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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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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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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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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All the Things…

So much newness. I’ve been bad about updating here over this sabbatical year, so here are a few things I’ve made, written, published in the past few months. I’ll add them as is appropriate elsewhere on the site as well.

So, here are all the things…

First up is my conversation with the brilliant Anand Prahlad published on January 1, 2019 over at the Assay Interview Project. Prahlad and I talked about his book, The Secret Life of A Black Aspie. (Audio)

Prahlad.

 

Second, is my conversation with the lyrical and incisive essayist, Chelsea Biondollilo. We talked about her collection, The Skinned Bird. That also appeared as part of the Assay Interview Project, on May 1, 2019. (Print)

Chelsea Biondolillo.

 

Third, my colleague Paul Zakrzewski and I are producing a podcast for Assay (with the Missouri Audio Project). Paul’s doing the heavy lifting hosting and editing. Here’s our introductory conversation to Tried & True. If you’re into things writerly and audio, please check it out and drop Paul a note if you’d like to submit something to the podcast. Details on Assay’s website. (Print)

Here is the first episode of Tried & True. “Once a Border Crosser, Always a Border Crosser,” a conversation with Francisco Cantú (The Line Becomes A River) and Reyna Grande (The Distance Between Us). (Audio)

Here is the second episode of Tried & True. “#MeToo & Toxic Masculinity – Where Do We Go From Here?” A conversation with Yvette Johnson (The Song and The Silence) and Taylor Brorby (Coal and Oil, forthcoming). (Audio)

 

And finally, I wrote a guide to grant writing and grant hunting for Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series. Check it out here.  (Print)

[Top Photo: Hernán Piñera]

 

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Essay Daily: Deep Roots (Thinking About “Koreans With Guns”)

Every year, the people at Essay Daily put together an essay Advent Calendar. That is, with every day of Advent, a new essay appears. Sometimes the calendar is themed; this year’s calendar was unthemed. We were simply asked to write about an essay or essayist that we liked or that interested us.

I wrote about Sam Cha’s essay called “Koreans With Guns.” The piece comes from his chapbook American Carnage. “Deep Roots (Thinking about “Koreans With Guns”) is my first publication connected to a new book project examining college campus shootings.

Thanks to Ander Monson for making a place on the calendar for me. I’m so happy to be part of the project. You can read my December 8, 2018 installment here. 

[Image: ATOMIC Hot Links]

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DEEP BALTIC Interview: “Someone Always Pays”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Will Mawhood, Editor of Deep Baltic about my book, Siberian Exile. Thanks to Will for the excellent conversation.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

The first sentence we read in the book is “Someone always pays. The question is who. And the question is how.” Could you expand upon that a little?

Over the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the question of who paid for Anthony’s crimes and how. When I discovered the war crimes indictment against my grandfather, that is, that he had overseen a massacre of Jewish women and children in 1941, I was struck by the fact that he had seemingly not paid a price for those actions and for the choices he made. His wife paid the highest price, through her deportation and loss of her children. His children paid through the loss of their mother. As I write in the book, we, his grandchildren have paid as well in certain ways. I, for example, lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was 56 and I was 18 years old. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always connected his sudden death to childhood trauma. What interests me is the way that actions have echoes and consequences that become visible slowly, over decades and to what extent those echoes and consequences remain real today.

If your grandfather had been at home in Kaunas when the KGB arrived, he would almost definitely have been deported, and so would not even have had the option to consider whether to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces when they invaded Lithuania shortly afterwards. You write how tempting it is to wish for that single change – to wish for a misfortune, but one that would have prevented him from becoming complicit in terrible events. “In this alternate and, yes, selfish history, where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim”. Do you think family tragedy is in a way less hard to deal with than guilt?

In many families, tragedy and hardship can be points of pride. An ancestor who was wrongly imprisoned, for example, might be held up as an example of resilience but an ancestor who was rightfully imprisoned for committing murder is unlikely to be celebrated. This basic difference struck me as I was writing and a question arose for me: can we take credit for our ancestors’ good deeds, talents, and triumphs if we are not willing to take some sort of responsibility for their sins as well?

You describe how your grandmother was finally given permission to join the rest of her family in Canada in 1965, but how she always remained somewhat apart – having a distant, though seemingly unfractious relationship with her husband, and finding the material abundance and different customs and language of her new home hard to adjust to. She says about the experience of being reunited, during a later interview conducted in Lithuanian: “I felt that these weren’t my kids. That these weren’t my grandkids.” Do you think this was very typical of people like her, who had been deported for long periods of time, on being reunited with their families – that it was in some way a bittersweet experience?

I imagine that my grandmother was not alone in her experience of a bittersweet reunion. As I was thinking about what Ona’s and Anthony’s reunion must have been like, I didn’t have much information to go on, even second hand, so I did bibliographical research to try and understand the range of returnees’ experiences. I read about what happened to marriages when deportees returned to the spouses they’d left behind. Many marriages, unsurprisingly, did not survive and upon their return, deportees divorced. Oftentimes if deportees remarried after returning from Siberia, they ended up marrying other deportees. I think that makes sense. Few others could have understood a returnee better than another returnee.

In my grandmother’s case, I think that her children were tie that bound her to the family. She couldn’t and didn’t blame them for having become somewhat exotic creatures in her absence. From her 1977 interview, it seems that she worked hard to adjust to her new reality in Canada. That said, she must have mourned those lost years and having missed out on watching her children grow and mature. The great gift that she received shortly after her arrival in Canada was the birth of my cousin Darius. She really co-raised him with her daughter and I think that having a new baby in her life, a child who grew to love her like no one else, was life-saving and healing.

Continue reading the interview here.

[Photo: Ona and Margarita by their cabin in Siberia]

 

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Siberian Exile Wins Vine Award in Nonfiction

“Julija Šukys’s Siberian Exile is heroic.” — Jury, Vine Award for Nonfiction

Today, I was thrilled to accept the Vine Award in Canadian Jewish Literature for the category of Nonfiction. Thank you to the jury and to the donors and to Diana for being my date at the luncheon. What’s more, the award comes with a generous monetary prize, which I will put to good use. Photos include pics of my speech, the program, the lovely crystal plaque, two of three jury members announcing the winners, and a photo with jurors and a fellow winner in the History category.

Julija Šukys, accepting the Vine Award in Nonfiction. October 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
Jury members Joseph Kertes and Beverly Chalmers announcing the winners of the Vine Awards. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
The award plaque. Vine Awards.
Jury members Chalmers and Kertes with History winner, Hugues Théoret and Nonfiction winner, Julija Šukys. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.
The Program. Vine Awards, 2018.
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Teaching in the Archives: Women Writing Lives

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. 

[Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission]

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Review Essay: Siberian Exile in Fourth Genre

Thank you to Ned Stuckey-French for his appraisal not only of Siberian Exile (2017) but also of Epistolophilia (2012), and my work in general. His review essay, called “A Mind Thinking” (Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Spring 2018, p. 209-220) concludes like this:

As I was reading Siberian Exile, I began to think about what its predecessor [Epistolophilia] mean to the field of creative nonfiction. We talk often about the essay renaissance that has flowered in the United States since the 1980s. What Julija Šukys’s work reminds me is that this renaissance is, has been, and can be global in its reach. A Canadian who now writes and teaches in the United States but who was born into a family that was cast into the Lithuanian diaspora, Šukys is especially equipped to take the North American essay out into the world, and vice versa. The range of her work is stunning. It stretches across three continents, thousands of miles of travel, scores of interviews in multiple languages, and decades of history — extending from World War II through the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union to the present — but she also stops and looks at moments, boring deep into an exchange on a train or the night of a massacre. Her work is horizontal and vertical. It is historical and personal. She reveals the history of the last century through the lives of individuals, often as they faced the most dramatic moments of their lives, and she tells us the story of her own mind thinking about the history, the moments, and the people she has encountered.

You can also check out Curtis Woodstock’s review of a recent Siberian Exile event here. He calls Siberian Exile “wonderfully written, emotional, and real.”

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