Sunday, November 26, 2006
ACCLAIMED DOUKHOBOR WRITER, VI PLOTNIKOFF, DEAD AT 68
My friend Vi died last week after a short but feisty battle with a brain tumour. She published a collection of linked short stories, "Head Cook At Weddings and Funerals and Other Stories of Doukhobor Life" in 1994 (Polestar Press) and was mere words away from completing a novel, known variously as "The Singing Woman", "Ghost Songs at the Brilliant Jam Factory", and "Oksinya's Song".
Her friend, and editor of Head Cook, Rita Moir, and I worked all week on tributes to her that appeared in the Nelson Daily News, the Federation of BC Writers' WordWorks magazine, and the Weekender, and we got up at her funeral and spoke on behalf of the writing community. Here's a picture of Rita and Vi and me on our way to the Nakusp Hot Springs after attending a weekend workshop in Nakusp in 2003.
I first met Vi on October 18, 1991, after a reading at the old Sub Pub on 10th Street in Nelson. I know the date because I’d gone to hear Dennis Denisoff, who had just published a novel, "Dog Years", and he wrote the date in the copy I bought. He'd grown up in the Kootenays and naturally a lot of people had come out to support him. After the reading everyone adjourned to the pub part of the building. I had come to the reading alone, had just started taking a creative writing class. At first, when I came in, I didn’t see anyone I knew. Maybe I’d just back out the door the way I came, that way I wouldn’t have to sit by myself. Maybe I’d stay, I could just stand over by the bar…and then an attractive blonde woman looked up and said, “Why don’t you join us?”
It was Vi, of course. We chatted over beer. She asked me if I was a writer, and after trying and failing to be evasive, I muttered something about writing a poem now and again and how I was taking a creative writing course with Tom Wayman and she said briskly, “So you’re a writer.” And that might have been one of the first times I believed it.
We ran into each other from time to time, mostly at readings, then at Federation of BC Writers’ events, maybe at one of the potlucks, and it was then I got to know her work, got to hear her read and tell stories. She was always a great one for stories.
I was in a writing group with Vi for the last 2 1/2 years. During that time four of us met every three weeks or so to exchange writing, drink tea by the gallon, nibble on whatever wonderful concoction the hostess had produced and have long philosophical conversations about everything from who made the short list for some award to the correct placement of a comma. The last time all of us met was at the beginning of September, at Vi's house, as it happened, and she was complaining of a headache. And now she's gone. Here's Vi and Denise Reed, at one of our get-togethers at my place.
Denise said, upon learning that Vi had died, that from now on she's going to include descriptions of food in everything she writes, in Vi's honour. When it came to describing food, Vi was a master. Everytime she brought an excerpt of her novel to the group, it contained at least one mouth-watering passage describing the jams bubbling away at the infamous factory, or the borsch someone was stirring, or vareshniki or pyrogi, dripping in butter and stuffed with cottage cheese or potato, or cakes so light they had to be nailed to the table so they wouldn't escape.
Phew! Was it good for you?
I knew she was a true kindred spirit when she arrived at one of our mini-conferences completely distraught because her cat had just died. She had a thing for animals. This picture was taken at Rita's place at one of the writing retreats she and Vi and Caroline Woodward used to hold. They'd take a vow of silence that began at breakfast. They'd work their pencil-holding, keyboard-tapping fingers to the bone all day, then at five the self-imposed silence would end, dinner prep would get under way, and wine would begin to flow. Vi loved those times, when writing was of paramount importance and for a little while, at least, other tugs on her time could be put aside.
It was a traditional funeral. Because we were going to be speaking, Rita and I sat near the front. I've heard Doukhobor choirs before, but this was the first time I found myself sitting in the middle of one. It was very moving. Later, when we went to the cemetery for the burial, this four-point buck appeared—materialized, really—about when the family was putting flowers on Vi's casket. It stopped to listen to the singing, then calmly wandered off into the woods from whence it came.
Then it was back to the Cultural Centre for lunch, lovingly prepared and served by the ladies who look after the borsch and other goodies that are staples of all celebratory Doukhobor events.
Here's Vi, reading at last year's Return to the Light fundraiser for Nelson's Kootenay School of Writing (an ad hoc group that's been organizing readings and sorting out Canada Council funding request forms for the last 23 years). The piece she read was about going to a high school reunion and how she was so looking forward to seeing one friend in particular, and how devastated she felt when she discovered that the friend had died.
So that's it. A life is done. She left behind a wonderful collection of short stories and a novel that is close to finished. She leaves her sisters, her aunt Vera, her husband of over four decades, two sons, their wives and their children—her grandchildren, about whom she aways had stories and of whom she was so very proud.
This last picture is another one of Rita's, taken on a snowy winter afternoon not unlike the one we had today. Vi was working on her novel. I'll miss her.