Bird-Bent Grass chronicles an extraordinary mother–daughter relationship that spans distance, time, and, eventually, debilitating illness. Personal, familial, and political narratives unfold through the letters that Geeske Venema-de Jong and her daughter Kathleen exchanged during the late 1980s and through their weekly conversations, which started after Geeske was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease twenty years later.
In 1986, Kathleen accepted a three-year teaching assignment in Uganda, after a devastating civil war, and Geeske promised to be her daughter’s most faithful correspondent. The two women exchanged more than two hundred letters that reflected their lively interest in literature, theology, and politics, and explored ideas about identity, belonging, and home in the context of cross-cultural challenges. Two decades later, with Geeske increasingly beset by Alzheimer’s disease, Kathleen returned to the letters, where she rediscovered the evocative image of a tiny, bright meadow bird perched precariously on a blade of elephant grass. That image – of simultaneous tension, fragility, power, and resilience – sustained her over the years that she used the letters as memory prompts in a larger strategy to keep her intellectually gifted mother alive.
Deftly woven of excerpts from their correspondence, conversations, journal entries, and email updates, Bird-Bent Grass is a complex and moving exploration of memory, illness, and immigration; friendship, conflict, resilience, and forgiveness; cross-cultural communication, the ethics of international development, and letter-writing as a technology of intimacy. Throughout, it reflects on the imperative and fleeting business of being alive and loving others while they’re ours to hold.
"Bird-Bent Grass is a rich contribution to memoir and epistolary literature. As in the letters of Paul in the Bible and Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, for example, Venema explores the rich literary potential of changing and interweaving perspectives as well as the intrigue of letters gone astray.
"This book contains lush language on global themes of conflict, abuse, estrangement and death, and reminds us of the significance of what a letter once was. I want to clap a glass case on it; letters have become museum artifacts, and this project shows what has been lost since the first emails were sent seven years after these first letters were written in 1987. Venema has done a marvellous job of examining the significance of letter-writing in cementing bonds across mother–daughter, African–North American and historic–past–present relationships.” – Faith Eidse, co-editor of Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global and author of Healing Falls (forthcoming)
An extraordinary and deftly written memoir, Bird-Bent Grass: A Memoir, in Pieces is an inherently compelling read from beginning to end. Complex, candid, and offering an intrinsically fascinating account that will prove to be an enduringly valued addition to both community and academic library Contemporary Biography collections.- Margaret Lane, Midwest Book Review