Opening Address for Rio de Janeiro State University’s Symposium for Post-Graduate Students, 23 November 2021
“Olà, boa noite, good evening.” I’d like to start by thanking Sergio Schargel, Julia Ourique, Prof Erick Felinto, and all who have worked hard to bring us together for this symposium.
Though many of you are postgraduate students, I will skip over my own postgraduate years now, and go back to the mid-1970s when I was in middle school, at the age of around eleven years old. I have no idea if this experience I’m going to tell you about was part of the curriculum back then or if it was my teacher’s own experimental idea.
One day, our social studies teacher, Mr Tracy, began to teach our class about some recent research that had been done by scientists, where it had been proven that people with brown or dark eyes, weren’t able to think as fast as people with blue or green eyes. People with dark eyes were good at some tasks all the same, but were slower thinkers, he explained. It took them longer to reach the same results. That was why people with blue eyes were better suited to be pilots, or why they were better drivers of cars, because they could think faster, they were instantly aware of situations and had sharper reflexes. And so at the start of class each day, he taught us more such differences between those of different eye colours.
Obviously, it was starting to prove more desirable to have blue eyes, than brown eyes, as I had.
In truth, I didn’t take it to heart at first, because, after all, the realities of the classroom were there, who seemed bright and curious didn’t correspond to any specific eye colours, and I was really wondering where these scientists were getting their information from, because their findings didn’t seem right even to someone young like me. At first, we children all just laughed about this after class, yet slowly but surely the dynamics of our classroom changed. Children with blue eyes started spending their time with other children who had blue eyes. And I began to feel less welcome by classmates who, until then, had valued me. We, the less desirable ones, started to play and talk only with each other, with the uncomfortable feeling of being considered inferior, unwanted, and left out.
At some stage a scuffle broke out on the playground, some of the blue-eyed children and some of the brown-eyed children began pushing each other – it was over who got to use the play equipment and who didn’t. That was when Mr Tracy intervened and had us all come back inside, and he introduced WW2 and the Holocaust to us, the notion of lies, and this big word I’d never seen before, “propaganda”, that he wrote in chalk up on the blackboard…
I still vividly remember how much the images he showed us on that day affected me – to the extent of having a sense of a before and an after in how I saw the world from then on – as he, with his film projector, projected photos of the victims of extermination camps on the screen, the countless dead bodies whose skeletal states were living testimony to the horrors that the Jews, and others, had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The looks in the eyes of those who’d survived, from behind fences of barbed wire, also gave silent testimony to what those eyes had seen ...
As an undergraduate student of French literature, I went to France, and it was in Paris that I met an elderly woman who would become a very close friend. We talked a lot about all sorts of things and one day after about a year, she opened up to me about how her parents had sheltered a young Jewish man from Poland behind a fake wall in their Paris apartment during the war. She had fallen in love with him, speaking to him through this partition, and after the war, they married, but, alas, the marriage didn’t last, because as the years went by, for him it was impossible to live life under the daily weight of having lost his family, friends, his whole neighbourhood in Poland wiped out.
Years later, when I became a writer and had my first book published in London, this story about my elderly friend in Paris kept nagging at me. I felt there was something important there, but not as reality had unfolded in their own unique lives.
As I turned it over and over, this potential story in my head, I decided to move the setting to Vienna, and have a couple who are resistants, hiding a young Jewish woman. The couple’s son, in the Hitler youth, would be the one to discover her.
That felt right to me, as these changes would then allow me to research the whole educational – that is, brainwashing - side of ‘Hitler’s Dream’, and how he’d manipulated children, and also to do research on so many unanswered and deeply disturbing questions I had.
How had something on such a massive industrial scale happened as the planned extermination of an entire people across Europe? How had anyone ever let this happen? How had scientists gone along with this notion of German superiority? Why hadn’t the populations spoken up against the early mistreatment of Jews? Let alone what was to come after.
To be able to write this, it was vital for me to try and grasp what had gone so wrong on an emotional level… and I felt I could only grasp something so huge and horrific on a very small-scale – say, in a given classroom, or in a home, or at camp.
What exactly were Nazis teaching these till-then normal children? And from a domestic point of view? What was going on behind the closed doors of home, what were the dynamics and conflicts there? How did the most outrageous of lies, the most unshakeable hatred, get taught, transmitted, enacted upon? To such an extent that nearly no one stood up to defend those that they’d known and lived beside up until then, worked and socialised with and valued?
I wrote this novel at the Memorial de Caen, a WW2 Museum in Normandy where my husband worked. Back then it was called “Un Musée Pour La Paix”, a “Museum for Peace”, the aim being that the past was meant to help inform a better future. There was a hawker typhoon fighter-plane hanging from a wire above my head, and the soundtrack of bombing going off every five to ten minutes, which made it really hard to concentrate as I tried to get past those alarming whistles and explosions each time.
Then there was the Path of Remembrance. It was a long, winding path that had life-size photos of individual Jews – a student, a child, an adult, a grandparent, before they’d become victims of the Holocaust. These photos were propped up on one side and another. As I, or anyone else approached, by a trick of light they would one by one fade and disappear. This path I took as I came in each morning and left each evening, getting to know every face and expression, was a painful daily reminder of why I was doing what I was.
I was able to do most of my research and writing at the Memorial, thanks to the library’s huge, specialised collection of books and documentaries, and I was like some permanent fixture there. I also interviewed elderly Germans and Austrians who’d experienced these times first-hand. With the need for so many details from five, six decades back, I had invaluable support from others – such as Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Vienna, who helped me fill the gaps I needed for many details not found in books, and he was besides that warm and encouraging – writing about the Nazis and the Shoah, even in a work of fiction, he felt, helped keep awareness alive.
I still see my husband and I arriving at the museum each morning on our bicycles – and at times for lunch sharing our one container of rice, squirting some of the museum cafeteria’s giant plastic bottles of mayonnaise on it to help fill us up – he was on a small museum salary, and my writing this book for years was like an act of faith. Still, my sense of purpose remained undiminished over the years of its writing – my driving fear being that as the war and its atrocities would become more remote in time, as more people who’d experienced and survived that era would die, so much would be forgotten.
Address to the Class of 2020 at Harvard University Extension School Graduation Ceremony, 28 May 2020
A very heartfelt congratulations to the class of 2020, today will remain a historical graduation during these unprecedented times. A very warm welcome to you all from my lockdown bubble in New Zealand. Doing a Master of Liberal of Arts in English and American Literature and Language at Harvard Extension School allowed me to write the books I did and do research confidently. In 1998 I took Professor James Kugel’s class in American Jewish Literature, which was instrumental to being able to later write Caging Skies. Without his class, I don’t think I’d have been able to write the main Jewish character of Elsa as I did, and there would be no Oscar winning film of it out today. In 2003 I took Dean Shinagel’s class, Studies in the English Novel, a life changing one, the way he always pushed harder and harder for us to go deeper into a character’s acts and words, how to do the same with
Sometimes people ask me what I write with. A pencil? My laptop? The truth is, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, Dean Shinagel didn’t teach me how to sharpen my pencil but rather how to sharpen my mind and critical thinking. And as to the laptop… I arrived at Widener Library in 1998 and saw a bunch of computers and went to a librarian and asked her if she could please tell me where the card catalogues were. “In the archives in the basement” she replied. So learning to become digitally literate I owe to Harvard Extension too. When I was sitting at the Oscar ceremonies in February and they put the Caging Skies up on the screen and said my name, I was so stunned I didn’t move for about 10 minutes, then the memories raced through my mind, coming from France to live in a couple of terms in Cambridge with my husband, toddler and five month old baby, my mother coming up to help, all those who had faith in me, who had taught me, it was overwhelming and the tears streamed down.
If I have one message for the Class of 2020 it’s to go out and chase your dreams. Dreams are not necessarily distant and evasive as you might think of them, but made out of a slow, cumulative reality that you have already been building within and around you these past years. I think I can safely say that each one of you gave up many things to be here today, each of you worked long and extraordinarily hard, despite other responsibilities and pressures. Each of you made a plan and committed to it until the end. This was one of your dreams, like it was one of mine many years ago. Relish it today, and for the years to come. No one in the Class of 2020 needs a butterfly net to chase their dreams. Having grasped and done all that was necessary to graduate today, I can assure you that the best tool is you.
In First Volume of Poussières du Monde, 10 March 2014
A Can of Sunshine, my third book, had recently come out in New Zealand and my years of solitude putting words and scenes to paper were all of a sudden giving way to speaking in front of hundreds of people at literary festivals, universities and diverse adult groups. Then an unexpected request came in – a local primary school asked me if I’d come talk to their children about writing.
At first I felt daunted. Children? Their questions can be blunt. And what if they asked no questions at all? And I stood in a sea of dense silence? Not in my comfort zone... besides, I wrote adult literary fiction... nothing kids could fully grasp or should actually even know about. But, wanting to contribute in some way, in the end I decided to give it a go, so on the morning of 10 March I began my talk by explaining to the large crowd of children sitting on mats in the assembly hall that though I was called a ‘writer’, it would be more exact if I was called a ‘re-writer’ or better yet, ‘a re-re-re-writer’, because that’s about how many drafts I have to go through before I show my manuscript to anyone. Writing, I went on to tell them, is about finding the right words and phrasing to help others see things as vividly as one does in a dream; to hear, smell, feel and taste existence with more zest than ordinarily. It’s not so much about bringing the language ‘to life’ as it is bringing people ‘to life’. At some stage I told them that finding just the right word can be a real treasure hunt and passed around my thesaurus, a voluminous hardback with pages as thin as a pocket Bible. Then I used it to show them how many different ways one can ‘walk’ (‘lumber’, ‘amble’, ‘stomp’, ‘march’, ‘trudge’, ‘ramble’, ‘saunter’, ‘stroll’, ‘shuffle’) and ‘eat’ (‘devour’, ‘pick at’, ‘munch’, ‘wolf down’, ‘nibble’, ‘gnaw’, ‘feast upon’, ‘partake of’) until giggles started to break out. I confess that by that point I had become something of a mime and was actually starting to enjoy myself.
I also told them that reading and writing were, at least to me, inseparable activities. Writers read and re-read their work as much as they write and re-write it – even more at the latter stages, reading it from front to back again and again, while just tinkering with a last few dozen words and sentences. And how reading/writing brings us to feel empathy for each other as we are drawn entirely into a character’s mind and skin, so that we experience his or her life as they would, from the inside. Literature allows us to transcend time and space, to go beyond race, culture, age and gender (all this part I, of course, put in simpler words). In sum, books make us feel, relate, care. Question-time came and what I was asked was not at all so different from what adults usually took the microphone to ask (‘Are my characters made up or are they people I really know?’ I even got the ‘How much money do you make?’ one). But the last question, asked by a soft, innocent voice, no one had ever asked me before: ‘Does writing make me happy?’
How could I explain to these young children that writing sometimes gives me pain, especially as I write about hard subjects such as war or death; reviews can please like they can hurt, but that at the end of the day, the very end of it, when after years and years of work, a book is finished and I hold the edition for the first time in my hands, it gives me... er... satisfaction? I actually left the hall after the applause of small hands, feeling quite happy. But that day had more to bring. In the afternoon, I had a call from the school, urging me to come by again, if I could – a teacher had something incredible to show me. Curious by nature, I made my way there directly, whereupon the teacher told me that after I’d left, all the students were made to go straight into writing. Their writing, she beamed, turned out far better than usual – but what she really wanted to show me was ‘this’. ‘This’ was a red notebook with pages of small rectangular blocks embossed with tiny patterns of dots that I could hardly distinguish one from the other as I ran my fingers over them. This piece of writing was by Holly, a clever, blonde girl born blind, who learns French and piano, and who had been sitting quietly at the back of the hall during my talk. Usually Holly writes a few lines on her braille machine, but after what I said about words and ‘seeing’, she had produced these pages. By hand, her assistant carefully transcribed the original dotted cells into our Roman alphabet so that what was written could be read by non-readers of braille. As I turned the pages, I slipped into Holly’s house, her family, her experiences moment by moment, her skin – so sensitive to compensate for her lack of sight, it drew me into her tactile, richly scented, resonant life heretofore unknown to me. I felt a curious dissipation of time and space – Louis Braille, France, in the early 1800s and Holly in New Zealand in the early 21st Century, and the continual benefit still growing out of his – there’s nothing else to call it – great ‘vision’. Words, when patterned together in just the right way, be it by dots, scribbles of ink, or printed font, give us a rare glimpse into the shared emotional core of our humanity. This little girl, without knowing it, had given me a sharp insight into how words and ‘seeing’ transcend even sight.
Dedalus Books Authors’ Blog, 2013
What & Where One question I’m often asked as a writer is what do I write with? Pen? Pencil? Laptop? A one-word answer would be the easiest, but the truth is that what writers really write with is themselves. Their minds, imagination, their particular way of looking at and seeing things, their sensitivity and perceptivity and vision. They themselves are their most vital writing tool.
When I wrote the books I’ve written, I was so concentrated on my dream-world and characters and what they were doing that I never paid too much attention to what was in front of my own nose – what some would call reality. I never gave any thought to where I happened to be when I wrote each book, let alone where the idea for a book came from inside me. Wherever I had chosen just seemed a practical place to plop myself down in a chair, somewhere where there was a hard surface that allowed me to spread out some papers and set down my laptop. It’s only now, looking back, that I start to see some of what I didn’t see back then.
My first novel, Primordial Soup, was written in the Chantrerie Saint Rieul in Senlis, France. It was what was left over from a fourteenth-century monastery, where the monks used to gather to sing. The pale, sometimes pinkish hue of the stone, the high rafted ceilings, the two gargoyles perched on the exterior of the corner where I kept my small bed, the small tower capped with a conical roof… Oscar Wilde might have understood my willingness to brave every inconvenience to live amidst such beauty. Which might explain why I ended up writing the whole novel cowering in its small kitchen. It was the warmest place. It had a table and I could turn my chair sideways and rest my back directly against the radiator. Writing was sometimes literally squashed between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Perhaps it’s no wonder the novel explores food – tastes, textures, scents – and its relation to life so intimately that it leads to other feelings… to one’s questioning the fine line between life and food, between food and flesh, between flesh and sexuality, mortality and spirituality. What other result could have come out of imprisoning oneself for years in a small, medieval kitchen?
Come to think of it, my second novel, Caging Skies, was also written in just as crazy a location, the Memorial Museum for Peace in Normandy. The museum’s library was terrifying stocked, chock-full, with enough specialised books and documentaries to swallow me for hours, days, weeks, months and eventually years in the stinking, skeletal gullet of modern war. Perhaps even more importantly it was well heated – my jersey could even come off. (Another question I’m often asked is: What is the hardest part of writing? My answer: Moving my arm with four layers on.) Above, a Hawker Typhoon dangled dangerously from a trio of taut wires, while a soundtrack of the heavy drone of bombers and the blasé pitch of air-raid sirens would go off every 5 minutes. Or so it seemed when I was writing. It might have only been every 10. To come or go each day I took a circuitous path where life-size photos of some of those exterminated in concentration camps stood randomly left and right and by some special effect each one would fade and disappear as I neared and passed by. WWII couldn’t have felt closer. I believe anyone who reads Caging Skies will feel the gloom, but also the potent need for love and passion for life that arises from such darkness and death. But at the time, I didn’t give any thought to where I was writing either or where any of this was coming from. I just took it page per page, planting smalls facts into a turbulence of fiction with as much feeling as I could. I think we humans simply do things that need to be done, as we can, moment per moment in the varying course of our lives, and then only afterwards do we look back and make stories, drawing structural lines, connect dots. Perhaps to give such moments more meaning, some dimension or essence they deserved? Perhaps it really takes years to fully understand some facets of even a tiny moment. British Ferries cradled my family and me (the rocking part too) from Normandy to the UK, a Boeing 787 from London to Auckland. Random House NZ took Caging Skies and in such a bright, beautiful country, with breath-taking landscapes and amazingly friendly and sensible Kiwis, having to close my eyes and go back to that other world was no easy task. War? Destruction? It took four months for our 12 cubic metre container to arrive. We opened the boxes one by one. Some objects I’d completely forgotten about and cherished anew. Others didn’t seem so necessary any more and were discarded. A couple were put to another use than their original, while several were packed up again for use later, somewhere down the line. It was in a similar spirit that I went through the manuscript again. The where of writing only got tougher with a growing family, and at last landed me on the sixth unused chair of the dining room’s oval table, wedged between wall and Thomas the Tank Engine track, children running through to get snacks and tumble around on the floor, so that it all brought to mind Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own more than Oscar Wilde. Why there? In a typical character NZ bungalow built in the early 1900s, once again it was within arm’s reach of the one vital wood burner. Whenever I got up to stretch my legs, careful not to put a foot down on Percy, I often put away a sock or hung a basket of wash outside. These socks were growing fast, as were the baskets of wash. Pondering on the emotion core now – the obsession with which A Can of Sunshine explores the passing of time, as much in relation to self as family and family dynamics – I’m starting to think that at the end of the day maybe I’m not so impermeable as I’d thought to my surroundings and where exactly I write will eventually find its way into what it is I am writing. Interestingly a few months ago I started on a historical New Zealand work in which a few crucial scenes will take place in Antarctica. There is an Artists to Antarctica programme that could get me to see the endless expanses of pristine whiteness and Scott Base first-hand. But considering my propensity to get chilled to the bone in temperate climates, I think I might do just as well here, this time.
A Can of Sunshine, NZ Herald’s Best Books of the Year 2013 Caging Skies, nominated for the Prix Médicis 2008 Primordial Soup, “a remarkable debut novel” The Sunday Times, 1999
Reflections on Caging Skies - 10 August 2017 - Circa Theatre blog
Playwright Desiree Gezentsvey, author Christine Leunens, and Director Andrew Foster reflect on Desiree’s stage adaptation of Caging Skies: Playwright Desiree Gezentsvey and Director Andrew Foster
Desiree: When I met Christine two years ago, she gave me a copy of CagingSkies and I was instantly hooked. Why did her moving story of love, war and survival haunt me so? My father was a Holocaust survivor who was both helped by courageous, righteous people and betrayed by others. He taught me to live by the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” As I peered at the world through the eyes of an innocent Viennese boy (Johannes) who grew up embracing Hitler’s terrible lie, I found myself stepping inside a haunted house, into a love story that encompasses the most complex of human emotions, set against an extreme backdrop in which all lives are at stake. Life or death. What would I do? Would I stand up for my values, risk my life, the lives of my loved ones, to save another? Looking at the realities (and alternative facts!) of today’s world, I hope we will never be confronted with finding the answers to these heart-wrenching questions.
Writing the play has been a challenging and fascinating journey – distilling, creating and weaving all the threads into a new form, while staying true to the novel. As we approach the premiere, listening to my husband, Yury Gezentsvey, perform on the violin the recording of Jeremy Cullen’s stunning music, and watching our extraordinary cast – Tim Earl, Comfrey Sanders, Claire Waldron and Donna Akersten – embody Johannes, Elsa, Roswita and Oma under the brilliant creative vision of director Andrew Foster, is beyond exciting!
Christine: When I read Desirée Gezentsvey’s play adaptation, I felt she had entered the universe I had created and had understood it with the same intimacy and depth I did. She saw not only the darkness, but also the potent need for love, the humour and passion for life that rises above war and the worst of humanity. I couldn’t believe how complete the play adaptation felt to me. As the news came that Andrew Foster would be directing the play at Circa Theatre and that others were getting involved, I really felt that something rare, wonderful and communal was happening. It was a pivotal moment for me seeing the actors’ faces for the first time, as if the characters in my inner dream stepped out of the confines of the page and were going to be given the opportunity to exist in ‘real life’, if only for a couple of hours at a time. It has been an extraordinary journey with Desirée, from a common hope to the tangible realisation of complexity; and to see how the story continues to live independently of me is something I, as an author, couldn’t have wished more for!
Andrew: What fascinated me about the play was the way in which Desiree has used the vernacular of modernist and existential theatre so that the ‘reality’ that is constructed has very little connection with the reality outside the house. It may be 1944 but the characters, whom we only ever see inside the house, exist in a Pinteresque limbo… I was drawn to the complexity of the relationship between Johannes and Elsa, to the mystery of it. Who’s in control?