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how ivan went to see the sun.

November 14, 2012

one of my friends – ben – writes poems about ukrainian and russian folk-tale characters. i edit them happily. i’ve written before about how i try to tie my ukrainian roots into my own modern-day writing. it’s a journey that i’m still slogging along. in fact, i wonder if i should make a “ukraine” tag on these posts. it’s funny to read that post and then settle down to write this one – like brain-tracking, thought-tracking. everyone writes about their heritage or their past, even if they don’t consciously realise it. because i’m half ukrainian (and half british conglomerate) i sometimes have a bit of a different take on writing about slavic subject matter. i was trying to explain this to our ubc distance fantastic google hangouts writer’s workshop the other day – we were talking about “having the right” to write about things that we feel like we’re on the outside of – disasters, war, travelling, love, whatever. i believe that any point of view – however how “removed” it might be considered – has the potential to be valid, or beautiful, or powerful. it’s the points of view – like pointillism – that create umbra and penumbra.

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i go through phases of thinking of myself in terms of being ukrainian. this also happens with my writing. i went through a long and frankly kind of weird phase of writing ukrainian poetry about 2 years ago, and it was rewarding and challenging and also a period of introspection. when it really comes down to it, i am ukrainian, even if i tend to forget it sometimes. my last name gives me away quite readily, though my hair is a red herring (zing). but i have problems with considering myself ukrainian. there’s a specific part of my blood and guts that rears up and boils when i hear ukrainian music or when i braid my hair up on top of my head. i knew the polka before i ever learned the polka – it’s like a biological tattoo – but at the same time there’s an intense discomfort. while i don’t always feel comfortable exploring that side of myself in flesh and blood scenarios, i find that writing (as it is, as it always is with me) affords me a (relatively) safe space in which to thrash out ideas. the page is a space to experiment with being offensive, untrustworthy, brash, kind, coddling, angry.

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all these thoughts are circling because i’ve started to pull my old books out of my old bookcase – the bookcase that is designated “books from my childhood that i can’t quite bring myself to give away just yet.” i think it’s important to save books from your childhood ( but also i might be a book hoarder ) because they show what influenced you as a wayne and also where you come from. and the weird stuff you were reading at all ages.

example – this:

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i forgot that i owned this.

this is a book of terrifying ukrainian folk tales that i was given by a ukrainian relative a very, very long time ago. it’s a translation. it was originally published in kiev in 1989, it’s written in clunky english – though i didn’t realise this as a kiddo. and it’s beautiful and strange and inappropriate all at the same time.

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everyone knows the grimm tales, and how horrifying they are. when i sat down twenty some-odd years later and re-read how ivan went to see the sun, i was reminded that the german writers don’t have a monopoly on dire, frightening fairy tales. i read this over and over and over again as a kid, and looking back now i see why.

in kotihoroshko, a boy (A BOY) forges himself a cudgel, thrashes a dragon knee-deep into an iron floor, watches his travelling buddies get pinned to a wall by their hair and flayed by an evil old man, enters hell, finds a griffin who flies him out of hell but only when kotihoroshko feeds him meat from his own thigh, kills his friends with one line (“and their punishment was death”) and then marries a princess, the end, happily ever after.

in the czar of the sea, a sailor’s ship is held fast in the middle of the ocean by a grumpy old who wants to drown everybody. the captain auctions off his own son with a note written in blood in order to escape. typical. his son – who’s 12 years old – goes into indentured service, but before he reaches his destination, hides behind a rose bush and sees 12 ducks turn into naked women, steals one of their sets of clothes, and has to complete a series of tasks in order to marry her (at 12 years old) – otherwise his head ends up impaled on a set of stakes as a warning.

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in the titular story, ivan goes to see the sun after his lord-boss-owner (who thrashes him daily with a whip) sends him on a wild goose chase. ivan comes across a woman chasing ducklings out of a thorn bush, and learns that the ducklings are the ghosts of her children who she starved to death. he comes across two elm trees fighting, and learns that they used to be brothers who starved their parents to death (theme.) then he steals the sun’s love interest by trapping her in a cottage and refusing to let her out, even when she cries and becomes frightened.

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why do we read disturbing fairy tales?  i suppose that misery links us all – it’s not something that the grimm brothers or the ukrainian writers have a monopoly on. at the same time, there’s something electrifying about reading about victory tempered with death, love tempered with pain or torture. this might be an exaggerated version of the umbra and penumbra that i mentioned earlier (cudgeling a dragon waist-deep into a iron basement floor is a bit much) but it’s a version of half-and-half. half love half pain. half anger half happiness. even these slavic folk writers knew that the old, exhausted tropes hold true – without dark there is no light. without pain, there is no pleasure. victory is sweeter when you have to cut out a piece of your own thigh and feed it to a griffin (or so i’ve read.)

i suppose it’s the same theme when i sit down to write about my own blood and bones. i write about being eastern european because i like and dislike it at the same time. it raises a tremendous dichotomy in me, in my gut. and the stuff that comes out often has that half and half theme. the good and the bad, and the beautiful and the hideous. nothing can be all good all the time. maybe my struggling with my identity means less of a struggle with writing from the throat and the heart and the core of love that’s hidden under all those complicated layers.

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and also because the ukrainian folk tales are weird and powerful and beautiful. i can’t forget to mention that. as a child, the stories that baba told me were fascinating, because the villains were always punished. (and sometimes the heroes were, too). the journeys were always fantastical and bizarre and taken on without a grimace. the risks were great, but the gains were greater. what young writer doesn’t love that? there was no whimpering, no back and forth, and no meagre plot lines. everything was big and bold and cruel and exaggerated and violent and exquisite. there’s no better inspiration than that – at least for me.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2012 11:16 am

    Hi Anna
    A good review of these stories and the same type I grew up with. I also grew up with neighbours who told us the Grimm ones.
    The DailyManofTo

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