The Telling Name: On Covid, Quarantine, and Cancer

I’ve been reading long-ago letters from my family’s dead. I delight in their terms of endearment, trace the gestures of their handwriting, and sway to the rhythms of their old village dialects. Visiting with my ghosts helps me step out of time and away from the pandemic, at least for a while. Call it a coping mechanism.

“The tumor has come through the skin now,” the cancer specialist he told me by phone from Toronto. He called this morning, as promised. “It’s time for the mastectomy,” he said.

In the days before the virus outbreak had begun in earnest, the doctor and I had weighed the costs and benefits of surgery: my mother is elderly, paralyzed after decades of degenerative illness, and has already beaten cancer once. Given her age and frailty, we decided to put it off for as long as possible. Chemo and radiation would be out of the question in her case. “What’s more, given her state, she might never come off a respirator,” the doctor said quietly.

A mere week after this conversation, the virus began its tear through the care facility that has served as my mother’s home for over a decade. It came suddenly and strong. Before long, the Covid had caught my mother. I walked around for days in a fog of tears and anticipatory grief, reeling between the two diagnoses – cancer and Covid, Covid and cancer – both apparent death sentences. “Save your mourning until you need it,” my husband said gently. “She’s alive now.”

Against all odds, my mother has come through the infection. It lasted around 8 weeks. Even her nurse called it a miracle.

The home sends a virus update by email each day. Every morning with my coffee I open the file and study the columns: “Positive,” “Negative,” “Deaths,” “Resolved.” Today, as I read, I do a quick tally. The virus has now killed 37 people in the building. 80 active cases of Covid-19 remain. Last week, the total of in the “Resolved” column went up by one, that is, by my mother’s survival. Call it a reprieve.

The cancer specialist’s Ethiopian name, I’ve surmised, means “Servant of Christ.” Even being as bad a Catholic as I am, I nevertheless find comfort in this “telling name” (sprechender Name), so apt for a doctor brimming with compassion and shimmering intelligence. When I filled him in on my mother’s infection, recovery, and the home’s continued lockdown, he changed his plan for surgery. “The virus is unpredictable,” he said. “We don’t know what damage it has done to your mother’s lungs. We don’t know if she can be re-infected.”

So, again, we wait. We wait for the virus to finish its rampage. For my mother’s body to strengthen itself. To see if it will prove its immunity.

After the call, I put the family letters away. The virus has pulled me back into time. I feel the march of every minute as I calculate how long will need to travel and self-quarantine to be at my mother’s side, should the mastectomy become her ferry to the ghosts.

[Photo: Sebastian Gurd]

This micro-essay originally appeared at How We Are: Writers and Artists Under Quarantine (June 2, 2020).

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How to Grow a Book: A Feeding and Watering Guide for the First-Time Nonfiction Writer

Celebrate Nonfiction November with me! I gave this talk as part of the Mizzou Alumni Webinar Series (hello, pandemic adjustments…). In it, I discussed the practicalities of writing from life experience: how to start, what it means to embark on a book-length project, and how to take the first steps toward publication.

Thanks to Stephanie Anderson, the Mizzou Alumni Association, and the University of Missouri System Presidential Engagement Fellows Program for setting this up and hosting me.

About Me:
Julija Šukys is an award-winning author who works with emerging writers of nonfiction to help them craft literary texts from memory, experience, and research. Julija knows what it means to be driven to write a book, how to go about researching eclectic subjects, and what it takes to bring an ambitious writing project to fruition. For her, writing is a way of life: it’s how she understands the world around her, the means by which she survives it, and (as Joan Didion says) her way of finding out what she thinks, sees, and fears.

Julija is the author of three books, one book-length translation, and of more than two-dozen essays and articles. She is currently working on a project about university and college campus shootings that took place across the United States and Canada between 1966 and 2015.

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Aunt B. Reads My Book: On the Anxiety of Publishing Family Stories

Few aspects of nonfiction cause as much anxiety for beginning (or even experienced) writers as writing about family. Memoirists and essayists approach the issue of familial input or approval in a variety of ways. Some writers give family members veto power over their manuscripts. Others only share their books in proof—that is, before they are published but after they are typeset, when it’s too late to change a text significantly. Still others share nothing at all, and keep a text close until its publication.

For better or worse, I fall into this last category: though I told family members what they could expect to find in my 2017 book Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning, no one (except perhaps one beloved cousin?) got to read the text in advance. And no one (not even the beloved cousin!) got veto power over the book. Though, to be fair, no one asked for such power either. Maintaining this level of control over one’s work makes the writing process easier (the last thing a book needs is a whole bunch of cooks), but it also makes publication day nerve-wracking as all heck.

When I started work on Siberian Exile, I planned to write the story of my grandmother Ona’s seventeen years of life and work on a Soviet special settlement in the Tomsk region of Russia. The book was going to be a kind of testament to her survival and an exploration of women’s memory, oral history, storytelling, and life-writing. It was going to focus on her almost exclusively.

I was forced to widen my scope in 2012, when I requested, among other materials, my grandfather’s KGB files from the Lithuanian Special Archives. With those documents came a bombshell that I couldn’t ignore. The files accused my grandfather Anthony of overseeing a massacre of Jewish women and children. They also showed that he had been under surveillance by Soviet authorities for most of his life in postwar England and Canada.

Suddenly, my female-focused project morphed into a painful text of reckoning with a dark family secret. Rewriting my family’s past in this way felt like stepping into a storm. The reader I was most worried about? My late father’s elder sister, Aunt B. The sole surviving member of Ona and Anthony’s nuclear family of five.

Aunt B. has always had a sharp edge. She can be quick to criticize and will not hesitate to tell you the truth, no matter how thorny, right to your face. I too can be quick to criticize. I get into trouble for speaking without thinking. Point is, we aren’t all that different. Point also is: two sharp tongues can draw a lot of blood.

SukysFor most of my life, my relationship with Aunt B. was polite and cordial, but not close. This changed when I began to write about our family. The project gave us a chance to bond over a shared purpose and, over time, I began to feel our mutual sharpness soften. She and I started spending hours at her kitchen table, looking at photographs, talking about life in the displaced persons camps and how it felt to meet her mother when she finally arrived in Canada, after so many years of separation. We took to talking on the phone regularly. I liked that Aunt B. and I were partners in this, so I began sending her updates on my work.

But Aunt B. and I never talked much about Anthony. The subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania and the role he played in it was simply too painful, too delicate. It was easier for me to put his part of the story onto the page than to speak it out loud. Without ever explicitly agreeing to do so, Aunt B. and I established a sort of equilibrium, bonding over Ona’s story and carefully sidestepping Anthony’s.

Of course, our dance of avoidance couldn’t last forever. Eventually, the book would come out and my aunt would read it. The notion terrified me. Just thinking about it made me queasy and kept me up at night. I worried the book would hurt her. That her sharpness would return. That our newfound relationship would suffer, and that she would disown me.

“You’re not giving her enough credit,” said my cousin Darius when I confessed my fears to him. “Send her a copy of the book.”

So I did.

I inscribed the title page, slipped in a note of thanks for her support and help, and then packed it all up, posted it, and waited.

After about ten days, the phone rang and her name popped up on the caller ID. I swallowed hard and picked up the receiver. Aunt B. had read Siberian Exile in a single sitting, she told me, on the very day it arrived. “I loved it,” she said.

I was stunned.

“She said that?” my cousin Darius said in disbelief, when I called him to report the surprising turn. “What did you say?”

“That I was just happy we were still speaking to one another. I mean, I did compare her father to Adolf Eichman. Do you think she read that part?” Darius—my biggest champion and eternal optimist—laughed and laughed.

About two weeks later Aunt B. called me again. She had read the book three more times, she told me, and in this call, her assessment was more nuanced. “I don’t see my father exactly in the same way as you do, and I don’t agree with everything you write,” she said, “but I still love the book. This book is a gift.” I paused before responding. After a moment of thought, I thanked her for being so generous. I told her I understood her perspective. She saw things differently, and that I was OK with that.

“He was my father,” she said quietly. “You never knew him like I did.”

“No,” I said. “That’s true.”

We talked for a while longer, and soon our conversation turned to weather reports, summer plans, and teaching schedules. I told her some funny pet stories and she told me about the state of her yard. Ultimately, we ended the call like any other and, as I hung up, I realized that we’d succeeded. The danger had passed. We had come through the storm intact. We had kept control of our tongues.

There is, of course, no guarantee that loved ones will accept or like or even respect what we write. But as writers, perhaps we have no choice but to trust not only our books but also our readers, even the ones whose opinions scare us the most. If we’re lucky, our books will do their jobs, and our most unnerving readers will open themselves up to them. And finally, if we’re gentle and patient, these same readers may surprise us and respond to our words with love.

Originally published on the University of Nebraska Press’s Blog.

[Photo: PracticalCures.com]

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100 Words at a time…

Look, it’s OK if you’re not writing. I’m not here to pressure you to be productive or make you feel bad about yourself. I get it: we’re all coping with the pandemic in our own ways. Writing may not be in the cards for you right now.  Do what you need to do to make it through.

That said, if you do want to write and need a little push or a bit of support, then read on.  I’m going to tell you about something called “The 100-Word Writing Group.”

Books get written bit by bit. Word by word. Or, in my case, 100 words at a time.

Together with 6 other writers, I belong to a 100-Word Writing Group. You get the picutre: 7 writers = 1 day per writer.

Every day 100 words land in my inbox and onto our shared Google doc. This next part is important, so take it to heart: The 100-Word Writing Group is not a critique group or workshop. The 100-Word Writing Group is about being part of a writing community; it’s about writing not production, if that makes sense… Comments may be shared, but only privately, and only words of encouragement.

Sometimes I read the 100 words that arrive each day and sometimes I don’t: the elasticity, low-pressure quality of this whole thing is key. Still, even if I’m too swamped or distressed or busy to read everything, I’m always aware that my friends and colleagues are writing and that my day to share is coming. And when it does (Tuesdays), I send the other 6 members of the group a small piece of whatever I’m working on.  I don’t give context for the fragment and never explain. I just grab or write 100 new words that don’t feel too embarrassing and send them off.

I hear you: Of what use are 100 words? It’s not even half a page!

True. 100 is not a lot of words. BUT it can be enough to get you rolling. I often have to force myself to write on Tuesdays (which were teaching days this semester) but often I end up writing way more, despite myself.

Here’s the point: If you’re wanting to write but are having trouble, consider forming such a group. (If not, well, see above.)

Here’s also the point: Books, essays, and stories get written 100 words at a time.

Happy writing, fragment by fragment

[Photo: Väylä]

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On the Occasion of Birutė’s Funeral

I think I was around 6 when I learned that my aunt Birutė didn’t know how to swim. My father Algirdas (her brother) told me this on the drive from our house to hers one Sunday.

“No way,” I said, “I don’t believe you.”

I had been swimming since before I could remember. Swimming, to me, was like breathing. It seemed impossible not to know how to do it.

“Ask her yourself,” my father said with a shrug.

I burst through the door of her house at 66 Aberdeen Road and posed my question before even saying hello. Birutė laughed and confirmed that, yes, it was true, she didn’t know how to swim. Between the war and the DP camps,  she’d simply never had the chance to learn.

The story stayed with me into adulthood. Before that day, Birutė had simply been my aunt with the beehive hairdo, immaculate house, and tidy garden – a woman without a history. But after that day, I became curious. I wanted to understand who she was. I wanted to know what kind of path had led to a life without swimming.

Swimming or no swimming, Birutė was a woman of great style and dignity. She was exacting and demanding of herself and those around her. To a child, she was even a bit scary. But as I grew, I began to see more and more evidence of a different Birutė – a devoted, loving, complicated, wounded, and generous one. I noticed how she forged strong bonds and maintained them. In particular, her late-in-life friendship with a woman named Habiba delighted me. Over the past few years, I heard stories about Habiba’s trips home to Africa, her family there, her delicious cooking, and her beauty. I know I’m not alone in my gratitude and appreciation for Habiba’s care and affection.

Birutė was the last living connection to our grandparents (for some of us, our great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents) and to their story of tragedy and survival. She was our repository of memory and family history. She was my connection to the past and to people I wish I’d known better or lost too early. Her death has left me with a sort of ache, as if something (a limb, perhaps?) has been cut away. I will miss her always. Now that she’s gone, I will try to remember as she did, so that, when I’m old, our children and grandchildren can hear the stories of their ancestors.

Ilsėkis ramybėje, Birute. You were loved.

[Photo: simpleinsomnia]

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Survival Baking

In the cupboard beside my oven, I keep two time-worn notebooks full of recipes gathered from friends, learned from my mother, or photocopied from borrowed or discarded books. I used to feel sheepish about these notebooks and rarely admitted to keeping them. They felt overly domestic: too reminiscent of the suburban housewife I never wanted to be mistaken for. 

But now that I’ve kept them for over 20 years, and now that I’ve almost run out of pages in the second book, and now that we’re living in plague times, I’ve come to see them differently. The books tell the history of our life as a family. Of the everyday that revolves around the kitchen, the cycles of seasons, sustenance, and celebrations.

I’ve come to see the notebooks as memory.

Like many of you out there, I’m baking more than ever these days: bread, cake, cupcakes, pizza . . . you name it, I’m making it. Armed with my apron, I stare death down. I beat it back and coax yeast and flour to life instead. By feeding the people I love and by keeping them alive, I keep the plague at bay. At least, that’s my hope.

Maybe baking is keeping you and yours alive too.

Dear Reader, if you’re out there: take this recipe as a gift. It’s a simple, sensible (i.e., the best kind of) recipe passed on to me by my Aunt Ruth more than a quarter-century ago. Not a blood relative, but family nonetheless, beloved Aunt Ruth died eight years ago. This was not her most significant legacy and I suspect that she may have been surprised that I bake and remember her by this unassuming loaf, but life’s in the small things. That’s where love resides.

If you bake Aunt Ruth’s Banana bread and like it, please remember her and toast her with a cup of tea. Ruth was whip-smart, funny, and used to call her daughter (my dear friend Anna) “Bananes.” She had beautiful curly black hair and loved her husband with a tenderness and devotion that most can only aspire to. She was also a great cook.

  • Aunt Ruth’s Banana Bread
  • 1) Mash 3 bananas (I like to put over-ripe bananas in the freezer and pull them out for this recipe)
  • 2) Mix bananas with:
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 3) Bake in a loaf pan for about 55 minutes @ 350F.
  • You’ll know it’s ready when a skewer comes out clean.

[Photo: The Notebooks, by Julija Šukys]

 

 

 

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Might As Well Keep Writing

Like most of you, my family and I have been at home for more than two weeks. Here in Columbia, Missouri, we faculty members have been teaching our classes online, supervising grad students from afar, attending meetings over Zoom, and trying to keep our kids busy at home.

Yesterday was officially the last day of our Spring Break. “Worst Spring Break ever,” I said to my son as we walked the dog in the dark the other night. He and I were supposed to go on a mother-son ski trip. It all seems like a long-ago fantasy and dream now.

To keep sane, I’ve been planting seeds, baking, and writing. I’m working on a book on university and college campus shootings all over North America. This past week I dove headfirst back into my work and wrote, wrote, and wrote some more.

Turns out that contemplating past tragedies has a calming effect on me. It may be that the way writing takes me out of my body is helpful. It may be that thinking about how people have continued on after tragedy in the past is useful too. It’s possible that both are equally true.

Whatever the case, it all helps, so might as well keep writing.

Check back when you want. I may share some recipes, some thoughts, some good stuff to read.

Hang in there. It’s a dark time. Be kind to yourself and others.

[Photo: Sybil Liberty]

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CNF Conversations: Karen Babine

Karen Babine

Karen Babine, All the Wild Hungers. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019.

My sister is pregnant with a lemon this week, Week 14, and this is amusing. My mother’s uterine tumor, the size of a cabbage, is Week 30, and this is terrifying.

When her mother is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Karen Babine—a cook, collector of thrifted vintage cast iron, and fiercely devoted daughter, sister, and aunt—can’t help but wonder, “feed a fever, starve a cold, but what do we do for cancer?” And so, she commits herself to preparing her mother anything she will eat, a vegetarian diving headfirst into the unfamiliar world of bone broth and pot roast.

In an interview we did last year, Karen and I discussed food, family, illness, writing, and love.

This publication was especially bittersweet because it was the last project we worked on with Ned Stuckey-French before his death from cancer in the summer of 2019. Ned was the book reviews editor at Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, where this convo appeared, and also a fellow collaborator at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, which Karen founded and edits, and where I am a senior editor.  We miss Ned terribly. He edited and framed this literary conversation with his characteristic generosity and wisdom.

You can read my conversation with essayist Karen Babine, “A Season of Cooking and Cancer,” here.

 

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Who We Are

 

Julija Šukys (center), with (from left) Darius Kuolys, Rimas Čuplinskas, Kęstutis Girnius, Emilija Sakadolskienė. November 2019. Kaunas, Lithuania. XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas.

It was a whirlwind trip to my grandmothers’ beloved city, Kaunas (Kovno/Kauen). Verutė, my maternal grandmother, met her life partner in the Kaunas Sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse and where her beloved was a tuberculosis specialist. It’s also the city where my paternal grandmother spent as much time as possible after she returned from her long Siberian exile.

I had a great time in Kaunas. It’s a city I don’t know very well, but in the off hours, some of the other symposium-goers and I went dancing. It was my first outing to a diskoteka in many, many years.

I will admit: I’d had real fears and misgivings about presenting on Siberian Exile in Lithuanian to Lithuanians. To my great surprise and pleasure, those fears were unfounded, at least this time. My audience was warm, receptive, encouraging, and curious about me and my work. Several people came up to me afterward and expressed shock that I spoke Lithuanian, which I found odd but amusing. (There’s no way I could have written either Epistolophilia or Siberian Exile without access to Lithuanian-language sources).

Here we are, at the plenary session, discussion: “Who are we? Who do we hope to be?” (Just small questions for contemplation…). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was the odd woman out in my answers to these questions.

Thank you to all who made my trip so wonderful.

[Photo: Egidijus Balandis]

 

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Off to Lithuania…

Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for the book SIBERIAN EXILE. 2010.

In a couple of days I’m off to Lithuania to speak at the XVI World Lithuanian  Symposium for Scholarship and Creativity (XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas). The event brings together Lithuanian diasporic writers, artists, educators, and scholars from all over the world.

I’m taking part in the plenary session and have been asked to think (and talk) about the question of identity — national, ethnic, and cultural. For someone who lives in a constant state of uprootedness and nomadism, it’s a  tall order. So, in true essayistic fashion, I plan to bring it down to the small, everyday, and personal. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone who grew up in an immigrant/émigré family as I did how to think about who they are. I can only speak for myself, on the basis of my own experience, and tell the story of what writing books like Siberian Exile and Epistolophilia have taught me.

With luck, that will suffice (I’ll find the big in the small) it will  be of interest to those who come to listen.

Wish me luck!

If you’re in Kaunas, Lithuania, on November 15th (14:30-16:30, Plenary Session, Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas, Didžioji aula, Gimnazijos g. 7), come on by to hear what I come up with. Fair warning: the event’s taking place in Lithuanian! I plan to show pictures of Siberia, including the one above. This is me in the place where my grandmother’s Siberian house once stood.

Here’s link to the event schedule. 

[Photo: Julija Šukys in Belastok/Brovka, Siberia, while doing research for Siberian Exile. 2010.]

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