On Monday evening (13 October) we held a very successful launch for Give Us This Day by Helena Wiśniewska Brow at Unity Books.
Herewith, Harry Ricketts launch speech for the book:
In 2009 I was lucky enough to have Helena in my second-year creative nonfiction class at the IIML. It’ll be no surprise to any of you here to learn that for her portfolio she produced some terrific pieces. One of these was called “Stefan”, and told the story of how Helena with her father tried to relocate the house in East Poland (now Belarus) that he had been forced to leave as a twelve-year-old in 1941. This was the start, Helena explained to us, of an epic journey that brought him and some of his siblings to New Zealand in 1944, among other Polish children offered sanctuary in Pahiatuha. I’m relieved to find that my report on Helena’s portfolio was very positive. Here’s a snippet:
The character of your father comes across very powerfully, particularly the contrast between his usual, awkward New Zealand self and his extrovert Polish self which emerges only fleetingly with his siblings but comes back in fuller form during the trip. I like the way you organise the piece, folding your father’s history into the narrative of the journey. The minor characters are vividly etched in. The writing is crisp throughout.
After my course Helena went on to do the MA in creative writing at the IIML, and eventually produced Give Us This Day. Reading the beautifully produced final version, various things strike me. For instance, the structure, the way the narrative (built around various journeys) is always moving forward but is also constantly backtracking, folding in on itself, following now Stefan, now his sister Hela, now Helena’s mother Olga, now a particular uncle. So, in addition to Stefan, we encounter a raft of fascinating characters, not least Helena’s mother, whose story has its own poignancy. Indeed in their very different ways the stories of both of Helena’s parents will, I think, strike a deep chord with many readers. Because, while unlikely to be anything like as horrendous as Stefan’s story, the story in one form or another of a forced or involuntary emigration or exile, and of struggling and only partially adapting to the New Place, this is a story common to many Pakeha New Zealand families. This story, you could say, is part of our cultural DNA.
The writing is just as crisp (and, I should have said, elegant) as I remember. Here is Helena on her father and her late aunt Hela: “What might be learned from walking through history again with them as my guides ‒ my elderly father on one arm, my ghostly aunt on the other?” Here she is on Belarus: “The country’s KGB atmosphere, the [guide]book said, was its chief tourist attraction.” Here she is on herself and her sister Zofia: “We are still fussing about on the fringes of our parents’ lives, worrying about our own.” Not unexpectedly, there are recurring moments of meditation on memory, exile, home ‒ moments which press against the interwoven stories, particularly of course Stefan’s, because for him “the longed-for homecoming would [and could] never take place”.
There is also, and much to Helena’s credit, an awareness of the difficulties involved in trying to understand and write someone else’s story. Her subtitle is A Memoir of Family and Exile. I don’t know if, like me, you’ve noticed over the last few years a prejudice against the term ‘memoir’, as though a memoir is somehow not quite highbrow enough, just a bit too popular, too infra dig. A friend of mine (here in the audience) likes to say in their dogmatical way: “A novel’s a novel. That’s what it is. It’s just that some novels are better than others.” The same goes for memoirs. And one of the many reasons why this is such a good memoir is because, while reading an often startling and heart-turning story (I cried around page 240, incidentally), we regularly, quietly, bump up against realisations like this one. Here Helena has been in the university library, looking at documents relating to the Polish children who came here in 1944:
The library is emptying and the dark behind its soaring windows bounces my own fuzzy reflection back at me. I gather up my things to leave. I ask the questions, I visit the graves and read the books. But I can’t live the story; it’s not mine. The things [my father] gives me, these pieces of memory, are like Marysia’s mother’s parcels: carefully wrapped gifts, generously handed over, intriguing when wrapped in their tissue and string. Unwrapped and exposed, held up to the light and examined, they are the bits and pieces of a life. What made me think they could be more?”
And yet there is more, much more, as you will know if you’ve already read Give Us This Day or will, I hope, very soon discover. In the meantime, congratulations, Helena, I knew you could do it. Thank you.