During Dr. Kathleen Venema’s 19 years as an associate professor for the University of Winnipeg’s English department, her scholarly work shifted significantly. Now, Venema is focused on the intersection of written letters and illness narratives.
“In terms of my scholarly work, I started out very much focused on Canadian literature and early Canadian literature, specifically,” she says.
As part of her work, Venema examined letters written by women during significant points in history, including letters exchanged by women affiliated with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Eventually, Venema’s interest transferred to contemporary correspondence between women, especially with letters concerning illness.
This change was meaningful for Venema, particularly due to her mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Venema went from reading historical letters of women writing to their loved ones to more contemporary versions of these exchanges. According to Venema, a lot of the contemporary letters she read were illness narratives.
While reading, Venema tried “to get a sense of how … people who are struggling with illnesses write about these things.”
“That development really shifted my own writing focus, too. I realized that my mom and I had this cache of letters that we had saved from the 1980s,” Venema says.
From this collection of letters, Venema developed a project she calls a “critical memoir.” Published two years ago, Bird-Bent Grass is based on Venema and her mother’s time together.
Venema’s work continues to focus on illness and disability narratives as she slowly eases into returning to teaching after (ironically) being on long-term disability herself.
What is something you’ve learned from your students?
“Every student has an interesting story to tell.”
What was your worst grade in university?
“I think it was a B, which sounds so dorky!”
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
“Be invisible, go back in time and really be able to get right up close to other people and experience how they’re experiencing their world, a little bit like what novelists do.”
What do you like to do in your free time?
“Hang out with my granddaughters.”
What’s your favourite memory with your mother?
“That’s hard, to pick one. In general terms, I would say we did a lot of walking together, while she still could.”