Silence and Struggle: Writing Family Histories at MWF17

By Magan Magan

Melbourne Writers Festival hosted an event that set out to explore writing family histories. Our family histories live in us. They manifest in and around our world in transformative ways.

The panel hosted authors who have written on the subject – Henry Rosenbloom, a son of Holocaust survivors, shared from the memoir of his parents, Miracles Do Happen; Sheila Fitzpatrick, a professor of history, read from her third series of memoirs, Mischka’s War; and Bram Presser, a lawyer, read from his forthcoming book, The Book of Dirt. The authors had an important conversation about writing ‘family histories’.

Without meaning to, I often write about my experience as the son of immigrants. So much of my story of being an immigrant child has been covered in silence. My mother told me bits and pieces of her story, parts of the story she had no choice in telling me. ‘I came to Australia to have a better future,’ my mother told me growing up. ‘I couldn’t go back to Somalia; war has engulfed our country.’

When Henry Rosenbloom spoke about his mother’s silence regarding her trauma, it took me back to my own struggle with my family history. He described his mother’s silence like getting ‘blood out of a stone’ and continued on to say:

‘In the end we can only piece things together because she had written different things at different times in response to other people having asked related questions.’ Henry Rosenbloom

The struggle of writing the truth and wanting to protect the people we love is a battle that Sheila talked about. She wanted everyone to love the characters in her book; however, complex characters cannot be protected from criticism. While she passionately spoke of wanting to protect Mischka, as she felt negative criticism directed at him was unfair, a part of me felt like she was questioning whether she betrayed him. I believe complex characters give people the opportunity to step into compassion.

In listening to Bram Presser talk about his book, it felt like he was in conversation with memory – some he gathered through putting the book together, some of his own and imagined memory he describes as fiction. This was because he didn’t know the story of his grandfather whom he was writing about.

Over the years I too have tried to piece things together, with the limited information I have. Our bodies are far more advanced than our ability to use language to articulate our feelings. It is through exploration, patience and time our language catches up to what our bodies have known this whole time. Writing family histories is a choice we make, a choice that can have dire consequences.

Writing Family Histories at MWF17 was supported by Ancestry.com.au and Public Records Office Victoria.

Magan is participating in the Digital Storytellers program as part of the partnership between MWF and Victoria University to provide opportunities for students to have hands-on industry experience during their studies. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram and his website.

Image credit: Anna via Flickr Creative Commons