Monica Wesolowska has had her fiction and nonfiction published in numerous venues, including Best New American Voices 2000, Literary Mama and the New York Times bestseller, My Little Red Book. She is a graduate of Portland’s Reed College and has taught at her hometown University, California Berkely, since 2002. She went back to school for this interview, answering some pretty tough questions from her former Reed professor Lena Lenček about her new memoir, Holding Silvan.
LL: I’ve known you as a writer of fiction. What habits of mind and writer’s strategies that you developed for fiction did you need to purge when undertaking this work?
MW: The challenge for me in this memoir came in the places where my memory seemed to fail. I had to retrain myself not to follow made-up details but go back in memory, find some detail that felt real, let more real details be released. Nabokov talks about this in Speak, Memory. Ultimately, it was a profound experience because I found Silvan inside of me again.
LL: As someone raised and educated in the Roman Catholic Church, I was struck by the deeply “confessional” temper of your memoir. I have in mind two senses of the word: that pertaining to the sacrament of reconciliation, with self-accusation at its core and a rigorous interrogation of one’s intentions and actions; and the second, that refers to an act of affirmation or avowal of faith. At what point of your writing and thinking about this memoir did the design of this spiritual narrative emerge?
MW: This is a perfect example of what I tell my students—trust your imagination. I was not aware of the confessional tenor of my memoir until two well-read readers pointed it out in the first draft. But, as you said, having been raised in the Catholic Church, I knew immediately what they were talking about.
Once aware of it, I worked more with that material. Though the self-accusation and interrogation were already there, I slowly realized I had to make an avowal of “faith.” I thought I would come out boldly as an atheist—losing Silvan had ripped any residual belief in God from me—but that didn’t happen. I concluded the book as an agnostic and that’s where I remain for now. But as a religious friend said, I examine atheism and agnosticism in myself with the same rigor that many believers work to maintain faith.
LL: I suspect that you must have thought long and hard about how to title your memoir. For one, it seems to me that by juxtaposing these two phrases: “holding Silvan” and “a brief life” you draw attention to two very different stories in your memoir. How do the two narratives—your own and your child’s—play off against each other?
MW: I did agonize about the title but one thing that remained consistent was the subtitle, “A Brief Life.” It’s stunning to me that one person can live for over 100 years and another for only a few days—and that both lives in their wholeness are brief in comparison to the life of the universe.
I kept a diary of Silvan’s life because I knew it would be brief and I wanted to remember all of it. But after he died, other stories appeared in that diary: about my father, my childhood. At first, I didn’t understand this and I put the diary away. But when I went back years later, I recognized this as the impulse for a book. Silvan’s life was unbearably brief, but it is also endless when threaded into a greater narrative.
LL: How do you respond to the reaction of a number of women readers, who find your book to be a “difficult read”?
MW: While there are some who say the book sounds too sad, I’m grateful for the far greater number who go ahead and read it and find the book uplifting. Because the truth is that life is exquisite in part because it’s finite. I love dusk for that reason.
For many readers, it takes hearing the language of the book to convince them. There is a voice here that transcends the sadness. For years, I didn’t have that voice. I would read through the diaries I kept while he was alive and see only sadness. And then one day, I saw with new eyes. I saw the love in the story. After that, it was easy. Who can resist a love story?
LL: I imagine that one of the great challenges you faced in writing Silvan’s story was in imagining and evoking a complete and fully formed person in the luminous infant you bore. How did you toe the fine line between invention and observation of the human personality locked in the infant’s tiny body?
MW: Recently, I was at the Oakland Museum of California for a Day of the Dead exhibit and saw a beautiful altar by Dio Mendoza. It was for his twin brother who died at birth. On top of the altar was a painting of the baby who’d died. Underneath, visible to viewers only through a mirror, was the face the artist had dreamed his brother would’ve had at 21. I was very moved by this piece.
But at the same time, I realized I don’t think of Silvan that way. Once I realized he would die, I focused fully on the baby he was. Loving Silvan fully as a baby in the moment was rewarding and felt like what he deserved. I think I got some peace from that.
LL: A good memoir not only splays open the private side of another’s life to link that experience to the grander social and historical canvas; it also triggers the reader’s own memories, and brings forward episodes from one’s own life that seem to engage the same or similar challenges. What sort of response have you had from your readers?
MW: I love how memoir does this. I can’t tell you how many people read the book overnight and come over in the morning for a hug. Because it’s hard in ordinary conversation to refer to our dead, especially dead children, I’m really honored to provide a forum not just for myself but for others to talk about their own losses.
LL: Are there things, in retrospect, that you wish you had put in? That you had left out?
MW: Ooh, hard question. In my fiction, I’m endlessly tormented by all that could go in or come out. So it was a relief to succumb to the writing of memoir. Because I didn’t want to work on this book endlessly as I have with my fiction, I really trusted what came out in the rough draft. The revision was hard work but not tormenting.
When I look at the published book, I’m pleasantly surprised that it still seems solid to me. I’m trying not to indulge the habit of picking at it. My old habit of striving for “perfection” now seems like a terrible arrogance and I remind myself that Silvan himself seemed “perfect” to me though he was so damaged. It also helps that so far no one has picked at the way it’s written. The good reviews are definitely comforting.
LL: What impact has the writing and publishing of this memoir had on you and on your relationships with your husband, family, and close friends?
MW: Well, it’s a good thing that writing happens first in solitude. At first, I just felt lucky to spend time remembering Silvan. It was hard, but mostly it was cathartic to revisit our choice and find myself still feeling we did the right thing, and that the choice was born of love. And to feel that love still.
Then I had to show it to my husband—brave man—who was worried that my version would distort his memories of Silvan. We argued over quite a few passages. But I think ultimately we were glad to spend time together remembering Silvan again. Family, too, all bravely revisited that time. And I loved what my sister-in-law said about joy. She said she was so relieved to see joy spelled out in the book because, in addition to grief, she always remembers the joy of loving Silvan and she didn’t know if others did too.
LL: Final, much too long, question. Writing a memoir is a tricky business: there’s the aesthetic side, with its two big questions: why those particular slices of life, and not others; and then there’s the packaging: the rhetoric, point of view, tropes, tone, all the literary feints, allusions, masks, slips of the pen that a writer needs to tell a story. But, because this is a memoir and not a piece of fiction, there’s the life side of the equation. The memories reported are those of an actual human being who has decided to share certain life experiences with anonymous readers and to do so with varying degrees of candor, sincerity, and artistry. One finds oneself tempted to judge the author not only by aesthetic criteria, but also against the same sort of checklist one applies to a stranger. Is the person the kind of person I would want to have as a friend? Do I trust her? This is why writing—and reading—a memoir is so very tricky: it involves making complicated judgments, suspending assumption, entering into alien intellectual and ethical terrain, and emerging at the other end to some new level of self-understanding, hopefully a deepened sense of empathy and compassion and eventually to a confirmation or a recalibration of one’s moral compass. How, in anticipating such a complex reader response, did you approach the project of writing your memoir?
MW: I was blissfully naïve. I just needed to tell this story. I wasn’t thinking about the complexity of having myself as a character. Fortunately, my first readers were full of tough love. They went line by line pointing out where they wouldn’t want, as you said, to be “friends” with a character like me. They teased me for continually describing Silvan as “perfect.” They said, “Not only do all parents feel this way about their own babies, but you’re being lazy as a writer.”
Also, they said I had far too many anecdotes about people failing to act “perfectly” while Silvan was alive. I sounded superior about our suffering—as if there were only one way to behave while suffering and mine was the best—a residue, perhaps, of my childhood admiration of the suffering of the saints. They said, “If your emotions haven’t changed since the time Silvan was in hospital, you’re not going to be able to carry off this book.”
So I went back to revise. And as I revised, I could feel myself changing. I could feel my anger dissipating and my compassion for others rising. I lost that tone of superiority. My own language was changing me. I never expected to be changed by my own writing, but I am so grateful to find that I have.
Lena Lenček is a professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College in Portland. She is the author or co-author of numerous works, including Frozen Music: A History of Portland Architecture. Lenček is also an artist, with an exhibition currently on display at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery on the Reed College campus, showing through June 15.