Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

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Thinking journeys: On work and play

Today my son Sebastian pulled out a chess set that I bought in Jerusalem’s Old City years before his birth. He tucked it under his arm and explained to me in a very serious tone that the chess set was his “work.”

First, he set up the chess pieces like bowling pins and knocked them down with a stuffed ball. A few minutes later, he packed everything up again, said bye-bye, and headed off to “work” (in a more conventional sense this time, I suppose). He returned seconds later and plopped himself down on the chess case in mock despair, lamenting that he’d missed his bus.

It suddenly occurred to me that Sebastian was on a thinking journey.

I came across this idea for the first time in Jerusalem, and I wrote about it in my first book:

At the end of a day Yaron [an education specialist] showed me a parcel that had arrived in the mail. “It’s one of my thinking journeys,” he explained, unwrapping a book and laminated card. The card illustrated the lunar surface, and on closer inspection I could see that it was textured. The depths of outer space were covered with a regular scattering of convex pinpricks, and a series of lines and dots defined the shape of the moon. Yaron’s kit was intended to teach blind children about the concept of space. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the bumps, feeling for moon craters. Did he have similar cards with stars and planets? I asked. Yaron shook his head. The point of this exercise wasn’t to teach children about space in the sense of identifying constellations, but to communicate the idea of space. (Šukys, Silence is Death, 87-88)

A thinking journey has no destination in mind: on these journeys the mind is the destination.

Until now, I’ve thought of reading and writing as thinking journeys: both take you through interior territories and are their own destination. Only today, while watching my son, did I realize that play is also a thinking journey.

There’s no point to play, yet for small children, play is the only point. It’s their work, and their best way to learn not only about the world in all its concreteness, but also about the idea of the world.

If play can be work, then surely work can be play. Laughter almost always accompanies a moment of insight, and our best texts are often the ones that (at some point) make us laugh while we write them. Work and play; play and work. Toute same? In some ways.

Happy journeys. Happy play. May your work bring you joy and your littlest loved ones show you truths you’ve forgotten.

[Photo: David Ortmann]

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Life-blood: Piers Vitebsky

Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Houghton Mifflin, [2005] 2006.

When I told my aunt that I wanted to go to Siberia to find the village where my grandmother (her mother) was exiled for seventeen years, her immediate reaction was: “you can’t do that! you can’t go there!”

Since then, she’s changed her mind, and though I don’t think she would ever considering striking out into the tundra to find Brovka herself, she is now one hundred per cent behind the idea of my making the journey.

But her initial reaction got me thinking about how we imagine Siberia.

For my family, Siberia is not a place, but a catastrophe. It’s a trauma of the past: a scar that marks every member of our family more or less visibly. And in this sense, my aunt is right: you can’t go back there.

So, when I decided that my next big project would be about Siberia, I wanted to start thinking about it as a real place, and to try and see it through different eyes.

Even though the tundra, the permafrost, and the mines of the region have served as a place of banishment, punishment, death, and exile for hundreds of years, the place has another significance.

For its indigenous people — the Eveny, Chukchi, Sakha, and many others — Siberia is home.

Piers Vitebsky is an anthropologist at Cambridge University, and his book, The Reindeer People, tells of his many journeys to Siberia, where he lived with Eveny reindeer herders. Together with them, he travelled, ate, slept, and made offerings of vodka to the gods.

After reading this book, I became fascinated not only by the herding life, but by anthropologists. From his book, Vitebsky appeared to be adventurous and gregarious: so different from the vast majority of literary scholars, philosophers, or philologists I’ve encountered, who tend to be tortured, introverted, and socially awkward (myself included). And on top of it all, Vitebsky was a good story-teller.

Who knew anthropologists were so cool?

He starts by giving quick historical overview of the Eveny people, followed by a warm account of their present lives.

Then, just when you’re wishing you too could live a nomadic life, he hits you with reality: alcoholism and suicide, environmental disasters, gender inequities, economic hardship, racism, the ambiguous relationship of the herder communities to the gulag system, and the death of their native languages.

Perhaps the bravest moment of the book, from a writer’s standpoint,  is when Vitebsky brings his wife and two children to spend a summer with him among the herders. The conflicts that arise are funny and instructive: they force the anthropologist to see things he’d never noticed before. Not every family would survive this kind of test, but to their great credit, the Vitebskys return home to England intact.

Scholarly and informed, Vitebsky’s book is absolutely accessible to a non-academic audience. It’s a good text to pick up if, like me, you want to see Siberia through a new lens.

[Photo by ugraland]

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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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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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