Anne Michaels Reads From THE WINTER VAULT

Anne Michaels steps to the microphone and I am enchanted by her mass of dark curly hair. Her voice draws me in with the weightiness and scope of her subject matter. This is no ordinary author reading. She’s not talking about a simple plotline and a quick read. This is a book to be savoured slowly and tenderly with each well-chosen word. The sensual images draw the reader in and bathe you in a dreamy cloud of emotion that lingers long after the book is closed.

I feel badly that I haven’t yet finished THE WINTER VAULT, but I find many others at the reading who also haven’t finished it. It’s a slow read, one that raises many emotional, moral and philosophical questions. It takes time to digest, to ruminate and figure out where we stand. The author tackles these tough issues head-on, but with intimate gentle language that engages the reader.

THE WINTER VAULT is a personal story, a love story, set in a larger historical context in three different settings, Ontario, Egypt and Poland. The historical contexts are the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s and the rebuilding of Warsaw after the Second World War.

The moral and philosophical questions she raises are enormous: science vs. emotion, engineering vs. culture and humanity, the personal history of many vs. the legacy of an important person, authentic vs. recreated landscapes, replicas of cultural heritage vs. sites of heritage significance left ‘in situ’, true memory vs. rewritten tourist ‘history’, progress vs. stagnation, home vs. transience. And more.

I feel a personal connection to her questions from my work as a Historical Planner with the Ministry of Transportation in the 1980s-90s. The ‘mitigation’ solution for heritage resources never felt ‘right’ to me though it was the engineering solution to inconveniently located archaeological, natural or built heritage sites. Many years earlier in 1964, a visiting anthropology professor I met at a party invited me to come to Egypt and join a physical anthropology project. As the Nubian people were being displaced from their home for the building of the Aswan Dam, anthropologists were seizing the opportunity to take physical measurements of them. I felt squeamish and never went. Last year I wrote a poem about it.

Aswan: A Road Not Taken

The theme of The Winter Vault
reminds me of a night.
Was it ’64? maybe ’65.

A house party on Davenport.
Along the curve
towards Avenue Road.

Drinking too much.
Hopping over rooftops
Across the abyss, not noticing.

Some visiting professor
tries to persuade me to
come to Egypt.

The Aswan Dam is coming.
Nubians being relocated
-displaced actually-
A chance to measure
skulls and bodies.
For science.
No ethics approval required.

I apologize, stuttering something about
Grad school in the fall.
And wonder these years later:
what if I’d gone?

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

Moving From Memoir to Novel: Jane Boruszewski's Story ESCAPE FROM RUSSIA

“Your father was lucky to be living now in Canada, and you are lucky too” Janina wrote in one of her comments to me in a writing workshop. She knew all about luck: both the bad luck of being born in Poland in 1926, and the good luck of being a survivor. She was 13 when Stalin’s cruel regime deported her family and over a million and a half Poles from their homes to northern Kazakhstan, Siberia. On the way or during the first winters, many died of starvation including her father, an aunt, her sister, Helcia and a baby brother. She managed to survive the harsh life until the amnesty in 1942 when she left by train with her family to find the Polish Army. When she and her brother and sister contracted typhoid fever they were hospitalized in Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and were separated from the family. Again she survived, and was helped by the Polish Army to escape from Russia through the Caspian Sea to Persia (Iran) and ultimately to a Polish community in Tengeru, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), East Africa where she spent seven years completing high school. After the war ended, she signed up to work at a textile mill in England, where she met her future husband Walter, and later immigrated to America.

I’ve never forgotten Janina because she woke me up to the power of personal story telling to convey larger stories of human history. Janina or Jane Boruszewski was one of several aspiring writers who signed up for an on-line advanced memoir writing workshop with Allyson Latta in the fall of 2008. Jane was writing her memoir, in English, her second language. She had taken other courses and was fluent enough in English to begin writing her stories, seven of which were published in Oasis Journal. Compelled by a need to tell her life story, she continued writing until her death in August 2009, at the age of 82.

Jane’s personality was shaped by her extraordinary experiences. Her writing is important because it gives a human scale to the horrors and suffering of deportation and a life that most of us can’t imagine and have never experienced. She engages the reader by focusing on universal themes of family, love, hate, sickness and death. Then she slows down the narrative so that we can visualize a young couple in the glade in the taiga, and adds just enough context, that the dangers of their encounter are apparent. Too much context would lose the reader. Jane shows the reader what the characters are like with a skillful use of powerful verbs, subtle mention of small gestures or body language and terse bits of dialogue.

After Jane’s death, her husband, Walter Boruszewski, worked with Leila Joiner, editor of Oasis Journal and publisher of Imago Press and Pennywyse Press, to publish a novel based on Jane’s memoirs called ESCAPE FROM RUSSIA. The book is available from Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Don’t miss it.

Copyright © 2010, Ruth Zaryski Jackson

Even More on Family Secrets

After writing these posts I have been asked: “What sorts of things can become a family secret?” The short answer is: anything  someone doesn’t want to talk about openly. Certainly there are always private concerns about your family you don’t share with your neighbours or friends. I’m not talking about this type of privacy: something that’s no one's business. But these are not secrets within the family. Everyone knows that old Uncle Harry is like that, whatever “that” is.

I’m talking about secrets that are hidden from others in the family because someone felt shame and thought it best not to talk openly about it. These secrets are then perpetuated down the generations.

What is considered a secret can vary by family, by culture, by ethnicity and by time. These secrets may be health issues e.g. epilepsy or mental retardation which wasn’t widely understood or accepted in the 19th and early 20th century. Or they could be some form of mental illness like schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder which also wasn’t understood or accepted. Having a sick family member was perceived as a stain on the family and kept hidden.

Other secrets might be accidents or a death of a child if the circumstances were dodgy and the family felt guilty or responsible. Suicides were rarely mentioned but a trail to the truth can be found when Catholics or Greek Catholics were not buried in their own churchyards. Dementia wasn’t accepted by some families. Stories of family addictions, violence, abandonment, sexual abuse or incest were also rarely passed down or, if so, told in a way that diluted or denied any wrongdoing.  Illegitimate children, adoption or raising someone else’s child might be kept hidden. Sexual philandering or divorce might be a secret. True sexual orientation might be denied and never discussed.

Sometimes certain hardships e.g. immigration and poverty were considered noble and some families talked about overcoming their humble beginnings. Other immigrants denied their roots and ethnicities, changing or Anglicizing their names when they moved to cities or needed a job.

Family proclivities for thievery or other illegal activities might become a family secret. Jail records or time unaccounted for may have been glossed over in the family story. A successful family might deny the origins of their financial gains during prohibition.

I heard of another kind of family secret when descendants of a family were trying to figure out their genealogy and family connections to a grandfather who had left a wife who didn't want to emigrate and his children in Europe. The man lived with another woman in Canada and raised a second family. Such a tangled web for his descendants to unravel.

After writing this post, I found a comprehensive piece by Dr. Allan Schwartz which explores Family Secrets. John Bradshaw has also written a book called: FAMILY SECRETS: THE PATH TO SELF-ACCEPTANCE AND REUNION.

I’m sure there are many more kinds of family secrets. Do you have any to add?