Mass. writer with brain injury wins national award

NEW SALEM, Mass. (AP) — Despite living with a brain injury that has left Mira Bartok with memory loss, the New Salem author has won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, "The Memory Palace: A Memoir."

Bartok said she was completely surprised, very honored and thought for a second that a mistake had been made when she learned she had been nominated for the national award.

She said when the NBCC announced her the winner in the autobiography category at an awards ceremony in New York City, she felt surprise all over again.

The NBCC honors outstanding writing each year and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature.

"I did not expect to get it and so I was unprepared to speak," said Bartok, who attended the awards ceremony earlier this month. "I even forgot to thank my sister, I was so flabbergasted."

"The Memory Palace" is a memoir that not only tells the story of Bartok, her sister and their schizophrenic mother, but explains the neuroscience of memory, because the author wrote her memoir after experiencing a traumatic brain injury about a decade ago.

Bartok was the passenger in a car that had stopped at a construction site on the New York Thruway when an 18-wheeler plowed into her car.

"My head was down because I was looking for music," said Bartok. "I didn't see what was coming. I wasn't knocked out for long, but I sustained a traumatic brain injury that involved microscopic bleeding in my brain."

Several years after her accident, Bartok learned her mother was dying in a Cleveland, Ohio hospital of advanced-stage stomach cancer.

She said she knew she had to spend her mother's final days with her, even though they had been estranged for the 17 years prior — the only contact the two had had was letters they sent back and forth to post office boxes.

Bartok's mother died in 2007 and she said she "wrote like crazy" for the next six months. She said she wasn't sure when she started that she'd have the capacity to write a memoir. She said she wasn't sure how much she would remember about her past or present. She was having trouble remembering what she wrote from one day to the next. Then she read about Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest, who taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace.

"I decided to use some of his ways in my writing," she said.

Ricci developed the "Method of Loci," which is also commonly called the "mental walk," a method of memory enhancement, which uses visualization to organize and recall large amounts of information. Many memory contest champions claim to use the technique to recall faces, digits and lists. It has less to do with brain structure or intelligence and more to do with using regions of the brain that have to do with spatial learning.

Using that technique, Bartok said, she would imagine the layout of a building or arrangement of shops on a street or objects within a room. She would then memorize links to things she wanted to remember. For example, she might place something in each room of a house. To retrieve a memory, she would then take an imaginary journey through the house, each room, or "loci," acting as a memory peg for her, each with a meaning she had given it previously. For instance, the kitchen might remind her of an event or the living room might remind her of a person.

"The book itself became a palace," she said. "An entire chapter would circle around an event. By the end, I put all of the images together and had a giant palace."

Bartok said she felt very humbled and grateful when her memoir was chosen by the NBCC.

"This is a very important literary award and the other finalists are all such phenomenal writers," said Bartok, whose book has been described as "a breathtaking literary memoir about the complex meaning of love, truth, and the capacity for forgiveness among family."

Bartok also illustrated the book, which was released Jan. 11, 2011. The 305-page memoir was published by Simon and Schuster.

Since it was published, Bartok has traveled to numerous book signings across the country.

When The Recorder spoke with her via email this past week, she was away at a writers retreat.

Bartok said she never dreamed that the book would win such a prestigious award. She said she is not sure why it is so popular.

"I think part of the reason is that it touches on so many issues — homelessness, mental illness, brain surgery, grief, mother-daughter relationships, death and dying, coming of age, the transcendence of art, and so on," said Bartok.

The New Salem author who was born in Chicago and grew up in Cleveland, said she is currently illustrating a young adult novel in collaboration with local children's author Jane Yolen.

She is also working on some "little radio essays" for New England Public Radio.

Bartok said she has another "secret project" in the making, which will take a long time to complete.

"Stay tuned," she said.

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