On the Creation of Family Lore
My girlfriend and I spend our evenings on the pullout sofa in our living room. We watch television or movies, our legs intertwined. Other nights, she draws on her iPad at the small table in our dining area. I sit slouched on the sofa with my head sunk into the pillows from our bed, writing on my laptop. Along with a lamp, a pair of glasses, and a cupcake-shaped lip balm I’ve had since I was a child, a small stack of ever-changing books lives on the stand next to my side of the couch.
One in particular, a book of poetry, is a regular in the stack. When I pull it down from the shelf in our living room, I reread the same poems that I’ve read a dozen times before. One would find, upon cracking the book, that it opens with ease to a poem entitled “The Story Will Be Told.” The poem reads, in part:
must be told.
No matter from whose
point of view, it will be told:
you, making up a story
full of gaps about me?
I, narrating your tragi-comical tale?
Perhaps, He, the one
ignorant of all our days?
It will be told.
My uncle Seggo died in October of 2007. Though he is enshrined in my memory as a kind person, I don’t remember him particularly well: he spent his last years in Berlin, and I didn’t grow up around him the way I did my other extended family members. In fact, to this day, I can’t discern a single memory of any particular moment I spent with him while he was alive. For all intents and purposes, at the time of his death, my uncle was, to me, a distant relative.
Seggo — a nickname for Sargon — was actually my father’s uncle and my great uncle. A collection of Seggo’s poetry, entitled The Knife Sharpener, which he’d begun assembling before his death, was published posthumously in his honor.
Prior to his funeral, my dad suggested I read one of Seggo’s poems at his service. He’d started writing at age twelve and went on to have a prolific career as an Assyrian poet in the Arab and European artworlds until the time of his death. As an impressively underachieving seventeen-year-old, reading his poetry at his funeral was just about as ludicrous an arrangement as I could imagine agreeing to.
Instead, I sat beside my grandmother in the front row of the church, silently rubbing her back throughout the service. But it was no good. She was beside herself with grief. As we listened to Seggo’s eulogy, she rocked back and forth, her cries howling toward her beloved younger brother’s casket.
Months after his funeral, my family received several cardboard boxes of my uncle’s personal belongings from Germany, which included numerous abstract paintings he’d made in his spare time. His artistic influences made themselves known in his art: some of the pieces resembled Lee Krasner’s best-known work; others, Georges Braque’s; and others still of Wassily Kandinsky’s color studies, but with a decidedly autumnal slant.
The shipment from Germany also contained novels, literary magazines, and books of poetry he’d collected. Perhaps the most personal of the belongings in the shipment from Germany were my uncle’s notebooks. Much of the writing in them was in Arabic, which I don’t know how to read. My parents declared that I was entitled to take my pick of anything but the paintings, which my father hinted a museum in Berlin might be interested in obtaining for its collection.
I sat on the floor of my parents’ guest bedroom, sorting through the objects of my late great uncle’s life. A strange sensation washed over me: sort of like regret, but not quite. Instead, I felt a little like I was in a moving car, but not behind the wheel. Too little, too late, I longed for the opportunity to get to know my uncle just a little better, though he’d lived halfway around the world in the years leading up to his death, and I’d been in high school at the time, making the feat next to impossible.
After Seggo passed, adult members of my family mused that his health had failed, in part, because he’d been a heavy smoker. In my teenage mind, the rumors of my uncle’s lifestyle were frightening, because it had allegedly helped usher in his untimely death, and at that point, I hadn’t yet picked up my decade-long habit of smoking cigarettes. But they also fueled my romantic notions of it as one driven by artistic decadence and spontaneity.
I became ardently curious about what my uncle was like when he was alive, and I delighted in falling down rabbit holes about his life as a poet. I consumed the results of my countless google searches with vigor, crafting in my mind scenes from the years he spent in Lebanon after he’d illegally crossed the border as a teenager. I imagined him lounging in smoky cafés in Beirut with his contemporaries. I relished the fact that, upon coming to the U.S., he was part of the Beat generation. By reading posthumous biographies and collecting mementos of his life and career, the mythos I invented around my great uncle grew exponentially throughout the decade following his death.
I’d long regarded my father as my most direct line to Seggo. They shared the commonalities of language and home — both things I felt could never truly belong to me. Unfortunately, my father and I had long had a tumultuous relationship, and when I was twenty-seven, we became estranged.
Before we stopped speaking, I often wondered about his relationship to my uncle; perhaps bitterly, I was baffled that they were blood-related. Like so many members of my father’s side of the family, my dad had not only never expressed an interest in art or writing, but had, on more than one occasion, indicated that he neither understood nor found much use for either. “I don’t understand why people have journals,” he once remarked to my mother, who, unbeknownst to him, had recently started keeping one.
But his affection, or lack thereof, for art and literature was neither here nor there as far as our Assyrian family was concerned. To them, my father was the pinnacle of success. At my age, he’d become an engineer, and after almost two decades of professional climbing, he’d situated our family firmly in the upper-middle class. When it came to maintaining ties to the Assyrian community in Iraq, he’d started in the nineties and eventually attained a leadership role in a prominent U.S.-based charitable organization. In short, my father, having become a noteworthy member of the Assyrian elite, was truly the paradigm of the Assyrian-American dream. His success was something to aspire to.
But I couldn’t relate to my father’s ambitiousness. I wasn’t a lost cause, or at least, I didn’t think I was, but I wasn’t exactly a prodigy, either. By the time I’d begun four-year college at twenty-two, most of my friends had already graduated from impressive universities, and I’d failed more community college courses than I cared to admit to. And even though there were a lot of things I loved to do and felt passionate about since I was a kid — writing, drawing, painting — I knew I wasn’t good enough at any of them to make a living.
As I moved into adulthood, I realized that I didn’t need to rely on my father to learn about my great uncle, and that, in fact, it would be misguided for me to attempt to do so. While I was interested in unearthing, in tucking away and keeping for myself, the stories of Seggo’s art and activism — the ones I believed made up the narrative of his life — my father wanted to highlight his role as a pillar of the Arab artworld. The differing interpretations my father and I had about my uncle’s life and legacy were simultaneously parallel and disparate, and at times, I was positive my father didn’t understand the significance of either.
My father’s family was baffled by my decision; they had no frame of reference for a daughter cutting off all contact with her father. Eventually, I resolved to steel myself to their incredulity, to their phone calls urging me to reconcile with him. Soon after I’d made my choice, I also decided it wasn’t important that I exhaust myself explaining it: to family, to friends, to readers. Instead, I immersed myself in writing.
Of writing, my uncle said, It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music. I imagined his poetry career in its nascent stages; I closed my eyes and envisioned it in those early days as a train off the tracks.
Then, I assessed the liability associated with my estrangement from my father: he was my in. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain what paltry grasp I still have of the Assyrian language; he was the only one who spoke it to me with any regularity.
The Assyrian words I do remember occupy a modest word bank in my mind, but it is full of gaps. If I spend too much time trying to fill it up, the gaps, then the whole thing, flood with anxiety. Then, for a little while at least, I can’t remember any of them.
A couple of months into my estrangement from my father, I became acutely aware of a unique hollowness within me: I felt not quite Assyrian, but not plain American, either. It seemed that, suddenly, parts of me I once hadn’t even realized existed had disappeared, leaving nothing but potholes in their place. On numerous occasions, this sense of alienation became nearly unbearable, and I considered reaching out to him. Other times, I actually did, and each time, I regretted it.
I don’t know if I will ever attempt to reconnect to my Assyrian heritage through my father and our family. Most days I think I probably won’t, and others, I get carried away and romanticize the past. If I don’t, I’m not sure how I’ll adjust long-term.
Recently, I’ve been talking to my partner about learning Arabic, though I’d long considered the idea off-limits. I’d reasoned that learning Arabic while knowing very little Assyrian would be a slap in the face to the four-or-so million Assyrians left in the world, and an even bigger one to my grandparents, with whom I’ve never had a complete conversation in Assyrian. I still try to find ways to learn Assyrian through the few internet resources I have.
However, the more I read about my uncle, the less sacrilegious the idea of learning Arabic seems. Maybe it even makes sense, in a round-about sort of way, as far as connecting to homeland and language go.
Beyond his fruitful writing career, I don’t know much about my uncle’s life. I know he lived off the beaten path, at least by our family’s standards. Of course, I’m sure that while he was alive, he maintained closer ties with them than I have.
Several of the poetry books and literary magazines he collected are scattered throughout the apartment my girlfriend and I share. When I want to peek into my uncle’s, or my family’s, or Iraq’s modern history, these keepsakes from my uncle’s life serve as useful, if personal, clues. My uncle’s books and magazines are more than just the relics of his life; they are the artifacts of my cultural and familial history.
I am at a strange, and hopefully, liminal, stage in my life. Stories, then — about my great uncle, about my father, about me — and a little bit of make-believe are what connect me to my family’s heritage and homeland. And for now, that’s good enough for me. Gaps and all.
Thank you for reading! If you’d like to see more of my work or learn about me, visit www.christinayoseph.com.
On the Creation of Family Lore
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