Writing Illness

Reviewed by Olivia Pellegrino

Kathleen Venema’s Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces offers a poignant and personal account of age-related illness. The memoir documents Venema’s relationship with her mother, Geeske, across time and space, first as they write to one another in the late 1980s and later as they revisit those letters following Geeske’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Through letters, journal entries, blog posts, and other mediums, Venema chronicles the years she spends teaching in Uganda, her mother’s declining memory, and the time between these defining experiences in her family’s history. In gathering, sharing, and narrating correspondence, Venema explores the role of memory and communication in regard to examining and representing an ethics of care. Venema’s epistolary approach to recollection effectively creates a sense of fragmentation that allows the reader to experience, in some way, the detachment she feels when living away from her family. The stories Venema shares unfold in pieces that move fluidly through time, their fractured structure also recreating the complexities that are a constituent element of caregiving and caretaking positions. These positions include those of a daughter caring for her mother and parents caring for their ailing child, in the case of her nephew Harry; but Venema also explores care in the context of colonialism and how, in this context, care-positions might be inequitable and exploitative. Her letters on this subject express ambivalence about her role as a teacher in Uganda and her practice of “presence”—that is, forming relationships with those in the community in which she seeks to belong.

In this way, Venema’s memoir adroitly exposes and ruminates on contradictions surrounding “presence and absence” in the context of colonialism and illness. It is through writing on illness that Venema explores how conceptualizations of time, both historical and personal, can become unsettled. She grounds her exploration of familial and personal history in the critical, the literary, and the pedagogical so that each unique story is, in some way, connected to all the others. What makes Venema’s text so exceptional is that she grants her mother a degree of agency that tends to be absent from works of care, especially those that are narrativized. The effects of her storytelling are not uneven; she recounts her tale, but so too does the reader get a strong sense of Geeske in the letters she has crafted to her daughter, especially in the cases where Venema’s authorial interjections are sparse. Bird-Bent Grass is a compelling memoir that offers a thoughtful and evocative engagement with questions of identity, memory, and the relationships that help to shape and define a person.

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