Can you handle the truth?

The truth can be rough, can be inspiring, or depressing, or fascinating – or all of the above. Good biography writers know that, and know exactly how to grip you in with stories of real people and the astonishing lives they’ve lived – or are still living.

Biographies are a way to see history and culture in a new way, through the eyes of someone who has lived it. Here’s four stories of four very different moments in time, straight from the top of my ever-growing For Later list.

Cover of "In Order to Live"

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park.

The story of how two brave woman, Yeonmi and her mother, escaped from North Korea through China. I’ve heard this book is equal parts harrowing and inspiring, as it gives her account of her escape, plus the story of her life in North Korea and her new life as a human rights campaigner in the US. She sounds incredible. An important book.

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson.Cover of

“Enthralling” “charming” “scandalous”  are three descriptions I’ve heard of the sisters in this book. I had vaguely heard of the Mitford Sisters before but it wasn’t till a couple of months ago when I was travelling with my cousins when someone (charmingly) compared us to the six Mitford sisters that I started looking into them and hoo boy, they’re marvellous! This is going to be a good one.

Cover of The Girl Who Stole Stockings: The True Story of Susannah Noon and the Women of the Convict Ship Friends by Elsbeth Hardie.

Because stories of the women who were sent to Australia as convicts promise to be fascinating! This ship full of women, from murderers to pickpockets, shipped to the other side of the world. Honestly, what a story. Susannah Noon, who wasn’t even a teenager when she was convicted of theft, had an amazing life, from England to Australia and then over to New Zealand, as one of the first hand witnesses to the conflict between Te Rauparaha and the New Zealand Company!

Cover of 'A Life in Secrets'

A Life In Secrets; The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, by Sarah Helm.

Ok so, a couple of years ago I read this amazing book called Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a story about two young female operatives in World War Two, a pilot and a spy. It was incredible, so when I found out that this book, A Life in Secrets, was highly recommended by the author, it was immediately part of my to-read list.

So, got any true stories on your For Later lists?

Family Matters at the Auckland Writers Festival

One reason I think family history is so important is how strongly it can connect us with recent events. It’s quite a human way of making history personal; somehow it’s easier (and perhaps a little narcissistically so) to feel a connection to something, a war, a diaspora, if that’s part of the story of where you came from.

Family Matters was a sold out session at the Auckland Writers Festival that welcomed the audience into a troubled past, made so real, and so close, by two incredible authors and the stories of their families’ survival.

Cover of 'Give us this day'Helena Wiśniewska Brow is the daughter of one of the Polish evacuees who came to New Zealand in 1944, and her book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile tells her father’s story alongside her own as she tries to find meaning from this exile.

Daniel Mendelsohn has won international awards for his book with this chilling title of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which tells Daniel’s story of uncovering the true story of the six family members that were lost during the Holocaust. While he was growing up, his older family members did not talk much about their lost relatives, and over the years his curiosity grew stronger and stronger about this ‘submerged continent’ of his own family mystery.

Cover of 'The Lost: a search for six of six million'The two books run parallel to each other, though the stories of their families during the Second World War are very different.

Daniel spoke of the danger that true events get buried under statistics and clichés as time passes. The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to comprehend, but to try and understand them by looking only at the numbers is wrong. To understand, Daniel wanted to find the true, specific stories of both the victims and the survivors.

“We have an ethical duty to restore to these people their own specificity.”

Daniel feels allergic to symbols, because “no one is symbolisable.” So many people died in so many different ways; the stories of one concentration camp cannot represent them all. He felt it was vitally important not to let these stories slip away, and as he interviewed the twelve surviving members of the town his family came from, he felt the pieces of his family’s puzzle begin to fall into place, and the lost members seemed to reanimate.

“Stories. There isn’t enough paper in the world to tell our stories.”

Food was such a vital part of many of these stories. Food is culture, culture is food. Helena told of her father’s escape from Poland, through forced labour in Siberia to refugee camps in Iran and finally to Wellington. Starvation was always present. By the time they reached Iran they had some food, and in New Zealand they were getting three meals a day, but starvation had rewired their brains, and the kids still hoarded bread under their beds, and raided food from nearby farms.

One survivor made Daniel wait an hour and a half in the middle of her interview while she cooked him a traditional dish:

“No one will ever cook this kind of food after I’m dead.”

At the end of the session there was some time for questions. One audience member asked the authors to describe the places and the cultures their families had come from before the war. “We were the first multiculturals,” Daniel said, telling us that his grandfather spoke seven languages, but this wasn’t unusual as there was such a vibrant, diverse cultural richness before the war.

After a long moment of thought, Helena summed it up in one simple, devastating sentence:

“For my father it was paradise, and now it’s gone.”