Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is.
“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.
I’m heading to Charleston, Illinois, this weekend to read and to give a craft talk at the Lions in Winter Literary Festival. Come on out if you’re in the area. I’ll be reading from and discussing the birth of Epistolophilia and what I learned about the ins and outs of archival work in the process.
The Lions in Winter 2015 featured writers are Stephen Graham Jones, David Tomas Martinez, Edward Kelsey Moore, Julija Šukys (yours truly), and Jessica Young.
[Photo: Tambako The Jaguar]
The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.
Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.
The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.
The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?
My answer: RESEARCH
By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one, have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.
I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.
Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.
To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.
But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.
When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.
This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.
Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.
Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.
Shana Tova. Yesterday was the start of the Jewish New Year, and for me, this autumn of 2013 marks the beginning of a new stage in my life: new house, new country, new license plates (on my agenda for today) and new job. I’ve just arrived at the University of Missouri, Columbia, with my family in tow to begin my work as Assistant Professor of English, specifically of creative writing. I’m teaching writing workshops in creative nonfiction (memoir, personal essays, lyric essays, biography, and so on) and returned last night from a graduate seminar feeling energized and inspired by the discussion I had with my students.
Our project for this graduate seminar (called “Raw”) is to write from material traces. I’ve asked each student to choose an object and to use it as a starting point for reflection, investigation and creation. Some have chosen family heirlooms or documents; some are using things collected while traveling; others are going to the archives. What a gift to have a group of writers who come to the table with real questions and projects that matter to them, and that I believe will matter to others if they do their jobs well.
Last night, we dove into our first deep discussion with Maggie Nelson’s Jane (A Murder). The book takes a family diary, penned by Nelson’s murdered aunt, as its starting point. It reworks Jane’s journal entries, and treats fragments like poetry. One of my students remarked that by doing so, Nelson has made these fragments whole — I thought it a stroke of brilliance. If you don’t know this book and are interested in archives, personal writings, diaries, trauma, grief, or women’s life-writing, I highly recommend it.
Our Jane discussion led to reflection on the sacred, on the responsibility that we as authors have to the creators or owners of the objects we use in our work, and on who has the right to tell stories. An auspicious start.
Happy autumn. May it be a season of discovery and growth.
[Photo: Thomas Hawk]
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.
We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust tells the story of Ellen Cassedy’s personal journey into the Jewish heartland of Lithuania – the land of her Jewish forebears – and then expands into an exploration of how Lithuania today is engaging with its complex 20th-century history. Probing the terrain of memory and moral dilemmas, the book shines a spotlight on fragile efforts toward mutual understanding and carries a cautious message of hope.
Ellen Cassedy has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years. She is a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Her articles have appeared in Huffington Post, Haaretz, Jewish Journal, Hadassah, The Jewish Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Lilith, Bridges, Utne Reader, Polin, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. She is a frequent speaker about Jewish and Lithuanian issues, and a regular contributor to VilNews, the international web magazine based in Vilnius, Lithuania. She lives near Washington, DC.
Julija Šukys: The frame for your book is a trip to Vilnius to study Yiddish at a well-known summer program there. Tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Yiddish language. How much Yiddish did you speak or understand before arriving in Vilnius? How did your relationship to the language change over the summer? How much Yiddish did you encounter in Lithuania?
Ellen Cassedy: My mother used to sprinkle Yiddish words into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe! (a downpour.)” In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” On the telephone: “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).” After she died, I missed those homey syllables. I began studying Yiddish as a kind of memorial to her, a way to hold on to my Jewish heritage.
By the time I arrived at the summer program run by the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I’d progressed far enough to be placed in the second-to-highest level – where I held on by my fingernails! Spending several hours a day in class and doing hours of homework every night was a mekhaye – a great pleasure.
Within a few weeks, I became able to conduct interviews in Yiddish – with a Holocaust survivor from my ancestral town of Rokiškis, with the leader of the Jewish community in the city of Šiauliai, where my family members had been imprisoned in the Shavl ghetto. And occasionally I’d encounter a Yiddish-speaker on the beautiful streets of the Old City in Vilnius.
The Yiddish scenes that I weave through the book serve as resting places for both me and the reader – places of laughter and love.
The central focus of this book is the Holocaust bystander. You seek to consider the role of the bystander in a nuanced way and struggle to understand what it meant to be a non-Jewish witness to the Holocaust. In the end you arrive at a kind of reconciliation or entente in your understanding of the opposing forces and tragedies that were at play in Lithuania during World War II. Tell me a little bit about how you came to take this path.
On the brink of my journey to Lithuania, I learned there was an old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. In 1941, when he was 17, he watched as the Jews of the Rokiškis region were rounded up and marched off into the forest to be shot. Those memories had tormented him all his life. He wanted to tell what he knew, and he wanted a Jew to hear his tale. Would I be that Jew?
The time I spent with this haunted witness – and with numerous other Lithuanians who shared with me their family stories of the Holocaust – showed me that “bystanders” are not an undifferentiated mass. We need to look closely enough to understand each person as an individual. And our goal must be to create the kind of society where it is easier to stand up than to stand by.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that you discover that your uncle was a member of the ghetto police force in the Shavl Ghetto. The ghetto police forces were and are, of course, extremely problematic – they are both victims and oppressors. You cite Primo Levi’s term “the gray zone” to describe the moral space that people like Efroyim Gens (head of the Shavl Ghetto Police) and his brother Jakob Gens (head of the Vilna Ghetto Police) inhabit. To what extent should we, from our perspective, suspend our judgment of those in the gray zone? What conclusions have you come to about people like your uncle and the Genses? Do your uncle and the Genses belong in the same category?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering about my uncle and the complex truths he embodies. I’m less interested than I used to be in assigning people to one category or another. Maybe, when it comes to people like my uncle and the Genses (who had more power than my uncle did, but still faced inhuman and impossible choices), the answers are less important than the questions we continue to ask ourselves. Maybe it’s the moral attention we pay that will help to prevent future genocides.
Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands caused a firestorm when it appeared in 2010, because some historians and other readers considered that he equated Nazi crimes with Stalinist ones, thereby minimizing or excusing the former. He was accused of “Holocaust obfuscation,” among other things. By contrast, you, like Snyder, seem to view Nazism and Stalinism and the ways in which those eras are remembered in Lithuania as interconnected. Wartime and postwar Lithuania itself is portrayed in your book as a kind of gray zone. Is this a fair characterization of your position? Could you expand?
I learned a great deal from Bloodlands, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the cataclysms of the 20th century. To examine both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, to explore the connections – that’s a basic job for a historian.
The term “gray zone” doesn’t mean we turn away from morality. When we see things going wrong, we must speak up loud and clear. Bloodlands can help us do that.
In Lithuania, it was hard for me to open up to “the Other,” to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering alongside Jewish suffering. Hard – but essential, especially for those of us in the successor generations. Can we honor our diverse heritages without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of the past? Can we appeal to one another not as victims, bystanders, or collaborators, but as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice? Those are the questions I hope my readers will ask themselves.
My final question is about the Lithuanian language and the ways in which you had to use mediators to “access” Lithuanian narratives and memories of the Holocaust. With the exception of Yiddish speakers, you interviewed most of your Lithuanian contacts in English or through translators, and employed third-party intervention to collect and work through archival sources. What risks does working through mediators in this way bring with it? How do you account for or deal with what necessarily gets lost, censored or simplified in translation?
By the time I left Lithuania, I had a Lithuanian vocabulary of about 60 words – pitiful! I don’t know Russian, German, or Hebrew, either –all of which came into play in the writing of my book. But I’ve always been intrigued by what happens when people from different cultures, using different languages, make the effort to communicate. My experiences with translators and interpreters turned out to be utterly fascinating encounters in themselves. I make sure the reader gets to meet Regina, Hirsh, Emil, Natasha, and others who helped me make sense of what I was seeing and hearing.
When you think about it, aren’t we always mediating, always translating – no matter who we’re talking to, no matter what languages are involved? Reaching out and attempting to understand, even when it’s a challenge – in the end, that’s exactly what We Are Here is about.
Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):
Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.
Photo by Genevieve Goyette
This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.
978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp
When did you start reading as a child?
I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.
What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?
I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.
Who are your top five authors?
WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.
Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.
Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.
Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.
What book changed your life?
There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).
I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.
Vancouver Public Library
Tuesday, May 29, 7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Peter Kaye Room, Lower Level
Central Library, 350 W. Georgia St.
Please join Montreal writer Julija Šukys for a reading and discussion of her new book Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė. Šimaitė (1894-1970) carefully collected, preserved, and archived the written record of her life, including thousands of letters and scores of diaries. Epistolophilia beckons back to life this quiet and worldly heroine, a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honoured Righteous Among the Nations) and yet so little known.
For more information on Library events, visit http://www.vpl.ca
[Photo: Geneviève Goyette]