Last summer’s first recipients of travel research grants from the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center are already demonstrating the success of the program’s goals—giving student writers the benefit of travel abroad and direct immersion in their creative projects.
Sam Ashworth trained as a chef in France to earn insights for his novel-in-progress The Dissection, and Liesel Hamilton visited Germany and Poland, her grandparents’ homeland, to research her book-in-progress exploring her family’s stories about World War II and its aftermath.
“I think that if I did not receive this grant I would have a different, and frankly much worse, project,” says Hamilton. “I was so focused on finding out exactly what Oma’s [her grandmother’s] journey looked like, but when I went to all of the places that were important to her, I found myself thinking about how she would see them. There is a great deal of research that I can do from afar, simply understanding the facts, but the grant really allowed me to understand the emotion.”
And Ashworth comments even more directly: “It would have been nearly impossible to write this book as I've imagined it without having had this experience.”
As he explains, his month’s research in the Luberon and Lyon regions of France flows directly into the experiences that his novel’s main character, August, will undergo. “The character will basically be replicating what I’ve been doing,” he says.
Ashworth’s own adventures brought sharp epiphanies, specifically “the physicality of working in a kitchen, the way it has to work its way painfully into your bones. I began to appreciate that the physical brutality of it can lead you, if you have the strength for this job, to a place of real physical elation—and that the goal of this job is to find yourself in a place where you get to experience that elation every single night.”
The strangest thing he ate? “Andouillette,” he says, “which is basically pig bowel, chopped and pressed together with other unmentionable pig parts and mealy bits, encased in pork intestine or stomach and grilled in a pan.”
The biggest skill he mastered? Cleaning fresh squid. “My first squid took five full minutes for me to clean; 157 squid later I’d gotten it down to 30 seconds.”
And as a bonus: In addition to earning insights for his novel, Ashworth has also used these travels for an article at Eater.com offering glimpses at the work of a “stagiaire, or trainee,” he says, “in a Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen.”
Hamilton’s project, a work of nonfiction, connects history and memory, and her research both made the history more immediate and deepened the complexity of her work.
After World War II, a quarter of Germany’s pre-1937 territory was transferred to Poland, resulting in the forced migration of more than 12 million ethnic Germans. This included Hamilton’s Oma, from her homeland to her own grandparents’ home and then from the eastern side of the Neisse River to the western.
“Seeing how slow-moving and narrow the Neisse River is when it flows through Görlitz, it is easy to see how heartbreaking the new borders must have been—the fact that home was still visible, but inaccessible,” Hamilton explains. “Meeting my Oma’s younger brother, Uwe, was a very powerful experience. The way he talked about Oma and the similarities in their personalities—I got a better sense of Oma’s character and what she was like at a young age. He also shared stories about Oma, including the time she stole a horse at just 10 years old. “
Memory plays several roles in Hamilton’s project, beginning with the idea of the Heimattreffen or homeland groups formed by the displaced Germans who met to “celebrate their culture through song, dance, photographs, food, and stories.”
Her Oma’s own memories became stories told to Hamilton as a child—the storyteller eager, the listener avid—but in recent years, Oma has developed dementia, making fundamental changes to her storytelling and to the stories.
“When I went to Germany, I wanted to fill in all the gaps in Oma’s story and see all of the places that she loved to talk about. When I got back and started to compile my notes I realized that my project is more about me than I initially realized. It is about my journey of trying to recreate her story. My thesis advisor Kyoko Mori summed it up: It is about wanting to give Oma back her voice but never being able to completely do so, and thus it is about succeeding and failing at the same time.”
Ashworth and Hamilton each received $5,000 from the Cheuse Center, which went toward flights, rental cars, lodging, and other expenses specific to their projects, such as food in Ashworth’s case.
But Hamilton also went shopping for souvenirs—in a manner that cuts right to the roots of the French word souvenir, “to remember,” and the Latin word subvenire, “to occur to the mind.”
Some of the souvenirs, Hamilton explains, “were for my Oma in the hopes that they may jog her memory, or in the very least, make her happy.”
February 16, 2018