Two New Books: Antanas Sileika Reviews Epistolophilia and We Are Here

The insightful and generous writer Antanas Sileika offers his read of two new books about Jewish Lithuania published by the University of Nebraska Press. One is mine, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė. The other is Ellen Cassedy’s We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. Sileika is an accomplished writer, with four books under his belt. His most recent title, Underground, tells the story of the anti-Soviet Lithuanian partisan war that raged for a decade after the end of World War II. It’s a fine, character-driven book that made me want to try my hand at fiction. Perhaps book #4.

Of Epistolophilia, Sileika writes:

If the life of Simaite is incredible in itself, the writing in this book is exceptional as well. I first found chapters of it published in the Baltic journal, Lituanus, and was so taken by the quality and intelligence of the prose that I looked up the author to find out when the biography was coming out, and have been waiting expectantly ever since.

My own enthusiasm is echoed in Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review.

Of Cassedy’s book:

What’s so satisfying about this book is that it declines to argue from a fixed position. If I can polarize the extremes of the discussions on the Holocaust in Lithuania (discussions, often heated, that I have had in Vilnius streets, bars, and restaurants), on the one hand I hear accusation against Lithuania as a criminal nation which refuses to acknowledge fully the crimes of its people in the Holocaust and to compensate justly, insofar as possible, those who suffered at the hands of Lithuanian murderers. On the other hand, the argument goes that nobody knows about Lithuania and what it went through in the Soviet period and Stalin’s crimes were as great as those of Hitler (the double genocide debate, which remains a fiery topic).

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Publishers Weekly gives Epistolophilia a Starred Review

10 seconds - a star is born by winterofdiscontent

Of the publishing industry’s four major trade (the other three include Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal) magazines, Adelle Waldman writes at Slate that “Publishers Weekly, or PW, is the biggie—it plays Coke to Kirkus‘ Pepsi.” A “‘starred’ review in PW still increases a book’s chance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore.” These also determine which books Amazon promotes. A starred review indicates a book of outstanding quality.

Imagine my pleasure when I came across this.

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

In this captivating and remarkable book, Šukys (Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout) celebrates the life and letters of Ona Šimaitė, one of the lesser-known Righteous Among the Nations. In 1940 Šimaitė was a young librarian at Vilnius University, hired to head the catalogue department as the school converted from a Polish to a Lithuanian curriculum. The following year, when the Soviets sent 17,000 Lithuanians to Siberia and German bombs rained on the city, the librarian began to smuggle medicine, food, forged documents, clothes and correspondence into (and out of, in the case of letters) the Jewish ghetto. Three years later she was arrested by the Gestapo, brutally tortured, and shipped to Dachau, eventually landing in a prison camp in occupied France, the capital of which she would later call home. Šukys brings to life a solitary woman dedicated to saving the dispossessed and capturing her memories by producing an enormous amount of letters; Šimaitė wrote, on average, 60 letters a month after the war. Šukys draws liberally from thousands of pages of correspondence and numerous diaries to create a portrait of a deeply thoughtful woman trying to make sense of history and her own life by putting it all to paper. Also of Lithuanian descent, Šukys’s own meditations on the power of letters and writing make this a powerful testament to the confluence of history and individual lives and passions. B&W photos & maps. (Mar.)

[Photo: winterofdiscontent]

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On Chronology and Necessary Abandonment: Working with Letters and Diaries

Broken by MarcelGermain

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. And even though this isn’t my first book or review, it’s still a wild ride to have strangers reading my work.

In her review of the book, Claire Posner points to a major challenge that I faced writing this book: chronology.

Perhaps reflecting the uneven records that Šimaitė left behind, Epistolophilia‘s chapters are grouped by subject matter rather than in chronological order.

She’s right: rather than telling Šimaitė’s story from beginning to end in a clean and linear fashion, I attacked the librarian’s life by topic, and attempted to answer the questions that the process of piecing her story together raised for me.

This book, as many of you know by now, was a struggle to write. The archival materials I was working with (letters and diaries) resisted my efforts to tame them. I simultaneously had too much and too little to work with. Only after a long internal battle and after putting aside some of my ideas about how this book should look did Epistolophilia finally come together.

The funny thing is that despite its being such a major obstacle, I’d pretty much forgotten about the issue of chronology and how much pain it had caused me, until I read the ForeWord review.

So what did I learn from writing Šimaitė’s life? For one: we don’t actually live our lives chronologically. Two: we certainly don’t record them that way. Rather, we move continually back and forth between the past and present, reinterpreting, forgetting, remembering, inventing, telling ourselves our own histories, then (in the best cases) turning around and recounting those histories to our children, our loved ones, and our readers.

So, when I was recently asked by a fellow writer how she should tackle a large collection of letters in her possession, I had to stop and think. The obvious advice is to organize and read the letters and diaries chronologically (if they come from different archives, be sure to devise a system to identify the source of each letter before mixing documents up — I used coloured star stickers). Then, the second most obvious piece of advice would perhaps be to abandon chronology altogether.

The difficulty lies in the fact that you’ve got to make order from chaos to start. But then you may realize that the order has created a new kind of chaos. Do not confuse mere chronology with structure. Chronology may be a start, but it may not be a solution. It may even be a problem.

I suspect that each body of correspondence or life writing demands its own structure when being reworked for a book. This is great, because it means that there are no rules. (But the bad news too is that there are no rules.) You have to pay close attention to your material and tease out its meaning. With luck, once you have meaning, structure should follow. By this I mean that once you see a story emerging from a pile of documents, chances are you can also see how to tell it.

The best I can offer for now, in terms of a method, is this:

  1. Organize your materials chronologically.
  2. Read them chronologically
  3. Track the story they tell. (Find their meaning)
  4. Abandon chronology if necessary. (Build a structure)
  5. Tell the story as the material demands.

I’d love to hear from others working with letters and diaries. How have you coped with an embarrassment of riches that resists structure? How do you organize your material and tame it? What is your relationship to chronology and the material traces of lives lived?

Share your thoughts and experiences. Perhaps we can learn from one another.

[Photo: MarcelGermain]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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“Nuanced and Compelling” ForeWord’s Review of Epistolophilia

Book Review (BW).jpg by roeyahram

The first review of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė appeared a few days ago. It’s very positive, and I’m very thankful. In ForeWord, whose tag line reads “good books, independently published,” Claire Posner calls the book “nuanced and compelling.”

I couldn’t ask for more.

You can read the full review here.

[Photo: roeyahram]

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