On Archival Photographs and Paper Friends

Today I received the last photograph for my forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It shows the translator, Vytautas Kauneckas, at the desk in his Lithuanian summer home. Behind him stands a stack of texts sent to him from France by Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my book.

The photograph is from 1959 and has a few water stains. Yet somehow, despite the fact that his image was captured more than fifty years ago in the USSR, the man in the photograph looks utterly contemporary. When I opened the email attachment my colleague at the Vilnius University archives sent me, I found myself deeply moved.

Since I’ve been reading Kauneckas’s letters for the past decade, he (like Šimaitė) is someone I feel I know. Of course, since he died long before I began this project, I never met him. Our posthumous acquaintance only goes one way, but the eyes in that photo tell me I would have liked him not only on paper, but in person too.

In all, my book will contain twenty-seven photographs and two maps. There are lots of images of the book’s subject, the Holocaust rescuer and librarian, Ona Šimaitė, portraits of her correspondents (like Kauneckas), images of her letters and details from her diaries, as well as the shots of significant landmarks I took in the course of my research: her apartments in Paris and Vilnius, and the camps where she was interned.

The process of finding the archival photographs and obtaining permission to publish them has been complex. It’s required a lot of good will and patience on the part of archivists, who (lucky for me) tend to be kind and generous people. I have to say that it’s been worth the trouble, and I can’t wait to see all the visual materials in print.

I wish I could post the Kauneckas photo here, but I must respect the usage agreement I’ve made with the archive — which doesn’t include posting the image on a blog!

I hope that once they appear in Epistolophilia, these photographs will seduce my readers as much as they have me. And that you too will come to love these marginal, ghostly and paper friends as much as I have.

 

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Back from Washington DC: A Few Thoughts on the AWP Conference

The AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a professional association, much like the MLA (Modern Language Association) or the APA (American Philological Association). These organizations offer a number of services to their members: they publish journals, coordinate job listings, and organize annual conferences.

Though it was my first time at the AWP Conference, I’ve been to a bunch of similar events, normally held in a series of big overheated and overpriced hotels in a big city.

The vibe tends to be a bit hysteric, suspicious and overly competitive. So, I was pleased to discover that the atmosphere at the AWP was far cooler and much friendlier. And this is probably the case because in Washington there were three kinds of conference participants: writing students, writing teachers, and writers, or combination thereof (writers who teach, writers completing degrees, writers who write).

And while at other academic conferences, there’s a lot of anxiety about prestige and success (overwhelmingly measured by the ivy-leagueness of one’s home institution), the same things seem to be measured differently at the AWP.

Writers are interested in writing. They are interested in other writers. And because they spend so much time working in isolation, writers get pretty excited when there are others around who understand the writing process and have something intelligent to say about it.

I, for one, found the experience exhilarating.

I went to a talk on the Essay in the 21st Century, where the room was packed with people who also loved the form and wondered about its unsexy appellation.

Next, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on setting in nonfiction by Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats. She talked about writing about her home town and childhood spent downstream from a secret factory that built triggers for nuclear bombs, and the environmental devastation that has resulted. Though no visible trace of the factory remains, the land (about to be opened as a park to hikers) is plutonium-riddled.

Finally, the session I went to on Strategies in the New Nonfiction was so packed that I had to sit on the floor. There was talk of technology, imagination and (most interesting to me) narrative tension. Author Stephen Elliot (TheRumpus.net) talked about the economy of narrative, and how backstory “costs” tension. In other words, if you want to veer from your narrative arc, you have to be able to afford it. And to afford it, you have to have earned enough narrative tension. It’s the first time I’ve thought about story-telling in these terms, and I’m not sure I completely understand yet, but I have a feeling that this will prove to be an important lesson.

Writers talking about writing creates a great vibe. There’s a sense of community and of real conversation — surprising at a conference with 6,000 participants. But anxiety creeps in when talk turns to teaching. In some ways, these pedagogical conversations were even more instructive.

There has been a rapid proliferation of writing programs in the US recently, yet the jury is still out on so many aspects of creative writing programs: does the workshop work as a pedagogical form? can writing be taught at all? are such programs doing a disservice to their students in some way by sending them out into the world with dreams but bleak prospects? how should such programs address the crisis in publishing?

The good news is that all of this is on the minds of those who work in the field.

All in all, it was a great experience. If you’re a writer in search of a hit of professionalism or wider context, do check out the AWP.

And now, back to work. Gotta start earning that narrative tension.

[Photo: chavelli]

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On Literary Friendship

It’s grant season, so I’m writing my yearly emails asking friends and mentors to act as references in various competitions. I’ve been particularly overwhelmed by the encouragement and unqualified support I’ve received on all fronts, even from writer-friends I’ve never met in person and only know through email. All this literary love, as it were, has gotten me thinking about friendship.

It’s a lot easier to put your head down and keep working when you know you have supporters behind you.

One of my first real literary friends (not counting my husband and my friend, Mark, who reads all my manuscripts) came into my life about two years ago when I published a short piece from my now forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It was a bad time. My writing was stalled and I had begun to despair at whether I would ever finish the monster that had already eaten up some six years of my life but whose end was not at all in sight. Then one day an email arrived from another writer, a Toronto novelist, saying that my piece was the most exciting thing he’d read in a particular journal for years.

This note from a perfect stranger who had taken the time to track me down for no other reason than to extend himself in friendship gave me a boost that may just be responsible for my having finished my manuscript.

Literary friendships can be harder to come by than you would think. Writers are loners and they are competitive. We suffer from schadenfreude and pettiness, but our worst vice is, without a doubt, envy. And envy coupled with self-doubt is a very bad combination indeed.

It’s been over a year since I consciously started to try and follow that Toronto novelist’s example, and to extend myself to other writers. To do so, I had to work on conquering my jealousies.

I decided that when another author got an agent, I would be happy for her. When a writer I knew signed a contract, won an award or got a grant, I would celebrate his accomplishment. I would take the success of others to mean that I too could succeed.

I don’t know if it’s the new outlook, or if my work has actually gotten that much better, but there’s a lot more literary love in my life since I made the change.

So, to my writerly friends: thank you.

Because of you, I am less alone at my desk.

[Photo: Jenser (Clasix-Design)]


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Mystery tomatoes

For some time now our family has been ordering our groceries online from a local company called “Les Jardins Urbains” (Urban Gardens). At first, the idea was simply to streamline our lives and to save our Saturdays that were getting eaten up by thankless tasks like shopping. We’ve been procuring food like this for well over a year now, and pray that Reza, our friend and proprietor of “Les Jardins Urbains,” will never go out of business, because we could never go back.

Reza’s food is organic and largely local. Our duck, for example, comes from Lac Brome, our carrots from the Saguenay, and our tomatoes from his greenhouses.

I’ve never been a much of a food snob or a big believer in the organic movement (for one thing, I’m suspicious of the ecological argument for organic strawberries that have travelled to Quebec from California), but I have to admit that our new way of accessing food has changed our relationship to it. We now eat more seasonally than ever before — each spring we await the news that the special sweet and spicy lettuce blends are available and that garlic shoots can  be ordered — and food that is grown close by really does taste better.

But tonight, together with my weekly food delivery, came a surprise. I was gardening when Reza announced that he had a gift for me.

A few minutes later he returned from his van bearing four tiny tomato seedlings. He explained that after reading my post about how gardens reflect our lives, he’d been inspired to bring me some plants. There’s a hanging one for our son, one each for my husband and me, and one that I’m symbolically setting aside for our cat Yashka, since we don’t want any orphans or jealousy.

The tomatoes, he said, are a mystery. We don’t know what colour or shape each will bear, but they won’t be conventional.

So what started for me as a purely practical matter — this habit of ordering food every week — has brought unanticipated richness. Friendship, better health, a reader I didn’t even realize I had, and a heartwarming acknowledgment of my work in the form of four mystery tomato plants.

If you live in the Montreal area, check out “Les Jardins Urbains” here.

[Photo: Ken Whytock]

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On the kindness of strangers

For the past week I’ve been sending badly written Russian emails to strangers all over Siberia. In them I explain that I will be arriving in Tomsk with my cousin in August by train, that we are looking for the village where our grandmother lived and worked for seventeen years, that I am a Canadian writer of English-language books, and that I would appreciate any help they could offer in locating Brovka.

Amazingly, some of these strangers respond.

This is not the first time I’ve imposed myself and my odd sense of what’s worth writing about on people I don’t know. I’ve arrived in small American towns asking strange questions about saints’ relics, place-names and local history and I’ve shown up in French villages inquiring after long-forgotten WWII prison camps.

Perhaps it’s because I’m obviously harmless and seem a bit naive. Or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely interested in hearing stories about these out-of-the-way places. But strangers tend to be kind and generous to a writer looking for a story, and people from forgotten parts of the world want to share what they know.

So, over the last week I’ve struck up a friendship with a woman in Tomsk who is the president of the region’s Lithuanian friendship society. Her father was a Lithuanian exile who married a Volga German, also exiled to Siberia. Svetlana was born in town on the Mongolian border and moved to Tomsk to study at one of the city’s five universities.

She has already done a great deal of research on my behalf: making phone calls and passing on information to archivists (more kind strangers) who have taken it upon themselves to search for traces of my grandmother amongst old census documents. We write to each other in different languages: I, in Lithuanian, and she, in Russian. We manage to understand one another, and there is a warmth to our communication that I would never have predicted, though perhaps should have, bound as we are by the memory of exile.

For Svetlana, exile has become home. She lives in Siberia not because she must, but because it is where she was born, where she studied, and where she works.

I can’t wait to meet her. I suspect she’ll have a lot of stories to tell.

[Photo: Daniel Gasienica]

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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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