By Audrey Altstadt
My early summer reading began with three books about women’s lives. One overlapped with my teaching life (Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, about the great codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and yes, that’s how she spelled her name); another overlapped with my travel life (Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders, about her months bicycling the Silk Road, which I never did or would do). The third book spoke to my writing life, as most books do, but this one resonated in a deeply personal way. Richard White’s Remembering Ahanagran: a History of Stories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998) is White’s investigation of his Irish mother’s memories and life stories which he scrutinized against the historical record of her birthplace in Ireland and the US where she married and raised her children.
In this book, White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, tackles a problem that all historians face – how do we know what’s true? This book is like none of his others because here he investigates own mother’s stories, at her behest, and with her in tow as he returns to her Irish village to get additional local stories and check state and church records against their memories. With this process, White enters the territory not merely of the biographer, but of the memoirist. White himself is a character is this book. He listens to the stories again and again, but he argues with his mother about his investigations of “truth” in the documentary record. The subtitle “a history of stories” gives us a clue about his intellectual and academic approach to the family lore.
The resonance of this book for me was three-fold. My own mother’s family emigrated to the US from Ireland, from the same county as White’s mother, indeed, from a neighboring village. Like his mother, Sarah Walsh, my mother’s parents settled on Chicago’s south side. But the one forward-looking element of this reading experience was that I am a historian writing a memoir. My memoir is unrelated to my family –that I will save for my golden years – but about my first year in the USSR as a doctoral student in the late Brezhnev era.
Like White and his mother, I have memories of my own experiences of that time and I know the stories of others who shared those years of grad school and of research in the USSR. The year I spent in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, was an adventure academically, politically, and personally. I arrived in September of 1980 on the heels of the US boycott of the summer Olympics in Moscow which was retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous December. US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. By going to Baku, in the Soviet south near the Iranian border, I was close to the American hostages then being held in the occupied US Embassy in Tehran. And I arrived weeks after the start of the Iran-Iraq War when the US-backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was bombing the Iranian border just south of Soviet territory. Naturally, I want to get the facts of the time right.
Audrey Altstadt (middle) in Baku, 1992
Although it’s easy to look up the dates of invasions and bombings, or presidential decrees and decisions of the Soviet Communist Party, as White found his mother’s school records, there are a thousand details that cannot be readily verified. Yet those details tell a story of their own. And so does my memory of them. When I tell my fellow historians that I am writing a memoir, their first question is “do you have diaries, notebooks, letters?” We think about evidence, of course. That’s what we do. And I have those things, which might be considered historical documents and primary sources by some future historian, but they are singularly uninformative. In the Soviet Union in 1980, it would have been foolish for an American to record frankly all the things she did and people she met. Our rooms were searched regularly, our communications monitored. As one of two Americans in Baku, and the only one who spoke the languages, I was followed for months even after I settled into my boring routine of going from dorm to university to market. Writing about Soviet acquaintances put those people at risk. That was the reality of our lives, it was not some movie fantasy. Memories are my foundation for the memoir – the train across the steppe from Moscow to Baku, my first view of Baku bay in the sunshine, the fragrances of the bazaar, the rickety chairs in the archives and the crooked glass that made car tires look square.
As White encountered conflicting stories about the family home, Ahanagran, I found disparate memories among old friends. Wanting to share feelings as well as facts, I tried to lead my reader from the familiar to the new. Take the case of the jetway. When our group arrived in Moscow, we left our Lufthansa flight and spilled out into the new and gleaming Sheremetova-II airport, built for thousands of visitors to the Olympics. How did we get from the plane to the airport corridor? I think we used a jetway as in the US, but I do not clearly recall. I ask friends who were in the group. They say we “must have” deplaned onto the tarmac and walked into the terminal because the USSR had no jetways in 1980. But I think they are projecting that knowledge backward to our arrival. I had been outside the US only once before and had never deplaned onto the ground. If I had walked down the plane’s stairs onto the cold and, as I recall, snowy ground of the Moscow’s airport, I am confident I would remember. Since I don’t remember such a thing, I think there was a jetway bought and installed specifically for foreign travelers. And that’s what I wrote – we left the familiar jetway behind. We entered a world of novel, even strange, experiences — the airport was empty, the Soviet guards stared us down, the passport control process was intimidating.
White describes reading his mother’s 1936 immigration form with her. She commented, “How much I’m finding out about myself.” White found out about his mother and Ireland and the immigrant experience in writing this book, but also about himself, and perhaps more from the process than the facts. So it is with all of us who write.