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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“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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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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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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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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