This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

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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A Shout-out to “Chroniques de Montréal”

My thanks to Mouloud Belabdi, who writes beautifully on his blog, “Chroniques de Montréal,” about the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout, assassinated in 1993. Djaout was the subject of my first book, Silence is Death.

How pleased I was to read Belabdi’s description of my book:

Son livre est une méditation constante sur la mort, la paternité de l’œuvre et le rôle des intellectuels. Ce serait faire violence à sa mémoire en réduisant l’homme à un symbole. Il s’agit préférablement, de lui donner une voix sans faire violence à sa mémoire (3).

Belabdi goes on to conclude that we must read and re-read Tahar Djaout.

I couldn’t agree more.

You can learn more about Djaout and Algerian literature on Mouloud Belabdi’s blog, where there is a link to his Algiers radio show on Chaîne 3.

[Photo: Le Kabyle]

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What is life-writing?

“How many times has someone said that writings of a particular woman had no value because they were merely about daily events?” — Elizabeth Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself.

The term “life-writing” designates private texts not written for publication,  primarily letters and diaries.  It can tell us a lot about the past, how people lived, what they thought, how they organized their time. It can also tell us about the internal lives of people who have traditionally gone unnoticed, especially women. And although we might read much life-writing for content, many of us are interested in life-writing not only as historical artifact, but as literature.

But for all its richness, life-writing poses challenges. Unlike a formal biography or autobiography, it tends have little structure other than chronology, its boring parts aren’t edited out, and obscure references go unexplained. Life-writing records life at as happens. It’s raw and real. Sometimes this isn’t a good thing, but what surprises me more is how often it is.

What continually amazes me about a pile of letters spanning a decade or more is how successfully they tell a story, bit by bit, day by day. Despite the chaos of daily life and lack of artifice, life-writing holds its own. Reading a collection of letters can be a  moving, intimate and compelling experience.

I wrote my first book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout,  on the basis of a public archive, telling Djaout’s story through the books and articles he left behind after his 1993 death, when he was gunned down through his open car window. I didn’t interview his family members or visit his grave. I didn’t read his letters or diaries. Instead, I built a relationship with him inside my head, and carried my idea of him for several years while I wrote my (his?) book.

But with the next big project, I decided to take up a new challenge: to tell the life story of a woman who did not consider herself a writer, even though she wrote an amazing number of letters and diaries. Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my second manuscript, wrote somewhere between thirty thousand and fifty thousand letters during her adult life. A great number of these survived, and they served as my primary source.

For years Šimaitė’s writings perplexed me. Pages and pages of diaries, manuscripts and notes. Heroic deeds, travels, tragedy, hardship, poverty, revolution, shopping, cats, visa applications, debts, books, weather: these are the themes that circulate through her writing.

It is both mundane and sophisticated. Flat and poetic. Tedious and enlightening. Just as the woman herself. Just as life itself.

[Photo: Paul Worthington]

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“Toute same” (It’s the same thing)

My father died very suddenly when I was eighteen years old. Shortly after his funeral, my mother dreamed he came back to life. She couldn’t explain how; he was just back. The weird thing was that the dream seemed largely to be about the bureaucracy of death. My parents sat on the couch for a long time trying to figure out how to navigate the funereal red tape in reverse. How did one undo a death certificate? How would they reinstate his credit cards and financial records, and how was he going to explain this at work?

My dreams about him are less comical.

I once had a swimming dream where I could see him under water, but could neither reach him nor get his attention. I kept yelling Tėte! Tėte! (Dad! Dad!), diving down trying to reach him as he swam away.

In my last dream, he was lying in bed at our old house wearing blue pajamas. My mother lay beside him. Downstairs, both the the lights and stereo were on, and on my way to bed, I thought to myself how careless my father had been in not turning these off. I had a feeling that there was something strange about his being up there in bed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. I knew I hadn’t seen him touch my mother in a very long time, or kiss her, or help her in any way, and I couldn’t figure out why. Until I remembered, and woke up.

It took me years to forgive him for abandoning my mother at the moment when she really began to need him, when her Multiple Sclerosis finally became debilitating. Perhaps I even blamed him for worsening her condition. It’s no coincidence that she began using a cane shortly after his death. The stress of his death had brought on an attack.

I have now lived longer without my father than I did with him. I no longer blame him for dying, or for leaving my mother alone in this world, or for making her sicker. I am no longer angry at him.

Instead, I concentrate on my mother as she continues to live and to persevere in her own way.

Ten years ago, she told me in a terrible phone conversation that she didn’t think her body would last another decade. And yet, here she is. She is wheelchair-bound, and has lost the use of three of her four limbs, but when she turned seventy a couple of years ago, it felt like a victory against death. Her life is still hers to live and her story still hers to tell.

I have no doubt that the shock of my father’s sudden disappearance is at the root of my drive to remember and record life stories. Writing about him, about my grandmother, about Šimaitė, Djaout, and others is the one way I know how to fight oblivion and darkness.

Life-writing. Death-writing. Toute same, as my three-year-old son would say in his fusiony Franglais. It’s the same thing.

And if my father is the death in my life-writing, my son is the life in my death-writing. He is both the reason I get up and the alarm clock that wakes me. In many ways, it’s for him that I remember the dead, because I want him to know their stories too.

[Photo by slightly confused]

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A Shout-out to El Watan

I recently came across an article referring to my book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, in El Watan, a major Algerian newspaper. The piece’s author, Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha, writes about the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader (or Abd El Kader), the Iowa town of Elkader that was named for him, and two international writers (including yours truly), who have written about the connection between the town and its namesake.

Also cited is John Kiser, who, in a addition to his recent work on Abdelkader, has written a very good book called the The Monks of Tibhirine. Both Kiser and I travelled to Elkader around the same time to see what an American town named for an Algerian looked like. Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha compares our travel narratives.

Here’s an excerpt:

L’éveil culturel pour l’Emir Abd El Kader et pour l’Algérie se perpétue à El Kader, qui a dernièrement été visitée par 2 célèbres écrivains : John Kiser et Julija Sukys. Tous deux ont écrit deux récents ouvrages sur l’Algérie. Le fait, marquant une coïncidence heureuse, est que tous deux ont réservé le premier chapitre de leurs ouvrages respectifs à la magie qu’a exercée sur eux El Kader (USA) et l’histoire de son appellation. Julija Sukys, en se documentant pour son livre La vie et l’œuvre de Tahar Djaout, a été charmée par le fait qu’une petite ville dans l’Etat de l’Iowa puisse se nommer El Kader. Son livre s’ouvre, donc, sur comment El Kader avait été ainsi baptisée et utilise cet exemple pour mettre en scène et raconter la vie et l’œuvre de l’écrivain poète Tahar Djaout. Elle nous révèle également que des ouvrages d’auteurs algériens sont choisis dans le cadre de lectures publiques. Elle nous apprend que pas moins de 9 forums — qui sont étalés sur 6 semaines — ont été organisés dans le comté de Johnson, voisin d’El Kader. Un questionnaire, précise-t-elle, avait été distribué pour servir de guide au public pour discussions ainsi qu’aux professeurs pour son utilisation en classe. Cet événement culturel particulier avait culminé avec une interview avec l’auteur algérien, Assia Djebar. La réaction du public à ce programme avait été enthousiaste. La liste de commandes chez les librairies locales, souligne-t-elle, pour Le dernier été de raison de Tahar Djaout, par exemple, avait augmenté d’une manière significative et que très vite le roman est devenu le best-seller local. Finalement, Julija Sukys conclut son premier chapitre avec un message personnel : « En appelant sa ville El Kader, Timothy Davis ouvrit une porte grande ouverte sur le monde dans un pays qui cherchait à s’enfermer sur lui-même. Une chose curieuse se produisit à El Kader au moment de son baptême, une petite ouverture dans l’univers avait été creusée… cela a formé un cordon (ombilical) qui s’étend à travers l’Atlantique, unissant les Etats-Unis à l’Algérie… C’est aussi une porte grande ouverte sur d’autres mondes : l’Orient mais aussi l’au-delà. Le temps, la langue et l’espace n’auront aucune emprise. Le présent et le passé coexistent (déjà). Bienvenue à El Kader. »

You can read the whole article here.

[Photo of vintage Algiers postcard, ca. 1910, by postaletrice]

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Writing Lives

For a long time I resisted calling myself a biographer. I didn’t mean to write these kinds of stories, or those kinds of books. But, like all the best things in life (cats, love) — biography chose me. Despite myself, and despite having been trained as a literary scholar at a time when the author was dead, when a writer’s intention didn’t matter, and when the makings of a literary life were beside the point, writing lives was what I wanted to do.

I started by telling the story of an Algerian author gunned down in 1993 in a civil war between armed militants and a dictatorship. He was thirty-eight when he was killed, and had accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime. His name was Tahar Djaout, and the book I wrote about him is called Silence is Death (his most famous turn of phrase).

Next, I wrote the story of a brave librarian who defied Nazism. She left us thousands of letters and scores of diaries in various languages. I used these to write the book I’m calling Beloved Profession. It’s not out yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Now, I’m working on a third project. It’s a personal story that starts in Lithuania, continues in Siberia, and ends in Canada. I’ll let you know more as that develops.

This blog explores the writing of biography, autobiography and life-writing. I’ll share my understanding of the process, and point to others who I think are doing or have done interesting work in this area. We’ll see how it goes.

[Photo by Martin Marcinski]

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