- Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces by Kathleen Venema
Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2018, 354 pp. ISBN 978-1771122900, $24.99 paperback.
Kathleen Venema's memoir is aptly subtitled "in pieces," as it weaves, quilts, or patches together an account of her relationship with her demented mother out of disparate lifewriting materials. As such, it affords a complex model of the recovery and reuse of spontaneously produced genres like diary and correspondence in a kind of collaborative scriptotherapy.
The memoir's backstory is this: in the 1980s, the author spent three years teaching in post-civil war Uganda on behalf of the Mennonite Central Committee; during that time, she sent, received, and retained hundreds of letters to friends and relatives back in Manitoba. Of these letters, the vast majority were addressed to her mother, Geeske, who had been brought to Canada from the Netherlands as a teenager after World War II. Decades later, after the turn of the twenty-first century, Kathleen revisited the mother-daughter correspondence as a way of engaging with her mother and restoring her splintered life narrative to her. As a result, the book shifts back and forth between time periods—the 1980s (when the letters were written), the early 2000s (when Geeske and Kathleen reread and discussed them), and the following years (when the memoir was being composed). The narrative also switches among voices and points of view: those of the author, her mother, and several other correspondents.
In addition, the text includes excerpts from a diary Geeske kept while Kathleen was in Africa and from a family blog kept when a very young nephew was treated for (and eventually succumbed to) cancer. Clever book design signals the shifts: italic type is used for quoted letters, and the "direction" of the letters (to or from Kathleen) is indicated by right- or left-justification. The nicely produced text—available only in paper—includes some explanatory endnotes but no maps or photos.
Constructing a memoir out of multiple, diverse sets of letters requires careful contextualization: epistolary partners need to be identified and distinguished. References accessible to the letters' recipients need to be made intelligible to the [End Page 459] memoir's readers as well. Such a narrative makes substantial demands on an author's skills—and on a reader's attention. This memoir requires more readerly concentration than a monological, chronological narrative would. But a clear linear arc would falsify the experience Venema seeks to communicate—a sometimes hesitant, intermittent, recursive collaboration that attempts to stave off, if not repair, memory loss. Bird-Bent Grass is a complicated text for very good reasons. Much of its value lies in its complexity.
A scholar of life writing, Venema is well aware that her mother is what I call a "vulnerable subject"—someone not able to represent herself and thus susceptible to exploitation. Geeske is losing control of her narrative in two senses at once: her autobiographical memory is decaying, and her daughter is in complete control of the narrative we read. To her credit, Venema seeks and obtains explicit permission to use sensitive materials. At the same time, she acknowledges that such a gesture is insufficient under the circumstances. A poignant repeated motif in the text is Geeske's expression of wonder—or even doubt—that she and Kathleen had produced the correspondence in question: "I sent you letters?!" (333). Indeed, after initially granting permission, Geeske reversed herself, asking to be anonymous, and Kathleen had to talk her out of that position. Venema candidly admits that she includes material that her mother, who died before the book was completed, would not have wanted to see published: "About her family's politics during the war, . . . she is adamant: 'Nobody needs to know . . . that'" (324–325). So, while Kathleen reveals this material against her mother's wishes, at least she gives the reader access to the arrangement with her primary subject, providing what I call transactional transparency.
Likewise, as a scholar of life writing, she is interested in what John Paul Eakin has dubbed "the story of the story." Indeed, much of the narrative is...