Writing a Family Memoir

By Liisa Kovala

What motivates us to write about ourselves? Perhaps it is a desire to tell our personal stories for therapeutic reasons or to find a way to heal ourselves. Maybe it is to share our experiences and educate others on the lessons we have learned, or to hold others accountable for their role in our misfortunes or trauma. Possibly it is to leave behind our stories for future generations. Whatever the reason, the memoir is a powerful way of coping with the past, making sense of the present and creating connections with the future.

Over the past two years, I have been researching, interviewing and writing a story more personal than I could ever have imagined, a tale in which I am deeply immersed, and one that is a powerful part of my personal history. In many ways, I feel like I am writing a memoir. But the stories are not mine. They belong to my father.

For many months I interviewed my father, sitting in the worn blue armchair in my parents’ 1950s brick bungalow, my fingers tapping on my laptop keyboard as I frantically tried to keep up with his narration about his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner in Poland during World War II. I became absorbed in the time period, his life as a young boy in Oulu, Finland, the bombings of his hometown by the Russians during the Winter War, his exploits as a merchant marine sailor at the tender age of fourteen. His storytelling led me from his ship in the port of Danzig to the cattle car that transported the crew to KL Stutthof. His voice brought me to the Death Gate, where I waited alongside the Finnish sailors with fear and anxiety. Before long, I felt as though I became part of his experiences, first empathizing with the prisoners who endured forced labour, malnourishment and beatings, then envisioning the Death March, the naval evacuation and the traumatic day of his liberation.

While memoir relies on the first person narrator, the family memoir is usually written in third person, details a particular time in a family member’s life, uses supplemental research and relies on the literary techniques usually found in novels. After careful study of the time period, specific dates and events to ensure I was as accurate as possible, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with a retelling that read like a history text. Instead, I wanted his memories to come alive for the reader. For that reason, among other literary techniques, I incorporated dialogue and details about setting to recreate scenes, relying on my imagination to describe what it might have been like for him. These literary techniques, so often used in family memoirs, allowed me to write about the events in a more vivid manner. Fortunately, I also have my father as a first reader to confirm all of the details.

In the end, the family memoir is the perfect vehicle for telling my father’s story. More importantly, I hope that by recounting the events he has been able to heal some of the deep wounds he has carried with him for the past seventy years. His story teaches invaluable lessons about hope and resiliency and bears witness to the crimes committed on millions of victims. As a writer, I am able to share my father’s story with my children and my children’s children, thereby creating an indelible connection to his past, our present and their future.

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