I'm not sure I have street cred! Perhaps library cred or archive cred, since archives, libraries, and the material traces of the past at are the heart of almost everything I write. I’ve published two books (Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (Nebraska, 2012) and Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (Nebraska, 2007)), a book-length translation, and scores of articles and essays. I’ve won a fair number of research and writing fellowships, including Canada Council and Quebec Arts Council grants. In 2012-2013, Epistolophilia won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature, was shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Prize in Nonfiction, and long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize in Literary Nonfiction. That’s a kind of street cred, I suppose, if your street is pretty straight and clean.
I’m just finishing up my third book that tells the story of my grandmother’s eighteen-year exile in Siberia. She was arrested by Red Army soldiers one night in June 1941, then was loaded onto a cattle car and shipped east from her home in Lithuania to the Tomsk region. There she worked on a collective farm for no wages and in Spartan conditions. She was separated from her three children—the youngest of whom was my father—for twenty-four years and from her husband for twenty-five. The book is based on the letters she wrote to her kids from Siberia, on an archival recording of a 3-day conversation she had with a researcher in 1977, on my own library research, and on my account of a 2010 journey that a cousin and I made across Siberia by train to find the village where our grandmother lived.
What do you like most about creative nonfiction?
The pieces I like best grapple with hard ideas, explore a problem, or try to answer a question by looking at it from all sides. Writers of creative nonfiction are seekers and often work like detectives, following the traces (both physically and in books) of whatever it is they are trying to track down. They combine the big and the small, the personal and the universal. I think it’s this last characteristic that I like best—the ways in which CNF writers can take you from the contemplation of a dew drop to an explanation of the theory of chaos, or from the description of a broken pencil to an elucidation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for?
I look for pieces that sit with ambivalence (rather than trying to eradicate it) and scratch at patches of discomfort to raise more questions rather than offering pat answers and predictable narratives. I look for pieces in which the writer is trying to learn something or go somewhere, and in which I can feel a human heartbeat. This is not to say that I’m looking for sentimentality. On the contrary. Often the most compelling pieces are also the most unsettling. Above all, what I seek is a moment of insight or recognition and a flash of the universal, but in a form that is specific and new and curious.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
I read a great number of submissions about illness, especially cancer, about the death of a parent, about abuse, and about childbirth. Travel was a big theme too. There were fewer pieces about sex, about the process of writing itself, and about long-ago childhood experiences. A handful of texts were biographical sketches written in a third-person voice. Most of the submissions were very straightforward in terms of their mechanics, though a handful experimented boldly with nonlinearity and fragmentation, which I found exciting.
Has being a reader changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
The sheer number of submissions I received was sobering. It’s a reminder of how many writers there are in the world, of how many texts are being penned, and of what a miracle it is each time a manuscript gets picked out of a slush pile. What speaks to me may not speak to another reader, so there’s an element of luck in these kinds of competitions that we must accept. Were I now to submit to the competition, I think I might not be so hard on myself (or on the judges) if my piece didn’t make it to the long- or shortlist. If I believed in my text, I’d simply print it out again and send it on elsewhere.
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
A piece called “What Follows Beauty” has really stayed with me. It uses the second-person voice (it starts “You get his message
”), which I find so effective. Somehow the second-person voice cuts through the veil that can separate a reader from a writer. “What Follows Beauty” is a text that explores a broken, painful kind of love: the longstanding love of a woman for a man who is an addict and who has abandoned their shared life. He comes back to her. Against her better judgment, she lets him into her bed for the night. They make love even though she knows they shouldn’t. She continues to love him even though she wishes she didn’t. It’s very simple yet very powerful. I kept thinking about this piece in the days after I read it, which is one way I knew it was good.
“Hamster Brain Soup,” another standout, also tells the story of inappropriate love—that is, it tells of loving someone so flawed that they perhaps don’t deserve your affections or even your forgiveness, and yet
Both these pieces do what I describe above. They scratch at the surface of discomfort to see what lies beneath. Each succeeds in examining closely a personal, painful, and imperfect version of love. They don’t try to teach us or tell us what to do. Instead, they tell of their failings and struggles, then sit with the resulting ambivalence.