"When I came to this country as an 18-year old," Hegi reflects, "I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up, you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence." For this reason, when people asked Ursula Hegi where she was from, she used to wish she could answer Norway or Holland. Hegi soon discovered that it was impossible to leave behind one's origins. "The older I got, the more I realized that I am inescapably encumbered with the heritage of my country's history."
While her first two books, Intrusions, and Unlearned Pleasures and Other Stories, were set in the U.S., it was with her third book, Floating in My Mother's Palm, that Hegi took the important step of exploring her conflict over her cultural identity. As she explains: "My own acute discomfort at being German is very much at the core of my writing."
In Floating in My Mother's Palm, Hegi first introduces readers to the inhabitants of Burgdorf, a fictional German town loosely based on her hometown during the 1950s. With her "prequel," Stones from the River, Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf's characters, and the exploration of her own heritage, by including the several decades preceding World War II and its immediate aftermath.
Stones from the River is Hegi's attempt to understand the silence of towns throughout Germany that tolerated persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed. Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust to write the book. "It was an important part of my journey, of integrating the past within myself." She also asked to interview her aged godmother about the period, who, to her surprise, complied. Hegi is pleased that Stones from the River will be published in Germany next year.
She is currently at work on another Burgdorf-based novel, The Passion of Emma Blau, and a nonfiction work, Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America.
The winner of numerous honors and awards, including an NEA fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards, Hegi is an Associate Professor at Eastern Washington University where she teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her partner Gordon Gagliano and has two sons, ages 21 and 24.