My story, “A Day,” is about a young girl going to visit her relatives on the East side of the wall in Berlin in 1989, just before the end. She narrates the story as an adult, now living in another country, looking back. It’s a spare story: we don’t get much of what she’s feeling. The story, which took me a short time to write (four days) and a long time to edit and rewrite (two years, intermittently of course), seemed to demand a pared back approach. Whenever I added in emotional flourishes or asides it felt like the melodramatic pitfalls of historical fiction that deals with totalitarianism, that I was making the characters into types, which is disastrous. When you view people as types you engage in your own private totalitarianism, in which individuals become moving parts in your argument. So I had to keep pulling back.
Another reason it took me a long time to shape this story was that it’s loosely based on a story from my wife’s life. My mother-in-law defected from the East in 1968 (though from Prague not rural Germany) and ended up in West Berlin. When my wife was a child, they were allowed a one-day pass to visit their cousins, who travelled to the East side of the wall for this reunion. All the details are quite different, but that was the spine. Except her memory of shyly holding her cousin’s hand as they walked in the rain, and my mother-in-laws nervousness around the raincoats because the bright colours showed they were capitalist scum. And of course, that the whole thing was almost over, but they had no idea. So that probably made me feel extra cautious as I approached the story, because it was told to me, part of my family but not mine.
Kate Cayley has received a Trillium Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Mitchell Prize for Poetry. Her third poetry collection, Lent, is published by Book*hug.