Book Review—Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home

Edited by Lisa Grekul & Lindy Ledohowski

Book Review—Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home

A person’s “identity” can be one of the most complicated aspects of a person and even more so in pluralistic societies that are a melting pot of identities. Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home is a book that explores the idea of identity in a globalized world, focusing on exploring early Ukrainian Canadians and their connection to Canada through a lens that explores their literary contributions.  Additionally, the book explores how a sense of identification with one’s ancestral past rubs against one’s present, probing the boundaries of how one’s own skin and sense of kin might conflict with other identities; something that can be uncomfortable but also liberating.  Reading this description on the back of the book was as interesting as the description inside the cover, which discusses how the literary arts—memoirs, fiction, poetry, biography, essays—can challenge the idea of identities through fictional and non-fictional narratives, and how these intersections become the sites of new, thought-provoking, and poignant creative writing by Ukrainian Canadians.  To take it over the top, editors Lisa Grekul and Lindy Ledohowski provide an overview of the history of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, as well as bibliographies of the various authors.

Foreword – Weronika Suchacka

The foreword for Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home highlights the power of the literary arts in the sense that they can bend genres, and how they invite readers to rethink, reinterpret, and even retell or rewrite the materials.  the words in them are not limited to a page or classroom, thus readers, too, become authors in their own way.  Also described as highlighting the close interaction between writers and readers, and how time (past and present) mingles with space (Ukraine and Canada).  These two latter components are further described as being a temporal and spatial commingling that create an interesting dynamic in which the unfinished business of ethnic identity formation and articulation play out.  Each section of the book is done by a different author, and many of the literary works used to put together the book are described as further highlighting the challenge between multiple and seemingly mutually exclusive elements that construct identity, how the present is infused with the past, and how Ukraine and Canada are infused into each other, but also separate.

Introduction – Lindy Ledohowski

The introduction discusses how identities expand to include ethnocultural, gendered, socio-economic, minoritized, regional, and other interesting facets of who we are, and that we both are, and are not, multiple selves simultaneously.  It then breaks down five thoughts that most early-generation Canadians might contemplate when it comes to making sense of their identities: position 1: “Ethnic” is Canadian, position 2: I’m Not “Ethnic”, position 3: Picking Up My “Ethnic” Baggage, position 4: What Is Ukrainian-ness Anyway, and position 5: Nationalists versus Communists.  The best part about these five sections is that the “Ukrainian identity” can be swapped for any other identity that exists within our society, such as religion, race, or gender, and those five positions would be equally valid in those instances too.

Language Lessons – Janice Kulyk Keefer

Language Lessons does a great job with introducing readers to the history behind the Ukrainian identity, courtesy of the Ukrainian language.  What readers are introduced to in this section is that the Ukrainian identity is one that has been persecuted, harassed, demeaned, penalized, and outlawed by Ukraine’s long chain of occupiers and colonizers, up to and including the Russifying Communists.

One of those attacks on the Ukrainian identity came by the way of Ems Ukaz of 1876, a decree signed by Tsar Alexander II that banned the use of the Ukrainian language for all purposes, including education, entertainment, publication, and emergency information.  So all materials would instead be printed in Russian.  If the Ems Ukaz was not bad enough, the western half of Ukraine,  ruled by the Hapsburg Empire, had it no better, considering that Ukrainians were denied access to university education in their mother tongue.  Under Soviet rule, one of Ukraine’s finest poets, Vasyl Stus died in 1985 in a gulag where he had spent twenty-three years for the crime of writing in Ukrainian and being a vocal Ukrainian dissident. This was the reality for many Ukrainian writers and artists in the 1960s.

Tuteshni – Erin Moure

Tuteshni has a power passage that sticks out.  The message is, “Humiliation does not justify blood to trail out of skin.  Horse reared up in my village.  No one humiliated nobody in <to> my village.  Different nations live in agreement by centuries <ages>.  But later part of my village completely crumbled, gone my other <polish> <local>.”  The power of this passage is one Ukrainian Canadians realization that can be summed up by saying that nobody wins wars— people only survive—and the importance of recognizing the dignity of every person to avoid destruction and the unnecessary loss of life.

Conclusion – Lisa Grekul

The conclusion might be the most powerful part because of the intimate realization that is shared with readers, “Ukraine wasn’t supposed to be strange to me, and Ukrainians weren’t supposed to be strangers.  We were supposed to be kin.  Our interactions were supposed to reveal some sort of visceral bond that transcends geographical borders and linguistic divides.  Despite my ostensibly ambivalent motivations for making the film and my cynicism about diasporic Ukranians’ largely “imagined” sense of belonging to Ukraine, it became clearer and clearer to me that I somehow thought my journey would be different.”, and how that realization helped to further shape the attitudes and beliefs of Grekul.

Practically every contributor mentions, in one way or another, their feeling of un-belonging to this combined identity, and how they seem to be caught between longing and loss.  Grekul takes her intimate realizations one step further with the following words, “None of us, though, will be lesser for the choices we make, and it seems to me important for us to remind ourselves that we’re not tethered to these choices.  We really do “renegotiate and reconstruct” our identities, continually.  Who we are, today; what we say, in this moment, about our “selves” and our histories; the parts that we play in our unbound “betwixt and between” community – these are all necessarily provisional: subject to change, open to revision.  In this, we have something vaguely in common, I suspect, with the people of Ukraine, despite the geographical, cultural, social, and political distances between us.”

The final sentences of the book conclude with the following realization by Grekul, “Ethnicity is experienced and expressed in multiple ways.  The provisional nature of our identities, the ways in which our “selves” shift and change, then I have to not only accept who I am right now, in our age of social media – a typical middle-class mother with a computer who’s going to keep putting up photos of her daughter on Facebook, but also allow for the possibility that who she and I both become might just surprise us all.” The takeaways from Grekul’s intimate realizations are that how our minds work is more important than the adjectives we use to define ourselves, and to remember that we live in a place where, as long as we do not self-impose limitations on our selves, then anything is possible.  In the end, and despite our lines of difference, we are all uniquely Canadian first, but we also must not forget that we are global citizens second, and that our common humanity matters most.

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