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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Two Stories of Ona

True story: A researcher at the archives at Kent State University stumbles on the transcript of an interview with her grandmother. This is what happened to me in 2001, when I made the trip from Chicago to Kent, Ohio to look at two boxes of uncatalogued Šimaitė papers. Inside one of the cartons was a black notebook labelled “Father Juozas Vailokaitis (1880-1953) in Siberia.” A note fixed to its cover read: “This Lithuanian material was found on a shelf in the Archive, unidentified, on January 2, 1994. It has been placed with these other materials in hope that the next researcher can identify it for us.” I almost fell out of my chair when I saw what was inside. It was a seventy-two-page interview with my grandmother.

I saw Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film The Double Life of Véronique when I was a teenager, and I remember loving it, but not understanding it. What was the connection between the two women who shared a name? How did their mirrored lives interact? Why did one live and the other die? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

Recently, this film has come back to mind with each new mirroring I find in the lives of my two Onas, who shared not only a first name, but second initial. Ona Šimaitė and my grandmother, Ona Šukienė, were born in Lithuanian villages within five years of one another. For both, 1941 was a pivotal year that changed their lives forever: this was the year the Nazis invaded Vilnius, and the year the Red Army deported my grandmother to Siberia. Fragments of both life stories ended up in one box in an American archive to which neither had any connection.

But when I visited my aunt a few weeks ago to talk about family history, I discovered yet another shared biographical detail: both Onas had unofficially adopted daughters named Tanya. Šimaitė’s Tanya was a young Warsaw woman whom she smuggled out of the ghetto; my grandmother’s, a Russian girl in Brovka who reminded her of her own daughters.

I’m not yet sure what to do with this constant doubling. What does it tell us about life? Are we to understand, perhaps, that there are only handful of “starter lives” handed out every generation, and then each individual must do what s/he can with a given template? Have I stumbled upon two variations on the theme of  “the Ona Š. life”? Does this mean that I am living “the Julija Š. life,” and that, if I leave enough behind, someone will find my double in an archive after I’m gone?

I’ve written about the find at Kent State in more detail in an article called “Brovka: Reconstructing a Life in Tatters (My Grandmother’s Journey).” You can read it via this link. (No subscription required)

[Ex libris plate by Žibuntas Mikšys; Photo by Julija Šukys]

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Four Things I Learned from my PhD Supervisor

I defended my PhD thesis at the University of Toronto in August of 2001, under the supervision of a renowned literary scholar and theorist. Linda Hutcheon has written about a dozen books, scores of articles, is respected by her peers, adored by students, and is one of the best examples of a successful writer-teacher you can find.

In the fall of 2000, I was in the fifth year of my doctorate, and there was no end in sight. Even though I was applying for jobs and postdocs, deep down I didn’t really believe I would ever finish my dissertation. Then, in January of 2001, I learned I had won a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and had twelve weeks to submit a finished thesis, or lose the fellowship.

In those twelve weeks, I learned some of my most important lessons about writing. Four of these came from Linda.

1) It’s not supposed to be easy: One day I showed up at Linda’s door, out of breath and exhausted. “This is hard!” I complained, plopping myself down in a chair opposite her desk. “Julija,” she replied. “It’s a PhD. It’s not supposed to be easy.” Neither is writing books. And it’s worth doing, in part, because it is hard.

2) Enough is enough: The key to finishing my dissertation was to set limits. When I told Linda that I thought I would have to write a whole chapter on the concept of the “other,” she shook her head and told me no. This was beyond the scope of my dissertation, and would only throw me off track. Only once I accepted that there were things that had to fall by the wayside could I actually finish my dissertation. And only once I’d allowed the reality of the text I’d written to replace the fantasy of the text I’d dreamed of could I move on to the next thing.

3) It’s not supposed to be torture: During those twelve weeks of intense writing, I had to read a lot. Some of this was the kind of reading I love (manuscripts, novels), but some of it was reading I felt I had to do. One highly theoretical book defeated and frustrated me to the point of tears. In my next meeting with Linda, I confessed this, and promised to keep trying to work through the text until I got it. She looked at me with a grin, and said, “Julija, if a book makes you cry, put it down, and for goodness sake, read something else!” Writing isn’t supposed to be easy, but it should be rewarding and meaningful. I learned to steer myself in directions that fed me.

4) Onward!: Every time I finished a chapter of the dissertation, I would hand it off to Linda to read. After marking it up and offering suggestions throughout, she would write a single word on the bottom of the last page: “Onward!” The lesson I’ve kept from that word: don’t rest on your laurels, don’t get too self-contented, don’t stop for too long, always look forward and think about what comes next.

[Photo by mlahtinen]

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Life-blood: Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson, Jane: A Murder. Soft Skull Press, 2005.

I read Maggie Nelson’s book after a Temple University professor recommended it to me as an example of writing that, like my own, was hybrid in form.

Jane tells about the author’s search for traces of her aunt who was brutally raped then killed in the late 1960s, before Nelson herself was born. The book is written as a series of poems, some of which are tiny and aphoristic, like the one from 1966 that goes simply “Cigarettes — one after another — why?” (188). But the story moves compellingly and fearlessly forward. Nelson weaves together fragments of Jane’s writing and other documentary material with her own reflections on life, death, memory, mourning, silence, violence, family secrets, coming of age, and the passage of time.

This is one of those problematic books that I love and publisher’s marketing departments hate: neither poetry nor prose, neither fact nor fiction, both memoir and biography. It’s a tightly controlled, exquisitely honed piece of writing whose beauty hurts, and that should serve as an example of what is possible when writing a life.

With Jane, Maggie Nelson has achieved something difficult: she’s made an anonymous life matter. And she’s done it without sentimentality or cliché. Read it. It may be the best book I’ve read all year.

(NB: “Life-blood” posts point to the work of other writers who, for some reason, have left on a mark on my thinking about how to write a life.)

[Photo by Jeff Westover]

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The Writing Life

A writer friend of mine asked me recently how I keep going when things aren’t going well, and what I do when I become blocked.

The most useful thing I do when I feel empty is read. I turn to authors whose work I want to emulate: Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, Assia Djebar, Joan Didion, for example. I try to feel their rhythms and learn from what they do. I also read for content, and try to learn more by following a trail of bibliographies and footnotes. Lately (and weirdly, for me), I’ve been reading anthropologists. Even though these books look nothing like what I write or want to write, a fresh perspective and a hit of learning is always good for a frustrated writer.

Next, when a text isn’t working, I’ll try something formal to shake it up: I change voice from first- to second-person (two of the articles I’m most proud of are written in the form of letters), I change tense, or cut a text up into very small pieces and start rearranging. Often, I do this literally, sitting on the floor with tape and scissors and paper fragments. Proust’s archived manuscripts are apparently full of pasted-in bits that fold out in all directions. It’s a time-tested technique, and there’s something about physically cutting something up that works differently for me than cutting and pasting on screen. It’s easier to see the crap for what it is, and to tease out the good stuff.

Finally, if I have nothing to write about, I do something. I travel, I go in search of something (I’ve written about visiting the Paris apartment building Šimaitė lived in and travelling to an Iowa town named after an Algerian national hero). The journey is a classic frame, and it works for me.

My next trip will be to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother was exiled for seventeen years. What do I hope to find? If nothing else, the sky she saw and the earth she walked on. That alone will give me something to write about.

[Photo by austinevan]

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Manuscripts and letters

I wrote my first book, Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout, on the basis of a public archive, using only texts that had been published. But with my second book, I discovered the pleasure of working with manuscripts.

In 2000, I came across a large collection of letters in the National Library of Lithuania. The letters were written by a librarian who had aided the Jews of the Vilnius Ghetto by hiding them in the university library where she worked, finding children places in orphanages, supplying false documents, food, money, clothes. Her name was Ona Šimaitė. I estimate that she wrote somewhere between thirty-five thousand and fifty-thousand letters during her adult life. Many of these survived and made their way into archives.

For years Šimaitė’s writings perplexed me. Pages and pages of diaries, manuscripts and notes. Heroic deeds, travels, tragedy, hardship, poverty. Revolution. Her writing is both mundane and sophisticated. Flat and poetic. Tedious and enlightening. And so began our long and intimate journey together.

You can find translations of Šimaitė’s letters here (The first link is a google books link, and the second requires a subscription. I’m working on permission to post PDF versions of both on the site, and will do so as soon as I can):

Šukys, Julija. “And I burned with shame”: The Testimony of Ona Šimaitė, Righteous Among the Nations. A Letter to Isaac N. Steinberg. Search and Research 10. Ed. Dan Michman. Trans. of archival documents from Russian, with an introduction. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2007. 76 pages.

Šukys, Julija.“Lost and Found in Vilna: Letters From a Librarian.” PMLA 118 (2): 302-17, 2003.

[Photo by timtom.ch]

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Writing Lives

For a long time I resisted calling myself a biographer. I didn’t mean to write these kinds of stories, or those kinds of books. But, like all the best things in life (cats, love) — biography chose me. Despite myself, and despite having been trained as a literary scholar at a time when the author was dead, when a writer’s intention didn’t matter, and when the makings of a literary life were beside the point, writing lives was what I wanted to do.

I started by telling the story of an Algerian author gunned down in 1993 in a civil war between armed militants and a dictatorship. He was thirty-eight when he was killed, and had accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime. His name was Tahar Djaout, and the book I wrote about him is called Silence is Death (his most famous turn of phrase).

Next, I wrote the story of a brave librarian who defied Nazism. She left us thousands of letters and scores of diaries in various languages. I used these to write the book I’m calling Beloved Profession. It’s not out yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

Now, I’m working on a third project. It’s a personal story that starts in Lithuania, continues in Siberia, and ends in Canada. I’ll let you know more as that develops.

This blog explores the writing of biography, autobiography and life-writing. I’ll share my understanding of the process, and point to others who I think are doing or have done interesting work in this area. We’ll see how it goes.

[Photo by Martin Marcinski]

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