Category Archives: publishing

A Woman in Berlin

For the past couple of months I have been trying to write about the two days in April that I spent in Poland, visiting the village that was once my mother’s German home. Capturing the events of that trip is one thing; capturing the emotions stirred and the thoughts engendered is quite another. I have written about fifteen pages, which may or may not become part of something bigger. Meanwhile I do what all literary scholars do when they are stalled in their writing—I keep reading.

The book I have just finished reading, a book that I both could not put down and often could not bear to continue with, is A Woman in Berlin. Written as a diary by “Anonymous,” it chronicles a woman’s experiences in the eight weeks between the final battles in and around the capital city to the retreat of the Russian forces. It covers the period April 20, 1945 to June 16, 1945.

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I no longer remember how I heard about this book. I have read many memoirs by Germans about their wartime experiences (especially those ethnic Germans who lived in parts of eastern Europe—Latvia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Prussia, Romania, and, of course, Pomerania) but this is the first diary I have read. It has had a profound effect on me probably because of the sense of immediacy it conveys. The details of daily existence, as well as the thoughts and acts of an ordinary human being in a time of chaos and danger, are acutely rendered. I got my copy through Amazon’s used bookseller network. It was originally in the Milton Ontario Public library. It has the plastic wrapped cover and all and is stamped “DISCARDED” on the inside. Clearly it was waiting for me to bring it home.

The author wished to remain anonymous, and there are few biographical details about her given in the book. She is in her early 30s. She has blond hair. She is slim. She is engaged to a man called Gerd who is (she assumes) at the western front. She has some experience in journalism or publishing. In any event, she can certainly write.

The diary has been endorsed as “authentic” (whatever that means) by Antony Beevor (author of The Fall of Berlin 1945) and others, though apparently when it was first published in the 1950s it was not well received. Readers did not want to hear details about how ordinary German citizens suffered during the war. They did not want to think of Germans as victims. And German readers did not want to be reminded of the atrocities they endured. More specifically, many did not want to read about rape. Because that is a large part of the diary. Rape. And the enormous effort it took to stay alive, despite everything. Bombing raids. No food. No water. No electricity. No transportation. Burned and smashed buildings. Ruined homes. And rampaging Russian soldiers.

I knew about the rapes. It’s all there in the history books. Estimates are that about 100,000 German women and girls were raped by Russian soldiers who treated the defeated as spoils of war. It did not matter how old or attractive the women and girls were; they were all vulnerable. Anonymous was quickly and repeatedly “taken” (the word she uses) by several different men. But what this diary reveals is how diverse particular women’s and girls’ experiences were. One mother managed to hide her daughter in a crawl space for weeks. She was not found. Russian soldiers tended not to enter apartments that were above the first or second floors, so women and girls living on the upper floors had a greater chance of being spared. One woman (perhaps a lesbian) dresses like a man and passes. Another woman, an actor, uses stage makeup to make herself look very old and the soldiers choose the two young refugee girls who live with her instead.

Some women are so traumatized that they commit suicide. Others try to make better deals for themselves by connecting themselves to a particular Russian in exchange for food and other items that can be used or traded, as well as for protection. Anonymous “partners” with three different men who, for a while, keep other soldiers away from her. “Her Russian,” whoever he happens to be at the time (Anatol, Nikolai, the major), becomes part of the economy of her makeshift “family,” a widow (whom she calls “the widow”) and Herr Pauli, the widow’s invalid lodger. She lives in their flat because her own attic apartment (actually it is not even her own but where she ended up during the bombing raids); the Russians bring them meager but essential means of survival for which they are all grateful. Bread. Canned meat. Potatoes. Matches. Vodka.

Remarkably, Anonymous also thinks about why the Russian soldiers act as they do. Not all are animals. Not all are monsters. They had to get drunk in order to rape, because such acts of violence against women went against their basic human moral code. Alcohol removed inhibitions. She is “convinced that if the Russians hadn’t found so much alcohol all over, half as many rapes would have taken place.” She notes that ordinary soldiers were not given home leave, unlike German troops, so many of these Russian soldiers had not seen their wives or girlfriends for four years. The more educated of them, officers like her “major,” wanted companionship and conversation as much as they wanted sex. They often pleaded with women to let them “sleep at your house.” Code for forced sex, to be sure, but also a request for a pretend domesticity.

The raping stops the forced labour begins—women are rounded up and made to do manual labour: clearing rubble, emptying factories of their machines, washing. Anonymous is able to walk around the city. She visits friends. She asks every woman she talks to the same question: “how many times?”

Gerd comes home. At first she is full of joy, but when Gerd learns about the rapes he turns cold and distant. “For him I’d been spoiled once and for all,” she writes. He calls all the women “bitches.” He finds them “horrible to be around.” He leaves again. The diary ends with her wondering if they will ever find their way back together again. For Gerd and other husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends the women left behind are ruined. But you cannot read this diary and reach that conclusion. On the contrary, you cannot help but marvel at their strength, their dignity, their ability to cope. These women elicit our greatest respect. But only now, after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, can we hear such stories. A Woman in Berlin was first published in 1953 and the response was contempt or silence. Anonymous did not want the book to be republished until after her death. Finally it was republished, in its complete form, in 2000, and this is the copy that now lives with—and in—me.

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Filed under Life writing, publishing, Reading

How good it feels

Every academic reading this post will know this feeling. You get an idea for an article that you want to write. It might be part of an ongoing research project or a new one. You do the research (which to me is the fun part). You spend hours working through your research material trying to put it in some sort of logical order. You begin writing. You hate writing (or at least I do). You force yourself to write. Then you have to edit and revise until you can’t change one more sentence. Then you give your essay to someone (maybe) who will say nice things about it (maybe) but will also (hopefully) suggest how you can make it better, clearer. You revise again. You finally send it off to a journal. You wait. And wait. And wait. Then the happy day comes when you get an email from the journal in your inbox. There are butterflies in your stomach as you open it. Relief! They like it! BUT there are three readers who have written reports and want you to revise again. You go back into the essay and painfully rewrite. You send it back to the journal. They’ve accepted it! it will appear in at least a year . . . which gives you plenty of time to acquire permissions to reproduce images, get digital copies of them, fiddle with abstract, keywords, and author bio.

Then, one magic day, the issue that contains your essay is published. Yay! Celebration! But also immediate (if minor) trepidation, because now that it’s out there you have made yourself vulnerable.

Dear readers, if you are interested in “Flucht und Vertreibung and the Difficult Work of Memory” (aka “my mother’s story”), you can read it here, if you have a U Waterloo login. If not, it’s in volume 10 issue 3.

Thanks

By the way, Life Writing was an awesome journal to work with. Just wonderful

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Filed under Life writing, publishing, Research

Another year of blogging. Yes, yes I will.

At the recent MLA convention in Boston—as recent as last week—I was following some very interesting conversations that were going on. I was not physically there. I was following the hashtag #mla13 and the various live tweets posted by some people I like to read on Twitter but whom I’ve never met. In particular, I was following discussions about “alt-ac,” or alternatives to academic careers. For example, here’s one presentation. The remarkable thing to me is that I didn’t have to be in Boston or in that room to get access to that presentation; the author posted a link to it on Twitter. Thank you Katina Rogers.
I’m interested in the alt-ac topic because of my admin role as Associate Dean of Graduate studies and knowing that we are taking in way more PhD students in Arts than are going to get full-time tenure-track jobs. We are working on developing their professional skills, skills that are transferable to a whole lot of other careers. This is an urgent need.
On Facebook I often post links to articles I’ve read that I think my FB friends—all of whom I do know in RL, by the way—might also find interesting, provocative, or funny. Facebook for me is more personal; Twitter is really a way of researching and disseminating information, networking, hooking up with ideas and groups that are generating them.
I said Happy Holidays to all of you in my last blog post of 2012. I know some of you who read my blog, but certainly not all of you. Who are you? How did you find me? Why are you reading my blog? It doesn’t matter, in a way. I’m glad to have you here. Blogging as Lady English Professor is both a delight and a challenge. It’s a delight because I like creating this public persona. I like thinking about my readers. I like sharing. But it’s also a challenge because of the same issues. What is this persona I am creating and how careful do I have to be about what I write? Who are my readers and what do they want and expect from me? When is sharing over sharing?
I am more and more convinced that social media—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and whatever else we’ll come up with—are essential to my life not just as a human being but as an academic. I’m also pretty convinced that our graduate students need to be taking much more advantage of social media in preparing themselves for a variety of careers. I know many academics who are integrating digital assignments of all kinds into their courses. Fantastic! For me, blogging has become part of my professional life, but in a limited way. Other initiatives—such as the MLA Commons—are making it possible to disseminate research papers online. This mode might not replace traditional publication in peer-reviewed venues, but it sure helps speed up the process and connect authors and readers in tangible and meaningful ways.
So yes, I will keep writing this blog. People ask me: how do you think of topics to blog about? Well, often when I’m on the bus I’m thinking about something and realize it might make a good blog post. Then I roll topics, phrases, words, and images around in my head. When I’ve got a few minutes I write them down for the blog post. People seem to think that writing a blog is a big time commitment. It isn’t, or at least not for me. And it’s a remarkably freeing kind of writing.
By the way, if you didn’t already know this, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is tweeting images and sounds from the International Space Station. Tweets. From. Space. Here’s a pic of my hometown tweeted by Commander Hadfield early in the year.
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Now that’s cool!

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Filed under Blogging, conferences, professor blogs, publishing

Revise, and revise again

My colleagues at Hook & Eye have recently been thinking about the scholarly publishing world and its challenges. We all lament the slowness of the process–it can take years for an article to finally be published–as well as the dilemma of getting readers’ reports that are wildly different, and therefore not very helpful. But today I want to write about a recent and very positive experience I have had with scholarly publishing.

You’ll remember that I’ve been working for some time on the paper I call “my mother’s story” (in my head; its actual title is “Flucht und Vertreibung and the Difficult Work of Memory”). It’s a hybrid piece, part academic and scholarly, part personal narration. There is only one journal I could send such a piece to, and that is Life Writing a journal published at Curtin University, Australia and part of the Taylor & Francis journal system that is often unwieldy and inefficient. Life Writing is one of the newer journals in Auto/Biography Studies, and it’s unique in that it does invite what they call “Reflections” essays, as well as more standard academic argument-oriented essays. A/B studies is, by its very nature, interdisciplinary, so it is not unusual to have scholars from various disciplines working in the field (History, Women’s Studies, Sociology, Health Studies, Literature etc.). But it is unusual to be specifically invited to write in the personal voice, to write personal stories. Most of the time, even in English, we are at least implicitly encouraged to keep ourselves out of our academic writing.

I have never enjoyed writing a paper as much as I enjoyed writing “my mother’s story,” and when I sent it off to Life Writing I was very hopeful that they would like it. And they did. Sort of. But it was too long, and the readers’ reports wanted me to address things I didn’t want to or wasn’t prepared to address. Then I got distracted with teaching and other academic work. Oh, and then all the changes in my personal life happened. The upshot is that I didn’t get round to doing the revisions for six months. By that time, new work on the topic of the flight and expulsion of German nationals from East and Central Europe at the end of WWII had been published; I had talked to people who pointed me to more things to read, including additional primary texts; I had given a conference version of the paper and had received some valuable feedback from those who heard it. In short, I had a lot of additional research to do before I could even begin the rewriting process.

All of you who are writers know this: revising is bloody painful. What we thought was perfect prose suddenly sounds pompous, or obscure, or facile. The points that we thought were really really good were not explained well enough, according to the peer reviewers. Reader 1 like X but Reader 2 hated it. Whole paragraphs might be cut or condensed, but….wait!!……that’s a REALLY important paragraph! Juicy quotations we stuck in our own prose might actually might need to come out again. The images are wrong or fuzzy or you can’t get the right permissions to reproduce them. And on it goes.

Finally, last month I did the revisions and sent the paper back to the journal. They liked it, but it was now much too long. Some of the stuff that I had added in in response to the reviewers the editors now wanted out. So yesterday, I did the pruning job. It was hard. But, ya know what? The paper reads better now.

I want to sing the praises of the editors of the journal. Their interventions and communications made the paper and the revising of it a pleasurable process–or at least as pleasurable as revising can be.

  • I received email communications from the editor within 24 hours, every time, no exceptions
  • the editor’s emails were written in a professional but also personalized tone
  • the editor glossed the peer reviewers’ reports in a long email to which they were attached, so I knew what the journal thought was important to attend to and what I could ignore or just consider
  • the editor let me know at every stage what their thinking was about the paper–that is, I knew that if I did the revisions they asked for there’s a good chance it will be published
  • they praised my writing, calling passages “powerful,” “moving,” “important,” and so on
  • they promised that if finally accepted the paper will come out in the middle of next year, which seems entirely reasonable to me

Good editing is a crucial part of our scholarly work. When it is done well, you feel that you are in not just capable but supportive hands. I feel that the editors care about my work–and about me. That’s respectful and rewarding in every possible way. Thank you CH and MP at Life Writing. I have always found that folks who work in A/B studies are the nicest kind of academic folks. You are my people.

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Filed under Editing, Life writing, publishing, Research