Silence, Memory and Imagination as Story

Canadian Mennonite Life Writing

In her essay, "Silence, Memory and Imagination as Story: Canadian Mennonite Life Writing," Connie T. Braun articulates Paul Ricoeur's theory regarding memory and narrative and applies it to the historical Mennonite experience found in two masterworks of recent Mennonite fiction, Rudy Wiebe's Sweeter Than All the World and Sandra Birdsell's Russlaender (published in the U.S. as Katya).

The history of Mennonite migration, the mother colonies, the "golden years," along with the events that ended an era under a repressive Stalinist regime, is the history of a peoplehood—the Russian Mennonites. However, very particular narratives arise from the margins of a collective Mennonite narrative and from the periphery of the subverted history of the former Soviet Ukraine.

The Canadian children of Mennonite immigrants are returning to the stories of their forebears—writing narratives arising from childhood memories formed over six decades ago—in order to give voice to the experience of suffering through war and dispossession. The positioning of these narrators of marginalized life writing, as linguistic and cultural interpreters for those who have been silenced by trauma and loss of language, requires imagination and the ethical imperatives of justice and truth. First-generation Canadian writers of Soviet Mennonite heritage have constructed story from a framework of silence, memory and imagination, corresponding to the literary theory of philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

Why should we be interested in these stories of the past? Ricoeur's answer is that "human lives need, and merit being narrated" (Time and Narrative 74). For Ricoeur, the implications for narration as a way to retell history are considerable; history no longer remains a chronicle of the powerful but becomes an account of the powerless. Stories return agency to the subject, so that history belongs to all participants, including those Ricoeur terms "actors" and "sufferers." Referring to the work of Hannah Ahrendt, Ricoeur says that the meaning of human existence is not power but the ability to be remembered in narrative (On Stories 137; States of Mind 218). Narration guarantees our future.

Ricoeur's theory of narration merges the two philosophical traditions of phenomenology (experience) and hermeneutics (interpretation). Ricoeur describes "story" as the production of meaning through representation or emplotment of the experiences and events that shape a life, and, in turn, shape its meaning through a present reading of those events. Ricoeur's hermeneutic of narrative takes up Aristotle's idea of plot and examines Augustine's paradox of time. In his first volume of Time and Narrative, Ricoeur underpins his narrative theory with the notion, first, that the truth claim of every narrative, or emplotment, is the temporal character of the human experience and of the nature of the world. In plot we refigure events to make sense of our lives. Second, time is comprised of three dimensions of the present: the present of the past is memory; the present of the present is attention; and the present of the future is expectation (Memory, History, Forgetting 381-2). The three dimensions of the present lead to temporal continuity (n. 1). Finally, narrative is an inter-subjective act of narrator and reader in a fusion of understanding along the horizon of past and present.

Bound up in plot are three phases of mimesis. The first stage, the recounting stage, is memesis 1. This differs from Aristotle's view of mimesis in Poetics because there is a second stage of mimesis that has a configurational dimension. In mimesis 2, emplotment transforms the events into story and humanizes time. In the process of narration, natural time becomes human time as events become story. Philosopher Richard Kearney says that story-telling "humanizes" time by "transforming into human passing the fragmented moments into plot" (On Stories 4). Out of a manifold of events, the unity of a temporal whole is achieved (Time and Narrative 66). It is this transmutation of natural time to human time that makes a temporal human being memorable. Thus emplotment is not merely mimesis, i.e., the imitation or reconstruction of meaning, but poesis, the representation and creation of meaning. Ricoeur says that emplotment "is the imagination treated as a dimension of language" (Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences 180-1). A third stage of mimesis marks the intersection of the text and the world, or the world of the reader or listener. In mimesis 3, the reader participates intersubjectively with the narrator. Terry Eagleton describes the inter-subjective act as the fusion of present and past into one horizon. Along this horizon is understanding (Literary Theory 62). The inter-subjective act offers the experience of Aristotle's catharsis, i.e., the ability to empathize with those who suffer by providing aesthetic distance.

The past need not be relegated to the discipline of history, and literary practices need not be limited to fiction; along the horizon is a border-crossing. While Aristotle confines cathartic power or empathy to fictional and poetic narrative, Kearney, like Ricoeur, acknowledges the interweaving of fiction and history: "Once we recognize that historical narrative entails a refiguring of the past, we can admit that the telling of history involves the deployment of certain literary practices-plot, composition, character, point-of-view, and so on" (Poetics of Modernity 96). Therefore, life writing and memoir blend the facts of history, the historical account, with the lived truth, the experience, of history. For Ricoeur, the concept of self is more fully realized through literature. More specifically, literature allows one to examine the "otherness" of self, be it one's former child-self, or even the "evacuated" Mennonite-self of the second generation narrator. In her work on the examined life, Marcia Austin Zacharias argues that the genre of memoir coincides with the modern reality of war (Austin-Zacharias 789). Life-writing, therefore, is not a simple recapitulation of the past but is the attempt of the writer to reassemble the self in her/his own likeness at a certain moment in history (794).

In a world of rootlessness, particularly following post-World War II migration, there is a longing to recall place as something unique to self. The places we have inhabited, or successively passed through, remind us of the episodes and events that have taken place there (Austin-Zacharias 789). Ricoeur acknowledges the importance of geography as a guarantor to history (Memory, History, Forgetting 151), saying, "The act of inhabiting constitutes the strongest human tie between date and place" (41-42). These places may be hospitable, inhospitable or even uninhabitable; nevertheless, they remain the vestibules of memory. Places become a system of sites for the major interactions of life. Through attachment to these places, memories enter the interior to become what shapes us. Life writing—memoir—draws from the modernist turn to the novel, and the introspective turn of examining the self is an attempt to position the self and to find a sense of place (Austin-Zacharias 790).

Ricoeur views the meaning of story as indirect, obtained through the structures of culture, religion, society and language, and says that humans draw and share meaning from experience. The subject's retrieval of self requires a detour through these objective structures (States of Mind 217). This attempt to draw meaning from life "is itself a meaning in the life" (Austin-Zacharias 791). The writer weaves together meaning and experience obtained through structures. For Mennonites in 1941 Ukraine, the German language, colonization and colony life, passive nonresistance and nonviolent resistance, religious and political oppression, and collective life on the steppes—all comprised the structures that constituted identity and the site of self. Thereafter, the Mennonite self and identity was further contested by war and cultural and geographical dispossession.

Referring to the historical event of World War II, and written as many as six decades after the events, this life writing must be considered against the dark shadow of the Holocaust that has blemished our century. In the context of, and in the midst of suffering, the Holocaust is difficult to speak of or write about, for there are no words to describe the indescribable or to speak the unspeakable. Kearney calls this the "paradox of testimony" (On Stories 61). Ricoeur says that memory attaches itself not only to place but also to events that must not be forgotten (63). Aristotle spoke of "forgotten" memory, which Ricoeur calls "blocked" or "wounded" memory. For many, these aspects of memory, place and trauma are inextricably bound. The life writing of Soviet Mennonite heritage assumes that the epicenter of World War II was in Eastern Europe, between two totalitarian regimes, and that Stalinist Russia also silenced the intellectuals, the artists, the religious and the common people through the systemized repression of exile in the Gulag, Soviet death camps. This suffering did not cease with the close of the war. In the case of World War II, the ensuing silence of trauma further marginalized the Soviet Mennonite experience through the nexus of religion, gender and ethnicity that remains unexplored here, although a culture of shame surrounded those of "German" ethnicity (n. 2).

While one must never attempt to compare one's own experience of suffering with that of another—especially with genocide—the point is that silence ensues. The phenomenon of suffering is attended by silence. George Steiner has written about three days familiar in Western history. Good Friday is the day when a child is tortured; it is the death of love, and even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless in describing it. Friday is the historical event, the day of suffering and aloneness (Real Presences 232). In suffering, silence is linked to history. As the German phenomenologist and writer on silence Max Picard said, the silent side of history is always seen in the suffering of people and nations (Picard 73). This is true of the "Friday" that was World War II, particularly for Jewish survivors, but also for the Soviet experience that began in the Revolution and continued into the last decade of the twentieth century. Steiner has referred to the period of silence as "Saturday," the longest day about which there is no record or report. Thus, Saturday becomes a metaphor for life in which suffering is a dimension of the human condition. Silence is the theme of Elie Wiesel's literature. Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and the pre-eminent carrier of the European Jewish narrative, firmly believes it is important to celebrate the memory of silence, but to reject the silence of memory, for "memory restores absence to presence, and the dead to living" (Wiesel 200).

The paradox of silence is that although it arises out of history through suffering which cannot be appropriated by language, silence resides also in language. Hans Georg Gadamer said that our hermeneutical experience of the world unfolds from language as a medium. The world presents itself in language; but language also offers a dialectic component to the word: "every word carries with it the unsaid" (Gadamer 458). Steiner points out that silence is inside language, and linguistic philosophy assigns a special function and authority to silence. There are organized patterns of silence in language, and silence too, is meaningful speech (Language and Silence 53). With sensitivity, Ricoeur acknowledges that the horrible either passes into narrative, or it does not, but even if it does, it often breaks down and falls into silence. Using the writing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as an example of the tension between silence and words, Ricoeur says that the horrible can be recounted only in a type of understatement, the "bare bones" of language, to create the appropriate sensibility so that the situation might be signified (Critique and Conviction 177-8). There are more silences than words.

Ricoeur understands that in order for language to appropriate suffering, a period of silence, or temporal distance, is necessary (Memory, History, Forgetting 18). Therefore, not only does memory bear on time, it requires time—a time of mourning. In response to Freud, who says that the work of mourning is painful but necessary to free the ego, Ricoeur says that the work of mourning can be compared with the work of remembering (72). The phrase "work of remembering" implies an obligation to do justice to self and to other. "The duty of memory is not restricted to preserving the material trace...of past events...but maintains the feeling of being obligated with respect to these others...not that they are no more, but that they were" (89).

In turn, obligation implies that the credibility of the memory as historical witness is at issue. Therefore, critical to mimetic function is the truth claim and goal of faithfulness to the past (7). Both the theory of memory, and the theory of history that memory passes into, are underpinned by the notion of trust. Narrative memory must not be naïve about its obligation, because testimony is the structure that links memory with history. Kearney explains that each retelling of history is part of a continuing conflict of interpretations that inform history (On Stories 83).

In being faithful to the past, Mennonite historians have provided rich material regarding Mennonite life in Imperial Russia. More recent Canadian scholarship by Marlene Epp, John B. Toews, Harry Loewen and others has accumulated testimony regarding the Soviet Mennonite experience of World War II. Additionally, many survivors have orally transmitted first-hand accounts to family members and have published memoirs privately or through Mennonite presses. However, as Epp's academic work in gendered history, Women Without Men, reveals, the testimonies are "bare-boned." Most refugees, notably women and children, were so traumatized that their only memories are fragments. As the decades recede from the tide of war, fewer are left to remember, and the next generation resides in a different country, culture and language (English). Nonetheless, in light of Ricoeur's hermeneutic, obligation, the duty and work of remembering, clears a path from present to past.

According to Ricoeur, the past, known historically, survives in the present, and in imagination [emphasis mine] one can carry oneself back to the past: "to the past as having been present, and as having been lived by people of the past as the present of their past, and as the present of their future." Ricoeur states that imagination impacts historiography as the "return of the buried possibilities" [emphasis mine]. Ricoeur also holds that the idea of debt is not exhausted in the idea of burden, but rather extends to the idea of being affected by the past for the "potentiality of the future" [emphasis mine] (Memory, History, Forgetting 381-2). Imagination puts "flesh on bones," recalling the neglected and silent "others" of history. Or, as Kearney says, that which is "foreign" is brought closer (Poetics of Modernity 95). This also means that the second generation, as witness, interfaces with the foreign aspect of self, i.e., their neglected otherness-of-self inherent in acculturated Canadian subjectivity.

Ricoeur's hermeneutic of narrative positions memory as fundamental to self and to a narrative interpretation of self, particularly for those who have suffered from the disasters of our century. After loss, it is memory that guarantees the future: "…our future is guaranteed precisely by our ability to possess a narrative identity, to recollect the past in historical or fictive form." Ricoeur states that to give people back a memory "is also to give them back a future" (States of Mind 228). Elie Wiesel describes memory, for the Jewish people, as the link between their past and their future (Wiesel 194). Memory is not only fundamental to life but is a sacred task. The responsibility for Jewish children to remember the "foreign"—an experience that was not their own, and, moreover, something too horrible for words—has been passed on to them.

Perhaps in Holocaust literature, Canadian Mennonite writers might discover how language and imagination "part the waters" of silence and create understanding between past and present, ourselves and others. Cautioning against the relativistic tendency of our culture, Ricoeur insists upon an ethics of imagination in remembering the horrible. That calls for "individuation," which respects the unique character of historical events (Poetics of Modernity 97). Keeping the ethical sensitivity of the task in mind, one may look to the rich examples of Jewish writing as keeper of memory and voice of the silenced. In his book, Children of Job, Alan Berger describes how Jewish children as second-generation witnesses have given to literature and fiction the sacred task of memory in an attempt to find their own voice (Berger 18). In this sense, these works function as life writing.

A particularly fine example of Holocaust literature from Canada is the poet Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. Her 1996 novel, an international best seller, offers an interpretive perspective and is beautifully and imaginatively written in a manner that reveals the truth of the past. In lyrical language Michaels explores themes of silence, loss, language, memory, honor and the search for love and belonging. Through her use of poetic language and imagination, Michaels ethically and respectfully negotiates the territory and crosses the terrain of loss. The criteria for fictionalized remembrances of the Holocaust demand that the interpretive perspective of suffering must be dedicated to the underlying truth, both of history and of experience. In addition, empathy, yet not knowing the suffering of another, is critical to the Jewish practice of Shoah, which sees the next generation as keepers of memory. Fiction discloses possible worlds, whereas historical narrative must comply with evidence; therefore, second-generation life writing, including that of the Soviet Mennonite experience, must adhere to nothing short of the criteria of Holocaust fiction: the truth (knowledge) of history and the truth (reality) of experience, empathy and an ethic of reverence for suffering.

The fictional writings of Canadian authors Sandra Birdsell and Rudy Wiebe are notable narratives anchored in historical events prior to World War II. Wiebe's Sweeter Than All the World and Birdsell's Russlaender explore Mennonite heritage. Wiebe explores the same themes as Michaels; his epic novel involves two key characters, the first being a historical figure from the 17th century in Danzig, and, the second, a fictional person born in northern Alberta to Russian parents (Bergan 68). Tracing five generations of Wiebe ancestors, the author recreates painful and haunting details of Mennonite experience in World War II. Wiebe carries these narratives on to the next generation that knows little of the past, but knows that the silence embodied by those relatives who managed to survive signifies trauma and disaster. Birdsell's narrator, Katya, focuses on the era prior to the Soviet era and World War II, the events leading up to the Revolution, when a significant population of Russia's Mennonites immigrated to North America. The story hinges upon a watershed moment for a Russian Mennonite family in Ukraine. In an interview with Birdsell, Ayn Becze describes Birdsell's narrative recounting as a "fluid mixture of her own childhood memory as well as those of her grandparents" (160). Thus, Birdsell's work incorporates life writing. However, in contrast to life-writing, the reader of fiction does not rely on the narrator's memories of the past to be grounded in the reality of a lived event.

Although their work is fiction, Wiebe, Birdsell and Michaels' subject matter of trauma, and their stylish crafting of story as memory and testimony, demonstrate the inter-generational/inter-subjective nature of life-writing—the human desire to pass the story from one generation to the next and, for both Wiebe's and Michaels' characters, to want to know the past. Wiebe's work may be compared to Michaels' with respect to authorial voicing and inter-subjectivity. However, their respective techniques bear a marked contrast. Through the ancestral Wiebe voices of Elizabeth Katherina and Katherina Loewen Wiebe, Wiebe creates an imagined, interpretive voice for female victims of violence-a voice that has otherwise been silent. Wiebe uses the technique of conjecture in the graphic dialogue between Elizabeth Katerina Wiebe and another refugee, Erika, to convey impending embodied violence. The women speak "in the present of the future" about what the Russian soldiers will do, demonstrating the "paradox of testimony." Afterwards, women could not speak about the violence, as Epp's historical account reveals: "…the aftermath of rape, like the assault itself, is rarely spoken about in the memory sources of Mennonite refugees" (Epp 65). Although Wiebe's fiction conveys a possible scenario, in life writing a second-generation writer cannot "know" the traumatic experience of another.

Anne Michaels' fiction illustrates this point. Like Wiebe, who engenders female characters, Michaels engenders male characters to employ the technique of emphatic identification. Feminist theorist Susan Gubar states that Michaels' use, however, "suggests the recognition of disparity between a second generation observer and a traumatized victim." Thus Michaels replaces the concept of sympathy with the mechanisms of empathy (Gubar 253). Michaels does not describe the watershed moment of her protagonist's life; rather, she uses silence to speak through the aesthetics of language. Poetically crafted words convey the unsaid. A young Jewish boy when the Nazis occupied Poland, a now older Jakob Beer narrates the scene. His fifteen-year-old sister Bella had magnificent hair, like black syrup; their mother was brushing it for her as Bella sat in a chair. The next sentence collapses time so that the reader is cognizant of the unexpectedness and shock of the event: "I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard, cramming my head sideways between choking plaster and beams, eyelashes scraping" (Michaels 6). The contrast of a child's soft eyelashes scraping plaster signals the impending violence to his family's peaceful existence before the door burst open. Foreshadowing the disempowerment of the innocent, Jakob remembers that his mother had been sewing a button on his shirt that day: "She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth" (7). This image of teeth carries the resonances of death and stands as symbol for the haunting memories of his dead family. Michaels' fiction portrays what second-generation life writing might hope to achieve.

Birdsell, like Michaels, employs imagery to convey the unsaid in language—that which cannot be known by another. Narrator Katya, now an old woman, says to the man recording her story that survivors of that time in Russia had "stories to tell, but no words to tell them" (Birdsell 240). However, Katya remembers particular details preceding the terror: "…her mother's bare feet against the splintered floorboards, her toes crooking to grip the floor as she rocked Ann, who slept. They were all in their nightclothes, her brothers in their long nightshirts that were so white they gleamed in the semi-darkness as the boys pressed their backs to the oven tiles for warmth" (235).

This image of gleaming white night clothes foreshadows death-the gleaming white being a stark contrast to red blood. Rather than using literal language to describe the massacre, the author engages the reader's imagination to convey what Katya has been unable to talk about for sixty years. As Katya's younger self witnessed the anarchists' saber slash through Abram Sudermann's nightshirt, "Katya saw how white and shiny was his bone" (235). Birdsell then returns Katya to literal language, as Katya conveys the "wounded" memories of that night. "Well yes, na ja, And so they killed them all, she said, and noticed that the young man's hand began to shake and go over to the window for a moment and look out at the parking lot, where cars were beginning to arrive for the Sunday afternoon visiting" (236).

Each of the works described functions as the dialogic narrative of memory; each is inter-textual, blending historical fact, testimony and literary imagination; each is grounded in a historical event and portrays particularized experience; and each narrative's unhindered movement back and forth through time and space bears out Ricoeur's idea of the temporal continuity of a person. Ricoeur's ideas of narrative imagination encompass not only fiction, but also life writing that incorporates the aesthetic use of language. As Kearney points out, the ethics of memory is indebted to the aesthetic of story telling (On Stories 62). If, as Ricoeur said, fiction gives eyes to the narrator—"eyes to see and to weep" (62)—then life writing also requires ethical imagination, the aesthetics of storytelling. Life writing therefore offers more of a literary memory than a literal one, in order to convey a lived experience (the truth of memory) without compromising historical fact (the truth of history). Good life writing also allows silences to speak through the "unsaid" within the "said." Imagination transforms the interpretive work of memory to story. For Ricoeur, "[T]he play between imagination and understanding is incarnated in this work," turning the singular experience into the universal (Critique and Conviction 180).

Narrative provides the synthesis of plot, arranging fragments into a whole of silences, lyrical language and poetic imagination. Ricoeur's theory of narration says that mimesis and metaphorical redescription are bound up in each other. In both metaphor and in narrative, a new thing springs up in language (Time and Narrative ix). Like metaphor, story within its frame is detached from our ordinary experiences. Like metaphor, story fuses incompatibilities into coherent meaning as our imaginative powers form a vision from the fragments before us and transform natural time to human time. Story configures narrative into the long "Saturday" following the historical event. History provides facts, but narrative provides the individual truths of history. Story becomes the metaphor for a life in history.

Some stories "are too difficult to tell," as Birdsell's Katya said. However, by employing the aesthetics of language through imagination, by bringing together memory and silence, we may write the life—perhaps a subverted Mennonite life. The story may be of a child on a state-controlled collective in Ukraine, in the shadow of the Gulag, displaced by World War II and Hitler's relocation policies, pursued by Stalin's advancing Soviet Army until the close of the war.

Narrative not only returns agency to the subject of disaster, offering a broader view of history; it creates a horizon of understanding that stretches from one generation to the next, beyond borders, and demonstrates the transcendent power of silence, memory and imagination.


[1] Ricoeur makes reference to Augustine's 3-fold "presence." "This 3-fold present is the main organizer of temporality; in it is the 'eternal tear' distento animi and that makes of human time, the inadequate replica of divine eternity, that eternal present" (Memory, History Forgetting 347).

[2] In 2000, German Social Democrat leader Gerhardt Schroeder suggested a "broader framework in which to locate German experience in a 'century of expulsions' to include those ethnicities throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union affected by Hitler's distribution policies…," noting as well that this could not be compared with the Holocaust. "Expulsions, in every case, throughout the world, have resulted in loss, suffering and death." —Moeller, Robert G. "Germans as Victims: Thoughts on a Post Cold War History of World War II's Legacies," History and Memory 17 (2005): 147-194.

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About the Author

Connie T. Braun

Connie T. Braun, a university instructor, has published two books of non-fiction and two poetry chapbooks. Her academic and personal essays and poetry appear in various journals and anthologies in Canada, the US and UK, including When Blue Will Rise Over Yellow, An International Anthology for Ukraine, ed. John Bradley, Callista Gaia Press (2022), with proceeds to go to Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russian invasion. In 2018 her poetry was commissioned for musical composition, Following the Moonroad, and the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of Mennonites from Russia to Canada, The Places of Memory, and her poetry appears in Poland Parables. Connie’s heritage is Mennonite from Poland and Ukraine, born to refugee-immigrant parents who settled in British Columbia in 1947 and 1952. She lives in Vancouver British Columbia, and has completed a new full-length poetry collection.