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.
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.”
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.
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.
I’m so happy to announce that Epistolophilia has won the 2013 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature.
Here’s the jury citiation:
Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė
By Julija Šukys Published by University of Nebraska Press
Epistolophilia presents a new type of reading of Holocaust texts. Julija Šukys, a young Montreal-based scholar, tells the story of a genuine heroine of the Holocaust recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous. Time and again Ona Šimaitė would slip into the Vilna ghetto to bring in food, clothes, medicine, money, and counterfeit documents and leave with letters, manuscripts, and even sedated children swathed in sacks. In 1944 she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured, and deported to Dachau.
Julija Šukys sifted through mounds of letters and diaries to paint a portrait of a remarkable life. Šukys injects herself into the book, writing about her more than eight year journey researching and writing the book, discovering Šimaitė and the emotional connection that comes through a link to the past.
The official reception and awards ceremony:
Thursday, June 6, 8 PM | FREE
The Bram and Bluma Appel Salon
at the Toronto Reference Library
789 Yonge St., Toronto
OMNIBUS 2012-3 CANADIAN AUTHORS SERIES EVENT, MONDAY, APRIL 29, 5 P.M.
GERALD HILL. CASSIE STOCKS. JULIJA ŠUKYS.
UPPER CRUST CAFE, SOUTH EDMONTON. 10909-86 AVE.
Gerald Hill is the author of Fourteen Tractors (NeWest Press, 2009), for which he won the 2009 Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry. He has published four other collections of poetry: My Human Comedy (Coteau Books, 2008), Getting To Know You (Spotted Cow Press, 2003), The ManFrom Saskatchewan (Coteau Press, 2001), and Heartwood (Thistledown Press, 1985). He lives in Regina, where he teaches English and Creative Writing at Luther College at the University of Regina.
MacEwan University grad Cassie Stocks has just been awarded the 2013 Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for her first novel Dance, Gladys,Dance. She lives in Eston, Saskatchewan.
Narrative nonfiction writer and biographer Julija Šukys is the author of Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Šukys follows the letters and journals of Šimaitė (1894–1970), a Lithuanian librarian who for several years aided Jews in the Vilnius ghetto during German occupation. Eventually, her activities were detected by the Gestapo and Šimaitė was sent to Dachau. Journeying through thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings, Šukys negotiates with the ghost of Šimaitė, beckoning back to life this quiet and worldly heroine—a giant of Holocaust history (one of Yad Vashem’s honoured “Righteous Among the Nations”). The result is at once a mediated self-portrait and a measured perspective on a remarkable life. It reveals the meaning of life-writing, how women write their lives publicly and privately, and how their words attach them—and us—to life. Šukys is also the author of Silence Is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). She lives in Montreal.
Lately, I’ve been away from home a lot. And it’s all been in service of my book, Epistolophilia.
My “book tour” — as my sister-in-law so generously called the series of lectures, conferences and readings that I almost single-handedly organized and raised money for — has, since November, taken me from Toronto to Chicago to NYC, Washington DC, Worcester, Mass., then Missouri, Nebraska, Boston (twice!), and a few different venues here in Montreal.
Along the way, I’ve been greeted with heart-warming generosity and support. I’ve met readers who loved the book and wanted their copies signed, librarians and archivists who thanked me for giving them a hero, survivors and their children, young university students who were sweetly nervous to talk to me, and many colleagues and new friends who gave selflessly of their time to make my visits run smoothly.
Highlights included wine and cheese at a little NYC bistro with a French-Litvak documentary film maker, meeting a writer-researcher in Worcester whose book has been helpful to me in my current work, dinner with 7 feminist scholars after a reading at Assumption College, and witnessing the machine that my Nebraska friend Gediminas Murauskas (below) set in motion — namely, a whirlwind series of readings and meetings in Lincoln and Omaha that made me feel like some sort of rock star.
Last of all, there was the frenzied embarrassment of riches that is the AWP Conference — a meeting of 12,000 writers — held in Boston this year. I met essayists I’ve been corresponding with for a while and whose work I love, discovered new (to me) authors and books, listened to stimulating panels about CNF and memoir, and witnessed big-name writers read and talk about their work in a way that was familiar and friendly (Augusten Burroughs, Cheryl Strayed, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heeney, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Pam Houston, Roxanne Gay…and on and on). There were dinners and lunches to share with writer friends, wine glasses to clink, and much to learn.
Along the way, my son and husband have been forgiving of my absences. We all understand that this is temporary, but that supporting a book and meeting with readers is part of the job of a writer.
So, what did I learn about “touring” a book? Here are seven things, off the top of my head. If I come up with more, I’ll share those in the days to come.
Consider all invitations seriously, even those from smaller and less glamorous places. Readers are readers, and if they are reading your book, be gracious. Don’t be a snob.
Don’t go broke for the tour. I applied for grants to attend conferences and tapped into local funds available to support the arts. Embassies and universities can be good sources of funding. Sometimes all you need to do is ask.
Arrange to have books for selling/signing sent ahead to wherever you are reading. This avoids shlepping 30 pounds of paper onto a plane.
Pace yourself. The process is both exhilarating and exhausting. Don’t underestimate how tiring it is for an introvert to be “on” for several hours. Give yourself time to recover so your mood doesn’t turn nasty.
Try developing 3 or so versions of a talk, so that you can pick the most appropriate one, depending on the venue and audience.
Photographs and other visual materials are very effective at literary talks. Travel with a data stick and arrange technology in advance, but be flexible enough to go without visuals at the last minute in case you hit a technical snag.
Don’t punish those who came. Some of your events will hugely attended and others might be tiny meetings. Do what every writer on a book tour tells you to do: read and speak as if the room were full, even if there are only 7 people present, including you.
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 Epistolophiliaby yours truly. Here’s what she says about it:
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.