Sandra Birdsell

Getting it right: Sandra Birdsell on writing The Russländer

Published in Prairie Fire, A Canadian Magazine of New Writing (Vol. 23, No. 3). Reproduced with permission of the interviewers, Joan Thomas and Hazel Loewen, and Prairie Fire editor and publisher Andris Taskans.

Joan Thomas: In May, Andris Taskans asked me if I would be interested in conducting an e-mail interview with Sandra Birdsell about her new novel The Russländer, a story set in the Mennonite communities in revolutionary Russia. One of my first impulses was to discuss the project with my friend Hazel Loewen, whose grandparents lived in Fürstenwerder in the Molochnaia Colony and fled to Canada in 1927. My visit to Burlington in July offered Hazel and me the opportunity to talk about Sandra’s book at length, and we decided to conduct the interview together. What follows is a weaving together of several e-mail exchanges between Winnipeg, Burlington, and Regina. Email offered us convenience and time to reflect; what we regretted was Sandra’s absence from the rich hours of conversation at Hazel’s kitchen table in Burlington.

THOMAS: The landscape, the domestic details, the texture of the setting in The Russländer are so well realized. One of my responses to the novel was of curiosity satisfied–I have many close friends who are Mennonites, and it was wonderful to be drawn into the daily lives of their ancestors in the old world, and to understand the desperate circumstances that brought the Mennonites to Manitoba.

BIRDSELL: Writing The Russländer was a journey of discovery and education for me as well as for many readers such as yourself. I didn’t know anything about Mennonites when I set out to write their story. This is likely why it took so much time and research. Once I realized the horrific circumstances of their migration I felt I had a duty, or rather responsibility, to try and “get it right” in terms of who they were as a people, their culture and the country they lived in. I felt there were many people looking over my shoulder as I was writing, waiting to catch me up on the smallest details.

And then because I’m the kind of writer who more or less must roll around in a landscape or setting before it becomes real, and because I write from the inside out of my characters, I had to spend much time taking on the voices and “living” in that time and place in order to feel confident and “honest” about my portrayal.

I found that the various landscapes the Mennonites inhabited were interchangeable. That is, what I saw in the Vistula Delta region in Poland and on the steppe in Ukraine is similar to the landscape east of the Red River where I often stayed on farms with Mennonite aunts and uncles. Except that the landscape in Ukraine looks a bit harsher now, I think, than it may have then. Unless the memories of those who lived there painted a paradise greener than it was. However, I don’t think that’s entirely the case, as all the photographs and writings suggest a lushness and bountiful land in the area where the people in The Russländer lived.

THOMAS: To what extent are the specific events based on actual happenings? Were all of the characters in the novel based on actual people? And if so, do you have a family connection to them?

BIRDSELL: Not many of the characters in the novel are actual people, although certain events mentioned–such as various atrocities that occurred at the height of the upheaval–are factual. The man named Willy who is held prisoner and freed could well have been my grandfather, who was imprisoned because of slander and his life endangered until enough money was raised to buy his freedom. Because he was the eldest in his family and had inherited his father’s farm there were times when he had to flee and hide.

The massacre of the Sudermann and Vogt families is fictional but there were many similar massacres. Simon Pravda is a real character and was the leader of a band of a hundred or so “anarchists” who terrorized the area where my grandparents lived. Pravda and his men lived for a time with my mother’s parents and her grandparents, and she has vivid and fearful memories of this period.

The events of the breakdown of their society after the Tsar abdicated have been gleaned from an autobiography written by my grandfather’s brother, Gerhard Schroeder, Miracles of Grace and Judgement. The Sudermanns are of course models for the Mennonite estate owners. There were nearly 350 such estate owners who had managed to buy up enormous tracts of lands, usually from Russian noblemen. Before I went to Ukraine [these Russian colonies were in what is Ukraine today] I contacted a woman in Winnipeg whose family was among very well-known, wealthy and politically active estate owners, asking her for information. She said that she had journals written by a young school teacher who had been a tutor on one of her relative’s estates and which provided a good inside look at life on such an estate. The journal proved to be the writings of my grandfather’s brother, Gerhard Schroeder, the man mentioned above. So while I am saying that the characters are fictional you can see that I have borrowed from here and there and it’s difficult to explain where the fiction and fact begin and end.

LOEWEN: My mother, Agnes [Goetz] Loewen, was eight years old when she left Russia with her family in 1927. I knew in a general way what her family endured at the time surrounding the revolution but they were understandably reluctant to talk about their experience. My mother still shuts down discussions about the terror of those times by saying, “What’s the point of dredging up all that? We don’t need to relive the pain again.” Was this book, in part, a response to that attitude?

BIRDSELL: I hadn’t thought about the aspect of dredging up old pain when I set out to write the novel. It wasn’t until I began to read for The Russländer that I came upon this attitude. It sometimes came from a desire to get on with life in a new country. But I suspect that often a reticence to talk about what happened had much to do with protecting those who had been violated, especially the women. More than occasionally, this came out of a sense of shame, the notion that the person violated, the family, had been shamed. And then there was the question of guilt, too. What wrong might they have done to have caused this calamity to fall on their house? And so, from their point of view, it was best to remain silent.

LOEWEN: In the process of suppressing those traumatic experiences, ordinary information about my grandparents’ home and community life was lost. The Russländer filled in the details of domestic life before the revolution, and since reading the book my mother, my sisters and I have begun to talk about our grandparents’ experience. For example, my mother had forgotten all about the cultivation of silkworms until we read your book. The book brought experiences like that back.

Joan talked about a curiosity satisfied; for me it satisfied a strong emotional need to know where I come from. Reading your novel deepened and enriched my connection with my Mennonite heritage. Are other readers responding to the novel in this way, and was this an impact you anticipated in writing?

BIRDSELL: Mennonite readers have expressed gratitude for the beauty in the novel. The beauty of home life, the incidental domestic details and the landscape. They have also written to thank me for writing the novel, often saying that the story has kindled an interest in their Russländer heritage. I didn’t anticipate this happening. I assumed Mennonite readers were well aware of their heritage and I wrote the novel with non-Mennonite readers in mind. This isn’t a book for Mennonites, I kept reminding myself. And so the many details and the bits of Mennonite history in the novel were there to inform the reader, a reader I kept thinking of as being a “secular” reader. I “used” the Mennonites’ displacement from Russia to write about what was happening currently. It seemed that every week I would watch on television people running for some border or other, fleeing countries they’d known as their homeland for hundreds of years. How did they survive? And what compelled a person in times of such torment and upheaval to share a last piece of bread with a stranger, while others might hoard flour? How does one succeed and not just survive in a new land after having witnessed horrible atrocities? These questions inadvertently set me on the course of discovering my Mennonite heritage.

Then, when the book was to be published, I was told that the emphasis and focus of the promotion of it would be that it was personal history. [My publishers wanted to know] what events in the novel had in fact happened to my grandparents, which might then be talked about and promoted? I felt that my intention for writing it had gone astray. Lo and behold, the book was published two weeks following 9/11 and I was asked to talk about ways of responding to such an act, the ways the characters in my novel responded to their world being destroyed.

That said, I did, however, gain a sense that I had put something to rest when I finished the novel. So much so that I visited the cemetery in Morris where my Mennonite relatives were buried and told them that it was finished, that I had told their story. Which goes to prove, I suppose, that novels sometimes have lives of their own.

LOEWEN: How did non-Mennonite readers respond? Did you have the sense that The Russländer illuminated other refugee experiences for them?

BIRDSELL: I was once in a hairdressing salon in Vancouver having my hair cut. A car backfired in the street beyond and the hairdresser dropped to the floor behind the chair. When she recovered, she explained that she had lived in Beirut during its bombing. Her extreme reaction to a seemingly everyday occurrence caused me to recognize that in one way or another, some of my relatives had been dropping to the floor most of their lives. So much about their beliefs, foibles and behaviours now made sense. Non-Mennonites who have written to me have said that The Russländer has brought a similar understanding.

THOMAS: Can you tell us about specific discoveries in the process of research that had the greatest impact on you?

BIRDSELL: I remembered seeing my mother sitting on a chair in the kitchen every afternoon, likely around three o’clock or so. She would send her many children out of the house and for fifteen minutes she would sit on that chair, her feet hooked through its rungs, lost in her thoughts while she sipped at tea and nibbled on a bun which she might dunk in the tea from time to time. She didn’t have time to indulge in rituals, except for this one. This, I realized after my research, was the famous Mennonite “faspa,” the mid-afternoon tea break that I had associated with my grandparents, something I thought they did only when they had visitors.

My mother’s breads, buns, the Easter paska baking, the enormous mounds of cookies at Christmas, I found all those recipes in Mennonite cookbooks. And of course they are mentioned in every memoir written about those festive seasons. I can’t say that any of my discoveries had much of an impact, except that I came to realize why as children we were admonished not to waste food, not to use the word starving lightly, never to say that you wanted to kill someone. This may have given me a stronger appreciation for the value of words.

THOMAS: I was struck in reading the novel at the ways in which the Mennonite commitment to non-violence both sustained the life of the community and complicated it. There was the pushy little Franz Pauls who had to be reassured, after the massacre at Privol’noye, that Katya’s father had not defended himself and his family. There were the grandparents put in the position of tending to the wounds of the men who had murdered their daughter and grandchildren. You did not minimize this dilemma.

BIRDSELL: Yes, the teaching of their faith to be non-resisters, to love the enemy and turn the other cheek, had to be put to the test in the novel. By the way, this belief gave them enormous advantages, too, in that their men were exempt from military service. It seemed to me that once they were called to put these beliefs into practice there might be a dilemma. And indeed, when the women and children became targets for violence that dilemma was, in fact, debated. During a conference of all the churches, it was decided that each man was free to follow his conscience regarding self-defense, and that his decision would not affect his standing in the church. Some Mennonites then joined self-defense units to protect their villages, while others chose not to. There was much debate following that as to whether these defense units had brought even more violence on the people. There were acts of charity to the enemy and, most notably, once starvation set in, once the soup kitchens began arriving from America, it was determined that the food would be shared with everyone, including the women and children of the enemy. It occurred to me that this principle of loving the enemy and turning the other cheek seemed to be practised more vigorously outside of their communities than inside them!

LOEWEN: When my mother and I talk about resolving the past we inevitably end up talking about the question of forgiveness. The survivors of the massacre work with this issue in your novel and express a variety of positions on the question of whether it is necessary or important to forgive the perpetrators of the terror. Did the fact that she was expected to forgive make healing more difficult for Katya? And where did you come to yourself in your view of forgiveness?

BIRDSELL: I can’t think of another way to gain peace other than through forgiveness. It’s a self-protective reflex for me, to come round eventually to forgiving myself and others. I’ve seen people go to rot inside from bitterness and grudge-bearing. The person or thing you can’t forgive becomes a central force in your life. So I think it makes for good mental and physical health to forgive. However, most of us aren’t put in the position Katya found herself in. But there were and still are amazing examples of people who, like Katya, find healing through forgiveness. Katya goes on to find some degree of happiness in the continuation of her life through her family. Not a popular concept these days, and one that was once questioned by a reader. Why hadn’t Katya done more for herself other than just marry and have children? That’s difficult to explain to a reader, just as is the idea that one might wash the feet of an enemy.

However, like the Mennonites who began to question why they should be expected to stand by and do nothing while their children and women were being brutalized, I doubt I’d have the inclination to be passive and forgiving in such circumstances. [Early in the novel, before the troubles start] David Sudermann says something similar. When Peter Vogt reminds him that their people had been willing to become martyrs for such beliefs, David replies, rather wryly, yes, as recently as the seventeenth century. In other words, presently their belief was being used for their collective benefit and wasn’t likely to be put to the test.

THOMAS: Hazel and I have been talking about what a nuanced portrait you create of the community — their tensions, hierarchies, prejudices, the support they provided for each other. It’s not idealized and at the same time it’s deeply respectful. But I wondered if with Kornelius you wanted to give Katya someone who didn’t quite conform. It might sound funny to say it this way, but I saw Kornelius and his renegade tendencies as a gift to Katya, someone who offered her the possibility of a wider freedom than she might find in the community.

BIRDSELL: Kornelius is part of that nuanced portrait of the community. He’s an outsider. Every community has them. He essentially spurns the idea that one must look within oneself to find the reason behind a tragedy. He refuses to take on guilt. His refusal to attend church after his wife died has more to do with a refusal to conform to such widely held beliefs, rather than disbelief. Following a remark David Sudermann makes about Kornelius not believing in God, Katya s father asks, Is that what the man (Kornelius) says? Or is that what others say about him?

Kornelius suggests to Katya that God didn’t have anything to do with what happened to her family. He doesn’t blame God or himself, or anyone else for what happened to his wife. Their tragedies were due to circumstances, a rabbit hole, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An accident. When I went on the Historical Mennonite Cruise down the Dnieper River, and after a week of lectures on the history of that era and the Mennonites, my shipmates were urged to give up that tireless search for meaning, and to realize their ancestors had been in the wrong time and place. Kornelius was one of a few who had the vision to realize that sooner. Such an attitude would be freeing for Katya.

THOMAS: I’m interested in the scene you paint of their wedding feast–such a grisly parody of a wedding feast, with Kornelius’s horse dropping dead, and villagers flocking out to the road with butcher knives to cut themselves a chunk. Can you talk about the meaning this scene had for you?

BIRDSELL: The wedding feast was there from the start of the novel. It comes from an incident my great uncle, Gerhard Schroeder, writes about in Miracles of Grace and Judgement. It was a startling image, and I wanted at first to use that horse-butchering scene as the ultimate violent scene, as I didn’t think I could bear writing a human killing scene. It seemed to fit where and how it was eventually used in the novel. During that time weddings were conducted under unusual circumstances, sometimes with the “enemy” occupying the front row seats and providing the “entertainment.” The wedding feast is an incongruous one, a bit surrealistic, but quite in keeping with the times. Kornelius turns what Katya fears to be a portent into a bizarre celebration and she is able to accept this.

LOEWEN: Katya’s numbness, the intrusive thoughts that torment her, the flashbacks, and the slow resolution of her grief over time are so consistent with what I know as a therapist about trauma. How were you able to write such a compelling account of the resolution of trauma?

BIRDSELL: Well, the trauma and how to bring Katya through it, was a major challenge. I was grappling with the sudden loss of a sister while writing this, and aware of my own process, I suppose.

LOEWEN: You mentioned that your writing process involves living the lives of your characters and taking on their voices. What was it like for you to live Katya’s life? How did you sustain yourself through that writing period?

BIRDSELL: Living Katya’s life was not a picnic. Every time I approached a rewrite of the killing scene I became physically ill and depressed when I emerged from it. I began to worry about the stress and a possible illness resulting from it. So I was big on the vitamins, good food, swimming every day, which I haven’t done in years. Walked down to the Y pool in Burlington [where I lived for a period of time as writer-in-residence], and swam laps in a rather leisurely fashion, letting the water hold me up while I looked out the windows at the winter world beyond. Meditated. Lived alone so I could devote my time to staying healthy while finishing the book, and at the same time went off to McMaster two days a week to meet with writers. Which provided a good balance. When I once related this writing process in the presence of others, another writer essentially disagreed with it by saying that it was the writer’s job as an artist to stay detached from and in control of the material. I didn’t have time to disagree. But, yes and no. Both are required, but for me, living those lives was essential to writing them.

THOMAS: While the point of view of the story is clearly Katya’s–(I’d like to call it an intimate point of view rather than a limited one)–there are passages where your narrator becomes her observer, commenting, for example, on her literal belief in Bible stories. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you work with a dual narrative stance in this way before. How did it evolve?

BIRDSELL: Well, the manuscript was once written in first person, then from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, so perhaps there is some residue from both. However, in the final draft I determined that the older Katya was the narrator, although her presence is subtle and we’re reminded only infrequently that she’s telling the story. Sometimes we’re acutely aware, such as the lead in to the murder scene when she speaks in first person for a short time, but at other times the distance is greater. The older Katya is the observer of the younger Katya.

LOEWEN: Joan and I have been discussing two objects in the novel, both lost and then found–the bells from Katya’s shoes and the silver cup. Both of them are the sorts of things that we would have viewed as vain or ostentatious when I was a child–objects that were merely decorative, that call attention to yourself. So many of the strands of meaning in the novel seem to lead back to those objects. Can you talk about the importance they had for you?

BIRDSELL: If we were in the same room, you’d hear my laughter. Plot devices, so necessary. The silver cup, the bells, being just that. I was remembering an incident from my past, driving my Sunday School teacher aunt to distraction when my sisters and I arrived at church with bells on our boots. In the cup I was thinking of permanence, being able to take certain things for granted in the way Lydia could and Katya couldn’t. The cup is an extra hit that Katya must deal with later on. Talk about writing oneself into a corner. How to get her out of not assuming blame for what happened (the cup) and at the same time surviving the grief of loss, without overloading the reader?

THOMAS: In fact Hazel and I have talked at length about how skilfully you deal with the massacre and the months that follow. You take us into Katya’s shock and grief. You allow us to enter it, but you do not assault us with it in a way that would cause us to withdraw emotionally. I found it extremely affecting.

It made a difference to me that I knew from the beginning that many of the characters I was reading about would die. The first thing the reader has to absorb is the news account of the massacre at Privol’noye. At what point in the writing of the novel did you know that you were going to place that news account first, and why did you decide to do so?

BIRDSELL: The newspaper clipping was put at the opening of the novel in the final draft. I did it for various reasons. The practical reason was that because there are so many characters to sort through, given the huge families, the clipping served as a kind of family tree and would assist readers in sorting everyone out.

Beyond that, I had read so many accounts of sufferings that I began to feel numbed by them. I put my own words in Katya’s mouth when she says that reading the accounts in the archives was like too much blood sausage. Soon they all began to sound the same. I didn’t want the reader to forget for a moment that these people would be gone and therefore to pay attention to their lives, to the smallest details that make them unique and at the same time so human.

Notes on Interviewers
Hazel Loewen grew up in Dalmeney, a Mennonite community in Saskatchewan. Currently she lives in Burlington, Ontario and works as a psychotherapist with a special interest in trauma, addictions and family therapy.

Joan Thomas is the editor (with Heidi Harms) of Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium (House of Anansi Press, 1999). She works as a teacher, writer and editor in Winnipeg.


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