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Photo of Alexandra Risen
Alexandra Risen. Photo by Chris Frampton

Nature and Nurture

Alexandra Risen untangles her parents' painful past and her wild garden in a new memoir

Three strands – a garden, the loss of a parent and a writing class – twined together to grow Unearthed (Viking), a new memoir by Alexandra Risen, which comes out in August. The story follows how she discovered her parents’ painful past as war refugees at the same time as she was trying to tame her wild garden.

One class, part of the Creative Writing program at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, was “Writing About Nature.” For that, says Risen, “I wrote a story comparing my mother to a lily of the valley” – the fragrant, tough flower that thrives in places other plants don’t.

Risen’s father had been silent and distant, barely ever speaking. After his death, when Risen’s mother moved to a nursing home, Risen discovered documents that revealed some of the pain behind that silence – the certificates proving her parents’ Ukrainian citizenship, issued in 1941, and marriage papers from a displaced persons camp in post-war Germany. Simultaneously, she untangled her garden and her regrets for her parents’ emotional distance.

Risen finished her Creative Writing Certificate in 2014. “The program taught me what writing really meant and how hard one must work,” she says. “It was a very, very good experience.”

Read Risen’s blog Foraged Love.

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