George Orwell and Memoirs: How Literature Changes Lives

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

This interview refers to the boook Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa. To read my two posts about the book click here and here.

In her book Orwell and the Refugees, author Andrea Chalupa tells how the history of her family intersected with the history of the world. Her grandparents fled the Soviet Ukraine, where, in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was killing millions of people. The family lived in exile at a time when many people in the West still thought of Stalin as an ally. That’s where George Orwell comes in. His book Animal Farm was an attempt to expose the truth about Stalinist Russia. A copy of Animal Farm reached the refugee camp where Andrea Chalupa’s uncle read it as a boy. Years later, her grandfather wrote a memoir about those events. This entire saga is described in a book published by the granddaughter in 2012. As a memoir enthusiast, I love seeing history through the eyes of these three writers. George Orwell exposes Stalin’s cruelty. Chalupa’s grandfather puts a human face on the millions of refugees. Finally, through the granddaughter’s eyes, I see how Stalin’s madness ripped through history, like a tsunami crashing upon the shores of modernity, and then receding as people grew, recovered, and entered new phases of their lives. To learn more about the creation of this extravaganza of history and literature, I interviewed Andrea Chalupa.

Jerry: Animal Farm was a powerful influence in my high school reading list, so when I read your story, I relate it to the feelings I had about it as a young man. Considering how Stalin affected your family, I am curious to know what if any effect the book had on your younger years. What are your memories of Animal Farm? Did you read Orwell in high school? When you read it, did you resonate with any personal sense of history about it?

Andrea: I don’t remember reading Orwell in school, but I grew up hearing the stories from my family that Orwell allegorizes in Animal Farm. But I didn’t read the novel until I was 26 and looking for inspiration and energy while working on a screenplay about Stalin’s famine in Ukraine. When I finally read Animal Farm, I felt incredibly grateful that someone “pop culturized” exposing Stalin and the Soviet Union. It had a massive impact in paying tribute to the countless victims.

Jerry: It’s interesting that you didn’t know about the actual physical existence of the Orwell manuscript hidden in your family archives. So I know you didn’t know about the original copy of the book. Do you remember anyone talking about the book when you first read it?

Andrea: No, no one. It was such a surprise and makes me wonder what other priceless possessions are in my family!…

Jerry: When you grew up, how aware were you of your grandfather’s past? Do you remember any incidents about how his past entered into your childhood awareness, say in passing comments or stories around the dinner table, or even hushed tones or avoiding WWII movies, or whatever?

Andrea: I grew up very aware and sensitive to what my family had escaped, their stories of survival. My parents and grandparents spoke openly about these things when the mood hit them. In sixth grade, I made a presentation to my class about Stalin’s 1933 famine in Ukraine and started crying. The stories I heard from my grandfather of surviving nearly being starved to death, seeing entire villages slowly wither and disappear, the stories of people driven to madness from hunger left a big impression on me at a very young age. The famine had only to be merely mentioned to get me to finish my dinner as a kid and eat every last bite, a tactic my parents sometimes employed. But I didn’t learn of the extent of my grandfather’s time as a political prisoner during Stalin’s purges and the torture he endured–I just knew that he was in prison, a victim of the KGB; but that was something that no one spoke openly about. Though one time, my parents had a party and one of the guests was a doctor. When he met my grandfather–whose hands slightly shook–he asked him, “Parkinsons?” My grandfather responded, “No, KGB.”

Jerry: Had you heard about the existence of your grandfather’s memoir when you were younger? When did you first learn about it?

Andrea: I didn’t learn about his memoir until my last year of college when I was working on a history thesis about underground religious movements in Soviet Ukraine. My mother brought it up as something that might be useful to my research since my grandfather witnessed religious persecution by the Soviets, and fearless monks continuing to practice and heal people.  He wrote his memoir shortly before he passed away, and she held on to it for almost ten years before giving it to me. His memoir primarily focuses on his time as a political prisoner, the torture he endured, and miraculously surviving and being released from prison–all these things were too painful for my mother and the rest of my family to talk about. That’s why I had to essentially “go looking” in my own way, by studying Soviet history in college.

Jerry: Did you read it? If so, what was that like?

Andrea: I did read it. It was written in Ukrainian, which I can barely read; so I went to Ukraine after college and found a translator. I got to read his memoir for the first time while I was backpacking through Ukraine. It was incredibly moving, his spiritual descriptions of relying on God in “this hellish machine,” as he described the Soviet Union. The first time I read it, I was overwhelmed and cried. I had to remind myself of the many happy years he had helping raise me in sunny and beautiful California. Orwell said it best, the horror of a totalitarian regime is “unimaginable.”

Jerry: Have you considered making your grandfather’s memoir available to other readers?

Andrea: I would love to. His memoir certainly was an inspiration to me, and I know it would be to anyone who reads it. It opens with him as a little boy watching the Bolsheviks battle the Czar’s army on his family’s farm, and he describes growing up as the Soviet Union grows up. So he gives a lot of wonderful, historically valuable insight into this dramatic time. But the richness and power of his writing comes through most during his arrest and his life in a secret KGB prison. I have done preliminary research into finding a publisher for it. The same time I received his memoir, I began researching and dreaming up an idea for the screenplay about Stalin’s famine that led me down a different rabbit hole. But now that the script is with a production company, I want to focus on getting my grandfather’s memoir published.

Jerry: What impulse originally stirred you to write this book Orwell and the Refugees?

Andrea: The ebook stemmed from a talk I gave on this little known history to the National Press Club. I had been invited to give a talk at the National Press Club after giving a presentation about Orwell’s refugee camp edition of Animal Farm to the U.S. Ukraine Foundation–I think I just brought the book in to their office one day and it turned into an impromptu presentation!  In preparing my talk for the National Press Club, I wrote a longer speech than I had time to give; I decided to present all my research in an ebook–an outlet that could fit all the research I kept gathering.

Jerry: When did you decide to publish it as an ebook?

Andrea: As a journalist and writer, I had been following the ebook trend for some time, watching it evolve from a “kiss of death” that turned off publishers to an attractive mainstream option. Journalists were just turning to ebooks to showcase longer, in-depth stories. It was an incredibly exciting project for me, because I had just spent two years pitching my screenplay to anyone who would listen, only to get it into the hands of professionals who would take another x amount of years just to produce it; I was hungry for the immediacy of sharing an ebook.  My ebook explores the history I dramatize in my screenplay; so it felt like a relief to finally get it out into the world and in front of an audience versus a few producers.

Jerry: What feedback have you received from other people who were affected by these events in history, say descendants of refugees like yourself?

Andrea: I’ve made new friends and learned so much from people who reached out to me after I gave a talk or after they heard me share this history on NPR. People have written to me through Facebook just to share their story or send me their memoir or pages of other invaluable information, or helped piece together missing links I couldn’t find elsewhere. It’s really been a highlight of this experience and gave me a sense of community.
After I gave my talk at the National Press Club, during the Q&A, about a dozen people in the audience raised their hands with comments that I had captured their childhood growing up in the displaced persons camps of Europe. The looks on their faces were very touching and humbling. It was an unforgettable experience for me.

Jerry: In my view, your writing voice in Orwell and the Refugees spans nonfiction genres, combining essay and history in a first person perspective. But that’s just me as a reader. What was it like for you as a writer? Where do you see this voice evolving in your own writing path?

Andrea: Orwell and the Refugees was originally intended to be a 25 minute lecture. There was just too much good information that couldn’t fit into a 25 minute talk. So the research, intended for a speech, is presented as it was written–to be spoken. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Orwell’s essays, and he had a wonderful, frank voice and I think that also influenced my writing style.

Jerry: What’s next?

Andrea: I have a fantasy of one day writing and producing a screenplay about the displaced persons camps of postwar Europe. I had interviewed a lot of people about their experiences, people who were children at the time. And they made life in these refugee camps seem like an endless summer camp. They acknowledged, of course, that this wasn’t so for the adults, who had to worry and act for the sake of the future.

In the meantime, I want to arrange for the publication of my grandfather’s memoir, so it can be shared in its entirety. In Orwell and the Refugees, I only published the sections that show my grandfather living through the horrifying events Orwell satirizes in Animal Farm. I wanted to show the real Animal Farm through the eyes of a survivor.

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

If you are intrigued by the relationship between literature and life, check this essay I wrote on the subject.

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Memoirs Extend History a Little and Wisdom a Lot

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

This is the second post inspired by Andrea Chalupa’s Orwell and the Refugees. Click here for the first.

When I began to write my memoir, I realized how little I knew about my grandparents. I never asked them what it was like to leave their homeland in Russia and travel to a new life in America. Nor did I ask my parents what it was like to grow up in Philadelphia as the children of immigrants. My ignorance was uncanny. Did I really have so little curiosity about them? How could I be so self-involved?

Recently, I met a woman whose ancestors grew up in the same part of the world my grandparents did. Unlike me, Andrea Chalupa knows about them because her grandfather wrote a memoir. And because she knows and cares so much about those events, she wrote a book that captures the spirit of those times. Chalupa’s book, called Orwell and the Refugees, tells about the great historical forces that shaped her family’s life.

In the 1930s, a couple of decades after my grandparents escaped, Joseph Stalin felt threatened by separatists in the Ukraine and decided the best solution would be to murder its entire population. The resulting famine-genocide was one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, but it was hidden behind the iron curtain of Stalin’s propaganda machine. In fact, many people in the west saw Stalin as a good guy and a bulwark against fascism.

When George Orwell decided to expose the cruelty of the communist regime, he had to overcome the resistance of those who didn’t want to hear anything bad about Russia, so he couched his frightening story in an allegory about farm animals. In 1945, after Animal Farm was published, it was translated and smuggled into the refugee camps in Eastern Europe, where Chalupa’s grandfather was trying to raise his children. In fact, Chalupa’s uncle still owns the copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm that he read in the refugee camp.

The presence of that book in the camps is the most fascinating thing about this whole story. Within those crowded makeshift communities, people maintained their dignity and hope by educating their children. These are the dramas that bring out the magnificent side of history — not the horrifying actions of murderers, but the pervasive attempt of ordinary people to stay balanced and strong in the midst of horror.

Thanks to her grandfather’s memoir, Chalupa provides a personal perspective on history, showing the human drama taking place during those turbulent times. The book by the grandchild weaves a rich tapestry of interlocking stories. The book’s title Orwell and the Refugees reminds me of one of the important authors who informed my own teenage search for meaning. Inside Orwell and the Refugees, I learn about that author’s attempt to spread truth and hope. And the very existence of Orwell and the Refugees provides yet another dimension. It shows me how, like a magic camera, our grandparents extend our vision a few more decades than we can see for ourselves.

When I first read George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the 1960s, it filled me with terror. Was the world really this dangerous? To get a better handle on my intense questions I turned to dark confusing novels by authors like Ferdinand Celine, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Their fictional perspective felt so real, it undermined my trust in humanity and filled me with anxiety and dread.

It never occurred to me to ask my parents and grandparents to tell me what they remembered. I didn’t know that out of horror, springs courage. Years later, after the horror is in the distant past, we can look back at the whole sequence. My own grandparents, by explaining their escape, their courage, and their eventual success, could have offered me balm for the poisonous cynicism that overpowered me.

I wasn’t so fortunate. When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However, according to research by child-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.

By passing her grandfather’s story along to us, Chalupa performs an act of social generosity, reminding us that the stories of individual lives contribute to the wisdom of society. Thanks to the explosion of interest in memoirs, more of us are writing our own stories and asking our parents for theirs. As a result, from now on, our children will be able to see beyond the stories in history books or the stories at the dinner tables. They will be able to draw conclusions about the way the world works from the lives and experiences of their own ancestors.

Writing Prompt
Remember that to you it was just ordinary life. To your children and grandchildren, it is something they only know from history, fiction or dinner table stories. You can help them understand your life in a much more authentic way by telling your story. What history would you pass on?


Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

Read more of my essays about your parent’s memoir by clicking the links below:
Is this the year to write your parent’s memoir?

Answering Parents’ Objections to Writing Their Memoir
Parent’s Memoir Part 3a, Guiding a Ghost Writer’s Interview
Parent’s Memoir Part 3b, Guide for Ghost Writer’s Interview

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

How eBooks Revolutionize Your Memoir Options

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

I recently read, Orwell and the Refugees by Andrea Chalupa, eagerly absorbing the human drama unfolding on its pages. The author’s grandfather survived Stalin’s infamous famine-genocide in the Ukraine, so she grew up surrounded by stories involving mid-century Russia. Naturally she had an enormous stake in the outcome of these historical events, and her passion for the subject drove the story forward.

And just as exciting as the content inside the book were the possibilities the book raised for other authors who wonder how they will find readers. Orwell and the Refugees reports on one cultural upheaval, and it is also an example of another. The book shows how the changes in publishing are expanding our ability to connect with each other.

Her story is about one of the greatest dramas in human history. Stalin’s starvation campaign affected millions of Ukrainians, and indirectly impacted hundreds of millions of others. And millions of people have grown up horrified by the strange and terrible allegory portrayed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. However, despite this vast impact, none of this is in today’s news, and it’s unlikely many readers are heading to the bookstore to buy a book on either topic. The history of George Orwell’s impact on Ukrainian refugees seems too specialized and obscure for a commercial publisher.

Many aspiring memoir writers face similar problems. We know our story has dramatic impact that would intrigue some subset of people. But when we learn how to pitch it to a publisher or agent, we find that we must demonstrate its salability. It’s difficult to guarantee the five or ten thousand readers that traditional publishers need. Until recently, such authors would either squash the impulse to write about their lives, or they would polish a manuscript for years, shop it around, and then lovingly lay it to rest.

In the new millennium, we no longer need to jump over the barrier of the mass market. Electronic publishing gives us the freedom to focus on telling our story as artfully as possible so whoever reads it will enjoy it and tell their friends. In the new millennium, aspiring authors build momentum not on a sure business case but on the passion of storytelling. And as Orwell and the Refugees demonstrates, once we are released from commercial considerations, we can take advantage of some additional literary freedoms.

Cut Across Rules to Engage the Modern Mind

If Orwell and the Refugees was published traditionally, a bookseller or librarian would not know where to shelve it. Does it belong with books about the history of Eastern Europe, or the history of English literature, or is about the investigative journalism of a woman whose grandfather wrote a memoir? Because Chalupa published her story as an eBook, she didn’t have to worry about these distinctions. By cutting across categories, she is free to express herself in a variegated style and high-energy content that suits the broad interests of a hungry mind.

Its length is another radical departure from the past. Traditionally, its petite size would have kept it out of a bookstore or library because without a spine, you can’t see it on the shelf. However, it recalls a much older tradition. Some of the most influential books in history have been short enough to be considered pamphlets, such as the incendiary Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a 48 page work that helped ignite the American Revolution. Orwell and the Refugees is unlikely to start a revolution but it’s a great example of one, allowing us to regain access to this important, short form. The book is filled with intrigue and information, without being so long as to be overwhelming.

Which Niche Markets Beckon Your Book

Just because Chalupa did not convince a publisher that Orwell and the Refugees would sell thousands does not mean that such sales are impossible. Publishers often take the wrong side of this bet, as evidenced by endless stories of successful books that were rejected before they found a home. Even Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, was rejected at first.

When you look more closely at Orwell and the Refugees you can imagine an enormous number of potential readers. Millions of people could be curious to know the background of George Orwell’s ominous allegory about cruel tyrants, and millions more might want to know about grandparents displaced in the upheaval of Europe and Russia. Orwell and the Refugees places those events into historical context as a chilling personal account seen through the eyes of someone whose family suffered from the horror directly.

In fact, in my own household, the word Ukrainian never had any particular significance. My grandparents came from Kiev, wherever that is. In light of Orwell and the Refugees I looked at a map. It turns out that three of my four grandparents were refugees from the same region as Chalupa’s ancestors, as were the millions of Jews who escaped Russia at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I have come across this information, I’m fascinated. Her niche is not so small after all.

It’s not easy to know in advance how your book will be received. In the epilog to Rachel Simon’s memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister, she says that the success of the book took her completely by surprise. Instead of the occasional person who wanted to read about a girl and her sister, she was inundated by buyers who desperately wanted to learn more about caring for their disabled siblings. Pleasing the vagaries of the public is not something any of us can predict, even the professionals. So the best bet for any memoir author is to tell your story as well as you can and then reach out and let readers know where to find it.

Writing Prompt
What niche audience might be interested in your story? (For example, boomers, veterans, survivors of a particular illness or injury, spiritual seekers, children of aging parents, etc.) How will you connect with these readers?

Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm by Andrea Chalupa

Andrea Chalupa’s Home Page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.