‘This impulse to connect through love and pain, by the reach of story, draws us to fiction’
International Dublin Literary Award winner Emily Ruskovich’s acceptance speech
Emily Ruskovich, winner of the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award, for her debut novel Idaho. Photograph: Conor McCabe
I cannot express how grateful I am to be the recipient of this award. It is difficult to know how to respond to the magnitude of this kindness that has been so suddenly bestowed upon me. I feel shocked. I feel humbled. I feel overwhelmed with the enormity of my gratitude. I am especially honoured because of the admiration that I feel for the other finalists. Seeing my name beside theirs when the shortlist was announced – that alone was one of the greatest honours of my career.
I wish to express my deep gratitude to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the patron of this award, to Owen Keegan and the Dublin City Council, to Mearead Owens and Dublin City Libraries, to the members of the judging panel, to my editor Becky Hardie, who is here today, to my American editors Kate Medina and Anna Pitoniak back home, to my agent Jin Auh and everyone at Wylie New York and Wylie UK, and to the extremely kind librarian at Openbare Library in Bruges, Belgium, who first nominated my book for this astonishingly generous award. I don’t know your name, but you have changed my life, and I wish that I could thank you personally.
Libraries are places of kindness, existing for the sole purpose of connecting us to each other and to ourselves
It is very special to me that this is an award in which libraries across the world determine the longlist through their nominations. Libraries are places of kindness, existing for the sole purpose of connecting us to each other and to ourselves. It is through a small library, in fact, a library in a prison in Idaho, that the two main women of my novel first find each other through indirect means. It is through a library that their lifelong silence is broken and they take their first tentative step into sisterhood.
I was five years old and could just barely write my name when I received my first library card from a librarian named Sue in a very small town in the American west, a town called Athol. That day left a strong impression on me, because I think I understood even then that that little green plastic card was a key to the greater world. It was a key that would take me not only far away from Idaho, but also, as it turns out, much, much deeper inside of it.
Though Idaho the novel holds at its centre the most horrific tragedy that I can imagine, its premise, to me, is not tragedy but kindness
Though Idaho the novel holds at its centre the most horrific tragedy that I can imagine, its premise, to me, is not tragedy but kindness – kindness given even when it’s not deserved, kindness as the humblest form of salvation. Idaho is, to me, more than anything – a love story. A woman marries herself to every aspect of another person’s life – his suffering, his passions, his disease; she marries herself to the tragedy of his former family, but also to the love that he once felt for them. And when he begins to lose his memories, she must imagine those memories into herself, even as painful as they are, to keep as a part of her own heart what can no longer be a part of his. And so she loves him by remembering; she loves him by imagining.
By starting with a premise so painful, with an action so unforgivable, I was forced to really search for what I believed kindness was capable of surviving
That is what I want to talk about today, briefly – the relationship between kindness and imagination. First, I should say that my novel is a love story in a broader sense, too. I wrote it for my family and for my husband; I wrote it to tell them how much I love them. This may seem strange, considering that the novel’s plot is about a family who is completely destroyed by an act of horrific violence. But by starting with a premise so painful, with an action so unforgivable, I was forced to really search for what I believed kindness was capable of surviving, and what we are capable of surviving because of it.
That is why I love fiction – fiction allows us to give the best pieces of the people we love most to characters who are most desperately in need of those pieces
To the woman who commits the horrific act at the centre of this novel, I have given my own mother’s painful grace and humility. I wanted to love Jenny, and did love her, even though she has done the unthinkable, the unforgivable – she murdered her own child. To Ann, the woman who later marries Jenny’s husband, I gave my mother’s intense imagination, and my mother’s gentle face. And to Wade, who suffers loss on so many levels, I gave my father’s strength, and his eternally poetic heart. That is why I love fiction – fiction allows us to give the best pieces of the people we love most to characters who are most desperately in need of those pieces.
My younger sister, who herself is a version of the murdered child, said something once, long ago, that has stayed with me. When I was 11, my family moved to a wild place in the high panhandle of Northern Idaho – a mountain called Hoo Doo, far removed from society, miles up a dirt road, a place without water or electricity, just miles and miles of pine and dust and tangled honeysuckle. We lived in tents, first, on the mountainside, while my parents built a barn. And when it was finished, we lived in the barn with all of our animals. It was one of the most beautiful eras of my life, when my younger siblings and I spent our days and nights entirely outside, with nothing to do but roam and pretend in the wilderness.
It was on one of these lovely, quiet after-rain endless days of playing on the mountainside that we discovered the crumbled remains of an old homestead. Not much at all was left – a fallen barbed wire cattle fence all but consumed by the soil and weeds. Some crumbled bricks. The rusted coils of an ancient mattress, a few tin cups, and irises – irises that did not grow wild on the mountain, that were there only because someone long ago had put them there and they kept returning, year after year. We knew nothing about the family who lived there – if it was a family. Except, only, that they were once there. That this was the place that they had lived. And no one – until us – had made a life there since they had.
But to return to my sister, long ago. There was a day that the rain had trickled upward into the road a few bits of shattered porcelain left over from that other time. White and blue. Bits as small as pebbles. My sister was only eight years old, but she picked up the porcelain from the rain gash in the road, and she said to our little brother and me, “Do you know why this is here? The woman who lived here lost her baby. And she was so sad that she went outside and she smashed her prettiest plate. She smashed the only pretty thing left in her whole life.”
Those bits of trickled porcelain spoke to her of love and loss and pain and the way something beautiful will be rendered unbearable by sorrow.
I still think about that because I am so moved by what she said, my eight-year-old sister, who, at that point in her life, had not suffered, had not lost, had not yet known what it was like to be a mother loving her baby. And yet, those bits of trickled porcelain spoke to her. Upward, they rose to the road in the rushing water, and they told her a story. They spoke to her of love and loss and pain and the way something beautiful will be rendered unbearable by sorrow.
We know things in childhood long before we could possibly know them ... this instinctive compassion, this understanding separate of experience, this impulse to connect
As a child, all of this was already inside of her – her own daughter, in fact, was already inside of her, as mine was inside of me – and I believe this is true of people in general, that we know things in childhood long before we could possibly know them. And I think that it is from this instinctive compassion, this understanding separate of experience, this impulse to connect to each other through love and pain both, by the reach of story, that we find ourselves drawn to fiction, both as readers and as writers.
My eight-year-old sister – to borrow my husband’s phrase – extrapolated toward kindness
My eight-year-old sister – to borrow my husband’s phrase – extrapolated toward kindness. Porcelain, to tragedy, to her own compassion. She connected us all, instantly, to that lost family, through story, and that was the story that reigned in my family those many years, the story that reigns still. When I close my eyes and remember our mountain, I remember not only our own real lives up there, but also a woman who maybe never was, smashing a porcelain plate in grief, and in love.
I want to end by thanking the three kindest people that I have ever known. My mother – for reasons already mentioned, and my father, too, who, as a writer himself, taught me to see the humanity in everyone, to treat my characters with kindness even when it’s not deserved. And, finally, my husband, who is here today. The reach of his compassion, through imagination, is like no one else’s on earth. I could not have written this novel without you.
Thank you all so very much. This truly is the greatest honour of my career.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is published by Vintage