More of the Same
- Larry Warwaruk (Author)
The Ukrainian Wedding. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rosalía Baena (Author) and Rocío G. Davis (Author)
Tricks with a Glass: Writing Ethnicity in Canada. Rodopi (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Janice Kulyk Keefer (Editor) and Solomea Pavlychko (Editor)
Two Lands, New Visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa Grekul
In her introduction to Tricks with a Glass: Writing Ethnicity in Canada, Rocío Davis argues that the study of "literary reflections on ethnicity" is "essential to the ongoing redefinition of Canadian literature." But because the majority of the contributors to this collection rely on existing notions of ethnicity, their "redefinitions" are more repetitive than innovative. Larry Warwaruk’s novel The Ukrainian Wedding similarly reaffirms established constructions of Ukrainian Canadian ethnicity as it revisits the familiar thematic territory of folkloric customs and traditions. In Two Lands, New Visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine, Janice Kulyk Keefer and Solomea Pavlychko attempt a re-vision of Ukrainian Canadian ethnicity, but the formal and thematic differences between the Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian stories foreground rather than collapse the "old" world and the "new."
Tricks with a Glass brings together fourteen essays and two interviews (with Wayson Choy and Linda Hutcheon) that explore ethnicity and ethnic minority literature in Canada. While the editors acknowledge that "theorizing on ethnicity is a valuable critical enterprise," the essays "centre instead on the actual inscription of ethnicity in concrete texts." Janice Kulyk Keefer’s discussion of her family memoir Honey and Ashes—her exploration of the "between-worlds" position of the ethnic writer in Canada, and her insistence on the historical contextualization of ethnicity-— introduces some of the key concerns in this collection. Constructions of place and experiences of displacement are central to Aitor Ibarrola-Armendariz’s essay on Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Kathleen Firth’s essay on Neil Bissoondath’s A Casual Brutality. Eva Darias Beautell’s discussion of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Sky Lee’s Disappearing Moon Café, and Ana I. Parejo Vadillo’s more general essay on Native women’s autobiographies, address the tensions between public and personal history, and the ways in which women writers of colour disrupt official historiography by telling their own stories. Maria Belén Martín Lucas’s reading of Rachna Mara’s Of Customs and Excise and Rocío Davis’s reading of Rohinton Mistry’s Tales From Firozsha Baag examine the relation between hybrid ethnic-national identity and the hybrid genre or the short-story cycle.
For the most part, Trickswith a Glass provides thoughtful close readings. It does not, however, offer substantially new theoretical perspectives. The relatively conservative nature of the collection is reflected in its editors’ embrace of a "mosaic" concept of ethnicity: although they recognize that a "single working definition" of ethnicity is "virtually impossible," they nonetheless implicitly rely on a distinctly multicultural definition that fails to distinguish among various (non-British) groups’ experiences within Canada. Although many of the writers home in on the realities of racial discourse, the editorial organization of Tricks with a Glass effects a conflation of race and ethnicity. Ukrainian Canadian, Italian Canadian, and Acadian Canadian texts are discussed alongside First Nations, Asian Canadian, and African Canadian texts, with little mention of the specific ways in which race affects experience. That Tricks with a Glass concludes with a conversation between Rosalia Baena and Linda Hutcheon (a conversation in which Baena fails to challenge Hutcheon’s statements that "immigrant writing has been [here] from the start"; that "as writers of different ethnic backgrounds begin to write, they are quickly integrated into the canon"; and that she would like to "have us all become hyphenated") is not surprising, for Hutcheon gives voice to some of the central (though troubling) assumptions underlying this collection.
In The Ukrainian Wedding, Saskatchewan writer Larry Warwaruk tells the story of a rural Manitoba Ukrainian Canadian community in transition. Set in 1942, the novel focuses on sixteen-year old Lena Melnyk whose brother Danylo is soon to marry her best friend Nellie Semchuk. As the narrative unfolds, Warwaruk depicts an impressive array of traditional religious and cultural customs, drawing particular attention to the "Rusalka" figure of Ukrainian folklore (the water spirit who seduces men to their death); among the host of characters that make up the tightly-knit community, the intoxicatingly beautiful Marusia Budka stands out because, in her ability to enchant the men of the community, she closely resembles the Rusalka. The wedding is central to the narrative not only because Lena’s attitudes toward the marriage reveal her rejection of Ukrainian traditions and patriarchal social structures, but also because during the wedding reception, Marusia runs off with Lena’s brother-in-law. Marusia is later found dead with evidence beside her body that could implicate several members of the community. When her murderer is found, members of the community sympathize with him, believing that Marusia bewitched him and hence brought about her own end. Lena sees that the entire community, by stifling Marusia’s free spirit, has participated in her death.
At once a detective story, a folk tale, and a finelywrought portrayal of a community, The Ukrainian Weddingis a compelling read—especially for readers who are unfamiliar with Ukrainian Canadian literature (given its glossary of Ukrainian words, the novel may well be intended for such readers). Behind Warwaruk’s deceptively simple prose is a complex rendering of Ukrainian Canadians’ social realities during the mid-twentieth century, one that captures the pathos and humour of their experiences at the close of the pioneering era. For readers who are familiar with Ukrainian Canadian literature, the similarities between The Ukrainian Wedding and both Illia Kiriak’s Sons of the Soil (1939-45) and Vera Lysenko’s Yellow Boots (1954) are striking. And although The Ukrainian Wedding seems to me better executed—Warwaruk’s characters are more fully realized, his use of folk motifs more sophisticated, his foregrounding of Ukrainian patriarchy more poignant—this novel nonetheless returns to the pioneering era to explore the themes of cultural loss and inter-generational conflict that characterize Kiriak’s and Lysenko’s novels (and works by other writers such as George Ryga, Ted Galay, and Gloria Kupchenko Frolick). As in other Ukrainian Canadian novels, realism dictates that Warwaruk conclude with thematic ambiva- lence: Lena, like many of the novel’s young people, believes that her life will get better when she leaves the oppressive, superstitious community in which she has grown up. Ukrainian culture is likened to a brown and yellow bird "with dancing yellow feet and crippled wings," which will "as best it can.. .fly away to die."
In her introduction to the Canadian portion of Two Lands,New Visions, Janice Kulyk Keefer addresses the "fossilized and monolithic" models of Ukrainian Canadian ethnicity—the sorts of festive song-and-dance notions of ethnic difference constructed by many Ukrainian Canadians. By drawing together stories by (and foregrounding connections between) Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian writers, she hopes to "begin a lively discussion between people who are in the paradoxical situation of being both strangers and intimates" and to reinvent what it means to be Ukrainian Canadian. Solomea Pavlychko, by contrast, in her introduction to the Ukrainian portion of the anthology, provides an overview of the Ukrainian literary tradition, paying particular attention to the dramatic changes that have come about since 1991, the year of independence. According to Pavlychko, post-independence Ukrainian literature has paradoxically "lost its optimistic and romantic tone"; Ukrainian writers have "largely lost interest in social issues," choosing instead to undertake a "furious destruction of the old form, the old content, the old language."
With the exception of Myrna Kostash’s "Ways of Coping," Martha Blum’s "Two Triangles" (an excerpt from her stunning debut novel The Walnut Tree, 1999), and Kathie Kolybaba’s "Lunch Hour with a Soviet Citizen"—three texts that explicitly (re)connect with Ukrainian history and politics—most of the Ukrainian Canadian stories (by such writers as Barbara Scott, Ray Serwylo, Lida Somchynsky, Chrystia Chomiak, and Patricia Abram) return to the familiar thematic territory of immigration, assimilation, and inter-generational conflict. Kostash’s text stands out as the only Ukrainian Canadian selection in this collection that moves beyond realist fiction. The real treasures in this anthology are the stories from Ukraine: stories that, to my mind, are very much concerned with "social issues" (the social and political realities of post-independence Ukraine, the role of women within the new Ukrainian society, the psychological aftermath of totalitarianism) and that, moreover, enact ground-breaking formal challenges (Yurii Vynnychuk’s "The Day of the Angel," a fantasy story, and Taras Prokhasko’s "Necropolis," a complexly layered philosophical metanarrative, are the most striking examples of this shift away from realism). Roksana Kharchuk’s ironic portrayal of a post-independence Ukrainian leader and Oksana Zabuzhko’s depiction of a Western-style Ukrainian talk-show host’s descent into madness are psychological portraits of Ukrainians struggling to make sense of their place in the new nation.
That the Canadian stories in Two Lands, New Visions largely lack the formal experimentation and thematic breadth of their Ukrainian counterparts suggests to me that Ukrainian Canadian literature requires a radical break from the tired genres and politics it has traditionally articulated. Not unlike Tricks with a Glass and The Ukrainian Wedding,the Canadian stories in Two Lands, New Visions fail to conceive of ethnicity in new ways. Given that the most interesting and provocative writing in these three texts emerges from Ukraine (from writers who exhibit little or no interest in ethnicity), readers are left to wonder about the creative, critical, and theoretical potential of transnational connections between ethnic Canadians and their homelands.
- Touching Gods by Andrea Belcham
Books reviewed: Vandal Love by D.Y. Béchard
- Reflections of the Rock by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Submariner's moon by Don McNeill, Rare Birds by Edward Riche, and Gaff Topsails by Patrick Kavanagh
- The Art of Artifice by Andrew Lesk
Books reviewed: Delirium by Douglas Cooper, Beneath that Starry Place by Terry Jordan, and Angel Falls by Tim Wynveen
- Compelling Spells by Lally Grauer
Books reviewed: The Quality of Light by Richard Wagamese and Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield
- Omnia vanitas by Nathalie Warren
Books reviewed: Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles by Nadine Bismuth, Scrapbook by Nadine Bismuth, Histoires de s'entendre by Suzanne Jacob, and L'espèce fabulatrice by Nancy Huston
MLA: Grekul, Lisa. More of the Same. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 120 - 121)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.