The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?

I’ve finally started writing my new book, Siberian Time, in earnest. It will tell the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to Siberia. Inevitably, too, it will tell stories about my family members: my father, his sisters, my cousins, my grandfather.

Because my chosen forms are the personal essay and creative nonfiction, I almost always appear in my work. Often too, there are traces of my husband and son, simply because they’re always around, and life with them colours everything I write and do. But until now, the prism of my life has been a tool for bringing someone else’s story into focus. My life, and that of my family, have never been at the centre of a project.

Until now.

So, I’ve just finished writing a lengthy essay about my 2010 trip to Siberia, when I travelled for four days by train across Russia to find the village where my grandmother was forcibly exiled. My cousin Darius came with me, and turned out to be the perfect companion. Before leaving, I warned him (with a laugh, but nevertheless deadly serious) that he would inevitably end up in my book, and he assured me that this was cool with him. Little did he suspect that my first piece of real writing stemming from our trip would be all about him.

For a long time I blamed the wound of my grandmother’s exile for the premature deaths of two of her three children. My father died suddenly of a heart attack when I was eighteen, and his sister (Darius’s mother) died of cancer about four years later. But only after returning from Siberia did I start really to wonder how my grandmother herself survived. Though it wasn’t so much about Siberia that I wondered, but Canada.

My grandmother arrived in this country in 1966, reuniting with her children after 24 years of separation. The six-year-old boy she’d left in Lithuania (my father) was balding, married and approaching middle age the next time she saw him.

The piece I’ve just finished asks the question: How do you survive when faced with incontrovertible evidence that life has passed you by? My answer: my cousin Darius. I explore the idea that he was her second chance.

My essay (currently titled “Trans-Siberia: Like Birds Returning Home”) narrates some painful memories that my cousin, who was in large part raised by our grandmother, shared with me on the train to Siberia. It also tells of our trip and of what we learned. Once I finished, I was pleased with my resulting text, but worried that I’d overstepped a line of privacy. The memories I used in my writing were not mine, and I felt I needed to ask permission before putting them out in the world.

So, I braced myself, and sent the text to Darius.

His response has been beyond encouraging. My cousin wisely counsels me to continue on, not to censor myself, and to be fearless. Nonetheless, I still feel a bit of uneasiness, and maybe that’s not so bad.

I recently reviewed Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries. In it he states that he doesn’t seek approval from those he writes about. And though I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t, and don’t disapprove, I nonetheless continue to feel a responsibility to those whose memories I use. I’m not sure how much vetting I’m prepared to invite or allow as the book progresses. You can’t please everyone, true, but to what extent are we answerable to those whose lives intersect with what we write? For me, this remains an urgent question.

I’d love to hear about others’ experiences in this area. Have you written something using others’ memories or experiences? Did you allow for vetting or approval? Did you suffer a backlash? What is the biographer’s or memoirist’s responsibility to the lives she borrows for her work?

(NB: My essay is still a draft and destined for an anthology about exile. I’ve given it to a trusted friend for feedback, and will announce its appearance in print once that happens.)

[Photo: supercanard]

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7 Replies to “The Right to Write, or Whose Story is This Anyway?”

  1. Hi Julia! (I hope it’s O.K. if I call you that.) I love your blog and your writing. It is simple and totally understandable, easy to follow, and yet there is a profound intelligence about your work. I have visited hundreds of blogs but I believe yours has filled a niche not yet covered. I look forward to following you and reading your wonderful work. She Writes is an awesome website also!

  2. Hi Elizabeth! Please do call me by my first name! Thank you so much for your kind feedback about my blog. Keep reading, and I’ll keep writing. I’ve worked in isolation for so long that it now surprises me to hear back from readers, and I love it. SheWrites is great — I love the diversity of writers and women present there.
    All the best!

  3. Julija,
    You have a great story on your hands, and I think your concern about whose story it is will make it an incredible tribute to everyone who has touched your writing so far. I have not written a memoir about someone else’s memories, but I have a story sitting in my head that would be just that. I am like you, I would walk lightly and respectfully, but I agree with your cousin that it is okay to walk bravely too. Do keep us posted on how these pieces come together for you. Absolutely best of luck to you!

  4. I’m in agreement with Elizabeth here, Julia – a complex, heartfelt struggle shared so honestly and simply. Thank you for sharing so much of your story here, as well as the back-story.

    As another aspiring memoir writer, I can definitely relate to the conflict, and as a former social worker, I have a lot of anxiety about appropriating stories. For my own work, I’m not comfortable with the “they can write their own book if they don’t like it” camp, and find some relief in sharing work with the person who may be most impacted by my telling. I think you’ve done a beautiful, brave thing by sharing your work with your cousin, in lieu of your grandmother, and what an encouraging gift to receive his blessing!

    It is a particularly difficult balance to walk, though, isn’t it? I applaud you for your work, for honoring your grandmother’s memory with your talent, and appreciated your examination here. Look forward to following how it goes for you, Julia.

    Be well –

  5. Hi All,
    thanks so much for your comments and feedback.

    First of all, about my name (there seems to be some anxiety on this front). For a long time I went by both Julia and Julija (“Yuliya”), depending on the linguistic context. Around the age of 17, I found the going back and forth between the two spellings schizophrenic, so I stuck with the Lithuanian spelling in all contexts. I still answer to and am completely comfortable with both pronunciations. If you spell my name “Julia” by force of habit, do not worry. I won’t be offended. I now sometimes wonder if that decision I made at 17 was the right one, but I seem to be stuck with it….

    Now, to memories and appropriation. I love that all of you are thinking about this question of responsibility, and find it interesting to hear Tele’s perspective as a social worker. One of the things I’d like to try with the new book is to look at things from more than one perspective, and maybe even give several (possibly contradictory) accounts or interpretations of the same events.

    I wonder how much of our anxiety is gendered too. I’d love to hear from some male memoirists or CNF writers on this question. How much of this is based in “good-girl syndrome,” I wonder.

  6. Hi Julija,
    Just discovered your beautifully-written blog. Though I’ve been in the Memoir group of SheWrites for quite a while, I have trouble keeping up with all wonderful ways to share out there. Your quandary is a common one in memoir and family history. Some say, just write your truth and don’t worry about what others think. But dealing with family and feelings, I don’t think that’s realistic. While we memoirists have our own story to tell, I think it would be harmful to just write about something another family member (or friend) might take umbrage at or feel pained/embarrassed by. I think it was Judith Barrington (Writing the Memoir — a great guide to the craft; and Lifesaving- her memoir) who wrote that she sent parts of her ms in which she related relatives’ experiences to those relatives to be sure they weren’t offended — and took out offending parts. Now if someone’s writing about an abusive parent — well, that may be different. I do think our memoirs are ours, however, reflecting our experience and emotional truths. As I’m writing my memoir on what I’ve discovered in family diaries, letters, photos, etc. and how it relates to my family’s life, it’s my story. If my brothers want to write about our family, they’ll have a different take, but then that’s THEIR story. I don’t need their permission for my point of view. I’m pretty sure I saw an article in The Writer (magazine) on this very topic — probably in their archives. Lots to juggle as we mine our memories and try to find our own truths — which can’t by anyone/everyone else’s. Thanks for starting the discussion!

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