“I lost it at Whole Foods today,” Marione Ingram confesses. She’s only been in the room for five minutes, and we are all already a little in love with her, so we lean in. “They were selling Passover cakes with train tracks drawn on them in jelly.”
We’re sitting around the table in Richard McCann’s Advanced Creative Nonfiction workshop, and Marione and her husband, Daniel, have come to visit. At 81, Marione is stunning in a hand-knit sleeveless sweater in metallic gem tones. Her silver hair is loosely clipped back. Her husband, Daniel, wears a crisp light-pink button down, khakis, and a fedora with flowers tucked into the band (“I had no choice,” he quips when Richard comments on them).
Ingram’s easy smile is hard to reconcile with the essay we’ve been discussing. “Operation Gamorah” (Granta, 1996), details eight-year-old, Jewish, Marione’s experience during the horrific ten-day US-UK bombing campaign that killed some 50,000 civilians in her home city of Hamburg. Marione seems truly joyful, but she admits that there are incidents that trigger painful memories. The Whole Foods cakes remind her of the trains that carried most of her family away to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“The cakes had Kosher for Passover stickers on them,” Daniel says, amazed. “You should’ve seen us. They’ll remember us at that Whole Foods for a very long time.” Then he and Marione laugh so infectiously that we do, too.
Ingram has written two books, The Hands of War (2013), which contains “Operation Gomorrah,” and The Hands of Peace (2015). The first details her life as the daughter of a German soldier and a Jewish woman in Hamburg, and the second concerns her work in the Civil Rights movement in the US.
When Ingram began writing about her life in Nazi Germany, she did it as a form of therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after moving to the United States. “I was trying to put down on paper things I couldn’t express and didn’t want to talk about.” Ingram says that exploring the literary possibilities of her new adopted language, English, brightened the writing process.
She became, and remains, an avid reader. “I had to teach myself not to put down all the wonderful new words I’d learned.” She says that when she looks at any piece of her earlier writing, she can tell which author she’d just read. Above all, though, she admires the “crisp language” of Joseph Conrad.
Ingram spent decades trying to write about Operation Gomorrah, but the memories wouldn’t come, until one night, she awoke suddenly and remembered every detail, “down to the color of the underwear I was wearing and the color of my smock.”
She wrote it all down from a child’s perspective. “I did not want to use a lot of esoteric language. It was therapeutic. I didn’t want to be tragic.” This is arguably one of the choices that makes Ingram’s work most effective.
For the creative nonfiction writer, reading Ingram is a lesson in writing trauma. How do you balance the editorial distance necessary to describe trauma accurately with the emotional proximity necessary to communicate its effects on the mind and heart? The tremendous emotional force of Ingram’s writing lies in the granularity of its detail and the simplicity of its diction.
Ingram’s essay begins with her finding her mother with her head in the oven and learning that her family has been issued a deportation order. Eight-year-old Marione realizes that her mother is ill, but she also realizes that she and her mother on their own. “Because [my mother] had a six-pointed yellow star on her dress, there was no one I could call upon for help.”
When a bomb hits their apartment building and destroys their apartment, young Marione and her mother try to seek refuge in a basement shelter, only to be turned away.
Frau Wiederman gave her husband a shove and he pushed open the door. Instead of going out, Mother stepped deeper inside the shelter.
‘You will answer …’ she shouted, and the room became silent. She didn’t say anything more, but stood for several seconds looking into their faces, her eyes glistening in the lantern light. She looked hurt and angry, but cleansed of fear, almost triumphant. Instead, many of the faces in the gloom began to look fearfully at us, apparently sensing that they had damned themselves by refusing to share their private donjon. When another explosion shook the building, Mother bent with a calm, protective look and adjusted my blanket so that it covered my head. Herr Wiederman grabbed her arm to force her towards the door, but she wrenched free. Then she picked me up and walked into the street as the door slammed behind us.
Ingram’s writing pierces the heart in its unflinching clarity, each sentence a shard of glass. The lucid, steady prose leaves the reader devastated — at what, exactly, a child of war can suffer, and at what, exactly, the human race is capable of. There is little metaphoric language and the reflection is spare and unadorned. The final two lines of the essay read:
Long after the raids, thousands of Hamburgers had to burrow beneath the rubble to sleep in cold cellars and basements. Whatever sparks of penitence smoldered beneath the ashes of the ruined city, the only expressions of regret I saw or heard in the streets, shops and schools of Hamburg were laments for the hardships of defeat.
Ingram compares getting published to “hitchhiking to the moon,” but the US-invasion of Iraq made a determined hitchhiker out of her. “I know what it’s like to be a child in war.” It was important to her to give a public account of the atrocities of war.
When that book was published, she turned her attention to writing about the Civil Rights movement, which she’d joined shortly after moving to America after the end of World War II. “I refused to be a victim and the Civil Rights movement helped me to be an activist.”
In talking to Ingram, one gets the sense that she sees history ceaselessly repeating itself. “Ever since my birth, there’s been war,” she says. “Nobody really expends their energies in peacemaking. I wanted to make a cry against war.”
Ingram tells us she hasn’t been able to sleep well since Trump took office. “I’m that girl, that child of Syria,” she says, “I know exactly what those children are going through, what it means to be vilified in a murderous way.”
But helplessness is not part of the Ingram household vocabulary. “We demonstrated in front of the White House for the first six weeks after the election, and sometimes it was just the two of us,” Daniel says. They still protest every Wednesday afternoon. Ingram says she’s having trouble focusing when she sits down to write, though both she and Daniel are working on books (Marione on an account of the seven years they lived on an island near Sicily, and Daniel on a novel).
When Richard asks her about the difference between viewing writing as a vocation and viewing it as a career, Ingram’s face lights up.
“It hardly ever the thing that puts bread on the table,” Ingram says, smiling, “but I write every day. It’s a wonderful freedom.”
For more about Marione Ingram, check out Café’s 2014 interview with the author.
Image via The Washingtonian.
Yohanca Delgado is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.