Wednesday, June 11, 2014

HISTORY IS NOT WAS, IT IS.



                                                                   at the Sisters' House

I have always loved Church Street in downtown Bethlehem, since the days when I took piano lessons with a man who seemed even more ancient than the stone buildings. In those days I memorized Beethoven & Bartok for the dreaded piano recitals at the same time I memorized the history of Count Zinzendorf & the Moravians settling in Bethlehem in 1741. I love walking through history, hearing voices from the past whisper in my ears or breathe on the back of my neck. And I've never ever felt history was over.

Faulkner's words-- "History is not was, it is." -- formed the guiding principle behind my first novel, THE ROAD TO FEZ, in which I explored painful (& wonderful) moments in the history of Jews & Arabs in Morocco through the figure of a beautiful teenaged Jewish martyr, Suleika.

The realization that the past is never really past was also the guiding principle behind last week's Moravian Writers' Conference in Bethlehem PA. The gathering featured keynote speakers Ursula Hegi & Laurie Halse Anderson, as well as a wonderful mix of faculty authors & students at the historic Moravian College campus.




                                                             

Ursula Hegi

                                                                                                   


                                                                  Laurie Halse Anderson

Ursula Hegi, born & raised in Germany at a time when no one taught, wrote or spoke about the Holocaust, was forced to fight the oppressive weight of shame & silence in order to write her novel, STONES FROM THE RIVER, & to confront history & responsibility.

Laurie Halse Anderson also learned to silence herself as she grew up, to keep from asking difficult questions about American history that her teachers didn't want to answer. It left her angry, frustrated & confused. Eventually she learned to confront her questions through novels that delved into not only our nation's history but our own personal histories.

Both Ursula & Laurie had to move from silence to words on the page. That act of setting pen to paper & seeing letters emerge may well be one of the most courageous acts in the world. As Ursula explored the painful history of WWII, step by step, uncovering "all the little omissions along the way," she realized the Holocaust could have been stopped. As Laurie researched slavery, she realized that "slavery is not the African-American experience, it's the American experience." But it's only by breaking through the weight of silence that you can "take painful things & turn them into fruitful things."

Walking down Church Street, past the Brethren House, the Widows' House & the Sisters' House, past whispers & sighs, I heard a girl pound on a piano without delicacy or skill, but only an overwhelming need to break through the silence.


2 comments:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Sounds like a great conference, Ruth! Laurie sounded like she was loving being back in Bethlehem, too. And I love what you say about breaking through the WEIGHT of silence. Yes.

Ruth Setton said...

Thanks, Deb! It was a wonderful conference, organized by Joyce Hinnefeld who did a great job. And being in historic Bethlehem added to the mood. Let me know if you return to the area!