English professor Šukys writes ‘dialogues with the dead’

By writing and traveling, professor and writer Julija Šukys seeks to connect the past with the present.

Julija Šukys describes her books as “dialogues with the dead.”

A dramatic phrase, yes, but Šukys, assistant professor of English, has written two creative-nonfiction works that revolve around lives in danger of being forgotten.

She always imagined herself as a writer but did not envision that she would write nonfiction books.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer,” Šukys said. “When I was a child, I was always writing stories and ‘books,’ and I would show them to my first-grade teacher.”

After growing up in Toronto, Šukys attended college to study comparative literature. Later, in graduate school, she aspired to be thought of as a “real writer.”

However, Šukys soon began to fear that graduate school had killed her imagination.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere whenever I tried to write fiction,” Šukys said. “Eventually I realized that I had long been writing from my life, even as a child.”

It was when Šukys began completing her dissertation that she delved into nonfiction and found the two stories that would be the subjects of her first books.

In “Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout,” Šukys was inspired by the work of Algerian author Assia Djebar, who wrote about the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Writers, artists and intellectuals were targeted and killed by armed Islamists during this time.

“(Djebar) started me on the path of nonfiction,” Šukys said.

Šukys’ first book looked into the life of Djaout, who she feared was in the process of being forgotten. Djaout was an Algerian writer who bravely dared to speak in a period of oppression and was subsequently assassinated.

In the second part of her dissertation that transformed into her next book, “Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaité,” Šukys wrote of a Lithuanian librarian who brought provisions to Jews in the Vilna Ghetto.

Like Šimaité, Šukys is of Lithuanian descent. She exclusively spoke Lithuanian at home until she was 18, when her father passed away. She said she believes her background has had an enormous impact on her life.

“In one sense, I felt like I didn’t belong on this continent,” Šukys said. “It was shocking to visit Lithuania and realize that I didn’t belong there either.”

Her own feeling of rootlessness has left her intrigued with all ideas of exile and searching.

Šukys is currently writing her third book that follows the life of her paternal grandmother, who was deported alone from Lithuania to Siberia in 1941. Her grandmother spent 17 years in Siberia and then an additional seven years in Lithuania before reuniting with her family in Canada.

Šukys was originally only toying with the idea of writing about her grandmother. While researching more about Šimaité at Kent State University, Šukys stumbled upon an extensive interview. She soon discovered that this interview was actually conducted with her grandmother. This finding cemented her determination to write this current book, she said.

Through her writing, Šukys seeks to tell the story of one life in order to teach herself something about her own life. By “slowly creating a portrait” of her subjects, Šukys said she finds the connection between the past and present and pays attention to the small details to fully examine the life of her subjects.

Šukys’ books fall into the genre of creative nonfiction. In essence, she said she believes creative nonfiction is the Holy Trinity of combining scene, research and reflection.

In order to immerse herself in her work, Šukys said she finds travel an essential part of writing.

“For me as a writer, travel is an important way to help me find my place on the planet,” she said.

Though she said she considers herself fortunate to have been able to travel to far-flung places, Šukys emphasizes that distance is not the defining factor.

“You don’t need to go far, whether it be a childhood home or a funny name on a map,” she said.

Gabriel Fried, assistant teaching professor of English, has known Šukys for just over a year and said he appreciates what she contributes to the university.

“I’ve learned so much about parts of the world I didn’t know about, for one thing: Lithuania, Siberia, and other places she writes of and visits,” Fried said. “But the most gratifying thing is just having Julija here to engage with. She’s a dynamic and curious thinker and an essential colleague.”

In addition to writing books and essays and traveling, Šukys teaches courses on creative nonfiction. For her undergraduate students, she covers shorter texts in order to capture multiple concepts all at once. Šukys said she likes to focus on the “big,” what the text is really about, and the “small,” the tiny moments and the concrete details.

For her graduate students, she said she challenges them to “wrestle with their writing to figure out where the holes are and try to make connections between parts of a text and between the big and the small.”

Graduate student Joanna Eleftheriou said that she enjoys Šukys’ excitement to experiment with new methods of teaching.

“I learned how to think outside the workshop box and be more creative as a teacher,” Eleftheriou said.

Eleftheriou also added that Šukys’ courses have a “particularly vibrant blend of rigor and fun.”

As advice to struggling writers, Šukys said finding a voice is pivotal.

“It can be a really important moment when you discover your genre, when you discover your voice,” she said.

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