Voice, Verse, Veracity
After years of trying to find a way to write my mother’s story of living as a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the universe gave me a gift: the discovery of Mom’s poesiealbum from 1938. A poesiealbum (po-eh-ZEE album) is like an autograph book or friendship book. Poesiealbums were popular among European pre-teens and teenagers in the mid-20th century.
This wasn’t one of these up-in-the-dusty-attic discoveries. No, my mother herself brought the poesiealbum out of her bedside table when she got together with six of her childhood friends from Germany for the first time in 62 years in 2000. (You can read about how that reunion came to be here.) I was there, too. Without even knowing what the poesiealbum entries meant—they’re mostly in German and Polish—I was moved by this beat-up little book full of handwritten poems and proverbs from my mother’s friends and relatives that she brought across the Atlantic Ocean when she left Germany at the end of 1938.
I had the album translated (some entries more than once), studied it, and laid out photocopies of the pages on the floor. What I found was that each entry contained a truth or sentiment that related directly to the goings-on around my mother, from January through November of 1938. And so, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes (Disney-Hyperion 2010) opens with a poesiealbum entry. Arranged chronologically, these poesies give shape to that one fateful year in Nazi Germany and in my mother’s life.
Now here comes, from the I.N.K. perspective, the interesting part: I wrote the book in my mother’s 11- and 12-year-old voice, narrating the last year of her life in Germany. In this, I was fortunate to have my mother—who has an outstanding memory—and I have her still, as a living resource behind the book. And I wrote the book in free verse. An introduction explains the book’s “voice” and structure. Back matter tells what happened to those who make an appearance in the poesiealbum, includes a timeline, photographs, and other historical information, and discusses my research.
What with the free verse and the first person and the poesiealbum excerpts, the book has been categorized in a variety of ways. It’s been called “historical fiction” by some, including the good people who gave it a Parent’s Choice Award. It’s been called a “verse novel” by some reviewers. It was nominated in the “poetry” category by the ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee. But Kirkus included it on its list of best children’s “nonfiction” books of 2011, and many others also refer to it as nonfiction.
I, too, say it’s nonfiction. The book tells a true story, based on scrupulous and redundant research. (I believe in redundancy in airplane safety systems and in research.) This is not simply my mother’s memoir channeled through me. The events, interactions, people, places, and documents are not made up or dramatically enhanced. But I’m not distressed by the variety of labels attached to The Year of Goodbyes—so long as readers understand that the book depicts actual events, and is not an invention “based on,” “inspired by,” or “adapted from” them.
Recently, I’ve read thoughtful articles here on I.N.K. and elsewhere sparked by the Horn Book’s March/April 2011 issue, “Fact, Fiction, and In Between.” I’ve read about “new” and “old” nonfiction,” “speculative,” “straight,” and “creative” nonfiction. What resonates most for me in this debate is Tanya Lee Stone’s description in her Horn Book article of the work of nonfiction writers:
“We balance the role of historian and storyteller by making sure we don’t interject tension or emotion or events without thorough knowledge. We do it by employing fiction techniques without ever making a single thing up.”
By writing The Year of Goodbyes in the first person, I intended to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I think this is consistent with nonfiction. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her at my side.
As for the technique I employed—writing in verse—this was a way of mirroring and honoring the poesiealbum entries. I also think that free verse excels at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. And I think that verse is perfectly compatible with telling a true story in which nothing is made up.
I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.
Fellow nonfiction writer Cathy Reef recently shared with me this wonderful pithy quotation from V.S. Naipaul:
“Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”
Some of those dramas will be nonfiction. Some will be fiction. And we writers will keep on parsing the two forms because of a shared commitment to bring our readers truth (as we understand it) as well as also art.