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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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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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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Canadian Jewish News Review: Siberian Exile

Thanks to the Canadian Jewish News and Ania Bessonov for this careful reading of my new book, Siberian Exile.

You can read the review here. 

You can buy the book at a 30% discount using this flyer: SukysFlyerSiberianExile

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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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On Portraiture in CNF: A Report From the Seminar Room

“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”
 — Henri Cartier-Bresson

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
 — Oscar Wilde

Portraiture

It’s a snow day in Missouri, so I’m taking a few moments to return to the blog and share some impressions from the new semester. This time around, my grad students and I are contemplating and soon will be trying to produce effective portraits in creative nonfiction. Questions we’re asking of texts (ours and others’) include:

How does an author paint a compelling and true portrait of a person in words? What are the elements that make a portrait come alive? What are the pitfalls? Why do some of our attempts fall flat and produce lifeless caricatures rather than the intimate, complex, and nuanced texts we aim for? How do we deal with what we don’t and can’t know about our subject? What should or might the relationship between author and subject look like?

And in addition to writing flash portraits and full-length pieces for workshop, we’ll be reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and more. It’s all big stuff: long, hefty books. Perhaps not the best way to set our terms.

Our first order of business (yesterday) was to see what we could glean from small portraits and to begin assembling a set of hypotheses about how successful portraits work in CNF. I asked each of my students to choose an excerpt (or entire portrait) that could be read in under 5 minutes and to come to class prepared to defend the selection in what I called “The Battle of the Shortcuts.” After each reading, we pinpointed what we thought the text was doing successfully, and I filled the whiteboard with our ideas. This was the result:

photo[3]

Contenders included portraits by: Thom Gunn, Salman Rushdie, Sara Suleri, Mark Jenkins, Lynda Barry, Eula Biss, Mike Latcher, and Jeff Sharlet.

A vote determined the “best” choice (the battle, of course, was simply a device to frame and motivate our conversation). The winning student, whose portrait the group selected, got a coffee card to a café on campus.

Contrary to my predictions, we needed no second or third ballots to determine the victor. Michele Morano’s essay, “In the Subjunctive Mood” from Grammar Lessons handily won in the first round for its use of filters, frames, and the second-person voice to render the unbearable bearable. (I know this essay is available online somewhere, legally, but I can’t find it. If you come across the link, please send it my way so I can share it!)

There are more fun and games are to come, since I’ve decided to use my imagination and stretch the bounds of the usually staid and serious format that is the writing workshop. I’ll try to share more reports from the seminar room as we progress.

If you’re also leading CNF workshops and want to share some ideas, do chime in and let me know what you’re up to.

Here’s to a day of catching up with writing and editing and the drinking of tea. Stay safe!

[Photos: Paulgi and Eric Scott]

 

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Maisonneuve Magazine Names Epistolophilia One of the Best Books of 2012

Maisonneuve Magazine is published out of Montreal and “has been described as a new New Yorker for a younger generation, or as Harper’s meets Vice, or as Vanity Fair without the vanity.” The quarterly offers “a diverse range of commentary across the arts, sciences, daily and social life.”

When the publication asked its contributors to share their favourite reads of the year, Crystal Chan chose Epistolophilia by yours truly. Here’s what she says about it:

The book…evolves into a meditation on those at the margins of society (women, Jews, gentiles in Holocaust literature, Lithuanians, the mentally ill), and the power and place of archives and texts. What does it mean to be a woman who writes? By embedding herself into her book, Šukys managed to write a book that’s equal parts biography, personal travel memoir, and anthology of wartime correspondence, but that also transcends these genres. Most of all, this is a book-length essay in the tradition of Virgina Woolf.

My favourite line is the last one. To be considered as working in the tradition of Virginia Woolf — what a gift.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Bonnes Fêtes, su šventėm!

May the coming year bring you peace, good health, and good writing.

[Photo: 2day929]

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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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