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.
“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
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.
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.
“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
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:
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]
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.
A friend wrote me that she’d bought the Kindle version of Epistolophilia. She commented:
“Really easy to read writing and I love the conversational style you use, although such a heavy topic. I find I have to read in doses. How did you keep from getting swallowed by sorrow while doing all the work and writing?”
She’s not the first person to tell me she’s had to read the book in small chunks to keep from getting overwhelmed by the terrible events it describes. Nor is she the first person to wonder about how I survive researching and writing about the painful eras I work on. It’s not an easy question to answer.
I’ve been thinking about my father’s death in relation to this question, and the process by which I was able to start talking and writing about the pain and sorrow associated with that loss. My father’s now been gone for twenty-one years, but it’s only been eleven years since I’ve been able to talk about him without drowning in sorrow. I’m only just beginning to be able to write about him, but doing so gives me perspective and helps me understand my own past in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. It also helps to feel that in writing about him, I’m creating something for him.
Something similar was in play with Epistolophilia. I’ve been researching the Vilna Ghetto for some fifteen years, and I worked on Epistolophilia for eight. Although there were days when the facts overwhelmed me, time and writing saved me from drowning. I worked very slowly, bit by bit, breaking the story down (not unlike some of my readers, interestingly) to very small pieces (3 pages at a time; 1 idea at a time). That helped. But the sense that I was writing the book as a gift for Ona Šimaitė was probably the most powerful impetus to keep going.
I must admit I’ve wondered what it says about me that I only write about murders, civil war, genocide, terror, and mass deportation. A psychoanalyst would, no doubt, have a field day. But I believe that someone must speak for the dead. Someone must tell the stories they couldn’t and can’t. And someone must try and remember a few souls threatened by oblivion.
That’s what I try to do.
[Photo: Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Police Armband by woody1778a]
Book Launch for Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė by Julija Šukys
June 7, 2012. 5:00-7:00 pm
2220 McGill College Avenue, Montreal, QC H3A3P9
Come one, come all! There will be jazz, nibbles and wine!
Please join Montreal writer Julija Šukys for the launch of her new book Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė. Šimaitė (1894-1970) carefully collected, preserved, and archived the written record of her life, including thousands of letters and scores of diaries. Epistolophilia beckons back to life this quiet and worldly heroine, a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honoured Righteous Among the Nations) and yet so little known.
Praise for Epistolophilia:
“Sukys draws liberally from thousands of pages of correspondence and numerous diaries to create a portrait of a deeply thoughtful woman trying to make sense of history and her own life by putting it all to paper. Also of Lithuanian descent, Sukys’s own meditations on the power of letters and writing make this a powerful testament to the confluence of history and individual lives and passions.”—Publishers Weekly
“Epistolophilia is not a typical biography, and Šimaitė was not a typical World War II hero. For readers looking for an unconventional account of the World War II and post-war eras, as well as those interested in women’s life writing,Epistolophilia is a nuanced and compelling work.”—ForeWord Reviews
Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):
Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.
Photo by Genevieve Goyette
This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.
978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp
When did you start reading as a child?
I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.
What were your favorite books when you were a child?
E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.
What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?
I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.
Who are your top five authors?
WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.
Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.
Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.
Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.
What book changed your life?
There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).
I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.