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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Interview: Ocean State Review

I was deep into my work on the book when I discovered (to my great joy) that I was pregnant with my son. Once I was over morning sickness, it was an easy pregnancy and even a pleasurable one. I continued to work and travel until the last month when my blood pressure shot up. At that point, per my midwife’s orders, I abandoned my manuscript and put myself to bed. It was a long, long time – almost two years – before I managed to return to writing in a concentrated way. — J. Šukys, in an interview with The Ocean State Review

Thank you to Heather Macpherson for taking the time and energy to talk to me at length about writing, research, and my last two books, Epistolophilia and Siberian Exile. This interview appeared in the most recent issue of The Ocean State Review.

You can read the interview with The Ocean State Review here.

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Audio Interview: The Missouri Review

Not too long ago, I had a great conversation with the Missouri Review! Thanks to Sarah Beard for sitting down to talk with me. In “UNBOUND Book Festival Interview: Julija Šukys,” we talk about my book, Siberian Exile, research, digging into family history, archives, and much more. Come have a listen.

[Image: The Missouri Review]

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Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning

NOW AVAILABLE!

“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

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

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.

BUY Siberian Exile at the University of Nebraska Press. 

BUY Siberian Exile at IndieBound. 

BUY Siberian Exile at Amazon. 

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A Street Named for Ona Šimaitė in Her Beloved City of Vilnius

Street-sign-for-Simaite

I woke up this morning to the news that a street had been named for Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my second book, Epistolophilia. Šimaitė was a librarian, a feminist, a deep thinker, an obsessive letter writer, and a Holocaust rescuer. She loved Vilnius and its people, books, libraries, churches, theatres and markets. No doubt, the knowledge that one of its streets now bears her name would have moved her deeply. She didn’t believe in riches (she was a hardcore leftist who didn’t even believe in owning property!), but she loved words and had a deep reverence for humane gestures like this one. I think she would have approved.

I thank all those who have worked quietly (or not so quietly) to have her honored this way. I can’t wait to walk the street myself.

Photo courtesy of Defending History. You can read more about the naming ceremony via this link.

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Julija Sukys Talks to CKUT Radio About Creative Nonfiction and Canada Writes

Canada Writes

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.

You can listen to the CKUT interview with Anne Malcolm here.

You can read my Q & A (the one I refer to in the radio interview) about being a Canada Writes judge here. 

[Photo: .sarahwynne.]

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Epistolophilia Long-Listed for Charles Taylor Award in Literary Non-Fiction

As I posted on Facebook, I will admit that my hands shook for a while after learning the news that my book, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė has been long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize in Literary Non-Fiction. It’s an enormous honour.

THE CHARLES TAYLOR PRIZE commemorates Charles Taylor’s pursuit of excellence in the field of literary non-fiction. The prize will be awarded to the author whose book best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception. The prize consists of $25,000 for the winner and $2,000 for each of the runners up as well as promotional support to help all shortlisted books stand out in the national media, bookstores, and libraries. Authors whose books have been shortlisted for the prize will be brought to Toronto for the awards ceremony. The winner will be invited to read at the International Festival of Authors, held in October at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.

You can find the entire long-list here.

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New Review in Lithuanian-Canadian Weekly

Thanks to Ramunė Jonaitienė for this review in Tėviškės Žiburiai, the Lithuanian-Canadian weekly newspaper. Among the phrases I’m really grateful for is her description of my tone as “calm.”

Ačiū, TŽ.

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On Clutter

Pack Rat by davedillonphoto

Today, I return to my manuscripts. I’ve got both an essay and a book that I abandoned unceremoniously some four months ago. I can’t wait to get back to them.

But there were good reasons for my break from writing: there was our house in Gozo to pack up, our life to get back in order upon our return to Montreal, and Sebastian to entertain before day camp started up. Finally, I had paying work to finish and a new book to promote.

Before leaving on our 8-month Maltese adventure, I sifted through every belonging in our house and did a huge purge. Upon returning, we de-cluttered again, considering the use, value and necessity of each object as it emerged from its box. (Time and distance really do give you a good perspective on the things you own and drag around.)

Keeping clutter down in our house is tough for me. I’m a pack rat by nature, having descended from a long line of war babies whose instinct was to keep things just in case. For example, though my maternal grandmother’s house was spotless and tidy, its cupboards and closets were lined with neat little labelled packages of thread, photographs, letters, wedding shoes, fishing lures…you name it. She was a secret pack rat — literally, a closeted one.

My mother’s house, on the other hand, was just packed – totally randomly and without labels or order or pretence. When she moved out of her condo and into a nursing home (when her Multiple Sclerosis made 24-hour care necessary), I spent days shredding decades-worth of papers, among which I found several envelopes of cash and caches of family letters (I kept both). I sorted through broken furniture, piles of books, nonfunctional stereos, old records, dusty silk flowers, jars of pennies and foreign currency, dishes, and vases galore. I managed to get rid of most of the clutter, fighting my impulse to keep this or that just in case, but I shipped home the boxes and boxes of family photographs that had filled my mother’s living room wall unit. None of the photos are organized or in books. They are in envelopes or tossed loose into cartons. Most aren’t even labelled.

The idea of going through them now overwhelms me.

When we returned from Gozo, instead of putting these boxes back in our basement closet where they sat undisturbed for years since I’d moved them out of the condo, I left them out in a pile. Seeing them every day would mean I couldn’t ignore them, and I vowed to triage and order the images into some sort of family narrative. But even as I resolved to do so, I confessed to Sean that I couldn’t see how. I hadn’t even started, and already I felt resentful of the tedium that would stall my writing even longer.

“You’ve been saying you need a frame for the book, so write about it. Use the process,” he answered.

And a light went on. Sean had given me the key to finishing the book about my paternal grandmother and her life in Siberia.

I start this new phase of sorting and de-cluttering (and research) today.

I’ll let you know what I find.

[Photo: Pack Rat by davedillonphoto]

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Epistolophilia in the Montreal Review of Books

Šukys’s great respect for her subject inspires respect for her own book. “When I read [the letters]” Šukys writes, “I feel as though she is speaking to me directly…” And that’s also how readers of Epistolophilia feel, as though Šukys is personally telling us the story of this incredible, and incredibly important, woman over a cup of tea.

— “The Portait of a Lady,” by Mélanie Grondin, Montreal Review of Books

You can read the whole review here.

Thanks, Montreal Review of Books!

[Photo: trekkyandy]

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