On Memory, Mourning & Museums

I’ve been raised on books.

Said another way, I raised myself on books.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought that I could travel home to Minnesota, to my father’s house, and store favorite titles in my bedroom, shaped when I was sixteen–my aesthetic was still developing then, with its love for light wood and bright colors, and after a near-decade away, ultimately little has changed. Given the size of NYC apartments, and an oft-transitory way of life espoused by the city, this has been the Weronika habit.

Tonight, this week, these last few weeks, it has become no more.

Tonight, I pull books from shelves, and sort them by category.

Tonight, I prepare to let some books go, so as to not move with them.

My first copy of Lemony Snicket, a paperback box set. Two copies of The Shadow of the Wind, one which must be given away–a mental note to get it into the hands of a dream reader. The full Harry Potter series, of different editions, purchased by a trio over years. Bibles in multiple languages, and three-dozen dictionary and thesaurus sets, from parents for whom English was always new. Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz and stacks of Polish poetry, to get beneath the skin. Polish cookbooks, some so old that I’ve no doubt a great-grandmother would have run her fingers over the pages, to smooth creases. I can’t forget the Gillian Flynn collection, or those hardcover thrillers picked up for free at the library giveaway; to recycle now or to keep, ’tis the question.

Oh, what a life story I can tell through the books I’ve consumed.

Oh, the shelves filled and, roomless, dusty stacks built.

In the weeks to come, our family home shall be placed on the market, and for the first time in our lives, my brothers and I have to learn to shed layers of skin and history and memory, to find the right balance between photos kept in their scrapbooks versus scanned and electronically filed (all coded–year, location, across our Canadian days, Wisconsin days, Minnesotan days, days post-home into college and workforce eras); between the traditions of our forefathers and the American melting pot within which we have become who we are, between the English language that has become primary and that original language which added to our brains neural patterns, which I still speak without an accent, which my brothers have Americanized; between that Polish community which has known us on Saturdays, and Sundays, and that American style which has poured its ink over our beings, like a tattoo.

“I feel more Polish than anything else,” I have always said, given my parents’ language, given the strict no-English rule they maintained at home and in the Polish circles within which I was raised and have ever-walked; given Polish-styled cutlets and sauerkraut served over dinners; given the entire reality of their country and their faith burned into my mind and heart, a living ferocity of substance and culture, thick like glue.

Tonight I feel different, matured-by-circumstance in a way I have never tasted. Three weeks, and reality feels different.

Different, empty; filled in a new way.

Different, still, restless; I am unable to imagine the next step, yet sure of the mystery, of the mystery-turned-concrete as answers to questions unfold, doors open, pieces shift, things change.

A walk through this home now is a walk through a museum–stacked photos of my parents married on Polish pilgrimage, in homage to the faith within which their courage and strength was bred; elementary and middle school report cards; copies of Polish and Canadian passport applications, atop confirmations of annual visa renewals, which called for travel to the borders, and an annual shot through Detroit streets, before we became permanent residents and then citizens indeed; china and linens from ages past, some pieces embroidered by my grandmothers’ hands; books, in Polish and English and French, pulled from shelves, filtered, an odd but true blend of my whole person, formation, background, and history; vases, for the love of flowers, and wine glasses mixed across sets; and more.

Sunlight shines through the house in a different way, and I do not write of or with sentiment. Given that my relationship with my father was a complex, difficult one–a living receptacle to generational trauma and the contours of world wars, which bombed their way into the minutiae of Polish days and scarred generations–there was, without question, a disorder to a life lived parallel to one another when we shared time on Minnesotan soil.

We spoke little. I learned from him little. I strayed and stayed from his path, and left as little space as possible for ruffles and raised voices and collateral damage, though collateral was never fully avoided. Yet I loved him, for he birthed me, and raised me, and supported me, and condemned the weak in me–and I am no other man’s daughter.

Given the need now to think deeply about the next steps, and three orphaned lives lived into the future, weddings without parents, grandkids without grandparents, discernments without their wisdom or opinion, tears without their shoulders, silence without their humor, our dinner table feels almost more full–a paradox, perhaps, but the opportunity to ask these questions and to seek their answers now with a greater desire, spontaneity, and necessity soothes what otherwise might have been the darkness of the loss of my mother, which brought me to my knees for years, over and over, in a living agony.

They say grief comes in stages, and that all grieve in their own way. I have learned, so profoundly, that there is nothing that one can do to jump past the stage that is mourning visceral–that moment in which the child inside realizes she stands, indeed, alone over questions and realities she thought she had a lifetime to acknowledge (oh, fate!), and that moment in which the sheer overwhelming implosion hits hard and brutal; that moment in which body and emotion and mind are as if one, but yet not, for one bears the weight of the others, and what the heart feels the body releases.

I have learned again that deep love grieves, for what is love if not unity, that thirst for oneness and forever; I have learned that the depth of grief, of implosion, is proportionate to the love which precedes it, as grief responds to the object it has lost.

I have, simply, learned and known trauma and grief, and hope only that the lesson of their reality, unique and deep, continues to do its work–in the desire for good books, for imagination strengthened; for good friends, for more memories made, and traditions fostered; for the spirit of creativity, so that, finally, as I have long-dreamt, this walk may make its way into a novel of my own, borne in the same furnace as that of my clients, whose patience and generosity of spirit in this time has stunned and healed me.

Thank you, to all of you. Be so very well–and more soon!

R.I.P., Tata (Juliusz Janczuk)

In Memoriam: Bożena (1954-2011) & Juliusz (1952-2019) Janczuk

When I lost my mom in 2011, I was nineteen years old, on leave from my second semester at NYU after a phone call at the library: “Come home. The doctors aren’t sure how much longer I have to live.” Ovarian cancer ravages: bones en-fragiled, weight disappeared, wigs employed to cover hair lost.

The fog, then, that began the loss of six months of my life: mailing out boxes from my dorm; purchasing a one-way plane ticket; pulling my carry-on behind me down the Union Square region streets, still adjusting to the publicity of NYC travel, hating its grit and the unevenness of its cement.

I don’t remember the last month of my mom’s suffering–April to May, spring tucking itself around the trees in our front yard–beyond the faint recollection that, as she spent twenty hours in her bed, aching, peaceful and uncomplaining, I lay in my own, numb. We lost her unexpectedly, in the sense that I remember my dad speaking, hurriedly, when her collapse began: internal bleeding, turned coma, turned death, no last words exchanged; machines beeping, breathing, holding her physical frame.

There are no words for the loss of the attachment you have to life–the one who understands and sees you; the one who has raised and protected you; the one whose wisdom has shaped you, deep inside, to fight for the good and the best. I don’t remember the memorial service, the Mass to pray for her, the completion of homework to satisfy the classroom requirements left behind; I don’t remember the summer, the cyclical movements of grief, and shock, and a rage so deep that it doesn’t really move in you but just sits, hard as rock. I remember the trauma of our own form of poverty–funeral expenses, and flight expenses, and Polish consulate expenses added up, as my dad traveled with her ashes to Poland alone, leaving three of us infantilized at home, as if we didn’t need our closure over the Olsztyn cemetery, candles lit, a step from cobblestones and bakeries with bread fresh. I was done with a year of university, and the younger two barely had their minds wrapped around high school.

The last time I really looked at him, he sat in the kitchen corner, working on two laptops at a time–the computer given him by work, IT programmer genie that he was, and the computer he brought up for Polish news outlets, soccer games, and U2 music videos.

I think of this duo now–one returned, property of the MN state government it was, the other in the pile of items about which decisions must be made–and it’s hard to wrap my mind around sixty-seven years of his identity evolving: Polish-born; a self-learned programmer, so intelligent that it hurt; a refugee to Germany, giving up his Polish passport and its marker of empty, communism-imposed stores and wait lines for food; a sponsored immigrant to Canada, when hundreds of Polish couples and families fled, and took jobs with car auctions and restaurants; a husband, who waited seven years for me, the eldest; a father of three, who never quite figured out how to speak; a home-owner, who liked to keep shoeboxes of archives, organized and messy at once.

When I looked, he sat bent over, a limp in his right leg, suffering out the infection that he thought was related to the leg, to leave-raking and yard maintenance that he managed alone.

Sat solitary, that same way he sat solitary his entire life–he who spent time drinking with university friends, and who converted to a form of reason when he encountered my mother; he who layered his sweatshirts with cigarette smoke, as he smoked his mother’s militarism out, and spent hours bunched over in the garage, a Żywiec can a night.

When it came time for surgeons to go in on Wednesday, last week (11/6), this infection in the leg apparently involved the entire graft that doctors had placed within him two years prior during an artery bypass surgery, which took him out for an entire month; his colon and liver; his interiority–which then bled, even as platelets and donated blood couldn’t re-fill it.

One of my brothers and I took the call at home–“come, for he doesn’t have much longer”–and headed to the hospital. He was gone three hours later, after a surgery that was supposed to ease pain in his leg.

The shock is like a needle in the heart. The re-orienting now, mentally and emotionally, of our entire lives–hard. Where we had some kind of stable point of contact with him, some kind of regularity, we don’t anymore.

He, too, will be cremated and buried with my mom abroad, dust on the very earth which birthed him–and so life runs. I think of Anastasia, and life as an orphan as it begins now; I think of death, and the place that relationship has–only the greatest intimacy is worth living for, for everything else gets stolen, and you’re left with a yearning in the heart, for time better spent.

[Excerpt]

Śpieszmy się | Let us hasten
Ks. (Fr.) Jan Twardowski

Śpieszmy się kochać ludzi tak szybko odchodzą

i ci co nie odchodzą nie zawsze powrócą

i nigdy nie wiadomo mówiąc o miłości

czy pierwsza jest ostatnia czy ostatnia pierwsza.

#

Let us hasten to love others so quickly they depart

and those who depart will not always return

and one does not always know speaking of love

whether the first one is last or the last first.

Budka Suflera is a Polish musician/band, one of my dad’s favorites.

I love you, tata. Thank you for all things.


I’ll be back to work tomorrow/Friday.

On Christopher Columbus’ Illegitimate Son & the World’s Greatest Library

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019

Hardcover, 401 pages, $30

A lesson given often in primary schools—perhaps, if later, at the university—is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways.

Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity.

Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them.

Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.

Caption from the book: The only existing likeness of Hernando Colón, younger and illegitimate child of Columbus, curator of his father’s legacy, and builder of the greatest library of the Renaissance.

Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.

While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.

Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age…” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books—and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love—even an obsessive one—for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.

The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores—for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums—and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.

Caption from the book: Abridged: Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet, designed to convey the perfect language.

Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise—and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “…once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”

Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new…that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”

Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”

Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation—given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance…” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.

Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)

Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here—both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.

Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake—this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts—helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.

I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.

Non-Fiction Proposals & Competitive Titles

One of the most fascinating pieces of working through the non-fiction proposal is the section on competitive and comparative titles–those books already published which are shaping the genre and conversation about an entire spectrum of topics.

Within the trade market, these questions will be treated in one of the most diverse and spontaneous content type ranges possible (some narrative, some how-to, some somewhere in between, and others overlapping in every other way), versus a more academic or political or religious or other treatment–those sub-markets of which the trade model never treats, or treats very rarely.

Here is some feedback with regards to growing out a helpful proposal section on competitive and comparative titles (one of the most fundamental arguments about why your book should, in fact, publish):

[Think approximately 6-15 competitive titles, and an analysis of approximately 100-350 words per title.]

This section compiles the list of comparative and/or competitive titles for this project which you are developing to offer a secondary examination of the book’s need and uniqueness, as measured against books already published and the ways by which those books published have shaped a discipline.

Provide the title of the book, the author’s name, the publisher, and the year of publication, in this form: Medicating Hypertension by Samuel Man, MD (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) [TITLE by AUTHOR (PUBLISHER, YEAR OF PUBLICATION)]. This is standard industry format for the bibliographical listing of published books.

Your citation should be two-fold. In the first section, give a positive, thesis-level explanation of what the comparative/competitive title is about. Don’t summarize the argument, but give the argument as it is (i.e., “In this book, the author argues that the economy is a codified institution of persons who have collectively gathered to engage in financial transactions, and one key dimension of understanding the institution itself is understanding the persons who build it,” rather than “In this book, the author gives an account of economic infrastructures.” The latter tells the reader nothing about the structure of the actual argument).

Then, provide a targeted analysis of similarities and differences between the book proposed here and the book listed as competitive. Analyses should include concise, targeted sentences, indicating the author’s awareness of the field and his/her capacity to place the proposal within it. This analysis should flow directly from and be contextualized within the section on the book’s need and uniqueness—once a gap in the field is identified, and this book meets it, how does the book compare to those books already out there? In what ways does this book do similar work, and exactly on which points and on what kind of content and research does this book differ?

Books should also cover a small diversity of ‘angles’ of comparison. This includes topic (for example, ‘other books about pornography consumption’), treatment approach (for example, ‘other books written in letter format’), feel/style (for example, ‘other books written in a comic voice, or written as a lighthearted-for-the-coffee-table-read consumption’), etc. The goal is to contextualize the book’s uniqueness and to aid the marketing plan, with the uniqueness by topic/content the most urgent of all the priorities.

Let me know of any questions here–how I might be helpful in helping to shape your own conversation, as proposed to publishers, about conversations that need to be had culturally, socially, politically, and otherwise; those conversations to which you, as a non-fiction writer, may so deeply want to contribute.

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani

I am thrilled to announce that the screen rights for my debut novel, GEARBREAKERS (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), have been acquired by producer Aaron Magnani! It’s the first small step of a lot of bigger steps, but my heart grows ever so much fuller whenever I meet someone who shows a passion for this project I […]

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani — Zoe Hana Mikuta | YA Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Be sure to follow Zoe’s blog! The news is brilliant and exciting.

GEARBREAKERS was the second novel I sold upon returning to agenting, and the first one to go on to be acquired by a producer for potential screen adaptation. Cross your fingers!

All rights for Zoe’s projects are now being handled by D4EO and friends. Check out her young genius and utter magnificence.