Kathleen Balgley earned her Ph.D. in Literature from University of California, San Diego. During her academic career she was at different times Lecturer at UCLA Writing Programs, Associate Director of Writing at UCSD’s Sixth College, and tenured Associate Professor of English at California State University, San Luis Obispo. She was also fortunate to have taught a wide range of student audiences—Native American high school students from the Barona Reservation in the Grossmont School District in Lakeside, California; the children of farm workers at a high school in Encinitas, California; Polish university students during her Fulbright in that country; and at two community colleges, military personnel and adults with day jobs.
Writing and reading combined with moving frequently throughout the United States from her early childhood, honed Kathleen Kathleen’s habit of what she names in her current book, Letters to My Father: Excavating a Jewish Identity in Poland and Belarus, the habit of “noticing and remembering”. Particularly drawn in by the differences in language, ethnicity, historical influences and political attitudes, she began to focus on the power of place, writing in notebooks begun in adolescence. This fascination with place and its influence on people persisted as a theme in her writing and produced one of her doctoral qualifying essays, “Houses as Edifices of Values: Feminine Selfhood in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and E. M. Forster’s Howards End” in which she argues how place, even a house, can shape identity.
From very early in her life, Kathleen yearned to know her family’s stories, the family’s “places”. But her father’s veiling of his original birthplace, along with his Jewish identity, never ceased to both trouble her and fuel her drive to learn about his former world. Letters to My Father chronicles the journey begun in childhood to uncover the curtain over her father’s identity, the place he came from, and thus her own identity and origins.
The most significant turning point in Balgley’s career was her winning of the Fulbright award to teach in Poland. Letters to My Father relays vignettes of hardship, pleasure, ironies, and most of all, the learning– that Balgley experienced in that two-year period during the communist regime. Living in Poland provided her the opportunity to explore her father’s family origins and during that time took her to Israel to meet her heretofore unknown relatives. It was especially interesting that in her research on her Jewish family origins, she found so many visual artists among her relatives. The image of the painting on the cover of Letters to My Father is the work of Jacob Balgley (1891-1934) born in the same town as her father (Brześć or Brest, Poland—currently in Belarus). Determined to learn more about her extended family, many of whom had been annihilated in the Holocaust as records she found in archives attested, she followed the thread of Jacob Balgley’s descendants. Locating them in Germany having years before fled the Soviet Union, she is in regular contact with them currently: both women, mother and daughter, are, like their ancestor, Jacob, visual artists. Indeed, Letters to My Father treats a number of stories about the other family members Balgley was able to meet and befriend.
A dimension of Kathleen’s life which once again affirms her love affair with place are the two houses she and her husband renovated and lived in—one in Sant Joan, Mallorca, a one-hundred plus year old finca on five acres to which they have returned for thirty years. The other house in Bantry, West Cork, Ireland is a two-hundred year old farmhouse. Her next book, a collaboration with her husband’s drawings of the people and places of West Cork, will tell the story of how they came to be in that house in West Cork, every year since 1984.
Mother to author, actor, model, activist Emily Ratajkowski, Kathleen regards this experience as the most life-changing, and in the best of ways.
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