“Are you writing?”

I am frequently asked, “Are you writing?” or a variation of, “What are you writing these days?” The answer is that I haven’t been doing much new writing the past year, except for one essay about Helmut’s death. I have had, however, two projects to focus on, which have given me a sense of schedule and purpose throughout the year, in the gathering, editing, and proofreading functions of writing.

One of these is Return Stroke: essays & memoir, to be published by CMU Press and released in early June. I’m still shaking my head at the surprise of this all. Sue Sorensen, my CMU Press editor for This Hidden Thing (2010), had returned as head of the Press and since we’ve kept in touch, I tossed her an inquiry about a book of nonfiction. Back in 2015 I got a Manitoba Arts Council grant to draft a memoir about our two-and-half years in Paraguay, the most interesting place I’ve lived. I did it, as proposed and promised, but nothing further happened with it. Now I wondered about revising and reducing it, then combining it with some previously published essays as well as other pieces in my files, including the new one on Helmut’s death. Before I quite grasped what was happening, I had a manuscript to her and it was accepted! I’m rather glad, actually, that it unfolded somewhat impulsively, because a book centred in my life feels decidedly more vulnerable than fiction.

I’ll let the Press talk about the book, below. Pre-order information is here. It will also be available through McNally Robinson Booksellers, where I’ll do a Winnipeg launch June 2. I have a local (Delta) event planned for June 9, and one in Abbotsford, date TBA. Thank you for sharing my gratitude–and wee bit of nervousness–about this new book.968A4166-49E0-4164-8018-07571BB46EAD_1_201_a

This is the CMU Press description of the book:

These graceful, probing personal essays by award-winning fiction writer Dora Dueck engage with a diverse range of ideas (becoming a writer, motherhood, mortality, the ethics of biography, a child’s coming-out) because in non-fiction, she writes, “the quest for meaning bows to the experience as it was.” Yet within Return Stroke, one theme in particular does resonate—change. “How wonderful,” the author writes, that our “bits of existence, no matter how ordinary, are available for further consideration—seeing patterns, facing into inevitable death, enjoying the playful circularity of then and now.”

The book’s title, Return Strokethe title of one essay, where it literally refers to lightning—suggests such a dynamic: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.” The topic of memory, in all its malleability, impermanence, and surprising power, is especially central to the collection’s concluding piece, an absorbing memoir of the author’s 1980s life in the Paraguayan Chaco. Whether she is discovering the more meaningful part that imagination holds within her religious faith or relating with astonishing clarity and honesty the experience of giving birth away from her home country, Dora Dueck’s beautifully written essays and memoir make her an insightful and generous companion.

Time passes

The other day I was invited to a friend’s house for coffee, and yesterday I had a friend over at my place, and somehow it all felt familiar — the way it should be — and yet oddly strange. Are we really emerging from the lockdown mentality of the past two years? I’m triple vaxxed and still pop on a mask in a store and will definitely wear a mask on Transit, and yet, eating and visiting with folks outside my bubble, well it’s wonderful, isn’t it! I’m particularly pleased to have visitors because some months ago I got a new sofa and chair and now I also got a new coffee table and end tables. And would you believe, I even assembled the tables myself? Everything in that department was always Helmut’s job. I could have asked my son to help but I thought, he’s plenty busy so I’ll give it a try first at least, and soon I was turning the Allen wrench like an old pro and nothing’s fallen down yet.

I was startled today when I opened “Borrowing Bones” and saw it’s been more than four months since I’ve written here. Since then I have a darling new grandson and Christmas happened and in January, my mother died (today would be her 100th birthday, in fact, and my siblings and I are going to Zoom together later to commemorate), and not long after that, two of Helmut’s older siblings in Paraguay died. The livestream of his brother’s funeral was at four o’clock in the morning my time, so I woke and watched it, but when it was done I fell asleep again and I had the most wonderful dream in which Helmut and his brother were talking happily behind a kind of screen or gauzy material, and then Helmut stepped through it and gave me a very tight hug. In February, I spent the first anniversary of his death with the Toronto kids and we had a family Zoom on that day while eating DQ blizzards, which was a favourite treat of his.

So all these things have come and gone, and now it’s March and spring and locally the blossoms are out. I suppose the theme of this little post is simply “time passes and there’s much to be grateful about.” (Though we’re riveted and saddened by events in Ukraine, birthplace of both my parents.) I have some book news to tell you about too, but I’ll save that for a subsequent post. I’ve decided I must try to be a little more regular here. See you again soon!

Letters: life fixed, life retrieved

“Letters,” noted journalist Janet Malcolm, “are the great fixative of experience… They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so.”

Over the past months, off and on, I’ve been re-reading letters — letters from Helmut’s family in Paraguay, as well as our letters to his mother, who had carefully saved them so they could be returned to us later. In 2020, the year before Helmut died, he looked into that box of letters and read quite a number of them. Mainly, I think, he read the ones we had written, which he enjoyed because of the way they brought parts of our past back to him. He would stop sometimes and tell me bits that he discovered or delighted in.

I didn’t look at the letters then, but when I decided to go through them to organize and re-read and decide if any should be kept, I was astonished how many there were. Apparently we’d kept them all! I gave up counting, but it was hundreds. (Since many were written on thin airmail paper, they hadn’t taken up much space, even in a pile.)

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Some of the letters we got from our Paraguay family over the years

Reading old letters can definitely be interesting. It can also be unsettling. As Janet Malcolm said, in reference to a biographer’s use of letters, “Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved.” So thoroughly can a letter provoke presence and a sense of “life retrieved” for me — especially from two of Helmut’s sisters with whom we were close and who were terrific correspondents in terms of lively description and “gossip” about anything and everything — that I find myself wanting to sit down immediately and reply. The next moment, I shake back to reality, of course, for these sisters have since died. But it feels like whiplash.

For the same reasons of presence and sense of life retrieved, however, I’ve enjoyed the instances of Helmut’s letter writing I come across. I did most of the correspondence to Paraguay, which he appreciated, while becoming well-known for Schluss machen (making the close, i.e. the last few sentences). This was — understandably — never quite enough for his mother and one sister, who poked at him about it sometimes. After enough nagging he might fill up a whole page. A letter to his mother for Mother’s Day is a treasure to re-read. There’s never been doubt about his affection for her but, once again per Malcolm, what letters do is “prove…that we once cared.”

This might be a logical place to launch into regret that handwritten letters through the postal service are no longer a thing, but I’m not going there. We loved getting letters, that’s for sure, and I’m grateful for the retrospective this trove has given me, but I haven’t forgotten that it took time and effort to write them. As much as we wanted to keep in touch with those faraway in South America, it could be burdensome at times, for they were many families writing us and we were one family replying to them all individually. I like the various and often easier ways we have of staying connected today and will gladly leave, to future generations, the task of figuring out where life has now been fixed and how to retrieve it.