An Interview with Marsha Skrypuch


Dance Of The Banished coverMarsha Skrypuch and I have a history.

It makes sense because we both write and care about history–particularly stories where there has been injustice. I believe that we are humanitarians, who hope that our stories of the past will resonate with the present, bringing awareness about people who have for–one reason or another–been silenced.

Her latest–and 19th book!!!–is The Dance of the Banished, a novel based on the true story of two Anatolian teenagers during WWI.  Circumstances have conspired to separate Ali and Zeynep from their home, Eyolmez, Anatolia. Sensitive and strong, Ali, immigrates to Canada promising he will send for her. Giving her a journal, he asks her to write in it, keeping them close. In turn he will do the same. But when the war breaks out, he’s declared an “enemy alien” and forced to live in an internment camp in Kapuskasing. Meanwhile, thinking she can start fresh and angry at Ali for abandoning her, Zeynep hitches her way with Christian Missionaries to Harpurt, Anatolia, only to be witness to the vicious and violent uprising that lead to the Armenian Genocide.

Written in alternating points of view, Skrypuch’s powerful narrative is constructed around Ali and Zeynep’s journal entries. The diary form is popular in children’s literature, but the difference is Ali and Zeynep are writing to each other, giving the novel a theme of hope–that even through the horror, they two young people will be reunited.

It gives me great pleasure to have Marsha on the blog where she discusses the inspiration for this novel and her approach to writing historical fiction.

Marsha SkrypuchMarsha Skrypuch (pronounced SKRIPP-ick) prides herself on being the only children’s author in Canada who is a dyslexic princess, and has received death threats and hate mail (she also sold grinding wheels for four years, but that’s a different story). Her specialty is writing about how children are affected by war. Her settings have included World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Armenian Genocide, and the Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor). Recent honours include the BC Red Cedar Award for Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice Award and the Ontario Silver Birch Award for in 2013 for Making Bombs for Hitler and in 2014 for One Step At A Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way. Marsha has helped many beginning novelists develop their craft ,while teaching at Humber School for Writers, various book camps, and in kidcrit, which is the longest running online crit group for children’s writers on the net.

Mel: I know that much of this is in the afterword of your novel, but for those who don’t know, what was it about Ali and Zeynep’s story that brought you to want to tell this part of Canada’s history?

Marsha: My own grandfather was interned in Jasper Alberta during the First World War. This was a deep dark secret and the shame of it tainted the rest of his life. My first published book — Silver Threads (illustrated by Michael Martchenko) was inspired by my grandfather’s internment experience and is dedicated to him and my grandmother. Almost all of those interned were of Ukrainian heritage, and the internment of WWI is not something most Canadians are aware of.

But within that bit of hidden history is another layer that was even more hidden. A small number of internees were of other nationalities — Serbs, Croatians, Bulgarians, Poles. And from my own hometown of Brantford Ontario, one hundred internees had come from Ottoman Turkey. All hundred were rounded up in the middle of the night and marched down the main street of Brantford to the city jail on a rumour that all hundred had together tried to blow up the local post office in an act of treason. When the rumour proved false, they weren’t let go. These men ended up in an internment camp in Kapuskasing Ontario.

I had to research further. I had to write about this. And what I discovered was quite different than what I had initially thought I’d be writing about.

Mel: You are often inspired to write about challenging and difficult events, sometimes violent. How do you prepare yourself emotionally for writing these scenes?

Marsha: The emotion conveyed on the page is what I’m feeling myself as I write it. I don’t know that you can really prepare yourself for the searing pain because if you do, you might try to step away. I also hope that when a person reads these scenes, they are plunged in as well.

Mel: An observation that perhaps you can speak to. Ali’s and Zeynep’s chapters are written as if they are a journal, but instead of the voice being directed at the reader, you have given it an extra dimension by having them write to each other. There are often challenges and opportunities in using the journal motif, how did you navigate around these and also consider this extra dimension?

Marsha: I had written an entire first draft of this novel in third person point of view, alternating between Ali and Zeynep. Because their Alevi Kurdish culture is not well known, I thought I had to give more information to clue the reader in. I ended up trashing the entire thing because it just didn’t work.

My editor, Ann Featherstone, suggested I consider the journals as a way for each of them to bare their soul to the the other even though they were half a world apart. As soon as I started, I knew it would work. Their journals poured out of me.
I realized that even though I had to know a lot about Ali and Zeynep’s history and culture, the reader only had to step into their world. The journals simplified what could have been an over-complicated narrative.

There are limitations to the technique. For example, Ali had some experiences that he wanted to keep secret from Zeynep, which meant that he wouldn’t write them in his journal. For that sequence, I had to have him put down his journal and simply narrate.

Mel: What was one of the things in your research that really stood out for you and how did it impact how you wrote this story?

Marsha: When I began, I had a good idea of what Ali’s experience would be, but Zeynep’s totally shocked me. I knew that the Alevi Kurds of Anatolia had a close affinity with the Armenians but I had no idea about how deeply involved the Alevis were in rescuing their friends from the Armenian Genocide, which was perpetrated in Ottoman Turkey as the First World War raged on. The Alevi Kurds helped 40,000 Armenians escape through the Dersim Mountains and to what was then Imperial Russia. This rescue operation was alluded to in many of the primary documents but there were almost no cohesive first-person about it. Finding eye-witness accounts of Armenians saved in this manner and then piecing it together into a narrative was a challenge. It was exhilarating to discover this hidden instance of bravery and it felt so good to be able to write about it.

Mel: Was there anything that you discovered in your research that you had wanted to use but didn’t quite make it into your novel?

Marsha: I could have written an entire novel about Ali’s Cree friend Nadie.

Mel: Thanks, again, Marsha for coming on the blog and good luck with your book!


About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
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