News and Interviews

"Loss and Absence Challenge Us to Become Who We Are": Kathleen Venema on Her Unique Mother-Daughter Memoir

Kathleen Venema

The impact of mother-daughter relationships is hard to overstate. In Kathleen Venema's Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces (Wilfrid Laurier University) the extraordinary influence of the mother-daughter connection is captured in hundreds of letters exchanged by Venema and her mother, Geeske Venema-de Jong. The letters were written during Venema's three-year teaching post in Uganda during the 1980s, and she found herself drawn back to them when her mother began battling Alzheimer's disease. 

The volume also draws on emails, conversations, and more between the two extraordinary women, both before and after Venema-de Jong's diagnosis. Through this curation, Venema shapes an idea of not only familial love, but of how our relationships evolve through illnesses, challenges, political and social change, and aging. It's a powerful exploration of loyalty and connection, and we're pleased to welcome Kathleen to Open Book today to talk about it as part of our Lucky Seven series. 

Kathleen tells us about how she worked to keep her bright mother intellectually stimulated through the challenges of Alzheimer's, the value of pushing through "sheer textual bulk" during the writing process, and the beauty that can be found in absence. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Kathleen Venema:

Bird-Bent Grass tells several stories simultaneously, but at its core, it’s a story about how much my mother and I loved each other. When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I wanted our remaining years to be as happy as possible. That meant keeping my Mom cognitively and physically active, and learning as much as I could about her life. Bird-Bent Grass is built out of the next five years of our weekly conversations, the Friday afternoons my Mom and I spent talking, walking, singing, remembering, and reading, including remembering and reading the letters we exchanged from 1986 to 1989, when I was in my mid-twenties and working in Uganda after a devastating civil war. Excerpts from the 200+ letters that travelled between Canada and Uganda create the book’s central chronology, recording a critically formative time in my life and allowing (practically miraculous) insights into my mother at her intellectual prime.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


I didn’t know when I started, how repeatedly this project would return to the issue of what is lost and/or what is absent from our lives: family histories that are absent because we’ve never known them, for instance, or once-clear memories through which dementia runs rampant; the wracking absence of those we mourn; what’s lost through “simple” miscommunication, or (and this could seem trivial, but it’s a big issue in the book) connections that unravel because mail isn’t arriving. Over the course of the project, I’ve understood better the ways that loss and absence define our lives, shape us and challenge us to become who we are. Which could sound grim, but isn’t entirely; think of the way that the spaces between loops of wool are essential to the shape and weight and texture and fit of a beautifully knitted sweater (but it’s true, there’s a lot of sadness)...


Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The project as I originally envisioned it 10+ years ago was very like the story that has finally emerged, built of interwoven narratives, perspectives, issues, ideas, images, personalities, and timeframes. It took five years of often anguished writing and rewriting, though, to get to the now-completed manuscript, all of which was worth the sensation of weightlessness at the end of August 2017, knowing that the book I’d written was the book I wanted to write. (Can I add that I get up every morning grateful to the people who read early versions and encouraged me anyway?)


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I need quite a lot of stillness and only write seriously in our study (though I can edit almost anywhere), usually with classical music in the background, sometimes jazz, nothing with lyrics, or I’m completely absorbed into someone else’s words. The study’s small, but it gets dazzling natural light, so I squeeze myself in among thriving plants and carefully tidied piles of books (things in my world don’t need to be organized, they just need to look organized). Before settling in, I brew a mug’s worth of strong green tea laced with oolong, soy creamer, and slightly more honey than is good for me, first for the gentle buzz and then for the sustained sense of well-being …


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


If I need a brief distraction, I play a game of DOTS (okay, two games). If I’m discouraged, I re-read earlier pieces of strong work to remind myself: I can do this. After a couple of games of DOTS and some re-reading, I’m usually ready to do what I call “pushing on through,” which translates as, generating as many words as I possibly can, knowing that sheer textual bulk will help to stave off the slump and give me something to edit the next day (since I enjoy editing even more than I enjoy writing). (This sounds considerably more cheery than it sometimes feels. See “anguished” above.)


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Great books startle you, permanently shift the way you think and dream and imagine and breathe, wake you up to urgent new realities and possibilities and responsibilities, reward you with new awareness on each re-reading.  I can’t reduce to just two the multitude of great books that live close to my heart and mind and imagination, so I’ll name these four: Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonuats. And Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s astonishing Ugandan epic, Kintu.


What are you working on now?


Illness and loss have defined my life for the past fourteen months. After routine surgery a year ago in December, my adrenal system collapsed, the first sign of a permanent condition that I now monitor with medication and lifestyle changes. Two months later, 11 ½ years after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, my mother suddenly died. And then this past September, after weeks of increasingly puzzling neurological symptoms, tests discovered a benign tumour in the lining of my brain. I’m recovering well after successful surgery in January and journaling as often as I have energy to write. When I return to my academic life, I’ll start a project that examines graphic narratives of dementia, an unlikely but fascinating sub-genre of life writing about illness.


Kathleen Venema spent several years as a junior-high teacher in northern Manitoba before joining a teacher-training college in post-civil-war Uganda. Now an associate professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, she publishes on early Canadian exploration texts and imperial women’s letters; researches narratives of conflict, aging, disability, and care; and pursues a lifelong interest in transformative pedagogy.

Buy the Book

Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces

Bird-Bent Grass chronicles an extraordinary mother–daughter relationship that spans distance, time, and, eventually, debilitating illness. Personal, familial, and political narratives unfold through the letters that Geeske Venema-de Jong and her daughter Kathleen exchanged during the late 1980s and through their weekly conversations, which started after Geeske was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease twenty years later.

In 1986, Kathleen accepted a three-year teaching assignment in Uganda, after a devastating civil war, and Geeske promised to be her daughter’s most faithful correspondent. The two women exchanged more than two hundred letters that reflected their lively interest in literature, theology, and politics, and explored ideas about identity, belonging, and home in the context of cross-cultural challenges. Two decades later, with Geeske increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s disease, Kathleen returned to the letters, where she rediscovered the evocative image of a tiny, bright meadow bird perched precariously on a blade of elephant grass. That image – of simultaneous tension, fragility, power, and resilience – sustained her over the years that she used the letters as memory prompts in a larger strategy to keep her intellectually gifted mother alive.

Deftly woven of excerpts from their correspondence, conversations, journal entries, and email updates, Bird-Bent Grass is a complex and moving exploration of memory, illness, and immigration; friendship, conflict, resilience, and forgiveness; cross-cultural communication, the ethics of international development, and letter-writing as a technology of intimacy. Throughout, it reflects on the imperative and fleeting business of being alive and loving others while they’re ours to hold.