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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On the Occasion of Birutė’s Funeral

I think I was around 6 when I learned that my aunt Birutė didn’t know how to swim. My father Algirdas (her brother) told me this on the drive from our house to hers one Sunday.

“No way,” I said, “I don’t believe you.”

I had been swimming since before I could remember. Swimming, to me, was like breathing. It seemed impossible not to know how to do it.

“Ask her yourself,” my father said with a shrug.

I burst through the door of her house at 66 Aberdeen Road and posed my question before even saying hello. Birutė laughed and confirmed that, yes, it was true, she didn’t know how to swim. Between the war and the DP camps,  she’d simply never had the chance to learn.

The story stayed with me into adulthood. Before that day, Birutė had simply been my aunt with the beehive hairdo, immaculate house, and tidy garden – a woman without a history. But after that day, I became curious. I wanted to understand who she was. I wanted to know what kind of path had led to a life without swimming.

Swimming or no swimming, Birutė was a woman of great style and dignity. She was exacting and demanding of herself and those around her. To a child, she was even a bit scary. But as I grew, I began to see more and more evidence of a different Birutė – a devoted, loving, complicated, wounded, and generous one. I noticed how she forged strong bonds and maintained them. In particular, her late-in-life friendship with a woman named Habiba delighted me. Over the past few years, I heard stories about Habiba’s trips home to Africa, her family there, her delicious cooking, and her beauty. I know I’m not alone in my gratitude and appreciation for Habiba’s care and affection.

Birutė was the last living connection to our grandparents (for some of us, our great-grandparents, and even great-great grandparents) and to their story of tragedy and survival. She was our repository of memory and family history. She was my connection to the past and to people I wish I’d known better or lost too early. Her death has left me with a sort of ache, as if something (a limb, perhaps?) has been cut away. I will miss her always. Now that she’s gone, I will try to remember as she did, so that, when I’m old, our children and grandchildren can hear the stories of their ancestors.

Ilsėkis ramybėje, Birute. You were loved.

[Photo: simpleinsomnia]

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Who We Are

 

Julija Šukys (center), with (from left) Darius Kuolys, Rimas Čuplinskas, Kęstutis Girnius, Emilija Sakadolskienė. November 2019. Kaunas, Lithuania. XVI Pasaulio lietuvių mokslo ir kūrybos simpoziumas.

It was a whirlwind trip to my grandmothers’ beloved city, Kaunas (Kovno/Kauen). Verutė, my maternal grandmother, met her life partner in the Kaunas Sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse and where her beloved was a tuberculosis specialist. It’s also the city where my paternal grandmother spent as much time as possible after she returned from her long Siberian exile.

I had a great time in Kaunas. It’s a city I don’t know very well, but in the off hours, some of the other symposium-goers and I went dancing. It was my first outing to a diskoteka in many, many years.

I will admit: I’d had real fears and misgivings about presenting on Siberian Exile in Lithuanian to Lithuanians. To my great surprise and pleasure, those fears were unfounded, at least this time. My audience was warm, receptive, encouraging, and curious about me and my work. Several people came up to me afterward and expressed shock that I spoke Lithuanian, which I found odd but amusing. (There’s no way I could have written either Epistolophilia or Siberian Exile without access to Lithuanian-language sources).

Here we are, at the plenary session, discussion: “Who are we? Who do we hope to be?” (Just small questions for contemplation…). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was the odd woman out in my answers to these questions.

Thank you to all who made my trip so wonderful.

[Photo: Egidijus Balandis]

 

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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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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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Siberian Exile Wins 2018 AABS Book Prize

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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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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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