Photo: Blasius Kawalkowski

Women We Read This Week

Julie Sedivy’s “The Strange Persistence of First Languages” in Nautilus

“Language is memory’s receptacle,” Julie Sedivy writes. A native speaker of Czech, Sedivy is inspired to relearn her first language after the death of her father. Her essay is a meditation on the power of language to connect us to our family, culture, and homeland.

As a young child, Sedivy’s family relocated to Montreal. In school, her education was in English, and as she grew older, she writes, “Czech began its slow retreat from my daily life.” While her father still spoke mostly Czech, English became the language of her independence and adulthood. She says, “I was, like most young people, more intent on hurtling myself into my future than tending my ancestral roots.”

But when her father died, she realized she mourned the loss of Czech in her life as much as him:

It was as if the string section of the orchestra had fallen silent—not carrying the melody, it had gone unnoticed, but its absence announced how much depth and texture it had supplied, how its rhythms had lent coherence to the music.

She returns to the Czech Republic and begins to speak the language again, surprising herself with her quick return to fluency. Surprising, too, are the memories and moods the language gives access to, so tied are they to the sounds and rhythms of her native Czech, moments never evoked in her English exchanges.

If losing one’s native tongue can divorce a person from community and culture, then rediscovering it is like coming home. For Sedivy, speaking Czech again brings her closer to her father, to her childhood, and to the Morvian orchards she grew up in. And despite years of disuse, she discovers, “my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.”

–Kristen

Whitney Kimball’s “Can America’s Coal Towns, Left Vulnerable, Survive Dam Failures?” in Curbed

My grandpa, Kermit Williams, and his brother, whose name was William Williams (doublin’ down on the family pride!) both worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, so I was interested to read Whitney Kimball’s feature story in Curbed. Kimball visits Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, a town that, 43 years ago, lost 125 residents in a flood caused by a break in a coal slurry impoundment. 132 million gallons of toxic, black sludgewater, leftover from washing coal, broke loose, snaking through the valleys below, crushing houses, rendering bodies unrecognizable. Today, the town has barely recovered and experts predict another near-certain dam failure in the future. What can people do when an industry owns their town, their county, their state? Kimball’s reporting is smart, sensitive, and highly observant; this piece will leave you wanting to know more.

–Andria

Sarah Stankorb’s “A Child Remembered: The Healing Art of Remembrance Photography” in GOOD Magazine

In a well-reported, thoughtful article, writer Sarah Stankorb offers a heartfelt look into the practice of professional photography of stillborn infants. As a mother of two, with baby number three on the way, I found this piece especially difficult to read—and not just because of the hormones. The story focuses on an international network of professional photographers who volunteer to take tasteful pictures in order to help grieving parents celebrate the lives of their stillborn babies. Stankorb writes elegantly and sympathetically about a delicate and often misunderstood topic. It’s not as macabre or morbid as you might think, and it doesn’t prolong the grieving experience. The most heart-wrenching part is the interview with parents about their experience using the photography services. The photos help parents evoke the memory of that day—as painful as it is—as a way to remember the baby’s smell, softness; a way to savor those fleeting moments they shared with their child. Adding to the depth of the piece, Stankorb quotes a cultural scholar, a sociologist, and a photo historian to delve into the history as well as cultural and emotional significance of postmortem photography. It’s also fascinating to hear how a photographer can be not just a documentarian, but a “force of love” during what is likely one of the worst experiences in a parent’s life.

Ours is a digitally documented age. Through childhood, American children can have tens of thousands of photos taken of them—their smiles, their pouts, their tantrums, their my-mom-is-bored-and-stuck-her-phone-in-my-face face. Photos are easy, plentiful. To have a child but no photos is rare and can punctuate a brutally painful loss with an extra layer of absence. In our time, parents may need their few photos of lost infants even more.

–Olivia

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