In my opinion, a book that takes me into another person’s world while also sending me off into my own (as I lift my eyes from the page) is a good book! So it was with Silentium: And Other Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place, and the Sacred (Wipf & Stock, 2017) by Connie T. Braun.
This collection of poetry and essays forms a memoir both of Connie’s mother, who fled Poland in the upheavals of the Second World War, and Connie herself, as we enter her childhood and powerful family bonds in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, and travel along to sites of family history. It’s memoir, yes, but a kind of “quest” or discovery literature too.
I experienced many resonances as I read: our common Mennonite heritage, our appreciation for the writing of Patricia Hampl, places H. and I also saw on a tour to Poland. And the surprise mention of Linden, Alberta, where I grew up! I was also taken into the differences, my immigration past being the 1920s arrival of my grandparents to Canada, hers a postwar arrival. Connie Braun has become one of the most significant Mennonite writer-witnesses to that particular period and those events.
Connie and I met many years ago, first via email, and then in person at a conference. When we moved to B.C., she was on my wish-list of people to get to know better. Early in January, we met at a café in Vancouver to do just that. We ordered tea, perhaps expecting we would chat for an hour or so. The tea was sipped, finished, the noon hour sans lunch or further tea came and went. There was just so much to talk about!
I asked Connie if she would gather up some of the things we discussed for a blog interview about her work. We conducted it by email, and here it is. Warning: it’s as long as drunk-up tea. But—I promise—it’s interesting too!
Tell me about your beginnings as a writer.
The beginnings of my [published] writing actually had to do with you, Dora. I think it was the MB Herald [a Mennonite magazine] that published my first poem, in 2004. And the year before, Sophia, a beautiful little journal from Winnipeg put out by a collective of women writers, including yourself, published my first piece of non-fiction, as a contest winner. It’s interesting how things come back full circle—you and I have reconnected, and just this past Christmas, Pacific Theatre used that piece, “A Christmas Gift From the Sea,” in their annual Christmas Presence tradition, which was one of the highlights of the season for me.
Good memories! I remember that you and I exchanged e-mails about your grandmother’s poetry, me trying to help with translation from German. Later you sent me an early copy of your dad’s story (then called Stories in Sepia) as a thank you. The note you enclosed is still tucked into the book. You called it your “project of understanding” your past. How did you find yourself in that project, in your parents’ and grandparents’ stories?
I had returned to school to finish the BA I started before I was married, only to get married at 20, and raise the family while my husband established his business. I was not writing when the children were small. I became reacquainted with a part of myself that I had lost sight of in my early twenties as an undergraduate, in an English course in creative writing. At that time, in 1999, when I was 37, my grandmother died. I had been asked by the family to give her tribute. As I crafted a tribute on behalf of the grandchildren, I began to consider what an amazing life story she had.
After her funeral, my father surprised me with a compliment in the form of a question: Where did you learn how to do that? The tone of admiration in his voice moved me, as he is generally reserved with praise. Shortly afterwards, he approached me with some cassette tapes he’d made and asked me if I would help him write his story. That effort became the book The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia. So my beginnings as a writer had to do with my Mennonite community, church and family, and my parents’ and grandparents’ stories.
The thing about my parents’ and grandparents’ stories, though, is that this was a part of my life and heritage I knew little about. Because my father asked me to write his stories, I was able to ask him questions I otherwise would not have asked—about the traumas of childhood in Ukraine, loss, dispossession, war, and the refugee experience. This also started me on the path of research and reclamation of family story as I had little to no information about my father’s side of the family, due to the Stalinist years. During collectivization, families were split apart, sent to collectives in different places, or exiled to the Gulag. Or, family members had emigrated earlier, and of course, others died from epidemics during the revolutionary years. The lack of information was also due to the fact that my grandfather died when my father was 17. My maternal grandmother, a very reticent, quiet, private woman, died just before my seventh birthday.
I love the mutuality of the process here, an exchange of gifts as it were. You gave him the gift of his story, and he set you on a continuing path into the past, and also into your mother’s side of the family.
My mother’s story came to me first as a collection of poetry. I was/am very connected to my grandparents from Poland and my mother’s large family. While I had done a great amount of research to cast my father’s particular memories into the broader context of those times, I was so emotionally connected to my maternal grandparents, although we never spoke about the past, and I didn’t know the extent of their traumas. I knew I didn’t want to approach their story in the same way as for my father. My father loves history, and so the format I chose honours his preferences. My book about his life incorporates research and footnotes. He wanted the story to be known, rendered through his own experiences. My mother’s parents are gone, and my mother would not have wanted a book that focused on her. Plus, her siblings, who are many, are all still living, so how do you get the story “right”? Poetry seemed the way to access the emotional and intimate connection I felt to her and my grandparents. The result was a collection of poems, UnSpoken: an Inheritance of Words. The title comes from a line in a poem about my grandmother: “my inheritance is your unspoken words.”
The poetry opened up space for conversation, and for writing the unsaid, filling in the spaces between the lines. That led to Silentium: Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place and the Sacred. This book is comprised of personal and memoir essays, which, linked together, form a memoir. I present my mother’s perspective, and mediate the stories through my own; I felt free, per Emily Dickinson, to “tell it slant.”
In Silentium, you also reflect on the whole concept of silence.
Yes, on silence philosophically, theologically, historically, and ethically. There is a time for silence. There is a time to speak. Silence isn’t always concealment. When I wrote my father’s story, I remember coming across words my paternal grandfather Jakob Letkemann had written that found their way into a book in Canada, written in German about Mennonites in Russia during the 1930s. Jakob was writing in reference to collectivization and ensuing famines that we now know were not only implemented by the Soviet regime but used as a means to kill people—the Canadian government has recognized it as a genocide by famine, Holodomor. “The things my eyes have seen and my ears have heard, cannot be written down” is what he managed to write down. That is to say, Jakob had no words to describe it. His statement, that what he witnessed was indescribable, said to me, however, that he was acting as a witness, and therefore, I would carry on his witness account.
My maternal grandfather, Wilhelm Schroeder, died in 1983. He had returned to Poland in 1973 and wrote in the Mennonite church paper briefly about the return trip, the first time he had seen his home-place since he was arrested by Polish authorities after the capitulation of Germany in 1945. Although a civilian, he was one of millions imprisoned, either in Poland, or sent to other Soviet territories. He had been sent to labour first in Warsaw, then in Lodz, for five years. While he didn’t speak about this with me, or write about it, he mentioned it briefly in some handwritten notes. He also mentioned imprisonment in 1939 in what was an infamous Polish “concentration” camp, although later the term would be changed to “seclusion” camp to differentiate it from the camps of the Holocaust. He was arrested and tortured (as all prisoners were, according to historical records). That he had mentioned and dated these difficult periods in his life indicated to me that he wanted to provide an account of what has remained a contested history. It’s a witness account of how ordinary people are caught up in history’s chaos. I explore its complexity further in the book.
“Silence isn’t always concealment.” That’s an important distinction around silence, I think, as those fragments of speaking—in a single sentence discovered in a book, in notations with dates—reveal. As you’ve taken up and extended their witness as your own work, you also break silence. Break into it, better said. What kind of risks and fears does that involve?
I don’t consider that I have revealed secrets or private trauma. When I think of breaking silence in unethical manner, I think of revealing private trauma in a public way.
There is always a risk that what you write may trigger pain. That’s when, I believe, the writer leaves it open to allow the reader to enter the story. This is what’s meant by “let the silence speak.” Of course, every writer will debate the parameters of this. For example, the Globe and Mail reviewer of my first book suggested a writer has to dig deeper for emotional engagement in those places where I referenced trauma. He then stated this might be a reflection of numbness felt by my sources. I knew the reviewer’s own writing about this period of history, in particular his writing about the rape of female family members by Russian soldiers. I’m not sure if his was a novel. I have not written about this. Historian Marlene Epp has conducted research and interviews, and I have referenced her work. I have never gone to my female relatives and probed into this aspect of war trauma. Blocked memories of psychic trauma are a form of silence I fear to break. If the memories are blocked, the person has not consented. A memoir is not a tell-all in this way. It’s a thin line between something as life-giving and something as destructive, for both story and silence.
Again, an important distinction, one to practice with sensitivity. A thin line, as you say. Let me move to the role of physical travel in your writing. A number of essays in Silentium concern tours and visits to places in your family history.
Physical travel has offered me the concreteness and particulars that writing requires. Place, setting, scene: these are so crucial to story, and to write about a time in history, the only way to access it is through internal and geographical landscape. As Paul Ricoeur says about place and memory, place anchors your memory. A particular place in your memory confirms to you that something important happened here.
The other amazing thing about travel is that it transports you not only geographically or emotionally, but in some instances, time collapses. When I saw the farm houses in Poland, I could envision my grandparents’ life there. When we walked along the white sand road, walked the distance between the empty site where my mother’s house once stood to the wooden structure that was the kindergarten, I could vividly imagine her as a child on her way to kindergarten. When we walked through my father’s village in Ukraine in 2005, and we entered the schoolhouse, it was as if I could see my now-aged father as the young boy he was then. I could go on and on about this. I think I do in my book, especially in the essay “A Walk in the Old Country.”
If you could time travel, what period would you like to visit?
I think I would like to travel to the decade of the 1930s, just before my father was born (1931) and just after my mother was born (1939) so I could fully comprehend the context of their lives. I could listen for all the nuances of that time that today we find so black and white.
I don’t know if I would want to stick around too long though, because I know, through the lens of hindsight, that in having knowledge there is a responsibility to speak out, and we know the cost of doing so then could be imprisonment and even death. Now however, the responsibility is to write, to listen to stories of witness.
And to work against the grain of historical black-and-white, find the nuance.
Yes. Excavate the nuance.
I find that people are often curious about how writers work. So what’s the when and where and how of your writing?
The where and how of my writing begins with my journal. I write in my journal almost every single day. The page is a conversation I have with myself about what I’m thinking, what perplexes me, what delights me. These observations often turn into essays and poems. And essays and poems turn into books. So I write wherever I am. At home, in coffee-shops, travelling.
But the projects are developed and compiled and edited in my office, one in my apartment in Vancouver, one at our lakehouse. I don’t adhere to Annie Dillard’s dictum that you should not look out the window when you write. I have two views, one of the mountains, one of the lake. Each offers me a measure of peacefulness.
Where is your writing taking you after Silentium?
I alternate between poetry and essay or non-fiction. Right now, after Silentium, I seem to have turned towards poetry again. I’ve begun to work on what may be a chapbook of new work. I’ve also realized that what I wrote in Silentium may be taking me deeper into the exploration of self and the assumptions about identity, faith, and—well, race, which we as a society must come to recognition of.
Some years ago I attended a workshop by Patricia Hampl, a memoirist I particularly admire, whose writing I like to use when I teach creative non-fiction. I shared one of the essays, “A Walk in the Old Country,” that was the seed for this book. Her comment about this essay about this time in history was “this could become a life’s work.” I was not prepared to hear that. I thought after my father’s book I was done with writing about my Mennonite history. I began to write other essays, ones I like, but ones I have not found a publisher for. Then I wrote the poetry for UnSpoken, which led to the story of my mother’s history, Silentium. When that book was at the publishers, I discovered an old photograph of my grandparents, circa 1932 in Poland, one I had never seen before. It was in a book at the MCC store, compiled in 1962. After all I had written about, the appearance of the photograph, my very young grandparents among their friends from church in what is now a vanished community, seemed to say to me, there is more you need to write about. There are things you’ve touched on and pointed out, but haven’t fully explored. I think this is what Patricia Hampl meant about a life’s work. The themes may be the same, but you can always go deeper.
In the book I talk about sorrow and mourning, and healing. But writing it has led me to think about mourning and healing in a new way: that healing means we mourn for the other as well as ourselves. I think my writing, both essays and poetry, is moving in this direction. I think about what healing means in Canadian society and the church today. Who are the marginalized? Our stories about the past have so much to offer going forward. They may be cautionary, they may hold wisdom and insight.
Thank you for this conversation, Connie, and for the stories and insights about your work.