An Interview: Intergenerational Trauma, Persian Carpets, and Belonging in Stella’s Carpet
All Lit Up: Congratulations on your new novel, Stella’s Carpet. In it, you explore the intergenerational consequences of trauma, including those of a Holocaust survivor and a woman imprisoned during the Iranian Revolution. Can you tell us a little more about your novel and where you started your research for the book?
Lucy E.M. Black: You are quite correct in that intergenerational trauma is at the heart of the story. My parents were both in Europe during the Second World War and they each experienced some horrific things. My father was a young boy in Poland when the Russians invaded and he was taken prisoner and sent to a work camp. My mother was a young girl in Holland during the occupation and her father was a member of the Dutch resistance. The deprivation and suffering they endured was compounded by the horrors taking place all around them.
I grew up listening to their war stories and was also witness to the lingering effects of their experiences. Things like hoarding food, keeping secrets, not trusting banks, securing the house—these were the sorts of things that I was accustomed to. I always knew that their lives had been deeply marked by those terrible times of hunger, fear, and cruelty. Fast forward many years to my work as an educator, in a town that was a port of entry for newcomers. Many of the students arriving from war-torn countries and refugee camps were exhibiting signs of trauma, in addition to the usual challenges of learning a new language and integrating into a new community. I recognized in them and in their families, the same types of fears and issues that were so familiar to me.
My process for this book was backwards to any other process I have used. I began by simply writing down the stories I remembered, according to whatever I could recall. I then meticulously checked the history. I needed to verify the stories I had taken in with my mother’s milk, so to speak. Amazingly, every single one of them checked out. It seems that my ability to recollect the stories heard in childhood was uncannily accurate. And then came the fiction part of the project. I began casting about for fictional characters who would build out from these recollections.
We are always encouraged to write what we know and because I was educator, my main character very easily became a teacher. Her grandfather tells a number of war-related stories during the course of the book. With only minor changes, almost all of these stories were my father’s. He escaped the work camp in winter with some of his friends and they hid in the forest until they were starving. I needed Maria to be Polish because I wanted to draw attention to the cruelty of the invading Russian forces in Poland. The fear Maria experienced however, and her lingering distress, is meant to be indicative of my mother’s experiences and those of her sister. The book is dedicated to their memory. I saw in them, as represented by the fictional Maria, the plight of vulnerable women in wartime.
I didn’t know how to bring in the trauma of new Canadians until Fatima came to me, along with the beautiful carpets. Fatima was the missing piece, both structurally and thematically. I tried to tread carefully and respectfully with Fatima and her extended family. The school experiences of the two cousins in the narrative were based upon my observations of a number of girls over the years. I also did a fair bit of reading in an attempt to better understand what it was like to be female during the change-over after the fall of the Shah. I hope that I have accurately portrayed and honoured these women and have not misrepresented anything.
So—all of the stories and all of the research finally came together in this one little book.
ALU: Did you learn anything surprising in your research for the novel?
LEMB: Yes, I did actually. I’d say there were three things: learning more about intergenerational trauma, the history of the USSR’s conduct during WWII, and a lot of fascinating information about Persian carpets.
Most of us can survey our bodies and point out the scars or marks left by accidents and our encounters with life—a badly scraped ankle from a fall, a broken arm, perhaps even a surgical scar. These markings have left a tangible trail of past injury and trauma. What we cannot see are the internal wounds, the deep-down damage that may be, for some, the result of legacies of pain and trauma stemming from acts of cruelty, racism, injustice, and horror that were imposed upon groups of people who have been victimized in any number of ways. This internal legacy of trauma is so devastating that we now know its impact can have a lingering intergenerational influence on the children and grandchildren of its victims.
Intergenerational trauma is a term first coined to discuss stress-related symptoms in children whose parents were Holocaust survivors. Social scientists and psychologists noted that a large number of commonalities presented themselves in the second generation of those whose parent or parents had been Holocaust survivors, and who were themselves experiencing mental health-related issues. These commonalities included such things as a distrust of others, hypervigilance, high anxiety, a tendency towards hoarding, panic attacks, nightmares, low self-esteem, secretiveness, over-eating, and cold, authoritarian parenting. The research notes that these manifestations were also exhibited in their children and appeared to be transgenerational in nature.
Although the work on intergenerational trauma began with studies on Holocaust survivors, the field has expanded to include groups of individuals who have been party to extreme suffering through oppression and torture, or stigmatization, in ways that create lasting damage. Currently, the broadening scope of the work also includes, but is in no way limited to, the children of those who survived Holodomor; the Khmer Rouge killings, the Rwandan genocide, victims of colonization and settler culture, residential schools for Indigenous peoples, victims of slavery, and racism. Researchers are also exploring whether the PTSD suffered by war veterans has ramifications that extend to the second and third generation.
The initial line of thought regarding intergenerational trauma was that its symptomatic behaviours were learned ones, as modelled in the home environment of the survivors themselves. However, research has recently suggested that while there is a component of modelling and repetitive conduct involved, there may also be a process of epigenetics that factors in. Scientists are currently exploring the likelihood that our very DNA can be modified by extreme stress or trauma, resulting in permanent shifts or alterations to our genomes which are then passed on to subsequent genetic generations.
Distinctive patterns of behaviour and mental-health challenges emerge from trauma. Acknowledging this legacy, and the totality of circumstances that create such trauma, is vital to our individual journeys as informed and compassionate participants in the human experience.
Soviet Union during WWII
As I mentioned earlier, I dove in and did a lot of fact-checking and research on the Second World War period in Europe. One of the things that I did not know was the extent to which the Soviet Union was complicit with Hitler at the beginning of the war. On 23 August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, creating a partnership between them that would divide up Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. Under the terms of this agreement, the German Wehrmacht moved into western Poland on 1 September 1939, and the Soviet Red Army moved into eastern Poland sixteen days later. The pact provided a written guarantee of peace by each party towards the other and a commitment that declared that neither government would ally itself to, or aid an enemy of the other.
Complicating early War efforts was that Great Britain had signed a bilateral defense treaty with Poland earlier that year, and so declared war against Germany as required by treaty. However, the protocol applied only to providing defense against Germany, not against any other country. France, had also signed a bilateral defense treaty with Poland that expressly applied only to Germany. As a result, neither the British nor the French government declared war against the Soviet Union, even though the Soviets had invaded Poland and were working in collaboration with Germany.
When visiting Holland, I noticed that there’s still a lot of anti-German sentiment among members of the older generation. And certainly, growing up here in the suburbs, people didn’t make distinctions between Germans and Nazis. I have a couple of close German-Canadian friends who were bullied and called Nazis as children. So, it was shocking for me to discover that the invading Russians were equally cruel and vicious, and that their actions during the first two years of the War contributed to the large-scale destabilization and devastation that took place. Somehow that history has not made it into the popular consciousness in the same way as anti-Nazi sentiment has done.
The Beautiful Persian Carpets
This was a much more pleasant research foray. Persian carpets are made in many regions throughout Iran (formerly Persia). Each region is known for their own distinct versions of the carpets, with some specializing in certain symbols, colours, borders, or materials. Different qualities of wool can be used. Sometimes, fine wool taken from the underbelly of a lamb is woven with silk, while at other times, coarser hair from goats or camels or horses is blended with the wool. These blended wools do not hold the dyes in the same way and so are only utilized for particular applications. The skill of the dyer is what most often makes one carpet distinct from another. Authentic dyes include those made only from natural materials, including insect dyes. These dyes can be quite brilliant. A full range of colours can be created by dying the wool multiple times. The colour green in a naturally-dyed wool carpet, for instance, means that the wool would first be dyed blue, dried, and then dyed again in yellow. Only skillful dyers can ensure that the colours are even throughout the skeins of wool being prepared. Often, the wool is dyed several times to create the desired shade or richness of colour. Although synthetic dyes are now often used, many believe that they cannot replicate the vibrant colour attained by the use of multiple dye pots using natural dyes.
Authentic rugs are hand-knotted. Different knots and knotting techniques are used by the weavers, each with its own specific application. The more knots per square inch, the finer the finished product. A large Persian carpet with 500 knots per square inch can take four or five weavers, working six days a week, approximately twelve to fourteen months to complete. The intricacy of the pattern and the amount of bright lighting available can also contribute to how quickly the piece progresses. The delicate fringes at the end of a carpet, often involving complex knots and tassels, are typically constructed using the cotton threads from the carpet’s structural framework. These fringes are also a key feature of an authentic carpet.
It has been said that the combination of colours, motifs, symbols and borders in a carpet represent a message intended for the eventual owner of the carpet. Often these are intended to be a blessing. Tiny flaws or barely visible imperfections are woven into the carpet deliberately. This practice stems from the belief that a weaver should not attempt to compete with The Creator by producing an object of perfection. The legacy of history and skill and art embodied within these carpets is a rich, storied and beautiful one. I hope I’ve done a reasonable job of sharing my appreciation for these lovely works of art.
ALU: What was the impetus behind telling this story?
LEMB: I think there were two things that motivated me. The first was a deep sense of Canadian pride and the second has to do with the importance of families.
Canadian Nationalism and Pride
I am a first-generation Canadian, born to a family of newcomers. My parents were proud of being Canadians, took their citizenship seriously, loved to vote, and inculcated in us a strong sense of how privileged we were to live in this country. I love that we continue to welcome newcomers, that we invite in and sponsor refugees, that we embrace new cultures, foods and traditions, and that our country continues to evolve and shift as we incorporate new people and new components within our society. And while I in no way wish to minimize the complex and painful histories of Indigenous peoples and those of colour in Canada, I feel like we at least have the willingness to make life better. I have seen many newcomer families bring their children to school, and then leave to go to ELL classes themselves. I think of all that they have seen and done to come to this place where they have to start rebuilding their lives from nothing, and I am just humbled by their courage and strength. I hope I have captured a little of that in the novel when I mention the Lipinskis, the Surins, the Kamalis and the Yadgars.
In my family, I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, an aunt, and a cousin. Part of how the world sees me is in relation to my family, a large grouping of people that I am related to not only by blood, but also by affinity and by choice.
The families we choose in life say something significant about the nature of our evolving society and about how we adapt to domestic change. As social creatures, it is important for us find meaningful, authentic connections with other people. This is more challenging for those individuals who do not come from loving and supportive families, or who have left their extended family groupings to emigrate or move outside of the community where their relatives are centred.
I remember longing for a set of grandparents when I was a child. My real Oma and Opa lived in another country and I knew from my friends that their grandparents spoiled and indulged them. The love and support offered by grandparents took on an almost mythical role as I watched my friends enjoy their extended family. As newcomers, my parents did not have the benefit of additional family members close by to rely upon. Fortunately, we lived in a community-minded neighbourhood and the other families on our street were kind and welcoming, often helping us out and caring for us in practical ways.
Friend groups are often reflective of the connections we form that are akin to a chosen family. And our friends can come from any aspect of our lives—from schools we attend together, from workplaces, religious communities, or places where we share common interests. The bonds we form with our friends can sometimes last a lifetime, enriching our lives with intimacy, support, companionship, and love. Finding such people, and forming our own personal clans, if you will, can supplement or replace lost or inaccessible family connections.
The nature of family is elusive. At its best, it is loving, supportive, respectful, generous, safe, loyal, and united. At its worst, it is dysfunctional, hurtful, and damaging. I suspect that most families fall somewhere in between those two markers. For individuals who feel rejected or hurt by family, for whatever reason (and there may be many), the need to choose family—and to find those who will succour and care for them—becomes even more important.
In my experience, families are messy, whether they are based upon blood connections or embrace chosen relationships. Nevertheless, the need for what they may provide seems to be inherent and extends beyond the tidy categories of who should or should not be included. Our need to belong, and those lasting bonds of intimacy and shared history, help to shape our lives. Whatever their initial qualifications, the members of the family units we choose are often among the most lasting and the most significant. And so I hope I have captured some of this when I describe William and his care for the Lipinskis, his ex-wife, and his daughter, as well as his new family with Fatima and Tanner and Parisa and Parvez.
ALU: Now that your book is out in the world, is there anything around the narrative of the book that you feel is not being said? Is there anything you wish readers knew that they might not?
LEMB: The structure of the book itself is something I would like to comment upon. An early reader of a draft suggested that I was being lazy by having so many short little chapters and that it felt fragmented. And I understand that criticism and take it seriously. But the structure of the book is intentional. I intended for the mini chapters to be reflective of memory—because each of the characters relies on memory. And our memories don’t often come to us in tidy linear packages. Rather, they seem to appear randomly, in flashes and snatches, sometimes fulsomely and sometimes in small fragments.
The other reason for retaining the structure was that I wanted there to be frequent breaks in the text. Some of the material is hard. I tried not to be too graphic or exploitive, but for those people who read between the lines, some of the scenes will be painful. I hoped that this structure would provide some “breathing space” between any strong emotional bits. I hope that by the time the reader approaches the first twenty pages or so, that they will ease into the narrative syncopation. It may have been a risk but I’m hoping that it begins to feel natural and not frustrate the reader.
ALU: What, outside of books, inspires your writing?
LEMB: I’ve written stories ever since I learned how to print. For me, inspiration is not something that has ever been a challenge. I would have to say though, that I find people inspirational. I’ve had to admit this before and so I will confess it again: I’m a shameless eavesdropper. And while I don’t necessarily listen for a juicy piece of gossip (although that may be a bonus), I do listen for dialects, a turn of phrase, a figure of speech, an idiosyncratic use of language. And I like to people-watch.
The truth is that we are surrounded by incredibly interesting people, and every one of them has a million little stories to tell. And sometimes if I’m lucky, they might gift me with the seed of a story (as happened with Eleanor Courtown, my first novel). At other times, the story just comes to me through my characters. I have found that artifacts are incredibly helpful to me when I’m writing. When I hold an old photograph or an object that speaks of the history it represents, I know that I am holding a story—who owned it, who made it, who used it, where did it come from? Quite often, the artifact will lead me back into its history, and I find myself going on fascinating treasure hunts and research trips in an attempt to learn everything I can.
In this book, the carpets were like that for me. The collector of carpets is based upon a professor I knew very slightly many years ago in university. I always thought the description of his collection was fascinating. And when I realized that Fatima and carpets were going to be a part of this story, I made William a collector of carpets. And then I visited carpet dealers, I bought a few small ones, I collected antique books with fabulous colour plates, I scrolled museum collections online, and I tried to teach myself enough about them to describe them with some small degree of knowledge. I’m by no means an authority but I’ve learned just enough about them to develop a deep appreciation for them.
So, I’d say that people and artifacts and history are all equally important to my creative process.
ALU: What are you reading now?
LEMB: I really believe that good writers are good readers. Some of my favourite recent reads are:
Fuse by Hollay Ghadery. Hollay is a bicultural, bi-racial writer and her memoir is one of the best things I’ve read in years. The writing is honest and poetic and beautiful and painful all at once. It’s an amazing book!
Another memoir that I just finished is Pluck by Donna Morrissey. Donna is a fabulous storyteller and her memoir describes a life well lived – filled with story, laughter, love and sorrow. It’s utterly engaging.
Speak Silence by Kim Echlin was also an incredible book. Using fiction, she tells the true story of the hundreds of women who were savagely treated during the Bosnia war of 1992-95.
The Good Son by Carolyn Huizinga Mills is a very accomplished book that explores the stories children tell themselves and the long-term effects of keeping secrets. It’s a suspense novel with a twist and I’m in awe of the job Mills did.
The Cellist by Daniel Silva is a chilling read that postures as a work of crime fiction, but lays bare the idea that America’s former president was a Russian asset, complicit with a Russian attempt to undermine democracy by meddling in the election and by facilitating the deadly insurrection on Capital Hill.
My TBR pile includes: The Sisters of Auschwitz, Cracked Pots, everyone in this room will someday be dead, Paper Stones, and The Erratics. Then, I will start to chip away at the Giller longlist.
I would like to end by saying how grateful I am for the opportunity to share my thinking on some of these subjects. When you spend time researching, writing and editing a book, it’s just lovely to have a chance to talk about it, in depth. So, thank you!