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Animal natures
December 2015 | Profile by Jane Ledwell

Orysia Dawydiak (photo: Buzz)“I read pretty widely, but I don’t ever read enough.” Author Orysia Dawydiak expresses the common experience of book-lovers everywhere. She has more time for reading -- and for writing -- these past few years, since retiring from work at the Atlantic Veterinary College to a self-directed farm life surrounded by sheep and dogs. And what applies to Orysia’s reading applies just as well to her writing: “I read to learn about people around the world, to take myself out of the small world I live in in North America and the West,” Orysia says. “I love to put myself in other people’s and critters’ shoes.”

In her books for young people, Kira’s Secret and the recent sequel Kira’s Quest, Orysia explores human psychology but also an undersea world of real and imagined sea life. “When I was a very young child, when I first learned to read, I first started to write to entertain myself,” Orysia says. She started the Kira trilogy inspired by her niece and reconnected with her own inner child, “the girl still in there who loves fantasy and science fiction, underlaid or overlaid – I’m not sure which – with what I know of the world as an adult and my fascination with the attitude we have as humans towards the natural environment and to sea life.”

Orysia says, “My background is in zoology, and I love understanding animals and how they cope in the world, how we’re different and how we’re the same… I also hope kids enjoy reading it without feeling they are being ‘educated.’”

Orysia’s first published book, House of Bears, was written for adults and explores in fictional form her family’s Ukrainian heritage and a story of “immigrant parents struggling for survival.” She says, “House of Bears was a project I was compelled to do since I was a young adult… I was trying to understand my mother, so I dug into her life experiences and psychology, for myself to make sense of my family history, and especially of war.”

She recalls, “I learned about war trauma at my grandmother’s knee. When I was just three or four, she described experiences from World War II that I never should have heard. I have pictures in my brain I will never be able to erase. She had shrapnel in her leg from English bombs falling on the German farm where she was working as slave labour… Trauma goes on through the generations.”

Other projects Orysia is working on include a final book in the Kira trilogy, set five years later than the first two books. She also has completed a book for young readers about a Dutch girl and her dog on a PEI dairy farm. Rika’s Shepherd has “no vampires and no zombies, but there’s trauma,” she says. “No fantasy – except ghosts, and that’s not fantasy. That’s part of who we are,” she smiles. “A lot is from my experience with dogs and life and death.”

She is also writing a memoir, but not of her own life – instead, it is the life of a beloved dog, Akkush, who “started life in Turkey and ended his life with us.” Orysia found herself “taking down notes for him since he couldn’t write it down.” Writing Akkush’s memoir helps Orysia to remember events in her own life, she says. And accessing memories is something she does not take for granted since her father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s.

“Animals may not have the complexity that sometimes I think burdens us,” she says. “Living with them and near them taught me more empathy than I had before. I understood things about myself – sometimes things I didn’t like… But we made it up and moved on. Animals are very forgiving.”

Orysia has also pursued visual art, but, she says, “There is only so much time, and writing is what gives me the most joy. It is what really feeds my soul – and it doesn’t matter what I write, but it’s double the fun when I write something people really enjoy.

“I need to feel inspired to write something,” Orysia says, adding, “I don’t want it to feel like homework.” She is encouraged by her writing group, the “WWW” – initials which, she says, “can mean a lot of things.” She has met with these fellow women writers for over ten years now. “We all know that we’re there for each other, for just the reaffirmation that what we’re all doing is worthwhile, that it’s okay to take the time away from the nitty-gritties of life… They’re like sisters. I never had sisters, but I chose them.”

Orysia says, “I’m easily distracted by the voice that says, or my mother who says, ‘Why do you bother doing that?’ … But I’ll fight it right to the end. There’s always something that slows us down, that takes us away from what nourishes and feeds us,” Orysia says.

Over Christmas, her reading and writing will overlap as she enjoys the new anthology of Christmas stories, Snow Softly Falling, which includes a story from her and many other stories she has yet to read. “I think it’s going to be a fantastic book for the season,” she says. “It will be sitting by my bed.”

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