Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 her. She stopped writing until she enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, where she received a B.A. in 1978 and an M.A. in 1979. During her time in the university she committed herself to raising her two young boys and writing, determined to persist—even faced with the possibility that no one would ever see her work. With this attitude, the words came to her easily, and she published her first novel, Intrusions, in 1981.
In 1984, Hegi and her husband divorced. She began working on Floating in My Mother’s Palm, which introduces the character Trudi Montag and the fictional town of Burgdorf, based on her own small German town near Düsseldorf. Although this novel takes place in Germany, Hegi’s intentions in writing were to explore truths in the lives of her characters rather than issue political beliefs. Not until she went back to Germany for the first time in 1986 did Hegi begin to reconcile her feelings for her homeland, understanding she could love Germany despite her hatred for its past. She eventually learned to view her affiliation with her homeland as only one aspect of her identity, referring to herself as “a writer, a woman, a lover, a swimmer, a parent, a German-born American, a member of a women’s group.”
With her novel Stones from the River, Hegi made her way into the public eye. The novel explores a war-torn Germany, entering the lives of both Jewish and non-Jewish characters. She revisits characters and places from Floating in My Mother’s Palm, using the dwarf Trudi Montag as her protagonist—a marginalized figure rendered invisible because of her unusual size. It is this invisibility that grants Trudi the power to act positively, even in the face of the Holocaust. Hegi weaves Stones from the River with the themes she had employed in her earlier works: belonging, displacement, discrimination, shame, and silence. She was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Stones from the River in 1994 and found popular success in 1997 when the book was chosen for television talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
While some critics have dismissed Hegi as writing formulaic, soap-opera-like plots, others have praised her lack of sentimentality and sensationalism. In her native Germany, her books have received mixed reviews. Tearing the Silence: Being German in America, Hegi’s nonfictional effort to discuss the Holocaust with other German Americans in the form of personal narratives, was well received in Germany. Stones from the River, on the other hand, was met with lukewarm success in her homeland. Because she lived so many years in the United States, German readers accused her of being too distant from her past to write effectively about Germany.
Hegi worked as a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, in the late 1970’s, and later as an associate professor of creative writing and contemporary literature at the University of Eastern Washington. After many years in Nine Mile Falls, a small town outside Spokane, Washington, Hegi and her partner, Gordon Gagliano, moved to New York in 1999. A devoted writer, Hegi has been known to revise her work fifty to one hundred times in order to delve more deeply into the lives of the people she invents. She attempts to immerse herself in her characters, so that when she finishes her work, their stories become her experience, and she emerges changed.