Women Asking Women: Judy LeBlanc and Sarah Ens

Our Women Asking Women series in honour of Women’s History Month kicks off with a candid interview between novelist Judy LeBlanc and poet Sarah Ens. Both of their recent books contend with three generations of women and their shared traumas: Acadians forced from home in LeBlanc’s novel The Broken Heart of Winter, and the displacement of Russian Mennonites in Ens’ collection Flyway.

Women asking Women: Judy LeBlanc and Sarah Ens. A "Best of the Blog 2023" seal is in the top-right corner.


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In honour of Women’s History Month, we asked women writers from across the country to pair up and interview each other on all kinds of things: their processes, their inspirations, their thoughts on WWW (writing while women). We can’t wait to share these conversations with you.

Interview: Judy LeBlanc (The Broken Heart of Winter, Caitlin Press) 
and Sarah Ens (Flyway, Turnstone Press)

Judy LeBlanc: What compelled you to write about your family story in Flyway? Was there a single incident, a particular story passed down or was it something you always felt driven to do?

Sarah Ens: Growing up, my Oma’s refugee story — and the larger Mennonite story of displacement — shaped my sense of self, family, and place in the world. My family’s retellings cemented this idea that I’d inherited at least some of my Oma’s courage, that I could claim membership to a people who suffered and survived. The story told most often was that of my Oma, her mother, and little sister bicycling into a displaced persons camp in Allied-occupied Germany after WWII. The triumphant punchline to the story was that they brought with them only three things: homemade wine to bribe the border guards, an accordion, and their sewing machine. The story meant resilience, it meant pride in art and culture and music, it meant stubborn resistance and outlandish determination. I loved it.

As an adult, I returned to my Oma’s story. I was learning more about Mennonite history and realized that I knew very little of my Oma’s experiences before, during, and after the war. I felt drawn to pay attention to the unspoken parts of her narrative. I also wanted to place my family’s story within its larger context: the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands in Europe and North America due to Mennonite migration and resettlement.

Sarah Ens: What inspired you to tell a story spanning three generations? What did you learn about the inheritance of trauma and healing, or intergenerational memory, through writing this novel?

Judy LeBlanc: I’m interested in how the past links to the present, how we can find the origins of family patterns in catastrophic historical events. In setting out to write this book, I wondered how the Acadian expulsion of 1755 might play itself out in the life of a descendant who lives in the early part of the twenty-first century. To explore this adequately, I needed her story to stand beside those of her two ancestors, one who’d survived the expulsion, and one who belonged to the first-generation post-expulsion. In between these individual stories there are several generations of silence. To “not talk about it,” is a characteristic of intergenerational trauma, and in this way histories get erased. My contemporary character’s ignorance of family history is not unlike my own was until I began the research for my book.

My grandfather was the last to speak French in our family, and despite a French name, I grew up on the very Anglo west coast. My father moved from Nova Scotia with his family when he was a teenager, and the little knowledge he had of his Acadian ancestry was detached from any personal connection to the culture. My contemporary protagonist’s estrangement from her son as well as her alienation from mainstream society, while self-imposed, might be described as a re-enactment of the trauma of exile experienced by her Acadian ancestors. My book is fictional, however, the more I imagined my characters into the violence of the expulsion the more echoes I identified within my own family of origin. In the way that uncovering histories can heal intergenerational trauma, when the fictional estranged son becomes interested in his ancestral roots, the relationship between mother and son begins to reconcile.

Judy LeBlanc: Through researching and writing my book The Broken Heart of Winter, I wanted to explore the patterns of behaviour that pass down through families, particularly after catastrophic traumatic events such as the Acadian expulsion or the Mennonite diaspora. I began to wonder if there was such a thing as a mind of exile and dislocation, a way of seeing the world. What are your thoughts on this?

Sarah Ens: When working on Flyway, I became really interested in the psychological structures at the foundation of Mennonite colonies in Ukraine, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. How did intergenerational trauma—unexpressed or upheld as righteous martyrdom—present itself in these communities of people who wanted to live separate from the world, left alone to practice their faith. I was thinking especially of the Mennonite women and children refugees of the post-WWII migration to Canada arriving in communities made up of earlier generations of refugees. The Canadian Mennonite church leaders, in some cases, made these women repent for the sexual violence they had experienced during and after the war. I wonder if a mind of exile and dislocation is more prone to exercise whatever control it can wield in attempts to claim and recreate a sense of home.

Sarah Ens: Why did you want to write about the Acadian expulsion? Why was it important to tell this story of survival through women’s stories?

Judy LeBlanc: The story of the Acadian expulsion isn’t commonly known, particularly in English-speaking Canada. What is known tends to focus on those who were deported to the Eastern seaboard including some who eventually made their way to Louisiana. I was interested in those in my family line who escaped capture by the British and went north into what is now New Brunswick. As fugitives, they suffered great hardships for several years before returning to the former Acadia.

I wanted to tell this story in the voices of women because their stories tend to be underrepresented in historical accounts. Renowned Acadian genealogist Stephen White told me that in his experience women “talking around the kitchen table” proved to be the best historians. This confirmed for me that women had to tell my story, and that it would be a story about those who mattered most to them, about family.

Judy LeBlanc: We both chose to write from the perspectives of women. The answer as to why seems somewhat obvious, but more specifically, I’m wondering if you had thoughts on how historical events impact women differently, and if this guided you in your writing.

Sarah Ens: I was trying to find the words to ask you a very similar question! And I’m not sure if I’m able to really answer it. Definitely, historical events impact men and women differently. Gendered violence, for example, has been part of every historical event, but often is not the focus. Something I think a lot about — while imagining my Oma teaching her younger siblings how to make traditional Mennonite food or my great-grandmother carrying an accordion across the border on her back — is the role of women as knowledge keepers and the particular ways women transmit and preserve cultural identity. We still primarily learn about the lives of important men and their important decisions when talking about historical events and I’m excited about narratives — like your novel — that emphasize the importance of women’s voices and experiences.

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Judy LeBlanc is a writer from Fanny Bay, BC. Several of her stories and essays have been published in Canadian literary journals, and a collection of her short stories, The Promise of Water, was published by Oolichan Books in 2017. She won the Sheldon Currie Fiction prize in 2012, the Islands Fiction contest in 2015, and she’s been a runner-up for fiction contests with Room, PRISM international, and the CBC. Though she was born and raised on the west coast, she has Acadian ancestry on her father’s side. She was the founder of the Fat Oyster Reading Series in Fanny Bay and taught creative writing at North Island College for several years.

Sarah Ens grew up in Treaty 1 territory (Landmark, Manitoba) and is currently a writer and editor based in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan). Her poetry has appeared in literary journals such as Prairie Fire, Arc Poetry Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, and SAD Mag. Sarah is a current MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Many thanks to Judy and Sarah for their incisive questions and candid answers!

Catch up on the Women Asking Women series so far: