Canadian Authors and Ukrainian Memories

Canadian authors and Ukrainian memories come together in a new textbook released by Routledge this week. Very exciting (and scary!) to see my earlier books mentioned in a new academic release, Next- Generation Memory and Ukrainian Canadian Children’s Historical Fiction, The Seeds of Memory, by Dr. Mateusz Swietlicki, Assistant Professor of English Studies at University of Wrocław in Poland. 

Wrocław, known as Breslau until 1945, is a historic city on the Oder River in what was once known as Nieder-Silesien, or Lower Silesia. But its tranquil setting belies a violent past. Breslau, one of Hitler’s fortress cities, witnessed brutal fighting in the final months of the war. I can't help but think of today’s war and the destruction happening in Bakhmut. 

An old woman I used to visit in a local nursing home had lived in the area. In the final months of her life, as delirium took over more and more of her consciousness, she’d again be the fifteen-year-old teenager hiding in the woods of Lower Silesia, evading the Soviets, calling out to her parents. Once I sat helplessly with her for a whole hour, while she’d cry out, “Mama, wo bist du?”  (Mama, where are you?) What memories will those affected by today’s war have when they’re old?  Wars finally do end, but traumatic memories burrow deep inside a person, waiting for their chance to be relived.

Wrocław, Poland is an old University city with a youthful population. Not only is its town centre a UNESCO World Heritage site, more amazing, to me—a bookworm—is that in 2019 Wrocław was a UNESCO City of Literature.  How cool is that? I didn’t even know that they had such a thing. With a bit of googling, I discovered that Canada’s UNESCO city of literature is Quebec City, granted that privilege in 2017. What are the criteria, you ask? Check this link

For me, the thrill of having a textbook that refers to my mom’s story empowers me to keep researching, writing and sharing. My earlier books died premature deaths and I'm sad for that loss. The story of my mother’s kulak childhood and of collectivization was the beginning of my writing journey as I explored the source of my family’s homelessness and fracturing. Having found the story of the windmill and then losing it to unstable publishers still hurts and lesson learned! Having the kulak story mentioned in this academic text gives me courage to keep trying.

I’m grateful to this Polish academic who noticed The Kulak’s Daughter/Red Stone on Goodreads and sparked some life back into her. Even if her story’s no longer available in book form, at least there’s a conversation about her experiences of collectivization and the 1930 liquidation of the kulaks. In a world where truth is being manipulated by leaders like Putin, memories of those who lived through past atrocities matter ... more than ever.

I got my own copy of Dr. Swietlicki’s book earlier in the week and can’t wait to dive in. I’m sure I’ll be posting about it again as I peruse the other novels discussed alongside my own. 

Brain Storms

March 26th is Epilepsy Awareness Day. Three people in my immediate family have been diagnosed with the condition. All three lead normal lives—their seizures managed with medication and simple precautions to avoid triggers like flickering lights and stress (not always easy, to be sure!). Epilepsy, like near-sightedness, does not stop them from embracing life.  Such was not always the case.

Maxime Raynal (Wikipedia)

Back in the 1930s, in Nazi Germany, epilepsy was considered a disability and a disability meant forced sterilization—at the very least—and by 1939, it had the potential to be a death sentence under the Aktion T4 program

In Tainted Amber, I explored the impact of epilepsy on a young couple as they fell in love during the Nazi years. The Nazi ambition of a perfect society stigmatized disability and this included people with seizures. Fortunately, in 2023, 90 years after the Nuremberg Laws for the Prevention of Hereditary Disease were proclaimed, epileptics are largely integrated into our world. You might be sitting near an epileptic on the bus tomorrow, or have one teaching your kids, or cutting your hair. 

Neil Young deals with
epilepsy by avoiding crowds
Raph_PH (Wikipedia - CC)

To learn more about epilepsy, visit this website. And if you’re lucky enough to have an epileptic in your life, give them an extra hug and maybe wear purple on March 26th. Epileptics like Neil Young, Charles Dickens, and the singer Adele highlight the creativity that many people with epilepsy enjoy. Some might consider seizures a gift — a torrent of electrical activity in the brain—a true brain storm.

Manitoba has a volunteer-run advocacy group for families afffected by epilepsy.  Visit their website to learn more.  No more shame, no more stigma, no more institutionalization or sterilization. 

Kaffee und Kuchen

The ubiquitous coffee pot
I grew up around the culture of Kaffee und Kuchen. This important event usually happened on Sunday afternoons or on birthdays. It involved good, strongly brewed coffee, heavy cream (whipped, if possible) and an assortment of rich cakes, including fruit flans using whatever fruit was in season, with more whipped cream and the ever-present Streusselkuchen and Königskuchen. Other cakes might include Bienenstich, Honigkuchen or the decadent Schwarzwälderkirsch Torte. Readers of my novels might recognize the cakes and the table setting.

Perhaps it was a symptom of the after-war generation. Perhaps having survived the horrors of war, the simple pleasure of sitting around a table and gorging on food was a sort of heaven on earth. I don’t know. I do know that the coffee table Kaffeeklatsch was the highlight of the week for my parents and their fellow immigrant friends. 

Kaffee und Kuchen meant you had a home, a table, food, and people to share it with. Kaffee, after years of ground up dandelion root or ‘ErsatzKaffee was a totally appreciated luxury. It might be instant coffee with canned evaporated milk during the week, but for the Kaffee und Kuchen sessions, it had to be freshly ground ‘real’ coffee. 

Embroidered by my parents while on 
immigration ship in 1953 on Beaverbrae 
The table itself was not merely a flat platform on four legs. It was a stage showcasing a woman’s talents—starting with the tablecloth. I remember tablecloths elaborately embroidered with floral motifs and crocheted lace along the edges. I remember the handmade coasters, the crocheted cozy for the porcelain coffee pot, and the carefully chosen serviettes … often mismatched … but each uniquely beautiful. 

Then there were the dishes. Dishes for my mother and the women of her generation were status symbols like cars were for the men.  As a kid, I had my own favourite china teacup set from Mom's Sammeltassen collection. I felt surprisingly sad when that teacup disappeared in the shuffle of her final move. And yes, the teacups were for sipping coffee. 

I’m not sure if Kaffee und Kuchen culture is still going strong over in Germany. Here in Canada, as the war survivors pass away, many of their traditions are fading with them. But I have the porcelain coffee server to remind me. It's not all that useful anymore. But when I smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, I can often hear the Kaffee Klatsch ... as the survivors of war, homelessness, gulags and immigration indulge in the freedom of Sunday afternoon peace. 

For the Invisible Women

IMHO, Women’s Day should be Women’s Week. With such a diverse population, how can we possibly limit the gratitude and recognition into one day?

When I was growing up I never heard of Women’s Day … in March, yet? I only knew of Mother’s Day in May. (A day when we joined the blocks-long line-up to take my mom to the all-you-can-eat-for- 99 cents-buffet on the way home from church). I’ll admit, I didn’t give much thought to the women without children around who had to go home and cook their own lunches that day. 

It wasn’t until 2010 that the United Nations took up the cause and created themes to go with the annual event. This year's theme is #Embrace

English learners in Winnipeg

Equity. Before that, seems the day was a holiday celebrated mostly in communist countries. In fact, the first time I heard of it was from a Russian friend who was surprised at our low-key approach to the March celebration. 

This week, I honour the many immigrant women who are so often the energy behind a family move to a new country. They become invisible, behind the scenes, doing the grunt work, as their children flourish in the new environment. This is my shout-out to the women who do menial labour so their kids can prosper. To the women who become cut off from their old world and faced with many challenges here in the new one … with limited ability to improve their own lot as they ‘garden’ their offspring. (Okay, I’ll admit, it’s almost spring and gardening is on my mind).  

To the nameless, determined women who give so that others may prosper … I see you. Perhaps you have a face not unlike my own mother’s. Perhaps you are the stooped woman on the bus, hiding behind a hijab, or in a flowing sari, or wearing the mismatched, but colourful layers from the thrift shop. I celebrate your tenacity and your courage. 

Empathy not Sympathy

CCBC BookNews Winter 2022/23

I really connected with Spencer Miller’s article in CCBC’s (Canadian Children’s Book Centre) about empathy. In the article called, “Teaching Empathy Through Reading,” the middle grade teacher shares specific ways to build up a young person’s empathy. 

What is empathy?  Empathy according to Brené Brown (whom Miller quotes in this article): “…fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” To have empathy, means to understand. To understand, means to get under something, not over. To understand means to be humble, to crouch down and see the situation eye-to-eye. Sympathy, like pity, can lead to disrespect and moral judgment.

I wrote Tainted Amber in an attempt to understand what was happening in East Prussia, in Katya’s world, back in 1937. I tried to develop reader empathy for citizens in the Third Reich who were being manipulated by an authoritarian government (eerie parallels to current Russian situation). In Crow Stone I tried to develop empathy for people who, back in 1945, were possibly the most hated people on earth. 

As a volunteer, working one-on-one with newcomers to Canada, I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect, to support, and to try to understand. There’s nothing like a real person to help me understand the, often nuanced, joys and terrors of our tumultuous world. I have much to learn.

Empathy involves taking down the border that divides ‘me’ from ‘you.’ Empathy means you are you walking beside me like a friend. It can be emotionally exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and always empowering. 

Recent Posts

Fitting In

Just read C all Me Al, written by Wali Shah and Eric Walters . It’s a middle grade novel exploring the immigrant experience in Canada. Hav...