Writers from Ukraine descend on Toronto for two literary events
by Andrij Kudla Wynnyckyj
Toronto Press Bureau
TORONTO - In the space of a fortnight, two wings of Ukraine's literary beast descended on Ontario's provincial capital.
First, Ivano-Frankivsk-born-writer Yuri Andrukhovych, representing the western Ukrainian wing, took part in this year's prestigious International Harbourfront Author's Festival.
Then authors Solomea Pavlychko and Oksana Zabuzhko, both based in Kyiv, arrived to take part in the launching of the anthology of Ukrainian Canadian and Ukrainian prose in translation, "Two Lands: New Visions," co-edited by Ukrainian Canadian writer and scholar Janice Kulyk Keefer, published by the Regina, Saskatchewan-based Coteau Books.
Mr. Andrukhovych's presence also helped to promote an English translation of his novel, "Recreations," published this year by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.
A gracious provocateur
Mr. Andrukhovych, a member of the Bu-Ba-Bu triad of Ukrainian neo-Dadaists together with Viktor Neborak and Oleksander Irvanets, was accorded two events at the author's festival. The first, an informal public "dialogue," with University of Toronto's Prof. Sam Solecki acting as the host, took place on October 24, 1998.
Prof. Solecki, a lecturer in English literature but also well versed in the Eastern European literary scene, was an excellent choice of interlocutors, as he matched his guest's acerbic humor. Right off the top, Prof. Solecki quipped that he was "tempted to cause a multicultural scandal by conducting the interview in Polish." The Toronto-based scholar averred that it was always a pleasure to meet a member of what Czech exiled author Milan Kundera called "the literatures under threat."
The interviewer asked whether the writer's experience of the West mirrored that of a Polish writer who marvelled at the contrast to his home country's grayness. Mr. Andrukhovych said that such perceptions are probably outdated now that the Iron Curtain has been lifted and Eastern Europe has become more open to the West and its influence, but admitted that after only three days in Toronto, he was struck by the variety of its people. "The entire planet lives here. It's a source of great joy to see the world's various faces; this city truly does have a multicultural essence."
He said that in Eastern Europe "the U.S. is the embodiment of the future; the place where something better is attained," but since for many it is unattainable, this wars with a whimsical suspicion that "the North American continent doesn't exist - there's simply an agreement among people who say 'We've been to America.' They invariably mention the skyscrapers and Niagara Falls."
Asked which writers influenced him, Mr. Andrukhovych mentioned, to the Torontonian interviewer's surprise, turn-of-the-century realist Thomas Wolfe (author of "Look Homeward Angel"). Prof. Solecki said, "You've written what appears to be an archetypal post-modern novel; it's surrealist, if anything." To which the Lviv-based author rejoined: "I'm glad you say that, because it suggests I've become independent; after all, I first read Wolfe when I was 16, and I wrote 'Recreations' when I was 30."
Mr. Andrukhovych also alluded to Pavlo Tychyna ("An extraordinarily tragic figure who was unable to resist the pressure of the Stalinist regime and was transformed into a graphomaniac") and Bohdan Ihor Antonych ("He lived only 27 years and yet left a deep mystical and mysterious mark on Ukrainian poetry").
Mr. Andrukhovych said his generation of writers was very fortunate to emerge when it did, just before the Soviet Union fell apart. "Freedom under Gorbachev was not complete, and thus not overwhelming. We discovered freedom in ourselves, at our own pace."
Had the USSR continued to exist, the novelist said, "we likely would not have become collaborators, but it's equally doubtful that we would have become dissidents or overtly anti-regime."
Prof. Solecki picked up on this thread and asked if the author rejects politics. Mr. Andrukhovych replied: "Actually, I'm interested in politics, but I try to be very careful when politics threatens to influence my work. When I wrote 'Recreations' in 1990, I was taking part in the formation of Rukh, and this appears in the novel, but I mainly wanted to show what I found funny in that movement, and what I believed actually undermined and discredited it."
Prof. Solecki quoted critic George Steiner who, while deploring the USSR, said that the serious attitude to culture, both by the regime and by people at large, had been lost. "Is there anything of value that was lost with the USSR?" the interviewer asked.
Mr. Andrukhovych replied: "I don't believe in any cultural or spiritual values that have to be defended by tanks and dogs," adding that both in the West and in former Soviet countries there is a "bizarre nostalgia" for the regime. At the same time, he said that the period since 1991 has been paradoxical - "On one hand, total collapse [in the cultural sphere], on the other, total flowering."
He mentioned that "you have to live there [in Ukraine], you have to rid yourself of pre-conceived notions of what a functioning cultural environment is." Mr. Andrukhovych also said the opportunities of meeting writers from the Ukrainian diaspora is stimulating, and mentioned members of the New York Group of Poets, including Bohdan Boychuk, Bohdan Rubchak and Yuriy Tarnawsky.
During the "dialogue," University of Toronto doctoral student Marko Andryczyk (a chronicler of some of Mr. Andrukhovych's activities for The Weekly), acted as interpreter for a demanding audience. It seemed that the audience needed an interpreter much less than Prof. Solecki did, and the frequent flow of corrections to the stage prompted the interviewer to congratulate the Philadelphia native "for an excellent job of interpreting in a room full of interpreters."
For his second appearance, at the Harbourfront's Toronto Dance Theater Main Stage on October 27, Mr. Andrukhovych chose to eschew his native language and benefit from the English translation of "Recreations" prepared by Australian scholar Marko Pavlyshyn.
The author read a passage describing a dinner scene in which writers and artists gather at a restaurant, with an unctuous KGB-type festival organizer in tow. His rich accent gave the reading a Chaucerian flavor, which supplemented the writer's playfully wry style with the additional charm of distended dipthongs and exaggerated "r's"
Thus, the narrative's hilarious parodies and carnivalesque proceedings were spiced up with phrases such as "from the kee-tchen pr-r-roceeded gr-r-reat ar-r-rmeeez of schnyee-tzels."
Mr. Andrukhovych shared the bill with critically acclaimed U.S. novelist Jim Harrison.
Bond across the pond
On November 1, 1998, the new downtown flagship of Chapters' Bookstores served as the venue for the Toronto launch of an anthology of short stories from both sides of the Atlantic, "Two Lands, New Visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine." Both co-editors, Kyiv-based Ms. Pavlychko and Guelph University's Prof. Keefer, were on hand, as were a brace of the collection's 20 authors.
Prof. Keefer, who has a wide range of short stories and novels to her credit, as well as several monographs on Canadian literature, started off the proceedings with a note of thanks to Geoffrey Ursell, the general editor, who came to her with the idea of bringing together writers from the two countries. She also thanked the god of technology, who made communications with her counterpart across the big pond easier. "Thank God for e-mail," the editor said.
"There has always been a yearning for contact with the ancestral homeland," Prof. Keefer said, adding that the collection was a testament to the solidity of these ties. She expressed her regret that it was limited to 10 stories from each country.
She also expressed her graditude to the translators, husband and wife team Marta Horban and Marco Carynnyk, to the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and to the Kyiv-based Osnova Publishers.
Ms. Pavlychko mentioned that the anthology had been conceived in a kitchen in Kyiv when her co-editor came to visit, and that the stories by Ukrainian authors, six men and four women, had mostly been written in 1995-1996. As such, it represented the latest production from those active on the literary scene.
Ms. Pavlychko read engagingly from a gothic tale by Lviv's Yuriy Vynnychuk, "The Day of the Angel." She was followed to the lectern by Ms. Zabuzhko, whom somebody billed as "the Margaret Atwood of Ukraine," but happily her reading style was much more spirited than the Canadian literary giantess's habitually dreadful monotone. Ms. Zabuzhko read from her story, "I, Milena."
Then it was the turn of the Ukrainian Canadians. Patricia Abram wanly rendered a passage from her wan story "Green Sundays." A welcome departure from this was the gutsy yet polished Marusia Bociurkiw, who said it was "time to let in some of the people who have been absent from Ukrainian literature - the queers, the people of the street."
Ms. Bociurkiw, the author of a collection of stories called "The Woman Who Loved Airports" read from her "The Children of Mary" - taken from an as yet unpublished novel "Water Over Stone" depicting "three generations of a dysfunctional Prairie family."
Ukrainian Canadian literary lion Myrna Kostash, arriving straight from the airport, reminisced about her own meeting with Ms. Pavlychko in 1988 as a guest of the latter's family. "I don't think we could ever have dreamed that we could end up here together. It's thrilling to be a part of this," Ms. Kostash said.
She read from her non-fiction contribution, "Ways of Coping," part of which appears in her latest book, the combination erotic memoir/political-historical treatise "The Doomed Bridegroom."
Prof. Kulyk Keefer concluded the afternoon's readings by saying that she expected that soon more Ukrainians would assert their presence in Canadian literature, and said they will help reinvent their ethnicity.
On hand was a pair of dancers from the Shevchenko Ensemble, who both served as a rather retrograde symbol of ethnicity unreinvented, and were oddly out of place on the third floor of a Chapters bookstore.
The literary fortnight was capped by an event not as well attended as the other two, but which provided a fitting bookend nonetheless - a reading by Toronto-based émigré poet Lydia Palij at The Idler pub, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets.
Over the years, the graphic artist and literary activist (a longtime member of PEN International) has been instrumental in bringing Ukraine's poets Vasyl Holoborodko, Ivan Drach and Ihor Kalynets for readings at the Harbourfront Authors' Festival, and played a part in securing Mr. Andrukhovych's place in this year's program.
On the evening of November 1, Ms. Palij read verse (in her own translations from Ukrainian) from her collection "Junction Without Signposts," whose appropriate autumnal flavor was colored by the poet's characteristically gentle and reflective whimsy.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 3, 1999, No. 1, Vol. LXVII
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