Ana Siljak loves a good story. That’s why she tries to make them part of her lectures. "I find that it’s a good way to engage students," she says. "It’s not always easy, but I try to incorporate stories into every lecture. It helps to engage in a way that I couldn’t otherwise."
And so it should come as no surprise that Siljak was recognized in 2009 for her storytelling skills. Siljak – who teaches Russian and European History at Queen’s – was a finalist for the 2009 Charles Taylor Prize, Canada’s top award for literary non-fiction.
Her book, Angel of Vengeance,is a biography of Vera Zasulich, "Russia’s first female terrorist". Not surprisingly, Siljak says her fascination with Zasulich was all about the story. "The sheer drama of the narrative is what drew me to her," she says.
A noblewoman- turned- radical who left home at 17, Zasulich vaulted into the public eye when she tried to assassinate the governor of St. Petersburg. What resulted was the trial of the 19th century – a magnet for media attention, not just in Russia, but across Europe and in North America as well. "I was surprised to learn how famous she was," Siljak says. "People don’t remember her now, but I found newspaper articles about the trial in The New York Timesand The Globe & Mail."
Siljak was drawn to the spectacle of the trial and fuelled by a desire to delve deeper into the story. "I wanted to write about the events," she says, "but I also wanted to set the stage for them. She was an unlikely assassin. I wanted to understand her psychology. What leads a privileged child to throw it all away and live in the underground?"
The answer, Siljak learned, lay not merely in Zasulich, but in the society she lived in. "Vera was a fantastic prism to view Russian culture through," Siljak explains. "She was a symbol of her time." Siljak conceived of the project after finishing her doctorate at Harvard, but it came together at Queen’s. With a full teaching load, she had to stretch to find time to write the book. "I thought it would be simple to write," she says, "but it became more complicated. There were so many side stories I wanted to explore." Many of those stories necessitated trips to Russia to research both the narrative, and the rich period detail that critics say lends depth and authenticity to the book.
While Angel of Vengeance has enjoyed critical acclaim, Siljak knows that it’s not a favourite of those purists who prefer their history with minimal embellishment. "There’s a school of thought that says that unnecessary detail is a distraction," she says. "The reason I wrote a narrative is that I wanted to talk about things that would have been a distraction in an academic work. I wanted to talk about the food and the trees and the literature."
She was pleased to discover that all three of the Taylor Prize nominees wrote narrative books. "The expectations are to write an academic book," Siljak says. "And obviously there’s a need for theoretical work. But I think narrative non-fiction is making a comeback. There will always be a place for a good story."