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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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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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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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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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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