Author's Note
Ruth Rudner

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Author Ruth Rudner discusses what she has been up to since her last book, Ask Now the Beasts and where she got the idea for her next book, a novel set in Belarus.

View photos from Ruth's trip to Russia


When my parents came to live with me near the end of their lives, I found a photograph I had never seen in one of the boxes I helped unpack. The Cyrillic writing on the photograph’s cardboard frame showed it had been made in Minsk. There was more writing, but “Minsk” was the best my poor Russian could make out. In the photo an old woman sits on a straight back chair, her eyes focused on the floor ahead of her, her demeanor denying the photographer’s existence. In refusing to be present, she is absolutely present. Her mouth forms a thin, severe line. She has the high cheekbones of an Indian, and long, elegant hands. Wearing a peasant’s blouse, a long, dark skirt, a black scarf over her center-parted dark hair, she is a world away from the two younger women in starched shirtwaists and coiffed hair next to her. The features of the younger women are coarser, their comfort in the world greater. Mesmerized by the old woman, I asked my mother, “Who is that?”

“My grandmother,” she said. “Your great-grandmother, the person you are named for.”

“And the other two?”

“Her daughters. My aunts.”

It was the first moment it had ever occurred to me that I had ancestors. Although I had known my mother’s parents as a very young child, it never occurred to me that there was anyone before them. It was as if they had sprung fully-formed from the earth, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. Perhaps because my grandparents and I had no common language, I had never asked them questions. Perhaps because my mother spoke my language, she seemed—to me—more part of me than of them. Perhaps I never thought there were questions to ask. Is such a thing possible on the part of a writer used to doing research? Used to digging back to the reasons for things? Did I, whose world is nature, whose subject is nature, think myself outside of nature?

Before seeing the photograph, the single question I asked was the name of the village that was my mother’s birthplace. So, before I knew I had ancestors, the only thing I knew about my history was the name of Logoisk, a town about thirty miles from Minsk, in what was White Russia when my mother lived there, and is now Belarus.

This past autumn, I went to Belarus. I went because I wanted to make up my great grandmother. I wanted to invent her story. I wanted to begin a novel that comes out of the startling, penetrating presence of the peasant woman in the photograph. To do this, I felt it necessary to be in her place, the place where she was born and died. I needed to feel the air and see the earth. I needed to walk the roads of her village, to sit by the river, to engage with the place. In Lagoisk I met with Mr. Antonovich, the local family finder. Mr. Antonovich is a journalist. Eighty-six years old, he was not yet born by the time my mother’s family left Logoisk. He looked at a picture I brought of my grandmother and her four daughters. My mother is about four years old in the picture. She stares directly into the camera as if she would understand the camera. She wants to know what will happen in that box, what happened to the head of the man behind the box. She wants to know how this will work. Mr. Antonovich asks my grandmother’s name, the name of each child. He asks if he may keep the photograph for the little museum in the cultural center where we meet. He welcomes me to my motherland.

And I weep. Because, as it had never occurred to me that I had ancestors, it also never occurred to me that I came from somewhere. That there was a beginning.

Afterward, we all go into the village to walk the old dirt roads lined with wooden houses. It is afternoon and women in aprons and babushkas come out of the houses to sit on wooden benches in front of low wooden fences surrounding the houses. A dog runs down the street. Goats browse the yards. No one looks at us through windows. No one wonders who we are. Later I walk through the park that once formed the estate of the Tyshkevich family, the dukes who owned Logoisk. The residence is in ruins. A few walls remain, walls and high, arching doorways. The forest surrounding the ruin has grown up through it. According to my brother, the duke provided my grandfather the wood he needed to keep his mill running. I have no idea how my brother knows such a thing, although I have three tiny brass cups, hardly bigger than thimbles, that my brother says were a present from the duke to our grandfather. (I have no idea how he knows that, either.) Mr. Antonovich shows me the place where he believed the mill to be. A flat space now occupied by an old age home rises into a sloping field. The trees in the field are golden in a golden autumn. There is no sign this was once a mill site.

I walk down to the river, the Gaina. It was on the bank of the river that my oldest aunt once found three copper coins. In her memory, I leave three coins. I can’t imagine what some child coming upon them will think, growing up in a country that has only paper money, no coins. I spend an hour sitting by the Gaina, partly because it figures in the novel, partly because I have placed part of my mother’s ashes in the water and want to remain with them. They spread out, linger, move on in the flow of water. As she moved on in the flow of her own life. As I do now, knowing I come from somewhere.