Where the World Was by Rosemary Sullivan

Rosemary Sullivan, a retired University of Toronto English professor and prominent biographer (Elizabeth Smart, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Svetlana Alliluyeva AKA Stalin’s daughter) “has at long last written a book about herself.” At least, that’s what the marketing material says.

“Sullivan has led a full life, this is clear, but she keeps the focus on others in this book.”

Sullivan herself calls it her life quest to “meet the world, to celebrate its richness, to face its darkness.” This claim is closer to the point. Sullivan’s memoir is not titled, Where I Was. No, the focus here remains outward. Through her writing, Sullivan has engaged deeply in the big themes of her time. She takes readers around the globe and tells of her encounters with key figures and locations of many of the past century’s epochs.

Sullivan tells us some of the key facts of her life. We learn she had an early marriage that ended. She provides some background about her Irish immigrant family to Canada and her childhood. But she does not present a tale of psychological struggle or effort to overcome childhood trauma. This is not the story of a character seeking definition over time. Sullivan’s song of herself is remarkably low-key and persistent over decades.

Sullivan lands a professional career, and she expands upon it with adventurous writing assignments. She takes us to Chile, Prague, Russia, India, Cuba, Spain, England, Egypt, Mexico, France, and the B.C. gulf islands. The book includes profiles and engagements with Stalin’s daughter, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Smart, Robert Capa, Fred Stein, Leonora Carrington, and Christopher Columbus.

Throughout, Sullivan is the cipher through which we filter these visions of the past, people, and places, which are often connected to key conflicts of the 20th century. Sullivan’s world swirls with historical influences: World War II, international Communism, South American dictators, artists displaced by war, Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Everywhere she goes she attempts to contextualize, explain, and make meaning out of fragments, skills that made her a powerful biographer.

Memoir is necessarily about the past, but this one seems to construct almost a way of being. Sullivan has led a full life, this is clear, but she keeps the focus on others in this book. What is important, she seems to say, is to be a witness to your time. To dedicate yourself to the stories of others and to locate yourself accurately in your place and time. In the era of selfies and “influencers,” this message is a rare and important counterbalance and reminder that has more than earned its due.

Rosemary Sullivan is the bestselling author of 16 books of biography, memoir, poetry, travelogue, and short fiction. Her books include Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwenVilla Air-Bel: World War IIEscape and a House in Marseille, and Stalin’s Daughter. Sullivan has worked with Amnesty International since 1979. In 1980 she founded The Writer and Human Rights to aid its activities. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2012.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Sept. 19 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773102818
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773102818