Ursula Hegi Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ursula Hegi (HEHG-ee), born Ursula Koch, grew up in postwar Germany, entrenched in the silence surrounding her country’s role in the Holocaust. After moving to the United States at the age of eighteen and becoming an American citizen at twenty-three, Hegi wrestled with her identity as a German-born American and her personal sense of shame in her heritage, themes she explores in much of her work. An acclaimed novelist, she has won more than thirty grants and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards.

The silence left after World War II characterized Hegi’s childhood. During the war, her father, Heinrich Koch, fought as a soldier on the Russian front while her mother, Johanna, stayed home to take care of her grandmother. Both parents discouraged questions regarding Germany’s history. Hegi read avidly as a young girl, devouring novels by Russian, German, and Jewish writers. Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952) touched her deeply, but her mother’s disapproval of the book, an account of an adolescent Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, only contributed to Hegi’s confusion surrounding Germany’s shameful role in the war. When Hegi was thirteen, her mother died from complications during a surgery, and her father attempted to escape his sorrows with alcohol.

Five years after her mother’s death, in 1965, her father’s alcoholism worsened, and at this time Hegi immigrated to the United States. She married Ernest Hegi, a management consultant and Vietnam War veteran, in 1967. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States three years later and had two sons, Eric and Adam. Living as a German in the United States gave Hegi a new perspective, which she used to examine her national and personal identity. She felt unable to resolve the shame she felt for the atrocities committed by her fellow Germans before her birth, causing her to wish strangers would mistake her to be Norwegian or Dutch.

Hegi loved to write, even as a child. When she was fourteen she hand-wrote half a novel in a notebook. After she arrived in the United States she tried writing and submitting her work for publication, but numerous rejection letters discouraged...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ursula Hegi was born Ursula Johanna Koch on May 23, 1946, in Düsseldorf, Germany, to Heinrich and Johanna Koch. She said that she became gradually aware of the world war that had just preceded her birth and even more gradually aware of the war’s Nazi regime. She said also that she learned more about that history after she left Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1965. Two years later, in 1967, she married Ernest Hegi, a management consultant. The couple had two sons, Eric and Adam. Hegi became a U.S. citizen in 1970. She and Ernest divorced in 1984.

Hegi earned a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and a master’s degree in 1979, both at the University of New Hampshire, where she lectured in English from 1978 to 1984. She then became a professor of creative writing at the University of Eastern Washington in Spokane. In 1997, she settled just outside New York City to live with her second husband, Gordon Gagliano.

Much of Hegi’s work derives from the pull of the two nations and cultures that has formed so much a part of her life: Germany and the United States. Her ties with Germany have never been broken, yet she has formed a strong bond with her new country. In 1994, she commented on this double allegiance: The older I get, the more I realize that we are connected with our country of origin, even if our values are totally different from the values that created that situation. Since I cannot turn my back on my country of origin, I need to try and understand it. For me, it’s been a journey of talking about and discovering and dealing with it, instead of leaving it behind.


(Novels for Students)

Ursula Hegi, author of Stones from the River and at least nine other books, was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 23, 1946. When...

(The entire section is 464 words.)