Thursday, August 9, 2007

Myrna Kostash's All of Baba's Children (or, "on once not staying at Myrna Kostash's house")

It might not be a recent book, but I've been going through Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash's first book, All of Baba's Children (Edmonton AB: Hurtig Publishers, 1977; reprinted by NeWest Press) to get a sense of what I have in store for me, in my potential west. Originally, for my stint as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, I was to spend my first month house-sitting for her while she was away (that plan, unfortunately, got shifted on her end a few days after it was first suggested). During the days between, I was excited at the prospect of staying in another writer's physical space, especially a writer whose work I wasn’t previously familiar with; these are things I never take lightly. How does one prepare to exist in someone else's space? I immediately ordered a copy of her first book through the Ottawa Public Library to get a sense of who I was dealing with.

Occupying someone else's space can potentially be quite invasive, but I know the rules; I've lived in other writers' spaces before, having apartment-sat for Ottawa poet Michael Dennis for ten days in 1997, living in a magnificent two-bedroom hardwood floor apartment filled with hundreds of poetry titles, two floors above Wallack's Art Supplies at Bank and Lisgar streets; I looked after Ottawa poet, publisher and archivist jwcurry's apartment on Somerset Street West for three full months in the summer of 2000; given permission and free reign in an apartment filled with thousands of poetry titles, I researched the work of bpNichol and back issues of the critical journal Open Letter (directly resulting in the completed red earth poetry manuscript).

I know about space, but I didn’t know terribly much about Kostash, a writer whose name I've been aware of for some time, through various sources, including a short review-essay by Andrew Suknaski on her All of Baba's Children for the upcoming book I've been editing, Nebulous Medicine: The Essays of Andrew Suknaski for NeWest Press/writer as critic; I had read the early 1980s feature on her in the third issue of The Camrose Review: a journal of lutheran thought, thanks to Monty Reid's storage unit. I know she lives in Edmonton, and that she's produced a number of non-fiction works over the years, from articles in magazines such as Macleans and Chatelaine, and from non-fiction titles such as All of Baba's Children to Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980), No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage girls (1989), Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe (1993), The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir (1998) and The Next Canada: In Search of Our Future Canada (2000). I know that it was All of Baba's Children that many have said her strongest, as it is her most personal.

Their children, the first Ukrainian-Canadians, are the problematic ones, the citizens balanced on the contradiction between a desire to pay respect to the roots of their ancestors, and the need to endorse their own Canadian experience. More precisely, it is the Ukrainian-Canadian who, as an historian, must make sense of the immigrants' tribulations and complaints within the context of the next generation's adjustment to the dominant culture's values, who must, in retrospect, make "good Canadians" of tens of thousands of Ukrainian peasants who never asked for more than a respite, at last, from poverty and exhaustion. Such an historian, Paul Yuzyk, in summarizing the Canadian experience of his parents' generation, describes the "opportunities" for freedom and material wealth of which the pioneers supposedly took advantage.

"The immigrants found in Canada homesteads, land on easy payments, remunerative even though hard work, prospects of advancement, business opportunities, the freedom to change their type of work, and a higher standard of living….Individuals had the protection of the law, before which all were equal….in Canada, where individual work is recognized, a person may improve his financial situation and social standing through work, thrift, or business ability…mutual respect for others, cooperation and harmony meant peace and welfare for all in the Canadian polyglot population."

This is a familiar, not to say hackneyed, version of the Canadian myth of the pursuit of happiness. The extent to which one subscribes to it is a measure of the degree to which one has accepted the middle-class, Anglo-Canadian view of our history, no less true for ethnics than for anybody else. Of course, the success stories of Ukrainians in Canada are legion — all those doctors and lawyers, politicians and entrepreneurs — and Ukrainians in Canada did progress beyond semi-feudal life in the old country
(for that matter, so did the Ukrainians who stayed behind). But Yuzyk's vision is simplistic and misleading, even though it does correspond to the prevailing mythology among most Ukrainian-Canadians today. It belies the fact that financial security was tenuous in the extreme, that their labour was far from remunerative, that their "freedom" to an education was to an anglicized one; the law was discriminatory, their non-Ukrainian neighbours were racists, their leftist political activists were persecuted; and the admonitions to "work" and "thrift" applied precisely and only to the working people — the resident elite had neither to work nor be thrifty.
All of Baba's Children writes the view and the point of view of the children and grandchildren of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada from their point of arrival onward, from the early parts of the twentieth century, and explores the problems that they not only faced as a unit, but as separate generations. The details may be different, but many of the problems sound similar, of the dominant culture working deliberately to diminish the ethnicity of new arrivals. It's something that English-language white folk have been doing to each other and everyone else in North America for hundreds of years, and could easily apply whether through religion, language, culture and/or skin colour to the Irish, native peoples, French, Italian, Spanish, Scottish, Vietnamese, Japanese and black communities across the country (among so many others). Before she published the final book, she wrote a harsher view of her own sense of being Ukrainian in an issue of The NeWest Review, writing a sense of identity it sounded like she had to reject before she could return to and embrace, reminding me of my own first decade living in the city and rejecting everything to do with country. In her "Out There Is The Prairie: The Two Hills Diary of Myrna Kostash" in The NeWest Review (Vol. 1, No. 10, May 1976), she wrote:

June 29, Vegreville

It's been so long since I've heard Ukrainian, seen these masses of people/faces that were once ordinary life to me but which now seem almost exotic. But something about them makes me squirm, it's the petit-bourgeoisie (if they're even that), the dullwits in cheap suits and vulgarities who speak in pomposities and whom I watched handling the heart-breakingly crude pioneer tools on display, handle them and cluck over them, believing in their own superiority to the "spirit" which fashioned these
objects of sheer necessity, while mouthing sentimentalities about the ingenuity of the pioneers.

Looked at a blow-up of an old photo of a woman and child standing in front of their "khata" on the prairie: a square structure of slender, upright logs propped against each other, a mass of grasses and branches thrown on top as a roof. I felt like bawling. Sure, there's lots of interest or at least respect paid to the pioneers, to their courage and strength and godliness but only as these are further testimonials to an essentially Ukrainian experience and personality. The pioneers as the first, and last, extension of "Ridna Maty" (Motherland) beyond the aboriginal frontiers. Why else the interminable, unflagging, yea unto the fourth generation, preoccupation with
Easter eggs, embroidered cushions, dancing, priests' dignity, "holubtsi" (cabbage rolls) and now aggressive talk about the Ukrainian language as the only meaningful indicator of the health of the Ukrainian culture. Their analogies to Quebec are fallacious. What is this culture they are so tenacious about? It certainly doesn’t exist in the Ukraine anymore. It doesn’t even exist here, not in me, not in the younger generations who mouth a few words of Ukrainian to baba, munch on kobasa-on-a-stick and change quickly out of their costumes so they can dash away in Ford Impalas and go cruising through Vegreville.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a Ukrainian-Canadian. There are only Canadians who have a few idiosyncratic peculiarities that derive from being sent to a church that had domes on it.
Ouch. Harsh, despite the fact that I can completely understand it, having grown up in my own Glengarry County, holding tighter sometimes to the Scottishness of background than much of Scotland itself (we still boast the largest highland games in North America). Suknaski even responds to her piece with a long poem (I infer by his title that repeats her own line; this poem, also, appears not to have been reprinted since) a few months later in The NeWest Review (Volume 2, No. 4, December 1976), that begins:

There Are No Ukrainian-Canadians

today as usual
i am pothering pothering pothering around
unable to find my favorite cracked clay pipe
and the last time this happened
just like my father
snarling his old slavic gypsy curse
i softly swore "slock troff!
ahbeh tehbeh xhoolehrah zahbrahlah fykoo!"
and my pipe fell to the floor shattering
into a hundred hopeless pieces
me cursing again even softer "slock troff!
ahbed tehbeh dgeetko zahbrow!"
and today a young woman who lost 20 pounds and anglicized
her ukrainian surname
to become an instant aircanada success
telle me "there are no ukrainian canadians!"
no this lovely woman whom ii adore will be no babah
stealing anything for her geedo
to lay it at his feet
she will never wash her geedo's feet
or even dream of drinking the water
and ah…for this i adore her
(Andrew Suknaski)

Slowly going through the copy I found at the Ottawa Public Library (I'm hoping to pick up a copy of my own once I head west), it was entertaining to discover all the threads that lead my own reading into such a book as hers; threads including my researches into Suknaski himself, Kostash as an individual, my own sense as the offspring of a period of immigration into Canada, and wanting to better comprehend Alberta generally and Edmonton specifically, as a context I will be entering into. As Suknaski wrote in his review-essay "Search for Home" (that originally appeared in Canadian Literature #77, University of British Columbia, summer 1978):

And what does all this have to do with Myrna Kostash and her book, All of Baba's Children? Well after being Americanized, urbanized, and McLuhanized in the great imperial centre of Toronto she goes home to Edmonton, Alberta. She buys a farm and house near Two Hills, and names it Tulova—after "the Galacian village the Kostashchuks left behind." In Two Hills she spends four months of interviewing the townspeople, then sets about writing a social history delineating her relationship—political and spiritual—to a Ukrainian heritage. She becomes involved in the process of new journalism, the writer's ego and imagination mediating between documented fact, objective reality, and the audience. Her energy sources become: the new left ideology, and social humanism, counter culture, regionalism, ethnic consciousness, and nationalism. The book slowly grows from a profound energy emanating from the social injustices suffered by the Ukrainian immigrants' children—her "parents' generation" and "their experiences between 1920 and 1950…"
In his piece "The Politics of Confession" from the Kostash feature in The Camrose Review, Dennis Kucherwary wrote of Kostash, saying:

Six blocks north and one block east, Myrna Kostash lives in a modest yellow, corner-lot bungalow; an island between downtown's corporate ghetto and the north-end neighborhood where many ethnics used to live after immigrating to Canada. From there, she grapples with the forces of her past and the issues of the present to try, as she says, "to understand the place and time of my own generation." It's a psychological, historical and sociological journey she continues to make in genre-fiction/autobiography, popular journalism, screen and television writing, and in her first play, 1985.

This conflict between herself and her environment provides a tension not without contradiction as she progresses from innocent, perhaps naïve, idealism to her current efforts to sustain passion within what she calls "a fog of apathy and disillusion." While others of her generation were disappointed that global social change did not happen overnight and gave up, Kostash is disturbed how easily 20 years can form a patina on history, obscuring the Sixties' generation's dreams, ideas and actions. As she wrote in 1977 about a trip to Berkeley: "Question: how on earth
did a youth revolt ever take off here? I mean, why would anyone bother?"
Writing more specifically about her book All of Baba's Children, he wrote:

As Kostash documents in her book All of Baba's Children, the Ukrainian peasant pioneers were outsiders in Canada as well. They were not alone. While the Ukrainians had their Poltava, the Metis had Batoche. So Western Canada's pioneers were alienated from the ruling British society to begin with. Religious hypocrisy, racism, poverty, allegations of Communist sympathy, prejudice, repression and hunger were society and the land's legacy to these pioneers. They had no choice but to find their identity in their home, not their environment.

Kostash's grandparents - Fedor Kostaszczuk and Anna Zwaruch - came to Canada form the village of Tulowa in the province of Halychyna. Fedor changed his family name to Kostash when he received his naturalization papers. Myrna's parents were schoolteachers. However, growing up in an era of New Left radicalism, drugs, rock, and Women's Lib, Kostash resisted her ethnicity and lost interest in it.

[…] But what about the person behind those images? Kostash says her perspective is that of the Ukrainian-Canadian, feminist, socialist, prairie populist and Canadian
nationalist. Although she advocates resisting assimilation by maintaining a sense of community or family and by remaining an outsider, she finds herself in a contradiction between past and present. That is, her efforts to avoid "being sucked in by the agrarian mystique, or capitalism, or the male patriarchy" are subverted by the romantic love she still has for the Sixties. As an iconoclastic observer, she pricked the balloons of the Ukrainian-Canadian experience in All of Baba's Children, the romantic mythology of the noble peasant meant to hide the pain of racial discrimination. As she wrote, "There's nothing beautiful about exploitation and if our people are screwed up and contradictory and craven it's because they have been exploited."
A few years ago, Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler asked me about working on Andrew Suknaski, saying that he understood why I worked on George Bowering, and even saw my linkages with Artie Gold, but just couldn’t see my linkages with Suknaski, and why I was drawn to his work. How could I not identify with the conflicts of background and history with the immediate present, from my own consideration of Scottish Presbyterian Glengarry County, and what happened in my corner to the native population (living on "Indian lands" once owned by Mohawk), or the collusions of the other sides of the cultural boundaries, whether English, Irish, French or further? The details might be different, but the learning and combining of identity are the same. They say life is in the details, and I am interested in learning the details of where I have yet to live; the context of which I will soon be entering into, even as foreigner.

I have to admit, I was disappointed to find out that I wasn’t going to be staying my first month in Kostash's house in Edmonton, existing in her space and working my way slowly through her library. But now that I've opened up a bit of Kostash's Alberta, where do I go from here?

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