Three of my grandparents were immigrants to Canada. I'm familiar with the stories of their lives before: my Dutch grandmother the war bride, my Hungarian grandfather who was an allied spy, my Irish grandmother, the youngest of six. (She was teased because she was the first to lose her Irish accent...)
But I was born here, to an Irish-Scottish father and a Hungarian-Dutch mother, both of whom only spoke English. I was born here, so my cultural heritage is the same as anyone else who grew up here: the Paddlewheel Princess groaning outside my window on summer nights, collecting Hallowe'en candy in pillowcases, and waiting for pumpkin-orange buses to emerge from the snow.
Ella Zelsterman's story is a little different. She came to Edmonton as a refugee from the Soviet Union in
1980, knowing only a few words of English. She built (re-built?) a life there. And, as part of that process, she began writing.
Her first collection of poems, small things left behind, was just published by University of Alberta Press. And it's powerfully sad and hopeful, full of Russian history and personal histories, her family, herself.
I interviewed Ella via email during the dog days of summer.
What do you want people to know about small things left behind?
It is the story of my flight from the USSR, my experiences as an emigrant in Canada. It explores concepts of freedom, memory, nostalgia, loss, and home. It moves between Russia and Canada, Leningrad and Edmonton, past and present, comfort and tyranny. The book has a narrative arc and takes readers on an emotionally-charged journey.
I wrote most of the poems in the book in 2008-2009. It felt like an avalanche went through me and deposited the swept boulders on the page. The polishing took quite a long time. I sent a first version of my manuscript to Simon Fraser Writer’s Studio 1st Book Competition in 2010 and got on the short list. I was very excited—the winner would get the book published—and scared, realizing that the book was not ready. Luckily (although it took me a few hours after the winners were announced to feel lucky) I did not win and kept editing and adding. I was fortunate to be part of a poetry colloquium at Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2011 working with Al Moritz. The final version of the manuscript was shaped that summer.
As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?
I enjoy readings. Yes, writing is a lonely pursuit. Reading is an occasion, a moment to get out of your shell, to be with your readers. I have done the prepared readings and spontaneous readings. I find spontaneous readings to be fun. You surprise yourself. I like sharing the poem’s emotions with the audience, evoking response in listeners, the sense of being heard and understood.
Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’
I am not sure I am an expert on this phenomena, I am now at the early/fascination stage. I have a sense of accomplishment and I am disappointed. I am excited and I don’t care. I am happy and depressed, delighted and grouchy. I want everybody to read the book and I want the book (and myself) to disappear. I am somewhat scared: what will be the reader’s reaction? I guess all of these feelings are a part of “the first book” phenomena and the only way to become an expert is to publish a second book. I am working on it.
This book is written out of your own history, out of your family’s history. What were the hardest things about this project for you? Was there anything surprising in it for you?
As I wrote the poems I relived many of the events in the book. I was leaving my family again, and again—forever. Each such experience drained me for days. I have difficulty reading some of the poems in the book. Editing these poems was a real challenge. I was surprised at my ability to eventually remove myself from the events in the poems and edit them. The big surprise was the depth of my memory. So many little details came up, as if preserved in a peat bog just for the moment of the uncovering.
Have you been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?
The first part of question is easy, one word: No.
I’ve heard and thought and have some ideas, whether right or wrong. My earliest Winnipeg connection is with Evelyn Hart and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The first time I saw her dancing Juliet in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” I was smitten. The expressiveness of her body and especially her hands were unforgettable, I saw the Juliet of my dreams. And Winnipeg grew in stature with my admiration of Evelyn Hart. Then I had an acquaintance who spent the whole month of January in Winnipeg and came back with stories of the frozen land and frozen people (this is an Edmontonian talking). Then I learned about Winnipeg's history as the Chicago of Canada, then I planted an apple tree grown in Manitoba, then I read Prairie Fire, then…There are more “thens” and all of them point into the direction of culture, diversity, and strength. Maybe it’s time to visit?
What are you reading now?
I have a déjà vu reading experience this summer. One of my favorite books as a teenager was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty I read it four times. I left my copy behind when we escaped the Soviet Union. I still remember its white leather-like cover with gold letters. This spring my husband gave me such a beautiful hardcover copy that it is a pleasure just to hold it in my hands. I keep the book on my night table (aside from the “usual” pile) and savour a few pages here and there. I did not read fiction in Russian for quite a while, so it’s a double déjà vu. My other bites are Brodsky and Akhmatova (my daily indulgence.) The read at the moment is “Will The Real Alberta Please Stand Up” by Geo Takach, published by (but of course) University of Alberta Press and full of fascinating insights into my adopted homeland. I smile, I grimace, I raise eyebrows, I chuckle.
What are you writing now?
Travel impressions, new Russia, terrorism, more family stories from a different angle. The poems are forming themselves into manuscripts. I see two new books, and then some. At the same time I am retuning my second manuscript, streamlining my voice.