An Uneasy Return to Roots

Reviewed by Lisa Grekul

If Myrna Kostash’s new book were her last it would bookend her writing life rather nicely. She made her literary debut in 1977 with All of Baba’s Children, an in-depth examination of the Two Hills area in northeastern Alberta to which some of her people immigrated from Galicia (in what is now Ukraine), in the early years of the 20th century. Thanks to NeWest, that book remains in print, and it is essential reading for enthusiasts of prairie history/sociology, of Ukrainian Canadians especially. With Ghosts in a Photograph: A Chronicle, also published by NeWest, Kostash returns to her roots, taking as her point of departure photographs of her forbears. Describing her motivation for undertaking the project, Kostash says, “I was eager to look again from multiple perspectives at the lives of my grandparents, be they farmers or child-bearers, members of a local intelligentsia or working-class menials, socialists or the pious unlettered” (10). The memoir is propelled by the many questions she never asked family members before they passed away; how their experiences have shaped hers is a central concern. Ghosts in a Photograph is as much about her as it is about them.


By my count, Ghosts in a Photograph is Kostash’s eleventh book (other titles include Long Way from Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada, 1980; No Kidding: Inside the Life of Teenage Girls, 1987; Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe, 1998; and Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, 2010). She has been prolific (her work has appeared in various popular magazines and academic periodicals and she has worked in radio and film). Kostash aficionados know her as both a critically-acclaimed writer and a committed activist. Multiply-marginalized as a leftist, feminist, “western” Canadian practitioner of creative non-fiction, she arguably has not received mainstream recognition commensurate with her contributions either to “CanLit” or to various social justice movements. Particularly noteworthy are her projects invested in decolonization and reconciliation. (The Frog Lake Reader, 2009, and her leadership role in the “Indigenous Ukrainian Relationship Building Initiative” are just two examples). It bears mentioning that, from the get-go, Ghosts in a Photograph addresses the dynamic between Indigenous peoples (particularly those in Treaty 6 territory) and Ukrainian Canadians, the latter of whom, in Kostash’s words, occupied the “so-called vil’ni zemli (free lands) of another people’s ancestral homeland” and then “call[ed] it [theirs]” (14). The word she uses, in fact, is not “theirs” but “ours” (14, my emphasis). Full disclosure: I am part of the “ours,” in that I identify as a fourth-generation Ukrainian Canadian with close ties to the parts of Alberta where Kostash’s family members settled. Savvy readers with backgrounds similar to hers and mine will relate to her conflicted, uneasy feelings about our—Ukrainian Canadians’—complicity in the colonial enterprise.


As one expects from Kostash, Ghosts in a Photograph is expansive: spanning two continents, it examines the impact on several generations of two World Wars and immigration, and ruminates on the upheavals and violences effected by the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. In the absence of first hand interviews with those long-deceased (the exception is “a researcher’s taped interview [with] her mother” [11]), Kostash deploys her expert investigative skills to generate “what Ben Highmore calls . . . ‘public family history,’ a hybrid form of nonfiction that is ‘not history from below so much as history from inside.’” This “new genre of non-fiction,” as Highmore conceives of it, constructs a “public social or historical or political ‘landscape’” in which figures are “embedded,” their “particular lives never lost sight of but filled out with details suggestive of a possible, if not probable, life” (12). The “landscapes” of Ghosts in a Photograph are informed by Kostash’s conversations with living family members in Ukraine (to which she has traveled frequently since 1984) and Canada; “scholarly publications by archivists, historians, and ethnographers”; “biographies and autobiographies”; “reports[,] conference papers,” “novels and poems”; miscellaneous “memorabilia” (“newspaper clippings, letters [,] a hand-drawn map”); and various “ephemera” (“postcards, song lyrics, the memorial book from a funeral”) (11-12). Kostash leaves no proverbial stone unturned. Two “invaluable” resources are her father’s unpublished memoir (“A Gift to Last”) and her great-uncle Peter Svarich’s Memoirs 1977-1904 (1999), posthumously translated and published by her dad. That said, in keeping with the parameters of the “public family history” genre and in a telling commentary on all that history withholds, Kostash—despite her painstaking research and the fact that she is “loathe to make things up”—Ghosts in a Photograph also incorporates “storytelling,” “speculation,” and “second-guessing” (12).


Readers encounter a dizzying array of Svarich, Maksymiuk, Kosavan, and Kostash/Kostashchuk relatives, from either Dhuriv or Tulov, neighbouring villages in Galicia. To quote from its back cover blurb, Ghosts in a Photograph lays bare the “stark differences” between “two sets of families”: one “homesteaders,” the other “working-class Edmontonians.” Broadly speaking, I suppose, the synopsis is apt (and I certainly do not envy the person tasked with coming up with it) but it belies the nuances of the “social groups” to which Kostash’s people belonged (“political, pedagogical, military, cultural, and artistic” [12]) as well as the strands of intellectualism and radical politics, in the “old country” and the “new,” which weave their way through Kostash’s family tree (apologies for the mixed metaphor). Kostash, we learn, is descended, on her father’s side, from thinkers and writers (her great-uncle Peter, her dad, and Vasyl Kostashchuk, a more distant relative, who never left Ukraine). Both pro- and anti-communists populate her extended family, a few of whom met tragic ends. Her paternal second-cousin, Stepan Kostashchuk, was likely disappeared in 1951 by Soviet security forces for his work in the resistance (183-191), and her maternal baba’s—Pahlana’s—brother, Yuri Kosovan, very left-leaning, might have been murdered around the end of the Second World War by “Ukrainian guerillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army known as Banderites” (155).


For some, the exclusion of a genealogical map and at least a few of the photographs that Kostash pores over will be disappointing. Such additions would not entirely be out of place, given the inclusion of other devices that help us navigate the text (a lengthy list of “Works Cited,” for example, “Notes on Dates and Place Names,” and explanations of “Abbreviations,” most related to Ukrainian or Ukrainian Canadian governmental departments or political organizations). I suspect, however, that readers are meant to experience Kostash’s family history as she does: too complicated to be summarized, visually, via a neat-and-tidy family tree or a series of select photographs, accompanied by brief captions. With regard to the dynamic between photographs and the stories they tell (or inspire), as Kostash makes clear, context, in all of its complexity, is everything.


Although “Myrna-on-the-case” (12) adopts the role of sleuth, which she necessarily must do, and performs the work of a darn good detective, Ghosts in a Photograph arguably offers more questions than definitive answers. Unknowns proliferate. What exactly happened to “Nikolai/Mykola/Nick” (Kosovan), Palahna’s brother, the (possible) Soviet sympathizer, who spent some eight (or is it ten?) years in Canada before maybe (probably) committing suicide? (155). About Nikolai Maksymiuk, her maternal grandfather, Kostash knows just “five things” (mainly to do with his work in coal mines, “somewhere in Poland or Germany,” and at a packing plant, in Edmonton. In 1911, he immigrated to Canada) (103). Who was this Nikolai, really?  How did he live and why, by age 33 (my God, so young), was he dead? The dramas and mysteries surrounding political radicals related to Kostash stand out and her male family members (Vasyl and Stepan Kostashchuk, Yuri and Nick Kosovan, Peter and Fedor Svarich) receive more attention than their mothers, daughters, wives, or sisters. Most moving, however, at least for me, are the heartbreakingly incomplete stories of such women as Anna, Kostash’s paternal baba. Widowed since 1938 and described as a “crone” (she was, in fact, “still in her fifties” around the time that Kostash saw her as such), Anna is largely a blank slate. “I don’t suppose,” Kostash admits—indeed, laments—that “I ever spoke more than a few words to her.” For years, because it was “absorbed” and “accepted” that all who came to Canada did so willingly, to “give their children and grandchildren a better life,” the notion that “Baba Anna may have had a perspective all her own” did not occur to her granddaughter (69).


I can’t imagine that Ghosts in a Photograph is Kostash’s last book but it really does come full circle, serving as a kind of “companion” to All of Baba’s Children and functioning, in part, as something of a career “retrospective.” The memoir is textured with reflections on her previous writing, and this will appeal to her usual audiences. Newcomers to Kostash, however, have every reason to be drawn to her latest text (and then seek out those which preceded it), given its compelling subject matter and the author’s masterful marrying of research/reportage with personal experiences/candid confessions. Nothing in Kostash’s oeuvre is an “easy” read; nonetheless—or, rather, for precisely that reason—engaging with her work, Ghosts in a Photograph most certainly included, is well worth the effort.

This review “An Uneasy Return to Roots” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 25 Aug. 2023. Web.

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