Dear Ms Svetlana Alexievich:
Hello from Arizona. As I write this, I look out the window and see the Mexican border. The wall is going up. Already, smugglers are cutting through the metal bars with homemade tools. In the last several years, I read a few of your books in English translation. I am moved to write. I hope this is okay, or at least appropriate. I am moved to write to you and say thank you. Thank you! Voices from Chernobyl, The Unwomanly Face of War, and Last Witnesses – they are a presence in my life now. (I will keep looking for the others!) I keep thinking I am talking to you. Books have been my life. So I often feel close to authors. I hope this note, in English, is not difficult. The last time I wrote to an author was when I was ten years old, which would mean the early 60s. I wrote to the British naturalist Gerald Durrell, whose books I had been reading. I wanted to run away and be a zookeeper on Jersey Island at his private zoo.
I wonder if your work, at least the books I have seen (they are difficult to find over here, but I do live in the middle of nowhere), are an affront to the Buddha. The Buddha asserts that all human suffering is from desire. The human suffering in your books is all about the lack of desire, everything pared down to the most basic feather, to live. This is the context: then there are the voices, the distinct desires – what that living will entail. This great discrepancy, then, between the suffering and the desires, which seems to be the point. You insist I pay attention. Slaughter, misery do not take a break.
Oddly enough, I grew up in the Ozarks of the American Midwest. I say oddly because both of my parents were urban people who had lived most of their lives in big cities in the American Northeast. My father trained to be a radiologist during World War II. My mother was his x-ray technician. Growing up was also odd: no relatives, no family ties, no history at all. We children did not grasp what this meant, except when we visited friends who had grandmas and grandpas. And now, decades later, parents dead, we only have questions.
As kids, we had seen our mother’s birth certificate which read Stephanie Stella Sales. She was born in the US. Our father was somewhat infatuated with the Gabor sisters of the time and liked to tease my robust mother about being Hungarian. In our adolescence, we accidentally discovered that our mother’s maiden name was actually Seluzicki. My parents drank too much and fought too much, and in those explosive exchanges, threats and condemnations came out about their origins. It was always vague to us. None of us kids had a clue. Why was it such a volatile issue for them?
I met my grandmother and great uncle in Baltimore when I went there to university. The Russian Orthodox Church was down the street. My mother had insisted we go to Catholic school growing up. My Uncle Vanya seemed a sweet old fellow, who talked to me about farming and love of the land in broken English. My grandmother, Anna, knew very little English and would hug me to her luxuriant, round little body, and whisper, ‘good boy, good boy.’ I completed university in Los Angeles. Anthony Burgess’ novel Clockwork Orange had just come out. I thought it fun and I enjoyed the odd mix of English and Russian slang in the novel. I happened to be telling my parents about this book and its use of Russian slang. To my bedazzled surprise, my mother knew all of the words that were used from the Russian.
I remember telling my siblings about this. That would have been in the early 70s. None of us had a clue what it all meant, and, frankly, we did not get along very well with our parents. My mother died in 1974. My father died in 1977. None of this was ever explained. We had no clue of our heritage. Then, about ten years ago, a distant cousin, whom I had never met, came out here to birdwatch. We live near the San Pedro River, which is considered one of the best birdwatching areas in the United States. (Are you a birdwatcher?) Hiking and birding with this cousin, I happened to mention that my older brother, who had become an epidemiologist and worked in international health, had visited Vienna and casually looked for relatives of our fathers’ family. We knew that Dietz was as common in Austria as Smith was here in the US. The cousin shook her head and somewhat solemnly told us that our family was not from Austria. In fact, no Dietz blood at all. She didn’t want to go into a lot of details, but apparently her aging father (my father’s younger brother) was sickly and confiding with her.
My older brother, boasting a more secure bank account, and often traveling, began to avidly pursue our lineage, discovering distant relatives. A story began to emerge. His work took him to Kiev. With officials from there, and leads from the relatives, he investigated our father’s family. They had come to the US from the Ukraine in the 1890s. They were Jews. They had a shop outside of Kiev. They fled through Austria, where they may have gotten the idea for the name change. My great grandparents’ names were Anna and Moses Tablitski.
My brother became quite fascinated, a bit obsessed with tracking down relations. Through my mother’s family, he had learned of other connections. My brother’s travels in international health took him to Minsk. His work put him in contact with high level medical officials there. A very nice woman in the medical field helped him look around. He may have found my grandmother’s village. My grandmother as a little girl gathered mushrooms for the weekend market. The village was very poor. The farmers used homemade implements. But the possible relatives, and locals, welcomed my brother with a big dinner with the best sausage–and vodka. My grandmother’s family left Belarus, then, before 1920, settling in Baltimore. Their name was Seluzicki. The contact in Belarus commented that that name could have been Jewish, and that many Jews in those days altered their names and changed their religion to survive.
We never knew we were of Jewish heritage. Oddly, in the 60s, my parents had an African-American housekeeper. She and I loved to read novels together, then talk about them. One of the last times I saw her, she conspiratorially whispered to me, ‘Is your father a Jew?’ I had never thought about it.
I first became acquainted with your work about Chernobyl. My father had an interest in radiation medicine. I was fascinated with Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the A-bomb. My father met Oppenheimer, at one point commenting to us, ‘a brilliant man, a Jew.’ From your Chernobyl work, I next read about the women in the war – girls really, the women of Belarus who took up arms against the Nazis. I looked at the pictures, the old black and white photos. Some of those girls looked just like my mother. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, so I did both. It was a startling realization. The twist of fate that could have seen my mom attacking tanks, but, instead, she attacked the American dream. The fierce beauty of the girls in the book’s photos was explained in their accounts of what was required.
My family will never know what happened. My brother tracked down the synagogue my father and his brothers attended, the dates of their bar mitzvah. My father was president of his Jewish fraternity at University. Sometime in WW2, he and his four brothers made a pact. They decided to never speak of their heritage again.
Seven children in the Seluzicki family. We learned about them. My mother and her two younger siblings were born in the US. An older brother became a merchant marine, traveling the world. Her older sister became a nun and wrote catechisms. Her younger brother became a priest. The younger sister became an Army nurse and was stationed in Nürnberg during the trials. We never knew any of this until recently.
Secrets. Shame. Three generations ago, our people were peasants in the Pale of Settlement. Now we are sophisticates living the American dream. What does it mean to be cut from your heritage? To have no past? To ask these questions is to answer them. For suddenly, we have an awareness of a past that interrupts the scalding American privacy. We were on our own. Growing up, it was always just ‘me’. Now when I meditate, I go to Belarus or the Ukraine. I have read and studied on both countries and their cultures. I have watched films of these places. So I can see them. I have this new thing in my experience – which you have augmented..
My family has been in the American Southwest since 1980. I taught at the local community college, literature, science, anthropology. I became fascinated with our border history. This entire region has been a crossroads for cultures for thousands of years. The Chiricahua Apache have tales of leaders and warriors and ferocity that you would recognize. Lozen, a female Chiricahua scout and warrior, particularly comes to mind. I think you would appreciate her story. So these studies, and this experience here, plus my family secrets’ saga, has me wondering, now as an old man, if human life is simply a history of atrocity. Does human life have value? In anthropology today, we talk of the Great Dying, the period from 1500 to 1800, when Europe took over the world, decimating cultures everywhere they went. In anthropology today, we also wonder that humans could have fed everyone on the planet for the last five hundred years. In the US, it is forbidden to say that we have so much because most have so little. I suppose our top economic 1% rationalize the status quo with a peculiar twist on Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism. Their rhetoric has dominated our discussion so that the common sense recognition today in the US is that the problems of poor people are caused by other poor people.
I don’t read your books as calls to action. I don’t think they are demanding action. I think they demand consciousness. There is an immediate beauty and terror, straightforwardness among your speakers. The lack of embellishment, in today’s corroded milieu, offers an enthralling chorus of human possibilities—each a story. Consciousness must be about justice. All death stories are life stories. I am proud to know you as a fellow human. Please excuse this indulgent blue ramble. I do feel good for letting you know my small, odd story.
I suddenly realize I am telling a small miserable story out right. You have lured me in! Ha! This was a personal note of thanks and not a banshee wail for your future text on American anomie. Ha!
Please, if you come for a visit to the US and would like to learn more about the US/Mexico border, come visit. You can stay in our son’s room as long as you want (he lives in Berlin).
I will take you birding-