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writing and my (ukrainian) diaspora

October 17, 2010


this is something that i don’t often talk about. and it’s been swirling around in my head lately and has actually spawned a poem, and since i haven’t been writing a lot of poetry lately, i think it’s a good thing. so let’s hash it out.

while i write this i am COMPLETELY listening to David Torn’s soundtrack from Lars and the Real Girl which is my new favourite movie of all time. i cried like a baby in it but when don’t i cry in movies? answer: never.


recently i was discussing the idea of the ukrainian diaspora with somebody, and i realised that i never really talk about my ukrainian-ness. well, i kind of do, but it’s pretty rare that i let my true feelings out about it. i have to be a little tactful about what i write on this blog, because it’s on a free space and will be around forever, but i’ll try my best to relate my culture and writing together.

i am very caught up in the idea of diaspora. the piece i am writing for my thesis just recently took a turn into the diaspora-related, as one of my main characters has left his home country and is living somewhere new, feeling a sense of guilt.

for my entire life, i have been identified as a half-breed ukrainian. the term “mutt” would be appropriate, considering in some circumstances i’m sure some people wanted to use it. i don’t think of myself this way. i think that the melding of my anglo british isles and slavic backgrounds makes me a stronger person. plus, it can NEVER hurt to expand the gene pool, right? i mean, all ukrainians have got to be mildly related to each other. i’ve probably somehow reduced the chance of birth defects in any of my hypothetical and future children.

anyway. for a lot of my childhood, i could understand rudimentary ukrainian, as children’s brains are so plastic, and baba spoke ukrainian to me a lot. as i got older, however, people spoke ukrainian over top of me, right over me, because they knew that i didn’t understand it. to be honest, i can’t be sure if this is a conscious decision or not, but often i felt very attacked, upset, alone.

i do not blame my parents for this. i am glad that i was not sent to ukrainian school. i have retained a lot of the slavic traits that i am happy to retain: the profile of my face, the set of my cheekbones and my nose, the very strong backbone, the ability to work hard and long, a healthy appetite, a very great beauty that is not necessarily exterior.

being talked over is awful. it’s hurtful. it took a very long time for me to come to terms with being a half-napiw, which is ukringlish for half-and-half. that’s right – there’s a specific term for what i am. eventually, i grew up and started caring less about what the torontonian ukrainian diaspora cared about me, and i started to go to malanka, and learn enough ukrainian swear words that i could get some people to back off. it’s still a challenge, though. at the golf course i worked at, i had a member who resolutely spoke to me in ukrainian no matter how many times i told him i didn’t speak it. it was cruel. finally i learned how to say “i do NOT speak ukrainian” in ukrainian. (i can speak the language just fine if i am taught a phrase to mimic. i have always been good with languages, and i like the guttural tones of ukrainian.) that made him actually pay attention to me. for a while, my baba was interested in good ukrainian boys for me, though as of late she has been hilarious and has wised up to these “GOOD” ukrainian boys that do not exist. so what? i didn’t know how to polka. big deal. it’s an easy dance, and i only needed someone to teach it to me. there are ways to deal.

how does this tie into my creativity? i write two kinds of poetry about being ukrainian. either one is stunning to me, and i appreciate the freshness that this subject matter. one type of diaspora poetry that i write deals with the idea of my baba and her flight from ukraine during world war ii. there is something so visceral and so real about that that i can’t help but not write it. there are so many aspects to the story that it blows my mind right out of my head. i can try to put myself in her place, to understand this anger and hatred for the russians, to understand why so many of the ukrainians thought that the germans were coming to save them at first. that is an older age of writing about being ukrainian.

and then there is another way that i write about being ukrainian, and it is with such an anger that it astonishes me.  these poems have such energy, such a realness to them that it makes me breathless.

i am of split mind on my ukrainian background. there is a pride there, and there is a rage there. this is a culture that spawned me and then shunned me. i am a mutt to them, but what if i were to put on a sorochka and learn the language? what would be then?

this is a very complex thing that i have been thinking about for the past week. it all started from a discussion in a bar with a ukrainian friend. (of which i have few, to tell you the truth. well, fully ukrainian.) why is it that our diasporas are so inspiring to us? something like mistry’s tales from firozsha baag? i don’t know. i also really disliked that book.

and guess what? i still  love being the brand of ukrainian that i am. and yes, if ukraine had beaten italy in the world cup, my brother and father and i were going to get matching tryzub tattoos – not necessarily because we are devout ukrainians, but because it is something that links us all together in a way. it makes us family, and it makes us proud enough.

this is something i have not finished mulling over. i don’t know if i will ever finish mulling this over in my life. but for now this will have to do.

and it’s helping me write, because it is part of me.

and sometimes i feel like this:

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick Max permalink
    October 18, 2010 5:46 am

    Hello cousin, interesting post. I didn’t learn even the basics of the language, but I appreciate the culture, even though my remaining connections to it are pretty minimal. I think about going there someday… but with the connection so thin, I wonder if I might as well go to outer Mongolia. I have 2 twin girls on the way and they will only be 1/4 Ukrainian. Its odd to me, to think how the vestiges of Ukrainian culture will just be continuously diluted until only a last name will remain – and with girls, even that will disappear. How long can the diasporic’s future generations hold the banner of an ancestory? At what point are they just just North Americans?

    • October 18, 2010 8:56 am

      I think about going there someday too, Nick, but I feel the same way. Outer Mongolia is a good analogy of what it would be like. I think it would be like that even for my father, who speaks the language, because the Ukrainian language of the diaspora and the Ukrainian language of the “motherland” are different, I think. Would I be considered a serious outsider if I visited, or is the North American diaspora the disparaging one, and the actual source of my Ukrainian culture possibly more welcoming? Who knows. If I do go to Ukraine, it is going to have to be with my father, because I don’t think I’d be able to struggle through the language barrier.

      PS – CONGRATS on the babies!!

  2. May 2, 2013 11:52 pm

    I quite like reading through a post that can make men and women think.

    Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!


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