Ursula Hegi

Ursula Hegi

Past Event: Monday, November 1, 1999

Literary Arts Icon

Literary Arts

Ursula Hegi’s development as a writer came in fits and starts. While growing up in Germany, she wanted to write but lacked encouragement and craft. She moved to America when she was 18 and studied writing at the University of New Hampshire. Her first two books, Intrusions (1981) and Unearned Pleasures (1988), were set in America. It wasn’t until Hegi was in her forties that she began to write about her native country and to explore her own heritage. She was raised in a small town just outside Düsseldorf, similar to the fictional town of Burgdorf, the setting for her novels Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990) and Stones from the River (1994). Living in a small town, she was able to observe the peculiarities and unique pleasures typical of a close-knit community. In writing about her heritage, she began to understand the strange conspiracy of silence that settled upon Germany after the war, a conspiracy that permitted the persecution of Jews during the war and continued after the truth of the Holocaust was revealed. Hegi recalls, “When I came to this country, I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up you could not talk about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence. It was normal and familiar; these are terrible words considering the circumstances.”

A research grant, awarded to Hegi in 1986, allowed her to travel back to Germany for the first time in 15 years to research background material for Floating in My Mother’s Palm. During her visit, she also kept an eye out for the Zwerg (dwarf) she remembered from her childhood. She didn’t need to look far. While sitting in a café, the Zwerg appeared at her table. Instead of replying to Hegi’s polite questions about relatives, the gossipy Zwerg retorted, “I hear you’ve been divorced.” It was only after Hegi shared some of the details of her marital break-up that the Zwerg would give her information about her grandparents. This bartering of information was the inspiration for Trudi Montag, the beloved protagonist of Stones from the River. Hegi’s work, Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America (1997), explores the impact of the Holocaust on postwar German-Americans through powerful interviews.

Ursula Hegi is the recipient of over thirty grants and awards, including an NEA Fellowship and five PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards. She was nominated for a PEN Faulkner award for Stones from the River and Floating in My Mother’s Palm. She has also written over a hundred reviews for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. For many years, she lived with her family in Spokane where she was a Professor of Creative Writing at Eastern Washington University. She now lives in New York City.

Excerpt from Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990)
My mother swims in churning water, her face damp from cool drops that descend upon her as if magnetized by the quarry hole. Wet now, her long blonde hair looks dark. Her legs kick the water into frothing swirls which she leaves behind. She dives a long smooth shape arching her back underwater before her head and shoulders emerge above the surface like a reed springing back into place.

* * *

Lightning divides the sky like a new star, and my mother raises her face toward the cool drops that fall faster now, harder. She can dance in the water without her feet touching the ground. She does this by twirling her arms in such a way that her body propels itself around. One early summer evening, when I was nine, she shows me how. My father is at a dentist convention in Bremen, and Frau Brocker has left for the day. My mother and I walk to the quarry hole, shed the dresses we wear above our bathing suits, and run into the water as raindrops strike our bare shoulders. The water is warmer than the air, and I feel giddy and daring as I race my mother toward the middle.

* * *

Luminous bubbles from around my arms, my legs, and when we reach a place too deep for us to stand, my mother teaches me how to dance. She twirls around, and I try to imitate her movements. At first I’m clumsy, slow, but soon I find that I, too, can dance in the storm, alone, without holding onto her. When we leave the quarry hole, the brilliant lights have stopped flashing across the sky, and the only sound is that of our sandals slapping against the sidewalk. Though we don’t talk about this, neither of us will mention our swim to my father.

Selected WorkHotel of the Saints: Stories (2001)The Vision of Emma Blau (2000)Tearing the Silence: On Being German In America (1997)Salt Dancers (1995)Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories (1994)Stones From the River (1994)Floating in My Mother’s Palm (1990)Intrusions (1981)

LinksReading guide for Stones from the RiverBook review of The Vision of Emma Blau on Salon.comSeattle P.I. interview with Hegi