Ellen Hawkins, a Canadian author residing in Santiago, Chile, announces the publication of her memoir Djinxed. Ellen participated in my workshop series at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, in February 2010. Here, in her own words, is some intriguing background on her book:
When my husband and I and our two small children arrived in Indonesia in 1971 this populous Muslim country was gradually recovering from the social and political upheaval that had brought Suharto to power five years earlier. Patchy infrastructure, widespread poverty and colossal heat were daily reminders that we were a long way from home.
Monday, October 18th, 2010
by Dace Mara Zacs, Guest Blogger
On the day of the funeral, I leave Jumprava for Balvi, a small city in rural Latgale, just this side of the Russian border. This is my father’s birthplace and burial site. His casket lies open beside the gaping hole in the earth. The priest begins in prayer, first in Latin, then in Latgalian—the language of my forebears. We mourners stand and listen to the priest who speaks on the politics of Latvia’s freedom. He appears to be addressing those of us from the West in particular. He reads the words of a Latvian poet in Siberian exile, words that bring me to tears. My child . . . I reach for you across the Milky Way . . . Despite our family’s coming to Canada, my father had remained an exile in his soul, yearning for Latvia. Now, I am forever linked to this far-off place where he chose to die.
The coffin lid is closed and sealed. Oak leaves are arranged on top and my father is lowered into the ground. I want to shout and stop the proceedings, to stop his descent into the earth. Instead, I kneel down and bow my head and receive the priest’s blessing. I’m filled with grief and regret. I didn’t really know my father—he was a man of silence. I knew virtually nothing of my roots and my heritage. My deepest regret is that I didn’t say the words “I love you!”—and we didn’t say such things in our family—before he left for Latvia. And now the deeper silence of death.I travel from Balvi back to Riga in preparation for my return flight home to Toronto. Father’s death documents need to be transcribed into English. En route to the government offices in downtown Riga, more graffiti: Our Riga is a beautiful city, except too many Latvians live here! Latvian is a dog’s language. I feel I’ve been smacked in the face and it makes me burn.
My aunts join me and we four women file into the Bureau of Translation office.
“Labrit,” my aunt Janina says in Latvian to the person at reception. Good morning.
No response. A subsequent greeting and request for service is also ignored. A half-dozen staff sit leisurely in the large open office, where as many typewriters rest idle. One woman is filing her nails and chatting to two others in Russian. Two other women are laughing and ignoring our attempts to be acknowledged.
I feel my face redden again. I say something in English about my margin of time before flight departure.
“Ah, you Amerikan,” a male staff person says to me. He consults briefly with the only other male employee and motions to me. In broken English with a thick Russian accent, he communicates that a bribe is in order. “Amerikan cash, only new,” he says.
My father is dead! What more do you want? I want to shout, but say nothing and hand over numerous crisp U.S. bills—newer ones have greater resale value. This is the watershed moment, the moment I know I have to write. I can no longer live a voiceless existence.
The office staff now goes to work translating and reproducing the documents on their ancient typewriters. The receptionist takes the official fee in lats, the Latvian currency, and issues a receipt for this amount. After five hours, the papers are done. We women are promptly ushered outside. I leave in a panic for Riga airport to catch my flight home.
The journey to bury my father was the life-altering experience that led me to memoir writing. The dream of encirclement that surfaced two weeks before the actual event in Riga is evidence to me that the creative process—my process—was already in play. The overseas phone call lasted a minute, my trip to Latvia a week, but moving through sadness and anger took years. I found courage in knowing that somewhere within, the story of my father’s death was already “a script.” But my writing in this initial period was purely grief driven: a cathartic venting that produced an incoherent, chaotic first draft that was—or rather should have been—for my eyes only.
Then began a search for answers to the many questions (some unanswerable) surrounding my father’s life and death. In clearing out my father’s things at his Muskoka cottage, I stumbled upon a family secret that I wrote into my manuscript, having little idea of the implications. My narrator’s voice, not by conscious intent, was truly naïve. In retrospect I see I was both naïve and ignorant. My parents had ended up on the wrong side of the war, and like many European refugees who found their way to the free West, they kept silent about it, thinking to spare the next generation from unnecessary pain. I’d been reared a Canadian daughter, oblivious to Latvia’s role in the war and my father’s part in it. But I discovered the past is best talked about and confronted, otherwise it is prologue.
I travelled to Latvia a second time and sought out more relatives to interview. I searched for my “Latvianhood” at the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. There, the experience of belonging—just by virtue of being a Latvian daughter—enchanted me. On pensioner Thursdays I was looking for emotional shelter from being fatherless as much as seeking to know my father in the stories of exiles and émigrés who so desperately wanted to tell their life-stories, but felt voiceless. The white-haired dear ones—as Latvians refer to their seniors—were longing for a place of total acceptance, for a safe place to be heard, their stories—anecdotal history—to be affirmed and valued. They had lived through Stalin’s war. In the East the only permissible truth was the Pravda version. In coming to the West, they found that history was written by the victors and popular opinion held that the war generation of Latvians were fascists.
When Latvia’s Iron Lady, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, came to the Centre in 2000, I was there. She appealed to all Latvians to throw off their shackles of fear resulting from decades of totalitarian rule in the homeland. Though Western media depicted her as a Don Quixote—she’d been a linguistics professor in Montreal and published books on Latvian folklore—in accepting the Latvian presidency and relocating to Riga, she moved and inspired me.
VVF, as she was known, awakened me to my literary inheritance, the dainas. These were the oral lore of peasants, the voices of my ancestors. Dainas are in essence poems, typically four lines long: the first two lines, an image from nature; the last two an analogue in human experience. They were always sung and marked the changing of seasons and life cycles, births and deaths, loss and renewal. In the centuries of serfdom, German Baltic overlords deemed them “nonsense songs” of illiterate Latvian peasants. But with the collection and writing down of these folksongs, begun at the turn of the century, their body has grown to more than one million and they endure as the voice of the Latvian nation. I see myself in the dainas.
Here was the sun, now it is gone,
Disappeared behind the dark storm clouds.
Here was the girl, now she is gone,
Disappeared among the old women.
And the dainas gave me a working title for my memoir of my father’s death: Gone to the Other Side of the Sun. Ancient Latvians believed the sun was the source of our beginnings and the gateway to our journey home, and it is still how a Latvian refers to someone’s dying.
Some say distance is needed before a writer is able to shape an intensely emotional story, that one must find one’s voice. For me it was a process coming of age, of having the courage to trust my voice. At some point I realized my “re-searching” had to stop. Though research was necessary for historical context and to open my eyes to the larger international community, prolonging it kept me safely in the “preparing-to-write” stage. I was looking for some authority other than my own to authenticate my story and what I had to say.
The courage to get out from under the “voice mask” I’d donned—the voice of Latvian nationalism—came from an inner voice. At major turning points in my growth, “theme dreams” have arisen as my compass. I dreamed that some other woman had written my manuscript, that the words and voice were not my own. Then, I dreamed I unearthed and buried my father a second time. The message was clear.
After sixteen years and numerous drafts my memoir is nearly finished. How I make sense of all that happened is different now than in the years after my father’s death. His dying in Latvia was his final gift to me. It urged me to write. In writing I broke not just my father’s lifelong silence, but my own.
Why did it take so long? The rewriting and reworking of my father’s story was how I came to know him, but also it was a way to keep him alive. Now, it’s time to let him go. Insight into how to close this chapter of my life came from Allyson who posed a pivotal question for what I hope is my final rewrite. (I’m beginning to understand that the secret to good memoir writing is asking good questions.)
The question: Would anything I turned up in all of my research and investigation have changed what was in my heart?
The answer is no. Nothing has altered the truth: I love my father.
Friday, October 1st, 2010