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Maya Sonenberg

Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. 26 Abductions, a chapbook of her prose and drawings was published in 2015 by The Cupboard. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, The Literarian, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Hotel Amerika, and numerous other journals, both in print and online. Her writing has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington.


Literary Nonfiction. Music. Memoir. Essays. Not all ghosts exact revenge or induce terror. Some emerge from a miasma of grief; sad themselves, they spread sorrow. Or perhaps those left behind—daughters and sons—create the ghost of a father, trying to find what's surely been lost. Following the four-movement structure of Shostakovich's "Suite for Two Pianos" and using a mosaic of story, memoir, photographs, literary analysis, and her own father's journals, Maya Sonenberg's AFTER THE DEATH OF SHOSTAKOVICH PÈRE is an extended lyric meditation on the death of fathers, both biological and artistic, and the ways in which haunting can produce art.

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After the Death of Shostakovich Père

After the Death of Shostakovich Père


Maya Sonenberg’s memoir/personal essay, After the Death of Shostakovich Père is an intermingling of family-related memories, authors that shaped her as a reader and as a writer, contemplations on grief, and how this coalesces around a sense of identity. Within four sections, Sonenberg takes a non-linear approach to examining her father’s, Jack Sonenberg’s, pivotal life events. Ms. Sonenberg often addresses the reader with invitations to “imagine,” and takes an authorial stance that is overtly aware that what is offered from her accounts of a daughter making sense of her talented father’s demise and death, are experiences presented to strangers, unknown readers who find her book, but trusting, as every writer trusts, that the personal life of a writer can instinctively correlate to the personal life of a reader.

Sonenberg includes other narrators in addition to her own lyrical prose and occasional lines of verse. We hear from Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional characters, Sonenberg’s own fictional characters, and most compelling, as she curates her father’s own words by means of diary excerpts and recorded dreams. The intertextuality adds inspired echoes throughout the memoir and essays. In addition to the personal writing, is an effectively unnerving short story. The wide-ranging mixed genre in After the Death of Shostakovich Père feels much more substantial in scope than the page count suggests: it is rich with well-placed imagery, and intricate psychological insight.

In “Prelude,” Sonenberg succinctly paints a portrait of her parents and her childhood; she was raised by an artistic and passionate family—with professions and interests in painting, music, activism, and natural habitats. And a portrait of a herself emerges as a well-read person who is forensically observant, and empathetic. This preciseness encourages the reader to relate to the author’s experiences, and this is consistent throughout the work. Details such as, “…a cold mountain stream ran, the water delicious but laced with arsenic,” clues us in to the bittersweet reality of giving ourselves over to the vulnerability of loving someone entirely. She invites us to imagine along with her as she constructs an experience of grief that she can make sense of, and so that we can as well.

Sonenberg brings in stories of others’ experiences of grief to refract shared loss, in the way that relatable personal stories can buffer individual grief. In “Prelude,” Dimitri Shostakovich’s father suddenly dies in 1922, forever changing the trajectory of his life and that of his mother and sister. Shostakovich writes a piece of music and dedicates it to his father, and plays it with his sister, to “‘include her in this act of mourning.’” The music that Sonenberg and her father enjoyed together was part of their bond, a way for Sonenberg to illustrate how shared experiences often define relationships.

In “Danse Fantastique,” we are given more excerpts that chronicle her father’s life, her youth, and authors that influenced her. These memories meander non-linearly and highlight moments of her father before and after a devastating stroke, taking us into ruminations spun off of Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and examples of Borges’ characters who encounter ancestors, just as Sonenberg engages with ancestors when she crafts a story out of her father’s life.

Then in the fictional story, “Nocturne,” a young woman and her niece are on a road trip when by chance, the main character, Reba, stops at a small-town motel, waking in the night to supernaturally meet the ghost of her neglectful father. Embedded in the story is a photograph of Sonenberg’s father, a ghostly reflection in a mirror gazing out of the photograph at the reader. Once again, Sonenberg’s impulse is to invite us to accompany her on this exploration of grief, which successfully creates a sense of solidarity, and solace.

The last section, “Finale,” includes more black and white candid photographs of the author when she was a child and her father when he was in the prime of life. Sonenberg offers from the pages of her father’s writings, his own account of his mother’s death, “…3 a.m. in her sleep—mercifully—her agony not drawn out—enough agony being told by the doctor—seeing in all our faces the awareness of her death…’” And once more, Sonenberg returns to a familiar text which reflects her own reevaluation of death as she revisits Borges’ story, “The Library of Babel,” a tale she once loved, but then as her life changed, the re-reading of a text, as so often does, changes because we have changed. She goes on to poignantly confront the limitations of memory and language when faced with the inevitability of death’s muteness, and those finite memories of what “…is remembered and what is forgotten? By whom and for how long?”

I recommend listening to Russian Composer, Shoskovitch’s, Suite for Two Pianos in F Sharp Minor, Opus 6 while enjoying this engaging selection of memories, candid photographs, fictions, and diary entries; it enriches and deepens the reading experience as the music with its moments of repetitive, obsessive circling of notes is not unlike revisiting memories of loved ones after their passing.

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