Kelcey Ervick’s Bitter Life: An Alternate Way to Present History

The beauty of readings is that, while you go in expecting to be entertained by a writer’s work, you can leave with a new perspective, or perhaps a better understanding, of how to improve your own writing. I had such an experience back on October 17, 2017, while listening to Kelcey Parker Ervick read samples from, and explain the process behind, her biography/memoir hybrid The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová (Rose Metal Press, 2016).

Ervick learned about Němcová while working on a different novel in Prague. Known by some as the “Mother of Czech Prose,” Němcová was fiercely independent and loathed to follow the societal standards for women at the time: get married, have kids, pour your energy into domesticity. She embodied the spirit that later, in America, became the Women’s Rights Movement. A visionary writer and thinker, Němcová is now celebrated in her home country, and Ervick took immediate interest in her.

Researching Němcová began as normal, with Ervick scouring resources and piecing together as much information as possible. But the scattershot sources, coupled with the fact that Ervich had minimal knowledge of the language, would make stringing together a standard, chronological biography very difficult. And so, in a stroke of brilliance, Ervick decided to approach her subject as more than a historian. The Bitter Life… collects the writings and personal letters of Němcová and other writers, along with collages, paintings, and the autobiographical writings of Ervick herself.

Listening to her describe the process, I was amazed at how natural the structure seemed. I, and most everyone else I know, am used to history as the simple recollection of names, dates, and events. At its worst, this approach reads like a boring textbook. At its best, it can be a gripping narrative. But Ervick has tapped into something far more organic, and far more comparable to how we experience the world. It’s rare that any information is handed to us on a platter. You do not meet a new person and ask them to recount their life, starting from birthplace. No, learning outside of a book is like a puzzle, where randomly selected facts are presented to you and, eventually, a portrait is formed.

Even more interesting was Ervick’s assertion that biographers shouldn’t attempt to distance themselves from their work. While learning about Němcová’s resentment towards marriage, and how she felt like a prisoner in her own life, Ervick discovered a deeply powerful parallel in her own feelings. She had married her high school sweetheart and, like her subject 150 years earlier, felt the walls of domesticity closing in. As Ervick writes, “150 summers later, her folktales lead another woman to happiness.” Studying Němcová was a journey of self-discovery, and Ervick wasn’t about to exclude that from her narrative.

Both The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová and Ervick’s reading style are refreshing in their candor. During the reading, Ervick talked about the difficulty of registering sensitive feelings in published writing, especially considering that others will almost certainly end up reading it. Evidently, Ervick found inspiration in her predecessor to put their fears or turmoil on the page. The book isn’t just about Němcová’s life, or even Ervick’s life, for that matter; it’s influenced by the structure of life itself, about how we learn about and process things, and about how a wake-up call can come from the most surprising places.

I probably won’t be trying to write a biography/memoir featuring my own art work any time soon (I don’t have any art work to begin with), but I now have a new perspective on writerly observation. It’s important to pay attention, not only to what is happening around us, but also to how—and in what manner—we learn about it.

Sam Keeling
English Department Ambassador