I just finished my winter writing retreat at this perfect little cabin in Mystic. My step-sister leant it to me. For one month I was able to focus and write all day, every day. I wrote 90,000 words, the first draft of my next book. Each morning, filled with gratitude, I did a watercolor of the view. It was the most blissfull kind of solitude. And I realized again, how important it is to have the time to focus. A long writing project like a book, or a novel, takes uninterrupted time. I made a promise to myself that I would make that time happen once a year. Hopefully after next year's retreat the book will be done!
Winter Writing Retreat
If you feel like exploring lists of good books!
I was asked to contribute a list of my favorite books for a website, Shepard.com
I could pick any topic and then name my list of favorites.
I chose my favorite books by African American and Caribbean Female writers.
It's like a blog post, but on a different website. They have great lists by other authors. Check it out!
Guillemette Daendels was born on May 22, 1920.
I love the pictures of her before the war, smiling and athletic playing field hockey or cricket. And I love her wedding picture with Timen after the war, both of them camp survivors, tall and gaunt, but ready to start living their lives again.
Guigui was one of the women who made a recipe book in the camp.
While I was doing the research for The Nine, I stumbled across a strange fact: starving people love to talk about food. More than just talk, concentration camp prisoners wrote recipe books with stolen scraps of paper and bound them using strips torn from rough sleeping pallets.
I read descriptions of how "cooks" would recite the making of a meal step by step to the other women as they lay in their lice infested bunks. Before they closed their eyes, they would listen to a recipe, like a prayer. On the half day of Sunday, the only fragment of free time they were permitted, they "ate" Sunday meals together in this way. It was a ritual that helped them survive. Perhaps the careful listing of steps gave the prisoners, who had no control over their lives, the illusion of control.
Food is deeply entwined with our identity. It is our culture, our history, our spirituality. Food is almost always central to our celebrations. Perhaps the memory of family meals, was the one memory, prisoners could permit themselves. There were many other memories that were too painful to evoke. But the memory of shared meals was safe and universal. Food was the great arena of solidarity. It lifted the women out of the isolation of the personal painful memory toward a collective shared memory.
Starving is physically painful. It gnaws at the soul, the starving person can think of little else, and the women had seen it drive people mad, make them do terrible things to each other. The recipes were a way to keep that insanity at bay. The accounts of the female French prisoners reported their pride that they had maintained civilized manners during the distribution of their daily watery soup. They had stayed solidaire in the face of grinding inhumanity.
After the war, like so many things that women experienced, the recipe books were not talked about. They were part of an unspoken story, perhaps because the women felt it would be seen as banal, feminine, even shameful to make recipe books in a concentration camp. No one would understand what those recipes meant, and how hungry they were when they wrote them.
Learning about the recipe books made me think about what it means to cook a meal, to feed our loved ones, to gather around a table. It made me think about the conversations held over long summer dinners outside. It made me remember that each of my children has a favorite meal, and when they come home, they request it. Sometimes when I have spent a day writing, and getting nowhere, emerging to cook a meal has felt like wild relief: here was something I could do that would be shared and appreciated. And the recipe books made me think that sometimes the most radical act of resistance is simply the act of sharing a meal.
Mena was born Yvonne Le Guillou on 26-April-1922.
She was one of the hardest of the nine women for me to find, but what I learned about her I really love. I can imagine being her friend.
She was a working-class girl from Paris, but her family came from Brittany, where she would return often to visit her grandmother and the sea.
She loved to be in love; she was a flirt. Maybe in her day, they would call her a lose girl, but I love lose girls living passionately.
She said she joined the resistance for the love of a boy. The boy was Jan Van Brakel and while they were in the resistance, they were living together in the house of the Dutch artist Mena Loopuyt. There on the walls she saw the artist's paintings and took Mena's name as her nom de guerre. I imagine her wanting to be an artist. I imagine her enthralled in the romance of it all until she and Jan were arrested by the Gestapo and deported. She later admitted that she had no idea what she was getting into. Jan would die in the camps.
Things I love about Mena: After the war, Mena made a quilt for her daughter Edith from the coat she wore during those cold winters in the Nazi camp and during her escape. She and Edith would go to the cafe at Galerie Lafayette for tea and speak with fake British accents and pretend to be English. Mena and Edith were very close, she told her daughter everything, but did not speak about the war with anyone else. Her grandson Guillaume, who spoke with me, inherited Mene's stories from his mother, Edith, he said, with an almost sacred transmission.
About the end of wars
The chaotic unraveling at the end of wars is often the deadliest of times. The nine women in my story experienced this. Seventy-six years ago, on this day April 14, 1945, they were set on a Death March that was designed to kill them.
When I think about the horrific turmoil that was happening in Germany one month from the end of WWII, I remember a story I was told about the children in Lacoste, the small village in Provence near where I live. Most of the handful of children in the village had been young boys at the start of the war and they had grown into early adolescence over the four years. They were 14, 15, and 16 in 1945. They chaffed at not having been soldiers, at the humiliations of occupation, at the passivity of their parents, at the hunger and poverty they had experienced. When in 1945 the Germans who had lorded over them were now in retreat, the boys talked amongst themselves about how they wanted to get one of them, kill a boche. They talked about getting their fathers' hunting rifles, going into the woods and shooting at the Germans. They boasted about what they would do, loudly to each other and anyone within earshot, because that bravado posturing is what young men do. Except they were overheard by the man in the village who was the collaborator, the one who had profited from his good relations with the Germans. This man warned a Nazi official about the boys' plan. And the boys were rounded up and executed.
In one tragic moment, the village lost almost all their children. The parents, believing the collaborator was to blame, chased him out of the village and followed him down the hill to the church in Lumières. The man took refuge there. The villagers came crashing in, ready to kill him, even in a church, but the priests encircled him and protected him. Eventually he was able to escape to North Africa.
When I moved to this village in 2005, he had written to the mayor. He was dying. And he asked that he be allowed to be buried next to his parents and family in the village cemetery. The mayor granted his wish. His body was returned to the village and he is buried now in the cemetery where the boys are also buried.
When I first moved to Provence, with my curiosity and questions, I was warned that the stories of the Resistance were still raw. Near the end of the war, many had used the chaos to settle old scores—you could kill with impunity or cover up a shameful past. It was messy. It would be hard to unravel who had really been in the Resistance and who had profited by joining in the final days of the war.
The final days of the war in Germany were equally chaotic. Orders from Hitler had been to evacuate or liquidate all camps ahead of the Allies. All the satellite labor camps and the larger camps emptied, and groups of prisoners were marched to unknown destinations with no plan, no food, no water. SS soldiers shot at any prisoner who stumbled out of line or fell from exhaustion. With 5000 other women, the nine from my book were lined up and set out onto the road to march non-stop for thirty-six hours. It snowed the first night. They hadn't eaten in days. Soon the higher up officials abandoned the marches, and just the lowest German guards were left, terrified themselves, not knowing what to do, and sensing that they were in danger for their own lives. Some of the guards took clothes from the corpses of dead prisoners along the road and tried to slip in, to pass as prisoners. Near the end everything was unraveling. The frenzied confusion of the Death March brought clarity to the nine women, they had one choice: escape or die trying.
On Finding and Not Finding Josée
Today, March 28, is Josephine Bordonava's birthday. She would be 97 today. She is one of the women in the group of nine from my book. It took me a long time to find Josée in the archive. I didn't know her last name, and I didn't know if Josée was her real name or a nom de guere. I knew from accounts that she was Spanish and young. I knew she had a beautiful singing voice. For a while I thought she was one of the eight Spanish women listed as being at Leipzig HASAG by Mercedes Nunez Targa, who was the secretary for Pablo Neruda. She wrote an account of her time in the camp, the death march, and the trail after the war of her torturer. But most of the women on Mercedes' list were too old to be Josée. The only one who was young enough turned out to be married. I knew that at the time of the escape Josée was not married.
One day in a random document I saw that a Josephine Bordonava at Leipzig HASAG was listed as being Spanish. Both her parents were Spanish refugees. She was not part of the politically active Spanish Republicans in the camp and so not on Nunez Targa's list, but there she was.
Once I had a full name for her, I found more information on her which fit perfectly with the story I knew about my nine women. When her military record stated she escaped with a group of nine and found the US army in Colditz, I knew it had to be her. I was able to learn a little about her childhood. She was raised in a foster home in Cannes run by Germaine and Alban Fort who worked with Moussa Abadi and Odette Rosenstock on the Marcel Network hiding Jewish children. She was probably active in the Resistance from a young age, but she officially joined as soon as she turned 18. Her military record mentions her beautiful singing voice.
I found a relation, but they did not respond to my requests for an interview. I found a death certificate showing that she died in a hospital in Cannes, but the person who signed as a witness did not respond to my requests either. I tried a few other leads. But I kept getting nowhere.
I could have searched longer and deeper but I had a deadline and a book to write. And so Josée remains for me the one of the nine whom I know the least about. She married Jacques Armynot du Chatelet after the war, but by 1956 they were divorced. At some point she moved away from Paris to return to the South of France. The others lost touch with her. She had no children. I don't know what she did to earn a living. I don't know who she loved; who were her close friends; what she did for fun; how she filled her days; whether she talked about the war; whether she was proud of her accomplishments.
Maybe there is someone who knew her well enough to have heard her story. Maybe someone reading my book will contact me and tell me that I got it all wrong. That they knew Josée and she was…
I would love that. I hope it happens. I hope Josée's full story does not remain hidden.
On Shame and Imperfection
During the copy-editing phase of The Nine I was so grateful for the exacting and careful attention of the editors at St. Martin's Press. We went round after round and I was fairly confident that they had found all my errors (there were many) and that with their help the book would be perfect, (at least on the level of grammar, spelling, clarity).
But not so fast. My old thorn, my nagging mistake, the recurring fault that I can't seem to escape slipped through. When I speak French, I always make errors of gender; I mix up the 'le' and the 'la.' I can't get them straight.
When I first moved back to France in 2005, I was working for the Savannah College of Art and Design as the director of their French campus in Lacoste. One of my first tasks was to prepare for the visiting artist Patrick Dougherty. He needed a large quantity of willow branches to make one of his fabulous installations. Lacoste is located on a hilltop in the dry arid landscape of the Luberon. I knew the only place there would be water and willow was down in the valley along the Calavon river. In desperation, I went door to door to the houses along the banks, asking if we could cut down some of their willow. I asked for "la sole" which in fact means the fish called sole. Because I should have asked for "le saule" which is pronounced exactly the same, except the 'le' instead of the 'la' means willow tree. Imagine their confusion as I asked to cut down their fish. They thought I was crazy. Patrick would arrive in a few days and I had yet to find his willow branches. I would fail utterly in my new job. I marinated in shame.
I have lived in France longer than anywhere else and I speak a fairly fluent French but I will never understand why something is 'le' or 'la'. I don't know how the French just know it. My children who were raised here, seem to know it. It's instinctive for them and not for me.
So here it is: on the very first page of The Nine, in the quote from Nicole's poem, I wrote (it was not her mistake, but mine) "un transmutation." Everyone knows it should be "une transmutation."
When this error was pointed out to me, and I knew it was probably too late to fix it, I found myself on old familiar ground: deep in a vat of shame. This is where my inner voice loves to find me and quickly spurs to action, "see you are a fraud. I've always known it and now everyone will see what a failure you are. You can't do anything right…" and so forth.
To get myself out of the shame pit, I remind myself of something I learned in Japan, years ago when I studied there as young whippersnapper. I have a ceramic bowl that would be perfect except the ceramist pushed a thumb into one side leaving a smooth dent. This was intentional, it was explained to me, a way of fighting against the ego of perfectionism. As an artist I was warned, the striving for perfection will stop you from making anything authentic. The need to be perfect can block you completely. It is a curse. I tell my ugly voice of shame, better to be messy, sloppy and to have written a book, than to have done nothing out of the fear of imperfection.
Patrick Dougherty did have willow branches enough to weave his installation. How that happened is another story. But if you have never seen a Patrick Dougherty installation, try to find one and take a child with you. There is such joy and delight in what he does; it is magical. The whimsy and enchantment of his work emerges through the spirit of improvisation, a kind of freedom which can only happen when we shun perfection.
Housework, Audiobooks, and Juliet Stevenson
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. Partly because I love being read to. I love the human voice. I read my own writing outloud during the many stages of rewriting. I loved reading to my children when they were younger. I think the music of spoken words is magical.
But the other reason I love audio books is because I absolutely hate housework. I feel a rage and resentment whenever I have to do it. To soften my mood, to make the boring repetitive distasteful tasks bearable, even enjoyable, I listen to a book. With an audiobook I can enjoy myself while folding laundry, dusting, washing dishes. Audiobooks are a miracle.
Over the years I have found my favorite readers. These are the people I will chose before the book. If I see they are reading a book I will order it. And my favorite is Juliet Stevenson. Her reading of George Eliot's Middlemarch got me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. My partner had been half-paralyzed by a stroke. Many days a week after work, I drove several hours to see him in the rehab center where is was learning to walk and talk again. As if our tragedy wasn't enough, the rehab center was full of motorcycle victims. Young men, mostly, who would never fully recover. My partner would tell me the stories with his broken stumbling language. I would sit in my car after each visit and weep for a few minutes and then put on Middlemarch for the drive home.
George Eliot's masterpiece runs over 35 hours and has a huge cast of characters and sub plots. Juliet Stevenson was able to make each voice distinctive. I could follow the plot and the savor Eliot's brilliant writing. It was magnificent. I never would have understood or appreciated Middlemarch without Stevenson reading it to me.
Imagine my gob smacked joy when I learned that Juliet Stevenson had agreed to read my book. I couldn't believe it. I had been her fan for years but now I have become a complete fan girl. This unexpected honor has been yet another gift that writing The Nine has brought me.
Building a Wall
Near where I live in Provence, in 1721 they decided to build a wall to protect themselves from the bubonic plague. On my hike to see the vestiges of the 27 kilometers long plague wall, I couldn’t help but think about other walls that may be built with the hope to keep evil out. I don’t blame them for wanting to build it. Read More
A room of one’s own.
It was spoiled of me. Self-indulgent. I thought I should be able to write anywhere and at anytime and I would not trick myself with stupid rituals and all the other trappings of « being creative. » Also the Bukowski poem, space and light, echoed in my head.
But Bukowski was a white man with few responsibilities, not a mother. Read More