Naomi K. Lewis

Tiny Lights for travellers

by Samantha Bacchus McLeod

Naomi K. Lewis’s latest novel to travel the realm of bookstores across Canada is called Tiny Lights for Travellers. Emotional, endearingly-neurotic, funny, profound, and told with the mastery of a true literary writer, Tiny Light for Travellers is one of the most relatable books I have ever had the pleasure to read.

“Naomi K. Lewis has been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award in the nonfiction category for Tiny Lights for Travellers, a memoir that finds her retracing her grandfather’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands while exploring her own identity.”The Calgary Herald

Naomi K. Lewis lives and breathes the literary world, her accolades are impressive. She holds degrees in philosophy and English literature, she writes, teaches creative writing, edits popular and academic writing, and ghostwrites. She has also served as writer-in-residence at the Calgary Public Library, and at the University of New Brunswick. Naomi was also an associate editor at Alberta Views magazine from 2012 to 2015.

Naomi is a born writer, a born listener, an honest-to-goodness storyteller. She absorbs life around her, like an insatiable sponge does water, and like a wrung sponge, knowledge pours out of her mind to saturate her pages with stories within stories, to be remembered and kept for what they are, indelible gems.

Tiny Lights for Travellers by Naomi K. Lewis

‘When her marriage suddenly ends, and a diary documenting her beloved Opa’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands is discovered, Naomi Lewis decides to retrace her grandfather’s journey to freedom. Travelling alone from Amsterdam to Lyon, she discovers family secrets and her own narrative as a second-generation Jewish Canadian. With vulnerability, humour, and wisdom, Lewis’s memoir asks tough questions about her identity as a secular Jew, the accuracy of her family stories, and the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent generations.’

The author did not invite me into the book, Tiny Lights for Travellers, instead I was literally pulled in and held captive within her mind and soul as she took me on this personal journey of heartbreaking hellos and goodbyes, and the ultimate power of finding freedom in letting go.

The first entry, taken from her grandfather’s (Josua van Embden) journal, resonates:
‘In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-two, when brute barbaric violence and injustice reigned over the greater part of Europe, I was one of the hundreds – if not thousands – who by a secret escape fled the violence and injustice which directly threatened their lives. What follows here is a short chronicle of that pilgrimage to safer places.’

Naomi wrote this book to the ultimate power of her grandpa. She traced his journey, exactly 73 years to the day he began his journey, and just like her Opa, she learnt to frame the past, in order to embrace the next phase of her life.

This book is a balancing act of depth, truth as we face it, and enough humour to stay the course. This is a book that can be read through many lens – The Holocaust, Feminism Today, Travel, Being Other, Self After Divorce, and much more.

Tiny Lights for Travellers taps into every topic that is most relevant to the young people of today, and yet it ties right back to a time of yesterday. Naomi breaks the mould in this book about being a woman of Jewish descent, who was never taught how to be Jewish.

Tiny Lights for Travellers is about finding one’s identity. It is about questioning religion and race. It is about being a woman traveller, travelling alone. It is about meeting the past in order to greet the future. It is about feminism. it is about a man’s quest to survive. It is about survivors’ guilt and forgiveness. It is about losing one part of self in order to meet the whole self. It is about broken trust, and being brave enough to find love again. It is about the inherent strength of what it takes to be a woman.

Emotional, endearingly-neurotic, funny, profound, and told with the mastery of a true literary writer, Tiny Light for Travellers is one of the most relatable books I have ever had the pleasure to read. This book of loss and triumph, of learning to live with loss, of hellos and letting go, of finding love again, spoke to my woman’s soul. I admired the humble strength of the two main voices, for them hope is not a bright light, but a faint flicker where they aimed themselves in that direction and kept going with firm resolve to “get to the other side”. Beautiful, lyrical, intelligent, so bloody intelligent. I was in awe of Naomi K. Lewis’s powerful storytelling.

In Tiny Lights for Travellers, Naomi K. Lewis alludes to being an uncool person, and yet she appears to be the coolest person in her honest sense of self and style. Naomi’s humbleness – in the true sense of the word – makes her a truly great human being, and one of the most intelligent writers in the world of literary works.

All images courtesy of Naomi K. Lewis.

Works by Naomi K. Lewis:

  • Cricket in a Fist”, was published by Goose Lane Editions in 2008. Cricket in a Fist follows two sisters searching for their mother, who has left the family to start a self-help movement called “willing amnesia.”
  • “The Guiding Light” won the 2007 Fiddlehead fiction contest and appeared in McClelland and Stewart’s 2008 Journey Prize Anthology.
  • Collection: “I Know Who You Remind Me Of” won the 2012 Colophon Prize, which the publisher Enfield & Wizenty awards to the best unpublished manuscript with “literary and commercial appeal.” The book’s eight short stories and one novella follow characters haunted by long-ago decisions, loves and grudges — a grad student who impersonated a high school classmate in Internet pornography, a man who gave his eyeball to a former lover, a woman bent on finally outdoing her sister by skydiving from space.
  • “The Urge to Purge” about detox diets, was shortlisted for a 2011 Canadian National Magazine Award, as was her 2014 article
  • “A Bridge Too Far: The Story of My Big Jewish Nose.”
  • With Calgary writer Rona Altrows, she edited an anthology of essays and poetry about shyness. Shy was published by the University of Alberta Press.
  • Lewis co-wrote In Case of Fire, the bestselling 2010 memoir about Edmonton burn survivor and workplace safety advocate Spencer Beach. “In Case of Fire” recounts Beach’s youth, focusing on the attitudes he believes led him to the workplace fire that almost killed him; his years-long recovery; and his resolve to rebuild himself as a professional speaker, with the aim of helping other workers avoid preventable workplace accidents.
  • Naomi’s memoir “Tiny Lights for Travellers” is a finalist for the prestigious 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

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