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.

Taken back: January 1991

I’ve just finished The Man Who Ran Washington, a biography of James A. Baker III, who served four presidents (Ford, Reagan, the two Bushes) in a variety of capacities, most notably as Chief of Staff and later Secretary of State. Authored by Peter Baker (no relation) and Susan Glasser, it’s a thorough and eminently readable book. I admired Baker as I read, though I can’t say I entirely liked him. But never mind that; what I especially enjoyed here was how a biography like this takes me back into events that are “history” already but happened in my lifetime and, thus, can be remembered, into consequential events that affected me too (and I recorded in my journal), if only because of the collective mood or tension they created. (Sort of like now, the day before the U.S. election. Sort of like now, months into a global pandemic.)

Take, for example, January 1991, which slid in on the back of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Our children were 15, 12, and eight, and the 12-year-old had written WAR in the square of the fifteenth day of the new calendar. The oldest child, when we discussed his new term schedule, said, “Well, if we’re here then,” and I could tell he wasn’t joking. Continue reading

Sally Ito: Becoming oneself through language

I miss the occasional lunches I enjoyed in Winnipeg with writers Sally Ito, Joanne Epp, and Sarah Klassen. I always came away warmed by their friendship and stimulated by our conversation, which sometimes continued later via email exchanges.

Reading Sally Ito’s recent memoir, The Emperor’s Orphans (Turnstone, 2018),¬†shortlisted for the nonfiction prize at the Manitoba Books Awards this year, felt like an extended and wonderful such lunch. The Emperor’s Orphans is full of colourful characters, stories, and ideas that elaborate on the role of writing as “a becoming of oneself through language.” This “becoming” has particular currency for Ito as Japanese-Canadian. “I write to find my cultural identity,” she says.ItoSally_photosByMarlisFunk_0x280 (1)

The memoir is a multi-layered exploration, both in genre (diary excerpts, poems, essay, and storytelling) and in people and places. So rich and complex are the layers, in fact, I longed for a family chart to help me keep names and relationships straight, as well as a glossary of Japanese words! This is a minor critique, however. One can simply sink into the complication that is any personal or family story and observe the way being shapes and shifts. Identity, as her series of essay-like chapters demonstrates, isn’t linear as much as overlapping circles, turning ever deeper into legacy and geography, into past and present meaning.

download (1)Born to a Japanese couple in Alberta and growing up mainly in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Ito’s life and genealogy tugged between Canada and Japan. Some members of her fore-family immigrated to Canada and then returned to Japan, others remained there, yet others moved from their first Canadian home in southern B.C. to an internment camp and then to the flats of southern Alberta. Her story includes the challenges of immigration, race, assimilation, but also the reality of Canada’s insensitivity and injustice to her citizens of Japanese descent at the time of the Second World War.

Her dual loyalties, she says, have led to an interest in translation. Via translation, she shares the writings of her grandfather Toshiro. “He brought into consciousness everything he observed in words,” she comments. His writing was not about identity, for he was Japanese “through and through.” She, however, was “hybrid.” In high school, she began to write. She realizes she was, in this way, beginning to piece out her hybrid identity. “I felt the frisson of the creative energy and clarity words can give to an otherwise unexpressed thought or feeling. I became hooked on writing to find out what it could tell me about myself and the culture I felt I was so much in jeopardy of losing.” Despite growing up in Canada, she was “looking for the motherland.” In 1982, before university, she went to Japan for a year, for in Japan “was embodied the loss of what I felt was missing all these years in my life in Canada.”

Some years later she would return to Japan for a time with her own family. The last chapter of the memoir describes what she admits as perhaps quixotic efforts concerning land in her grandfather Saichi’s name (he immigrated to Canada as a young man), a quest bringing together “a remnant of the fringes of the family tree.” Although this didn’t work out in terms of the land itself, what she gained was “the land of story.”

I found this book fascinating, and recommend it.