How one author brings life to millions who have lost it
“Some people call me the Genocide Queen.”
Marsha Skrypuch earned this title through writing books. As a Ukrainian born in Brantford, she has penned more than 10 titles about a myriad of problems throughout time, including wars, immigration, famine and, yes, genocide.
“I like to give voice to people who have not been able to have a voice,” said the 58-year-old author.
Skrypuch’s goal is to normalize a variety of people’s experiences from around the world. When she could not find a body of fiction about Armenian experiences and hardships at the library, she decided to begin her research and recount those events herself. She wanted to know who spoke for the millions of people who had died in the Armenian Genocide from 1915-18 through deportations and massacres. She realized that many survivors of the genocide had lost their identities and she felt obligated to tell their stories.
With her master’s degree in Library Science, Skrypuch considers herself to be a detective. She found the diary of a girl who survived the genocide from a library in California, where there was only one copy available. She needed it. After ordering it through an interlibrary loan, Skrypuch was allowed to have it for 48 hours to transcribe as much as she could. Multiply that experience by 50, she said, and she has enough information for a single novel.
However, research became easier as time went on and word spread about her works.
“Just by the fact of writing the first book in an authoritative and respectful way … all of a sudden I was brought into the Armenian community and trusted with these things that they didn’t want to show other people, because they were afraid of how they would be used,” she said.
Skrypuch said approximately 85 per cent of Armenians living in Turkey at the time of the genocide were killed and the remaining 15 per cent were saved by Muslims. Because of this, it was clearly difficult for an Armenian to write on the topic due to their intolerance for the Turks.
“You have to look within the community and see the shining lights who were able to transcend the politics and hate of the time and risk their lives to help their fellow human beings,” she said.
Dr. Dave Jenkinson is a retired professor at the University of Manitoba and he taught children’s and adolescent’s literature courses for over three decades. He has been the editor of CM: Canadian Review of Materials, an online book review journal, for 15 years.
During his years as a professor, Jenkinson used Skrypuch’s novels in his classes as “examples of excellence in the [historical fiction] genre.”
“All truly good books have to speak to a wide audience, and Marsha’s novels do that because, at their core, they address fundamental human concerns that transcend both time and place,” said Jenkinson.
Many of Skrypuch’s works are marketed to schoolchildren and young adults, despite dealing with ghastly and grotesque recollections of past horrors. She said that readers are more likely to identify with the victim of her fiction when marketed to children or young adults, because in most cases, “the victim is the dessert” for adult-targeted fiction. For Skrypuch, “children’s lit is written to change the world.”
However, after Enough’s release in 2000, Skrypuch’s own life was at stake.
The story, written about a young girl and her father saving a Ukrainian village from famine by tricking the sadistic leader, resulted in death threats and hate mail so callous that Skrypuch started bringing police protection to her book launches. She had to cancel her son’s birthday party and the police had to accompany him to recess when he was in kindergarten. Slurs such as “neo-Nazi” were hurled at Skrypuch for speaking out about Holodomor, the Soviet Union’s man-made famine that killed almost 10 million Ukrainians from 1932-33.
After the release of Hope’s War in 2001, another story based on World War II Ukraine, the hate mail started again.
“It was a really dark time for me and I didn’t know if I would continue to write,” she said.
Skrypuch’s self-proclaimed breakout book, Nobody’s Child, rekindled her passion for writing after it was released in 2003. It focused on an Armenian girl rescued by her friend before she suffered a horrific fate in the Armenian Genocide. Skrypuch moved from doing eight school visits a year to over 160 a year to promote her book. Nobody’s Child was shortlisted for awards both nationally and internationally the following year.
It was not until many years later that a Ukrainian book was treated with the same respect.
Viktor Yushchenko, former President of Ukraine, awarded Skrypuch with the Order of Princess Olha for Enough in 2008, celebrating the first commercial piece of fiction written about Holodomor in the English speaking world. The award, a Ukrainian civil decoration, is given to citizens for “outstanding achievements in development of economy, science, culture, social sphere, defense of Motherland, protection of man’s constitutional rights and freedoms, state building and public activity, [and] for other services before Ukraine.”
“Marsha’s fiction and nonfiction puts a human face on past events which could easily become just forgotten footnotes in history,” said Jenkinson. “Because Canada has, fortunately, never experienced war firsthand on our soil, we need to be made aware of the horrendous impact that armed conflict, whether it be within a single country or between countries, can have on ordinary people.”
Skrypuch’s sharpened research skills and knack for keeping an audience allows the stories of historical horrors to reach around the globe, though she sees her own work on a much simpler scale.
“I will never dwell on the despicable nature of some people,” she said. “I like to highlight the heroism.”