What is life-writing?

“How many times has someone said that writings of a particular woman had no value because they were merely about daily events?” — Elizabeth Hampsten, Read This Only to Yourself.

The term “life-writing” designates private texts not written for publication,  primarily letters and diaries.  It can tell us a lot about the past, how people lived, what they thought, how they organized their time. It can also tell us about the internal lives of people who have traditionally gone unnoticed, especially women. And although we might read much life-writing for content, many of us are interested in life-writing not only as historical artifact, but as literature.

But for all its richness, life-writing poses challenges. Unlike a formal biography or autobiography, it tends have little structure other than chronology, its boring parts aren’t edited out, and obscure references go unexplained. Life-writing records life at as happens. It’s raw and real. Sometimes this isn’t a good thing, but what surprises me more is how often it is.

What continually amazes me about a pile of letters spanning a decade or more is how successfully they tell a story, bit by bit, day by day. Despite the chaos of daily life and lack of artifice, life-writing holds its own. Reading a collection of letters can be a  moving, intimate and compelling experience.

I wrote my first book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout,  on the basis of a public archive, telling Djaout’s story through the books and articles he left behind after his 1993 death, when he was gunned down through his open car window. I didn’t interview his family members or visit his grave. I didn’t read his letters or diaries. Instead, I built a relationship with him inside my head, and carried my idea of him for several years while I wrote my (his?) book.

But with the next big project, I decided to take up a new challenge: to tell the life story of a woman who did not consider herself a writer, even though she wrote an amazing number of letters and diaries. Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my second manuscript, wrote somewhere between thirty thousand and fifty thousand letters during her adult life. A great number of these survived, and they served as my primary source.

For years Šimaitė’s writings perplexed me. Pages and pages of diaries, manuscripts and notes. Heroic deeds, travels, tragedy, hardship, poverty, revolution, shopping, cats, visa applications, debts, books, weather: these are the themes that circulate through her writing.

It is both mundane and sophisticated. Flat and poetic. Tedious and enlightening. Just as the woman herself. Just as life itself.

[Photo: Paul Worthington]

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Life-blood: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year. Harper Collins, 1995.

I wish I’d read The Blue Jay’s Dance a year and a half ago, when I was trying to rebuild my writerly self eighteen months after the birth of my son. In a flurry of frustration and aloneness, I read everything I could find on writing and mothering: Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath. For some reason, Louise Erdrich’s book never made it onto my horizon before now.

It’s the book I was looking for back then.

The Blue Jay’s Dance tells about writing and mothering in the first year of a baby’s life. Erdrich had six (six!) children when she wrote this book. The first three were adoptive kids who came with her husband into their marriage, the second three were all girls she birthed. The baby in the book is a composite of this latter trio.

Erdrich’s text shows how writers work: it stages the stillness, quiet, and observation that a life of writing requires, and the walks, musings and meanderings needed for story-telling, invention and problem-solving. She watches insects, flowers, and birds with an interest that is both scientific and poetic, and writes about the small and everyday in way that is absorbing. She describes the pleasure of nursing and the pain of birthing without cuteness, gore or cliché. And she tells with refreshing honesty how writing and love are occasionally at odds:

Women writers live rose nights and summer storms, but like the blue-eyed jumping spider opposite our gender, must often hold their mates and families at arm’s length or be devoured. We are wolf spiders, carrying our babies on our backs, and we move slowly but with more accuracy. We learn how to conserve our energy, buy time, bargain for the hours we need. (143)

The Blue Jay’s Dance is an intensely bittersweet book. It’s about birth, but also about death – of grandparents and beloved animal companions. It’s about how time goes too fast, and how we both want our kids to grow and to stay little forever. It’s about the realization that when your baby is big, you will be old, and about how every minute gained for writing and work comes at a price. It’s about parenting with a lover and colleague, and staying strong and unified when it’s easier to divide and resent.

I didn’t want this book to end. When it did, curiosity got the better of me, so I did a quick  search to find out more about Erdrich.

It was devastating.

This woman, so positive, brilliant and balanced, and who thrice came through the Year-One-Firestorm of Motherhood intact, had the carpet pulled out from under her soon after The Blue Jay’s Dance was published. First: divorce from Michael Dorris (the dissolution of the “literary love affair of the century”), ugliness surrounding alleged sexual abuse of the adoptive children by Dorris, and finally Dorris’s suicide.

All this fills with me with a deep sense of compassion and admiration for Erdrich who has continued, despite all of this, to work amazingly well.

Just last year she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

You can read Michael Dorris’s obituary in Salon.com here. It sheds some light on the writer’s marriage and collaboration with his wife, as well as on Erdrich’s career.

[Photo of Louise Erdrich at Darmouth by Joseph Mehling]

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“The Good Librarian”

Today I came across a blog post by the archivist at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Archives, where some of Ona Šimaitė’s papers are held. Šimaitė, of course, is the subject of my second book manuscript, Beloved Profession, whose impending publication I hope to announce very soon.

I sat with the Hoover Institution’s Šimaitė collection for a week or so during my round-the-world research trip in 2003-2004, taking the train every day to Stanford from San Francisco, where my cousin was putting me up. At first I was disappointed by the find, wanting to hear more of my librarian’s stories in her own voice (most of Hoover’s Šimaitė papers consist of  letters written to her, rather than by her). But by the time I was finishing my book, portions of the Hoover collection proved to be valuable in ways I hadn’t foreseen, particularly a set of letters written by a translator named Vytautas Kauneckas.

Kauneckas and Šimaitė had one misfortune in common: each had a beloved young woman in their lives (Kauneckas’s daughter; Šimaitė’s niece) who suffered from schizophrenia in Vilnius. The Kauneckas letters turned out to be an important resource for me to write a chapter about what it meant for young women to have a mental illness in the USSR of the 1950s and ’60s. Both Šimaitė’s correspondence with her niece and the Kauneckas letters offered up a devastating and rare portrait of female madness behind the Iron Curtain.

It was yet another instance when the thread of a life took me to places I never would have thought to go, and where I learned more than I ever could have predicted.

Thanks to the archivist David Jacobs for giving Šimaitė a stronger electronic presence. I hope to make her story more widely known soon.

You can read David Jacobs’ post called “The Good Librarian” here.

[Photo by Appleswitch]

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“Toute same” (It’s the same thing)

My father died very suddenly when I was eighteen years old. Shortly after his funeral, my mother dreamed he came back to life. She couldn’t explain how; he was just back. The weird thing was that the dream seemed largely to be about the bureaucracy of death. My parents sat on the couch for a long time trying to figure out how to navigate the funereal red tape in reverse. How did one undo a death certificate? How would they reinstate his credit cards and financial records, and how was he going to explain this at work?

My dreams about him are less comical.

I once had a swimming dream where I could see him under water, but could neither reach him nor get his attention. I kept yelling Tėte! Tėte! (Dad! Dad!), diving down trying to reach him as he swam away.

In my last dream, he was lying in bed at our old house wearing blue pajamas. My mother lay beside him. Downstairs, both the the lights and stereo were on, and on my way to bed, I thought to myself how careless my father had been in not turning these off. I had a feeling that there was something strange about his being up there in bed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. I knew I hadn’t seen him touch my mother in a very long time, or kiss her, or help her in any way, and I couldn’t figure out why. Until I remembered, and woke up.

It took me years to forgive him for abandoning my mother at the moment when she really began to need him, when her Multiple Sclerosis finally became debilitating. Perhaps I even blamed him for worsening her condition. It’s no coincidence that she began using a cane shortly after his death. The stress of his death had brought on an attack.

I have now lived longer without my father than I did with him. I no longer blame him for dying, or for leaving my mother alone in this world, or for making her sicker. I am no longer angry at him.

Instead, I concentrate on my mother as she continues to live and to persevere in her own way.

Ten years ago, she told me in a terrible phone conversation that she didn’t think her body would last another decade. And yet, here she is. She is wheelchair-bound, and has lost the use of three of her four limbs, but when she turned seventy a couple of years ago, it felt like a victory against death. Her life is still hers to live and her story still hers to tell.

I have no doubt that the shock of my father’s sudden disappearance is at the root of my drive to remember and record life stories. Writing about him, about my grandmother, about Šimaitė, Djaout, and others is the one way I know how to fight oblivion and darkness.

Life-writing. Death-writing. Toute same, as my three-year-old son would say in his fusiony Franglais. It’s the same thing.

And if my father is the death in my life-writing, my son is the life in my death-writing. He is both the reason I get up and the alarm clock that wakes me. In many ways, it’s for him that I remember the dead, because I want him to know their stories too.

[Photo by slightly confused]

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On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]

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Lifeblood: J. Edward Chamberlin

J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?: Reimagining Home and Sacred Space. Pilgrim Press, 2003.

Ted Chamberlin was one of my professors at the University of Toronto, and if you read his book, you’ll understand what a good teacher and storyteller he is. It weaves together tales about cowboy culture, travels through Australia, his childhood fascination with mathematics, and of how chaperoning his daughter and friends at a U2 concert proved to be a turning point in his thinking about poetry and longing.

Among the best stories in the book is one Ted told me over lunch about ten years ago. It’s about going out into the Namibian desert with a tape-recorded greeting in a language thought to be dead. Not so, as it turns out: Ted and his collaborator ultimately found a handful of elders who responded to the greeting, and thus located the last speakers of an African language called N|u. The language is now being taught to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those elders.

If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? is about the connections between storytelling, language, land, identity, and social justice. Most importantly, the book proposes a new and radical way of thinking about and sharing land in places like Canada and Australia, where native peoples have been dispossessed of their homes, and who are in danger of losing languages, collective memories and culture as a result.

For me, this book confirmed that small peoples, marginal languages, forgotten places, and even anonymous lives were worth telling about:

“For ultimately it is all about the nourishment of what we might as well call the human spirit, that part of us which invents and discovers, as well as listens and watches and waits, and hopes and prays. Without it we are desperate.” (193)

[Photo: Fred Dawson]

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A Shout-out to El Watan

I recently came across an article referring to my book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, in El Watan, a major Algerian newspaper. The piece’s author, Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha, writes about the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader (or Abd El Kader), the Iowa town of Elkader that was named for him, and two international writers (including yours truly), who have written about the connection between the town and its namesake.

Also cited is John Kiser, who, in a addition to his recent work on Abdelkader, has written a very good book called the The Monks of Tibhirine. Both Kiser and I travelled to Elkader around the same time to see what an American town named for an Algerian looked like. Benhouna Bensadat Mustapha compares our travel narratives.

Here’s an excerpt:

L’éveil culturel pour l’Emir Abd El Kader et pour l’Algérie se perpétue à El Kader, qui a dernièrement été visitée par 2 célèbres écrivains : John Kiser et Julija Sukys. Tous deux ont écrit deux récents ouvrages sur l’Algérie. Le fait, marquant une coïncidence heureuse, est que tous deux ont réservé le premier chapitre de leurs ouvrages respectifs à la magie qu’a exercée sur eux El Kader (USA) et l’histoire de son appellation. Julija Sukys, en se documentant pour son livre La vie et l’œuvre de Tahar Djaout, a été charmée par le fait qu’une petite ville dans l’Etat de l’Iowa puisse se nommer El Kader. Son livre s’ouvre, donc, sur comment El Kader avait été ainsi baptisée et utilise cet exemple pour mettre en scène et raconter la vie et l’œuvre de l’écrivain poète Tahar Djaout. Elle nous révèle également que des ouvrages d’auteurs algériens sont choisis dans le cadre de lectures publiques. Elle nous apprend que pas moins de 9 forums — qui sont étalés sur 6 semaines — ont été organisés dans le comté de Johnson, voisin d’El Kader. Un questionnaire, précise-t-elle, avait été distribué pour servir de guide au public pour discussions ainsi qu’aux professeurs pour son utilisation en classe. Cet événement culturel particulier avait culminé avec une interview avec l’auteur algérien, Assia Djebar. La réaction du public à ce programme avait été enthousiaste. La liste de commandes chez les librairies locales, souligne-t-elle, pour Le dernier été de raison de Tahar Djaout, par exemple, avait augmenté d’une manière significative et que très vite le roman est devenu le best-seller local. Finalement, Julija Sukys conclut son premier chapitre avec un message personnel : « En appelant sa ville El Kader, Timothy Davis ouvrit une porte grande ouverte sur le monde dans un pays qui cherchait à s’enfermer sur lui-même. Une chose curieuse se produisit à El Kader au moment de son baptême, une petite ouverture dans l’univers avait été creusée… cela a formé un cordon (ombilical) qui s’étend à travers l’Atlantique, unissant les Etats-Unis à l’Algérie… C’est aussi une porte grande ouverte sur d’autres mondes : l’Orient mais aussi l’au-delà. Le temps, la langue et l’espace n’auront aucune emprise. Le présent et le passé coexistent (déjà). Bienvenue à El Kader. »

You can read the whole article here.

[Photo of vintage Algiers postcard, ca. 1910, by postaletrice]

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For Love and Money

I’m always on the prowl for new grants, fellowships and residencies. Grant money allows me to buy office supplies, books, pay for postage, daycare and to travel. In past six years, for example, my research has taken me to Paris, Toulouse, rural Lorraine, Vilnius, Jerusalem, California, Ohio, and New York. A couple weeks ago, I learned that I won my second Canada Council grant (hurray!), so the research trip to Siberia is looking like more of a reality every day.

A few tips when looking for grant money:

Think topically. I received a lot of funding for my second book from Holocaust research institutes.

Think regionally. Every province and territory in Canada, just about every US state, and some cities have artist grants for residents.

Think about who you are. There are grants for young women, older women, LGBT individuals, people of colour, and so on. There might be one for you.

Don’t reject small grants. It all adds up. The research for my second book was funded primarily by small grants that laid the groundwork for bigger grants later. More recently, The Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund paid for a few months of daycare, so I could finish my manuscript.

Don’t be afraid to ask. Apply, apply, apply. The worst a granting agency can say is no.

Happy hunting!

Granting agencies that have supported my work include (Links to each appear at the margin under the heading “Grants and Fellowships”):

  • The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  • Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Studies
  • The Holocaust Educational Foundation
  • The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
  • Le Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec
  • The Canada Council for the Arts
  • The Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund
  • The Banff Centre for the Arts

[Photo: monkeyc.net]

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Women, Writing and the Angel in the House

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks a series of questions: Why have women traditionally written so little when compared with men? What needs to change in women’s lives in order to make writing possible? And why have women been so absent from literary history?

The answer, she suggests, lies in the conditions of women’s lives. Women raise children, have not traditionally inherited wealth, and have had fewer opportunities to make the money that would buy time for writing. Women rarely have partners who cook and clean and carry (or share equally) the burden of home life. Our lives have long been and largely continue to be fractured, shared between child care, kitchen duties, family obligations.

To write, what a woman needs most is private space (a room of one’s own), money and connected time (that only money can buy).

Woolf wrote her thoughts on women and writing in the 1920s, a time before all the ostensibly labour-saving devices like washing machines, slow cookers, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and so on. Most North American women now work outside the home, and most can probably find a corner in their houses to call their own. Problem solved? No. Despite all this, we still find ourselves fractured and split.

At least I do.

The first year and a half of my son’s life – he’s now three – shattered my understanding of myself as a writer.

They say nothing prepares you for the realities of having a child: cliché, yes, but true. Although, on some level, I must have understood that my writing would suffer after my son’s birth, I still wasn’t prepared when, for the first time in my life, the thing that made me who I was became impossible to do. Writing suddenly found its place at the bottom of a long list of other priorities, and fatigue only made matters worse.

Only once my son grew, and after making a series of decisions about child care, home care, and food supply did I begin to relocate as sense of my former identity.

In “Professions for Women” Woolf calls this process of carving out writing time, “killing the Angel in the House.” Who is this Angel? She is sympathetic, charming, unselfish, family-focused, self-sacrificing, undesiring, compliant and generous. She is the good wife, mother and hostess. She is Martha Stewart, June Cleaver and Betty Crocker combined.

“Had I not killed her,” Woolf writes, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing” (Woolf, Women and Writing 59).

I’ve been back to writing for more than a year, and for now, I think I’ve successfully killed my Angel.

Do you have an Angel to kill?

[Photo: Man Ray’s Virginia Woolf by A Room With a View]

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Life-blood: Assia Djebar

Assia Djebar, Algerian White. Translated from the French by David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager. Seven Stories Press, 2000.

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I invited the Algerian author Assia Djebar, who was in Toronto for the International Writers’ Festival, to dinner. We were in the process of putting together a literary anthology about archives and hoped that she would contribute something. I picked her up in a cab, and we met the others at an Argentinean restaurant known for its slightly bohemian atmosphere and good food. By then, the targeting and killing of authors, artists and intellectuals in her country had ended, but as we sat down for dinner, it was still on our minds. She chose a seat against the wall, explaining almost apologetically, that she felt safer this way.

From 1993 to 1997, some sixty journalists were killed in Algeria, many assassinated in the most horrifying ways imaginable. Also targeted were the country’s poets, playwrights, educators, police officers and Catholic clergy and monks, not to mention 100,000 ordinary Algerians.

In Algerian White, Djebar chronicles what she calls the death of Algerian writing. The book is dedicated to, and in part addresses, her three dear friends – a psychiatrist, a playwright, and a sociologist – all brutally murdered in 1993.

In many ways, Algerian White is an imperfect text. And even though (or perhaps because) you can feel that it was written quickly and through confusion and anguish, it’s one of the best examples of writing about mourning that I know. Djebar writes of her attempt to refuse healing, dreading the forgetting that comes with it: “No; I say no to all ceremonies: those of farewell, those of pity, those of chagrin which seek their own comforts, those of consolation” (53). But healing comes regardless. The writer, out of self-preservation, or simply carried forward by the wave of time, finds herself moving on:

“I simply live again elsewhere; I surround myself with elsewhere and my pulse continues to beat. And I regain the desire to dance. I laugh already. I cry as well, straight afterwards, troubled to note that laughter is returning. What, I’m getting over it! In my own way, I forget.” (138)

Djebar has a large body of work of novels, essays, films and poetry. She writes about women and Islam, about war, colonization, migration, North African history, and about our relationships to language, song, stories, land and the idea of home.

If you don’t know her work, take a look. She’s worth your time.

[Photo: cultphoto]

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