats— “and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”

But it’s an incredibly delicate balance—to remain open to critique while at the same time holding fast to the essential value of what we are doing. The test I sometimes use: Would I want to read this? If not, then I shouldn’t foist it on others. If yes, then I need to keep working on it until I get it right.

Last question: your form is the essay. Conventional wisdom in the writing/publishing community says that essays don’t sell and that the form is unsexy. Tell me about how you came to be an essayist, and what you think the form has to offer.

Conventional wisdom is right; essays don’t sell! At least they don’t sell when the author is an unknown writer. I was thrilled when Melanie Little at Freehand took a chance on this collection.

But why don’t essays sell? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s even a lie. Because they do sell, in anthologies. Look at how well the Dropped Threads series (and others) have done. Most of the pieces in those anthologies are essays of one kind or another, although typically they are less deeply exploratory than the best writing in the genre. Still, readers love them.  And readers also continue to respond to classic essays by Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and many more. So the form is very much alive, even if writers can’t make a living from it.

Is the essay my form? Actually, I write fiction and poetry, too. It’s just that, in general, I’ve been less satisfied with my work in those genres and haven’t published as much of it (see above). But you’re onto something, because I think I’m an essayist by temperament and inclination. A born questioner and self-questioner.

It’s arguable, but the essay may be our most intimate form. Reading one is a bit like reading a letter from a friend, and in fact, some people believe that Montaigne began writing his essays because he could no longer converse with a dear friend who had succumbed to the plague. Essays can be playful or deeply serious (or both at once); they can be concise or expansive; they can be lyrical or logical. Always, they invite the reader to share in an exploration of some kind. You never know where you’ll end up when you set out, or what you’ll see, but you do know that the author will show and tell, and you will think and feel, that no part of you will be left behind or set aside.

I love the form. I loved it long before I knew its name. That may not sound sexy to publishers, but it sure sounds sexy to me!

Visit Susan Olding’s site here.

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Call for Submissions: “CNF Conversations”

I’d like to start a new section here called “CNF Conversations.” (CNF stands for Creative Nonfiction). I propose to do post shortish interviews with authors of recently published works of creative nonfiction: biographies, autobiographies, memoir, collections of essays, mixed genre, and whatever else, as long as it’s nonfiction.

I’m looking for fine writing.

To get a better idea of the sorts of texts that might fit the bill, please browse the “Life-blood” category.

If you are a writer of nonfiction and have a recent book about which you’d like me to consider chatting with you (by email), please get in touch through the Contact page.

[Photo: timojazz]

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The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

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Life-blood: Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diairies: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, 2009).

“. . . only a fool mistakes memory for fact”Stephen Elliott, in the disclaimer to his memoir.

I decided to buy this book after I heard its author speak at the AWP writers’ conference in Washington. He stood up in a t-shirt that showed off his tattooed arms and, with charming and self-deprecating humor, offered some really good insights into the mechanics of writing. If nothing else, this guy had charisma. I wanted to know more, so I ordered The Adderall Diaries. I’m glad I did.

It’s a hard book to summarize: the stitch that holds it all together is an exploration of ambiguous confession.

Elliott starts the book: “My father may have killed a man.” He learns this after reading an unpublished memoir that his father (a failed writer) sends him. He then goes on a hunt to determine the truth of the confession, combing newspapers, checking county death registries, and so on. The search is inconclusive.

This first curious confession reproduces itself, but in slightly different form, when a casual acquaintance of Elliott’s confesses to having killed “eight and a half” people, the last of whom he claims was his lover Nina. Though most of the supposed victims of this would-be serial murder can be accounted for (his confessions are false), Nina is indeed missing. Her husband, not the would-be serial murderer who confessed to her murder, is charged with killing her. Elliott follows the trial of Hans Reiser, and we follow him doing so.

This is where it gets really interesting.

I once heard Michael Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) say in an interview that he knew he was on to something good when it made him feel uncomfortable. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I work on my third book, and try to find the courage to tell some truths and find the edge of what I’m comfortable with. Elliott, for one, has gone to the edge of comfort and often goes beyond it.

Now, the murder confession is but a framing device in this book. More than true crime, it resembles a journey through Stephen Elliott’s mind and his past: addiction, overdose, homelessness, petty crime, suicide attempts, masochistic sex, gogo dancing, familial loss and estrangement, and, finally, a coming to writing.

In the end, the book itself constitutes a way out of pain for its author, but is by no means a cure: “I hear doors open but can’t see them. I move forward without a path. I am not sad all the time but I will always be sad sometimes. [. . .] Neat conclusions do nothing for me. I write to make sense, to communicate, to connect” (198).

Given the subject matter (murder, sadomasochism, addiction), a reader might be forgiven for expecting an icky memoir that tells too much, perpetuates voyeurism, and titillates through disturbing imagery. But this is not at all what I found.

Stephen Elliott’s book impressed me on so many levels. The writing, first of all, is superb. It’s simple and clipped and economical, so that when he describes harrowing scenes of suffering (mostly his own), there is no melodrama or self-pity. Where sex is concerned, the tone is frank, the details sparing. He manages to give insight into the dynamics and emotional payoff of S/M where the narrative necessitates, and then he moves on.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I found Elliott’s portrayal of women amazingly complex and affection-filled. This is rare in a book that explores (if peripherally) sexual power relations, and I suspect that it’s successful in its portrayal of women because Elliott has thought more carefully about sexual dynamics than most. In a scene towards the end of the book, the author’s father mockingly suggests that a woman walking by on the street might make a good dominatrix for his son. It’s a moment that we could pass over without comment from the author. Women, after all, are judged and denigrated and sexualized in public like this every day. But Elliott corrects his father, saying that dominant women rarely look dominant. There is more to most of us, he stresses, than meets the eye.

Elliott’s book ends on a quasi-hopeful note, but the message here is that life and writing are a process. In the final pages, he is still snorting Adderall (speed), if less than before, and his S/M continues. Both ostensibly help him write (and live), so it’s hard to distinguish his poison from its antidote.

Maybe that’s the point. Or one of them, anyway.

Ultimately, Elliott’s book is about survival, getting better, getting worse, keeping going, and about lies, truth, and how the two can sometimes be indistinguishable. It’s about writing as a life practice and healing mechanism. Importantly, it also proves that even the most confessional text can be art.

I found this book hard to put down.

You might too.

Try it.

[Photo: hipsxxhearts]

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