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Reader Resources for Rosina, the Midwife


Interview with author Jessica Kluthe

1. You never met your great-great-grandmother Rosina, but now you’ve researched and written an entire book about her. How would you characterize your relationship with her now?

I bring readers along for the journey of uncovering and discovering Rosina. The first lines of the book begin by telling readers what I knew of Rosina at that point in time:
 
      She dangles there. A sort of crucifix over my doorway. I don’t have much. A name—three syllables. Ro. Si. Na.
      There is no song to help me feel her, no voice to remind me of hers.
      There is no scent, no texture. No time of day.
      She died in 1969, sixteen years before I was born.

I hope the reader’s relationship to Rosina is developed in the same way that it was for me. We come to know her life story, her work as a midwife, her losses (to illness and to migration), and even her secrets through a layered process: through other people’s stories about her, through memories, through historical accounts, through imaginings, and through travelling to the place where she lived, worked, and died.

My relationship to Rosina has been deepened by my quest to come to know her, and I hope that the reader, too, feels a closeness to Rosina that exists as we come to know her outside of the one lone photograph that I detail in Chapter 1. Soon, we are able to expand the frame, to turn the lens around, to zoom in and zoom out, to add color to the black-and-white image.

2. You travelled to Italy as part of your research for this book. I understand it was fruitful, but also at times frustrating. Can you tell us more about your experiences there?

I’d spent years imagining Calabria based on stories that I had heard, and these imaginings shaped the early descriptions of the villages and the family landmarks like a rushing segment of a river, a line of bold oak trees, and a fieldstone house on a hill. Yet, when I arrived there in the late summer of 2010, while I was overcome by how familiar some of it felt, the map I had created through writing this place was distorted.

I’d imagined Rosina nursing her baby boy in her house on the hill, I’d imagined her watching her daughters through the window, I imagined her standing at the stove figuring out how to feed her family when there wasn’t enough food. I’d imagined her pulling herself out of bed to go and deliver a baby during the night…I knew every nook and cranny of her fieldstone house. And I ached to walk through that door. When I arrived in Calabria, I realized that would not be possible.

While I was disappointed, I soon realized that even if I had been able to turn that handle and step inside, so much time had gone by and the weight of those years on the abandoned house would have made it impossible to enter into the space as Rosina had known it.

And this is one of the greatest lessons I learned about telling true stories: imagination is a powerful tool that allows us to inhabit another time and another place. In that time and place as I had imagined it while writing from my home in Alberta, Rosina was alive. She was taking care of her family. She was singing and praying. My trip to Calabria had an emptiness to it, marked by her absence.

Yet I also learned a lot about Rosina that I could never have anticipated prior to travelling there. For instance, while sitting across the table from Rosina’s niece Sisina, I learned of a secret that I realized brought a lot of the collected stories together.

3. You’ve chosen to include passages told from your grandmother’s point of view. For some readers, this may frustrate their understanding of what exactly constitutes non-fiction. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you made this choice, and how you justified it to yourself?

In my first creative non-fiction pieces, I was turning out story after story that was bare bones non-fiction, and none of it was very compelling. I knew that in order to fully explore this family history, I would have to enter that boundary zone—the space where fact meets imagination—because most of the stories of Rosina were second and even third-hand, and most of the details shifted over the years.

It was important to me to establish a contract with the reader that allowed me to enter that space by signalling when I was crossing the border between fact and fiction, and to explore in full view of the audience.

With the use of the phrase “I imagined” at the end of the first chapter, I set the tone for the interplay of fact and fiction to come. I see these moments of imagination in stark contrast to the facts of her existence as laid out in reductive documents such as the census documents that I came across and mention in the book.

Beyond the textual cues that I included to signal that move from fact into imagination, I also wanted to draw attention to the way imagination is a natural part of our lives, especially as we are growing up. I see creative non-fiction, a genre that uses creative license to tell fact-based stories, as a genre that is an extension of how we view our own lives: we imagine our futures within the framework of the lives we are already living, and, sometimes, we even look back and imagine how things could have gone differently.

Another way I ensured that I was exploring in full view of the audience was choosing to include the journey to Calabria as a part of the story. In doing so, and reporting the fact-finding as it occurred, the reader is invited to journey alongside me and can see what I imagined before going to Calabria compared with what was physically before me while I was there.

Imagination is necessary tool that demonstrates the importance of the “creative” aspect of telling a fact-based story. Without such tools, non-fiction narratives can readily become transcripts of experience.

Bill Roorbach, in The Art of Truth, writes that “all creative non-fiction, like all literature, aspires to art.” In order to transcend mere documentation—record-making—we must make meaning out of the events of our lives, and imagination is one tool of the creative non-fiction writer that moves us away from transcription and into that space of meaning-making.

4. You’ve interwoven a lot of personal details about your life into this narrative. Were you hesitant to share some of this content with your readers? And how did you decide what to include, and what to keep private?

Of course it can be difficult to share personal details on the page, and perhaps with non-fiction, this is a little more challenging. But I think this is what every writer must do—no matter the kind of story or genre, the writer is there even if it’s behind the text. Even if what we put on the page is not a personal detail about our life, it comes from our own imagination; we choose the words to lay down as the sentence, the order of things…and in that, we are exposed.

It was very important to me to share, and be open about, the reasons I was interested in Rosina’s story—and without any major spoilers, this involves some personal stuff about me. Further, since I was bringing Rosina into view, and obviously could not seek her permission to do so (since she died a long time before I was born), I thought that it was important that I also put myself on the page.

Of course, there is a lot that I’ve kept private—but I have not deliberately withheld anything that I thought relevant to the story.

5. You developed this project while completing your MFA at the University of Victoria. How did your experiences there inform the project?

The master of fine arts degree in writing from the University of Victoria was a necessary step for me. In a really practical way, it afforded me long stretches of writing time. I was lucky enough to have a writing supervisor, Lynne Van Luven, who is an experienced editor.

Lynne’s advice on early drafts was invaluable. All of the instructors at UVic are accomplished writers and to have their feedback on my work provided me with a really strong foundation to then shape that project into this book.

6. What are you working on next? For people who read and enjoyed Rosina, where can they find more of your work? And when can we expect a new book?

Right now, I am working on a novel about a foundling named Rebecca who lives in present day Alberta. She is struggling to piece together her early life story, and make her way as a homeless teenager. The story begins with her surviving in a shed on a farm just outside of Edmonton. I’m still in the early stages, but I plan to keep writing while teaching this fall.

I recently had a place-based story titled “Inheritance,” recorded by the talented voice artist Xe Sands. You can listen to it or read the story over at Little Fiction. (http://www.littlefiction.com

This year I have three stories coming out in anthologies. In the Telling Truths: Creative Writing on Mothering and Motherhood anthology you’ll find my story “Traces.” My story “Cepheus” will be part of 40 Below: Edmonton’s Winter Anthology. My story “A Recipe for a Vegetarian” will be in the anthology EAT IT: Sex, Food and Women’s Writing.

7. Any advice for aspiring memoirists?

A few things I was taught along the way:

  • include both scene and exposition (showing and telling)
  • when recreating conversations, don’t give yourself the best lines (especially since it’s easy to recall your own words)
  • save drafts of each chapter, and take risks (but know you can always go back to an earlier draft if you need to)
  • work with a good editor: while you are the expert on your own life events and memories, they will ask important questions

And, maybe sign up for my Writing and Publishing Prose course at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

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Book Club Discussion Questions

1. Rosina, the Midwife, is, in part, an elsewhere story with multiple settings. How is the idea of home explored in this book?

2. Does your own family have a recent immigrant history? If so, can you draw any parallels between the migration narrative in the book and your own family’s story?

3. Rosina, the Midwife details a quest to come to know Rosina. The story begins with the author finding a photograph that prompts her to explore further. What are some of the other ways that the author comes face to face with Rosina?

4. The photograph becomes particularly powerful when the author visits Calabria, Italy. In what ways does this image come up again? How does the photograph serve as a thread throughout the book?

5. Do you have any photographs or artifacts that are important to your family history?

6. Rosina, the Midwife is written in a lyrical style. Do any sentences stand out to you as poetic? If so, how does this kind of language work with the themes of imagination and imagining?

7. Birth scenes are described twice in the book—near the beginning and near the end. What does the reoccurrence of this birth scene suggest about the relationship between fact and fiction / memory and imagination?

8. How is imagination used throughout the story?

9. The chapter titles have a travel/map theme. How do these titles work with the story?

10. What surprised you the most when reading Rosina, the Midwife?

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