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Bird-Bent Grass

A Memoir, in Pieces

By Kathleen Venema
Subjects Life Writing, Ethnography, Family & Relationships, Biography & Autobiography
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9781771122900, 354 pages, April 2018
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781771122924, 354 pages, April 2018
Audiobook : 9781771124874, 354 pages, October 2020

Audiobooks available at
View Table of Contents

Table of contents

you come home. we need to talk

1  perfect correspondence

2  crosswords

3  post secret

4  new meadow

5  holy shipwreck

postscript: waiting for you here




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.


  • Short-listed, Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-fiction, Manitoba Book Awards 2019


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

[Bird-Bent Grass] demonstrates that, and how, a substantial, complex memoir can be fashioned out of domestic life writing (personal correspondence, diaries, and recorded conversations and reminiscences). Such an achievement is especially welcome at a time when the family archive is endangered by the broad shift to electronic communication and social media.

- G. Thomas Couser, Biography

It’s a deeply beautiful, thoughtful, celebratory book . .. important and elegant.

- Charlene Diehl, Director, Winnipeg International Writers Festival

Readers who are walking the journey of Alzheimer's with a loved one should find a sense of rapport with this story. Venema describes the progress of the disease in an honest and straightforward way, tinged with sadness, but always spiced with laughter.

- Barb Draper, Canadian Mennonite

I felt
[. ..] both moved and enlightened by the documenting of two such curious and
articulate and inclusive intellects—by the conversations that move through this
memoir, and link its disparate parts—by wise and profound detailing of this
 auto-ethnography. The image of “bird-bent grass” from the title evokes for me
both a close observation of affect and a contemplation of impermanence, and I
was invited to experience both of these states inside a lively, articulate, and
sensitive account.

- Karen Hofmann, Prairie Fire

A vital
contribution to [. ..] 'matriography' [. ..] and a unique contribution to the
autobiographic illness narrative genre, because it not only addresses the
highly personal lived experiences of illness but it also highlights the
interdependence of different illness experiences. [. ..] Venema both models and
compels the reader to experience the 'fleeting business of being alive and
loving others in the long or very short time they're ours to hold.

- Jesse Hutchison, Journal of Mennonite Studies

The stories Venema shares unfold in pieces that move fluidly through time, their fractured structure [...] recreating the complexities that are a constituent element of caregiving and caretaking positions. [...] 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. [...] A thoughtful and evocative engagement with questions of identity, memory, and the relationships that help to shape and define a person.

- Olivia Pellegrino, Canadian Literature (web)

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)