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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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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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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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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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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