First responders carrying a “closed zone” sign  following the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, April 26, 1986.  (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My first published novel, THE SKY UNWASHED is based on a true story. The heroines are a group of elderly women who returned to their deserted and highly contaminated village in the “dead zone,” the areas surrounding the Chornobyl (Ukrainian transliteration of “Chernobyl”) nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Those surrounding, mostly rural areas were highly irradiated after the core of reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m. causing fires, a nuclear meltdown, and sending out a radioactive cloud that blanketed Ukraine, Belarus, Scandinavia, Western Europe and beyond.


Helicopter view of the Chornobyl nuclear explosion, April, 1986. (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My fictional family, the Petrinkos headed by the matriarch Marusia, lived in one of those villages along with her son, Yurko, and daughter-in-law Zosia and their two young children. Yurko and Zosia worked at the Chornobyl power plant and despite their bickering, life was relatively peaceful in their lives until that horrible night in April.

The villagers were not evacuated until a week later and told that they would only be gone for a few days. Most of them never returned to their highly irradiated homes. But Marusia did, and she returned only to find herself alone in a toxic ghost-village and in the deadliest place on the planet.


Irene Zabytko in front of the destroyed nuclear reactor now rebuilt and encased, Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Chornobyl, Ukraine. (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Later, other displaced village women also returned and together they defy the Soviet authorities facing arrest and the end of their lives.

I first got the idea for my book after reading an article in The Ukrainian Weekly about the displaced Chornobyl evacuees who illegally returned to the most toxic place on the planet because they had nowhere to go. I thought—I must write about this…

But I didn’t begin writing until after I happened to be re-reading John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH and was blown away by how elegant and profound the opening chapter was. I wanted to write something as fabulous as that book, so I basically followed and mirrored Steinbeck’s writing about the men and women who were tilling the Oklahoma red earth before the dust storms came and they were forced to leave, and then turned it into my men and women tilling their own earth in Ukraine before Chornobyl exploded and they were also forced to leave.

In Steinbeck’s novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family, are forced off their land because of a serious draught (the dustbowl conditions of the 1930s), and unscrupulous bankers. They leave their home to journey to California and become itinerant farmers where they are exploited by the landowners.


Evacuees leaving the “dead zone” after the Chornobyl nuclear reactor explosion. ( (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My characters suffer a similar fate. Chornobyl’s own destructive chain reaction caused them to leave their ancestral land, and displacing the villagers who are lied to in the process. No one ever knew how toxic the nuclear radiation was and so when Marusia and later a few more women return, they had to make life and death choices.


Irene Zabytko in front of the abandoned ferris wheel in Pripiat, Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Now looking back and re-reading my own novel on this 32nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident, I am reminded of my gratitude to Steinbeck for forging the literary territory that encouraged and enabled me to write a story that I  hope is still relevant, and most importantly, universal–especially for those in the entire world who are still being displaced, powerless, and forgotten because they happened to have their homes situated in the middle of a cataclysmic event they had nothing to do with.



THE SKY UNWASHED is available on,, and wherever books are sold.


More information about Chornobyl and THE SKY UNWASHED can be found at and

Many thanks to the Ukrainian National Museum “Chornobyl,” Kyiv Ukraine, for the use of their archival photos.

The Ukrainian Weekly is an English language publication with great, factual reportage of Ukraine-related news.






Because I love and write literary fiction, I will usually watch films that are based on the short stories and novels I had read and admired.

And it naturally follows that whenever I write a fictional story, I tend to think not only of how it might be adapted on the screen for a film one day (and who will star in it), but even more importantly, what the music score will sound like.

In my insular, private projector-mind, I yearn for a soundtrack that will enhance the plot points and evoke the necessary moods and emotions of the characters and scenes without intrusion, and yet the music can stand on its own and remain memorable long after the film is over and faded to black.

There doesn’t seem to be a rich cache of film scores based on literary stories that I can recall (not even the musical Oliver! based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist which I admit I never liked very much—the musical I mean).

As for more contemporary films well, who can hum the theme to Ian McEwan’s novel-turned-film Atonement for instance. The characters, story line and acting were all memorable and fabulous—but the music? Was there any?

And if there was, it tends to sound alike, meaning canned Hollywood John Williamesque themes.

So pervasive are Hollywood generic musical scores that I usually ignore them. And then I saw the movie based on the fabulous short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain which made me conscious and aware of how stories on film—this one in particular—was infused and symbiotic with the exquisite music.

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I immediately fell in love and was emotionally pulled into the story more so because of the haunting, poignant, and beautiful soundtrack that made me cry for the doomed characters even when I listened to it without the film.

The composer, Gustavo Santalallo, is a world-class Argentine musician who deservedly won the Academy Award for the Brokeback Mountain score in 2005. He also won the next year for his work on the movie Babel.

He also composed another equally magnificent soundtrack for the movie The Motorcycle Diaries (based on the travel diaries of Che Guevara) which I also found incredibly brilliant and hypnotic.

The reason why I mention him is because I had the rare (and rather serendipitous) opportunity to see and hear Gustavo Santalallo perform in person. He and other musicians were offering a free concert during a conference hosted by Gladdening Light, a non-denominational organization with an enticing motto, “where spirit meets art.”

Their mission is to explore the transcendent elements of art and spirituality through events like their annual Symposium which this year had the provocative theme of: The Spiritual Lens: Evocations on Poetry, Music and Film.

I was sorry to have missed the poetry, film screenings, and speakers, and especially the keynote talk by Krista Tippet, the host of the excellent National Public Radio program On Being, but oh, did I enjoy the music.


It was very generous of Gladdening Light to open the concert to the non-participants, otherwise I would have missed not only seeing Gustavo Santalollo perform, but also the other extraordinary musicians and singers who appeared that evening: the world music trio of Free Planet Radio, and the singers Virginia Schenk and Owen Ó Súilleabháin—all extraordinary and fabulous!

But it was Gustavo who in his quiet, even unassuming manner while playing his native stringed instrument, the ronroco, truly combined the ethereal ideals of spirit meeting art and also genius.

Backed by Free Planet Radio, the live presence of his playing those famous movie themes was transcendent in how it touched us in the audience. There was a palpable collective thrill that ignited our energy—we were hushed and enthralled at first, but then the more he played, the more we united with him enough to stand up, sway, dance, and clap along with his music.



Academy Award winning composer, musician Gustavo Santalallo and my friends Barbara and Nelson Betancourt at the Gladdening Light Concert, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida.

I know his music opened my mind and creative spirit even more after that evening.  In particular, Brokeback Mountain continues to play in my head and on my computer because it is one of the soundtracks I listen to (even subconsciously) when I write my own stories allowing my art to meet my spirit.












THE LAST OF US (interesting video of Gustavo discussing his life, and his composing for a video game THE LAST OF US):

READ THE ORIGINAL SHORT STORY: “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx


So far, the news is more intrusive than the actual event—everyone in my Florida neighborhood is concerned about Irma, the biggest monster hurricane ever recorded. While writing this, I am still monitoring its menacing trek which has changed somewhat, but no one really knows where it will land and for how long.

It’s very much like waiting for an enemy attack in a unprovoked, unnecessary war.florida-2669193_1920

The fear is palpable, and heard in snatches of conversations while waiting in lines at the supermarket. There is no water in any of the stores I explored except for the expensive Italian seltzer ones which no one seems to be buying. Nor are there transistor radios, or flashlights or 6 volt batteries.

Gas pumps are empty, except for a few “regular” pumps. It’s as though people bought the highest quality gas for the extra unknown miles in search of a shelter of some sort somewhere.

The ones who are still here were passing me by in their pick-ups filled with the boards they will be putting on windows.

At the convenience store where I did find gas, the woman ahead of me in line bought several lotto tickets—very optimistic I thought. Then I made a mental list of all the practical cleaning things I will probably need next week when this nuisance leaves us devastated, wearied, and steals away our routines, comforts, schedules, security. Our daily mundane yet sanity-saving normalcies. Irma is a low thief as well as a murderer.


On my way home, I passed several women walking on the lonely sidewalks—they are singular, but seem to be the same type: older, shabbily dressed, and carrying tote bags or knapsacks, and large umbrellas. I wonder where they are going walking in this oppressive heat, where they will be when they won’t be able to walk outside in a few hours.

I’ve been bagging all my book manuscripts which I have to edit including my new novel. I may not have time or electricity to input anything for a while. Inside another large black plastic bag I slide other projects: a book I am translating for someone else, my unfinished essays, and other cobbled fictional pieces. For a macabre moment I think of body bags and how this would be my legacy if anyone finds these remainders sitting lumped, dejected, unfinished in my living room.

I laugh at the words “living room.”

When we are faced with huge cataclysmic phenomena that could strike us, we look for omens. I do anyway. It soothes my anxiety in the ways that a benevolent horoscope or I Ching reading will. So here’s a good omen: I found a cache of unused sterno cans I had forgotten about. Bad omen: I broke the glass chimney portion of my hurricane lamp while taking it down from a shelf. Good omen: caring neighbors with a back-up generator offering me a place if mine becomes unbearable. Bad omen: their phone doesn’t work.

Good omen: I bought the last 10 pound bag of ice.

No more bad omens, but a memory.key-west-81665_1920

The last devastating hurricane Central Florida experienced (and me along with it) was Charley in 2004. We were hit with a surprise wallop twice by the same damn hurricane, and the power was out for days. Of course, the weather turned hot and very steamy once it was truly over. I drove around my neighborhood, carefully avoiding all the orphaned roof tiles and downed trees and piles of wet trash until I saw a miracle truck. An ice company was giving out bags of ice for free.

I was so grateful I grabbed and tore the bag I was given, and applied fistfuls of the ice gems to my forehead, which ironically was the soothing poultice that broke through the numbness I had felt for what seemed like years and years.

My Website:  Join my free mailing list for weekly advice on writing literary fiction.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at: and

All rights reserved © 2017 Irene Zabytko





Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


If you were a 19th century visitor to Vasylivka, the home estate where Nikolai Gogol was born in Velyky (Big) Sorochyntsi, Ukraine, you would be taken into the elegant dining room where his exuberant chatty mother, Maria is waiting for the samovar to steam. Even before she pours the tea, she is ready to tell you all about her life and of course, her genius son, “Nikosha.”

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Portrait of Nikolai Gogol, 1840, by F. Moeller

She would say: “I was 14 when I married my husband, Vasyl—Vasylivka our home is named after him. He first saw me in a dream, you know. He was standing before the iconostasis in church and the Tsarina walked through the gates holding a baby in her arms. She told him, ‘this is your wife.’  Seven months later, he was really at church, and saw an infant exactly as the one in the dream. It was me! I was that infant! We were destined for one another even though he was thirteen years older than me.”

2. Maria Ivanivna

Portrait of Maria Gogol (1781-1868)

Maria did marry the very romantic, sometimes melancholy, sometimes comedic Vasyl Gogol (Hohol), and brought his child bride to live at the home estate. She had several miscarriages, and before she was about to give birth to yet another baby, she went to the nearby church of St. Nicholas in the village of Dikanka, and prayed to the patron saint’s icon to spare her child. She also made a bargain with St. Nicholas—she would name her son after the saint if it was a boy, and build a chapel in Vasylivka.

Apparently the terms were to the Saint’s approval, because her child, Nikolai (Mykola) was born on March 31, 1809 (N.S). Maria kept her bargain, and sold the family silver for the money to build a chapel, and adorn the icon she prayed to with a golden frame. It’s still in the church in Dikanka although you won’t be allowed to photograph this wonder icon of Maria’s (and if you are a female, you will have to wear a babushka and skirt as I was made to—just a warning). But her icon is still there. Continue reading


Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


In a letter written on December 20, 1833, Nikolai Gogol wrote: “There, there! To Kyiv! In ancient, in beautiful Kyiv! It is ours, not theirs, is it not?” In other words: Kyiv was Ukrainian in Gogol’s view.

The letter was written to his friend, Mykhaylo Maksymovych, a botanist, linguist, and at the time, the first Rector at St. Volodymyr Royal University in Kyiv where Gogol wanted very much to be a professor.

Gogol also wanted very much to live in Kyiv, a city he knew as a student when he first traveled there on a summer holiday from Nizhyn Gymnasium in 1827. It was in this majestic, ancient city where Gogol no doubt reinforced his Ukrainian ethnic heritage especially his interest in Cossack history.

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Kyiv from the view of the Dnipro River and the Podil section. Postcard, 19th century.

Later, in 1833, he visited Kyiv again as Maksymovych’s guest in his apartment overlooking the Dnipro River. Gogol must have enjoyed the view and the long riverside walks which led him to the Podil, the oldest section of Kyiv and must have been inspirational for the young writer who was writing another book of short stories.

In fact, the Bratstvo Monastery on the Podil was the setting for one short story “Viy,” that appeared in another collection about Ukrainians called Mirgorod  published 1835. This story features a trio of seminarians who all have fantastic and rather gruesome adventures, especially Khoma Brut who is trapped in a church while reading prayers for a dead woman who turns out to be a witch.

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Bratsvo ( Brotherhood, also known as Theophany) Monastery, Podil, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

There are several film versions, the most recent came out in 2014, and was a multi-national venture which I have yet to see.

Going towards and up the road (and the Podil is hilly!) on the street called St. Andrew’s Descent, Gogol and Maksymovych were  familiar guests at the home of the Polish novelist and critic Mikhaylo Grabowsky (1805-1863) who lived at Number 34. Many other famous Ukrainian writers visited this literary mecca including Panteliemon Kulish (who later wrote the first biography about Gogol after his death), and the most famous Ukrainian poet then and now: Taras Shevchenko.


34 St. Andrew’s Descent, Podil Section, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

The building still exists and is located across the street from St. Andrew’s Church which Gogol visited often after his mother complained to him that he hardly went to services anymore.

A few words about Mikhaylo Maksymovych (1804-1873).  He was already well known in Ukraine and certainly to Gogol well before they met since Maksymovych published his first collection of Ukrainian folk songs in 1827–a book the Gogol family owned in their home in Sorochintsy. But it turned out that Gogol knew and shared even more Ukrainian folk songs which were unfamiliar to Maksymovych, so much so that Gogol was mentioned in the acknowledgements in Maksymovych’s second volume in 1834.

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Mykhaylo Maksymovych, Drawing by Taras Shevchenko, 1859.

How did Gogol know so many Ukrainian songs? Probably from hearing them at his home estate in Sorochintsy, where serfs and villagers sang in the fields, and at the “evening parties” as mentioned in Dikanka. He also loved to sing, although I have yet to come across any eye-witness accounts (ear-witness accounts?) describing his voice.

However, the Russian writer Sergei Aksakov describes in his memoirs how Gogol, Maksymovych and a third Ukrainian, the Slavist and professor Osip Bodyansky sing Ukrainian songs at parties. Gogol wears a Ukrainian embroidered shirt and sharavary, those traditional balloon-legged trousers, and Aksakov goes on to say: “It was the usual khokhol [derogatory name for Ukrainains] type music—with whistles and stomps and even Bodyansky almost losing control. He started dancing and practically landed on Konstantin’s [Aksakov’s son] lap.”

Maksymovych did try to help Gogol land a professorship at St. Volodymyr’s—which was later renamed as Taras Shevchenko University (I think Gogol would have been upset over that), but it was never to be. And so, Gogol left Kyiv for St. Petersburg which he disliked, and told Maksymovych in that same letter of December 20, 1833: “I’m tired of St. Petersburg, or better, not it, but the damned climate: it will bake me…”

St. Vlad Univeristy

St. Volodymyr Royal University, Kyiv. (Postcard, 19th century).

The last time Gogol visited Kyiv was in 1848, and ironically at St. Volodymyr’s  Royal University. He was invited to come as an honored guest and famous writer by the Vice-Chancellor (Maksymovych had since left his post there) to meet with the faculty and students. By then, Gogol was exhausted, having returned from his disappointing trip to the Holy Land, and still harboring the excruciating criticisms for his last published book of essays, Selected Passages from Correspondences with Friends.


Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Formerly St. Volodymyr Royal University). (Photo: I.Zabytko)

He was also near-penniless, and frustrated in finishing his second volume of Dead Souls. Most likely, he was also going through another bout of mental breakdowns and physical illnesses, in addition to an overbearing religious mania he acquired in his later years.

Still, he accepted the invitation. It occurred on an unbearably hot day in June. He was late because he went to the University and not to the Vice-Chancellor’s home where they were all waiting for him on the lawn. When he arrived, they applauded and made speeches and then asked him if he could say something to the students—words of advice or encouragement.

He declined.

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Nikolai Gogol Postcard issued in the Soviet Union, 1955.

He was then asked if he would like something to drink.

He said only water which he drank quickly and then handed the empty glass to one of the professors. “I think I saw you once,” Gogol said to the perplexed man. “You were eating in a restaurant. You had onion soup.”

And without a goodbye or thank you, Gogol left and returned to his home in Sorochintsy where he collapsed from heat stroke. It could’ve been worse since a cholera epidemic was raging in Kyiv and environs at the time. His family thought he was dying of cholera when they saw him.

It seems that although Gogol loved Kyiv, Kyiv doesn’t love him, at least not as much. There is one statue of Gogol, and a bust on the façade of the Kyiv Opera House which no one really notices. Somewhere on a wall on the Podil, a Canadian artist donated a small sculpture of a nose and moustache.

At the National Museum of Literature, Gogol has a corner with a replica of his writing desk and a much too long cape—definitely not an original. He pops up here and there in other writers’ exhibits such as the one at the unusual One Street Museum where I first heard of Mikhaylo Grabowsky. Otherwise, there is no Kyivan museum dedicated to Gogol himself (although Pushkin has one, and Shevchenko–three!).

Maybe someday. As Gogol himself famously once said, “No one is a prophet in his own country…” and although Kyiv is now certainly a Ukrainian city, it still isn’t entirely Gogol’s.

Thank you to the guides at the National Museum of Literature, the One Street Museum, Sergey Bilokan, and to Kirill Stepanets for his tour in Kyiv (Kirill’s Kyiv guided tours in Ukrainian and Russian can be found on his Facebook page).


Fulbright Scholar Program:

English version of the short story, “VIY:

One Street Museum:

National Museum of Literature of Ukraine:

Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv:

Sergey Bilokan’s Website:

My Website:  Join my free mailing list for weekly advice on writing literary fiction.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at: and


Copyright © 2017 by Irene Zabytko.  All rights reserved.


Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


In the middle of living in Ukraine during my Fulbright grant, I was allowed to take up another writers’ perk: a free month long residency at an honest to goodness castle in Scotland!  This was a great opportunity for me to take my Gogol novel manuscript and give it a good solid read for edits and rewrites. And what better place to do it in than a Scottish castle!

My residency is officially called “The Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers” and Hawthornden Castle is the beautiful and tranquil setting for invited writers to work in bliss and tranquility on their projects.


Hawthornden Castle, front entrance. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

Hawthornden Castle is located between the villages of Lasswade and Rosewell, but local buses constantly travel to nearby Edinburgh. The only drawback is that there is no Internet service for writers, but I was very glad of that. It forced me to read my manuscript as a book, without distractions by the outside or virtual world. Now that’s a true vacation! Well, for a writer anyway. And actually, there are local pubs down the road (which is also the name of a fine Scottish ale) who offer free Wi-Fi.

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Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.ukraine-small-23600_640

My main purpose in visiting Odesa was to walk the streets where Nikolai Gogol used to inhabit and to visit the Odesa State Literature Museum. I am an absolute literary groupie, and so any city that dedicates an entire museum to its writers—I’m there! Forget the hour boat ride on the Black Sea, or the “Odesa Criminals” tour (I’ll do those another time), but for me, bring on the Literature Museum!

And what a place! It’s an absolute palace (the original owner was a prince after all). None of the writers whose personal effects and books on display in the galleries could ever have afforded to live there—well, maybe Pushkin but he had his own apartment not too far away, and incidentally, Odesa has another museum dedicated only to him.

Odesa Lit Mus Hallway

Main entrance hallway, Odesa State Literature Museum, Odesa, Ukraine (Photo: website).

I visited the Literature Museum twice on two separate occasions. The first was rhapsodic, delightful, dreamy, and fabulous (I could have written an ode to it). The second—well, it was odious overall—not the Museum of course, but the fact that everything on that trip (which will be a pun in a minute) went wrong for all sorts of unfathomable, even karmic reasons culminating in my falling off the stairs at the Museum entrance while filming the exterior, and breaking my ankle. I ignored my accident and pain until ten days later when I succumbed to going to a doctor in Kyiv and was then bivouacked there for the entire winter (more about Kyiv in an upcoming post).

But forget that—I have now that it is Spring, and my leg cast is off, and I am skipping around Ukraine again. Let’s return to that first lovely visit where I was captivated by the idea that 300 great writers like Pushkin, Bunin, Chekhov, Lesya Ukrainka, Ahkmatova, Babel and Gogol too–have been memorialized and honored in that glorious breathtaking building because they had been to Odesa and Odesa still shows them off in a grand place.

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Concert hall, Odesa State Literature Museum, Odesa, Ukraine (Photo: website)

There is an exhibit dedicated to Gogol although it’s in rather a dark, eerie section in one of the lovely rooms. Above hangs a Ukrainian dress tacked on to the ceiling to represent the whimsical flying characters in his first collection of short stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. In the glass case are rare copies of his books, and a hand written account by someone who actually saw and heard him do a public reading in Odesa. That was thrilling!

Continue reading


Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


After my return from Wales, I went on to the southern Ukrainian city of Mykoliav, where I was invited to present a talk to the students and faculty at Petro Mohyla Black Sea State University about my research on Gogol—or actually anything I wanted to talk about as long as it was in English which was certainly fine with me.

This was my second appearance there, thanks to my wonderful friend Tetyana Ostapchuk who was herself a Fulbright alumna in the States where she researched American writers of Ukrainian descent (including myself) and has even translated some of my short stories into Ukrainian and written articles about my collection of short stories, When Luba Leaves Home.

My first visit to Mykolaiv was back in 2013 when I received an IREX travel grant for a documentary film about Chornobyl I was (and still am) creating, and so was invited to present readings from my novel about Chornobyl, The Sky Unwashed and film screenings of my documentary film short “Epiphany at Chornobyl” at the University and at libraries for the local community. Tetyana also provided top-notch Ukrainian translations of both the book and film. Here is a PDF link to the article I wrote about that visit that appeared in “The Ukrainian Weekly”, “My Impressions of Mykolaiv: The Secret City by the Sea” (page 20):

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Petro Mohyla Black Sea State University, Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

My second Mykolaiv appearance was only at the University for the professors and students studying English at the Institute of Philology. I read from several chapters of my novel-in-progress about Gogol and discussed my research about his life in Ukraine. Continue reading


Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.


I should change the title to AN AMERICAN WRITER IN THE U.K. because even though I am living in Ukraine, I was able to escape for a time to two places in the United Kingdom: Wales and Scotland.

For this post, I will tie in my Wales trip with a bit of my Scotland one by way of Chornobyl (Ukrainian transliteration for “Chernobyl”) because I was presenting my talk in the U.K. about that horrific catastrophe that occurred in Ukraine on April 26, 1986.

And since we have once more commemorated this sad tragedy just a few days ago as I am writing this, I thought it appropriate to mention it now.

In late October, 2016, I was among four authors invited to take part in a wonderful book festival called, “The Hearth Literary Festival” at a glorious place called Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden (pronounced “Hawden”) Flintshire, Wales. I have never been to Wales before and so I was thrilled at the opportunity of visiting at least a small part of this beautiful country.


Entrance to Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden Flintshire, Wales. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

Gladstone’s Library was founded by William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) who was Britain’s Prime Minister, and in an magnanimous gesture, he donated 32,000 of his personal book collection to this magnificent building which is now a residential library. The story goes that at age 85, Gladstone, along with his valet and daughter, brought those books from his home three miles away in a wheelbarrow to the Library, and also shelved the books according to his own unique system.

Of course, the books have since multiplied over the years to the present day, and I am very honored that my own novel, THE SKY UNWASHED (about the elderly evacuees who returned to their irradiated village after the Chornobyl disaster) is among them.


THE SKY UNWASHED displayed at Gladstone’s Library. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

It was also a privilege to present a reading of this novel and to feature my short film EPIPHANY AT CHORNOBYL for the Welsh audience who were very gracious and engaged in this topic. Wales was also very much affected by the Chornobyl fall-out, specifically in North Wales (and in Cumbria and Scotland).  The radiation spread over the grasslands and hills where sheep were grazing, and contaminated the animals. A ban was declared against the livestock which caused much economic hardship for the farmers, and was not lifted until 2012.

I returned in mid-November to another part of the U.K. –Scotland where I was invited to spend November and December as a writer-in-residence at Hawthorden Castle, which is near Edinburgh. There, I was able to spend a month working on my novel about Nikolai Gogol, and I will post more about that adventure (and that Castle!) in a future post.

I did want to mention that I was able to do another Chornobyl presentation for the Ukrainian community of Edinburgh. This was a group I was looking forward to meeting again since my first Edinburgh visit back in the late 1980s when I was helping out at a friend’s play during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was then I discovered the Scottish Ukrainians who are better known as The Association of Ukrainians of Great Britain—Scotland (AUGB) , and naturally I was delighted to return this time to read from THE SKY UNWASHED and to also screen EPIPHANY AT CHORNOBYL.


The AUGB Building, Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo: Website)

The Edinburgh faction of the AUGB is a vibrant and dedicated group of Ukrainians and Scots. They own a beautiful building in the town center where they hold Ukrainian events and even host plays for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve met many fabulous people but wanted to single out one particular person who was kind enough to give me a book of his own about his adventures in helping the victims of Chornobyl: TO CHERNOBYL, WITH LOVE

Jim's BOOK

His name is Jim Gillies, and although he is not Ukrainian, Jim was so taken by the news of the Chornobyl disaster that he single-handedly made it his personal mission and one man vigil to help out the children who were affected, and as he painfully discovered on his own—were without proper and much needed medical supplies at one of the hospitals near Kyiv. I was enthralled by his book which I read nearly non-stop, and was amazed by his generosity, humanity, and his dedication and compassion.  His book and his heroic work should be known and applauded.

In addition to Jim Gillies, I also would like to thank the following people for allowing me to present and share my work on Chornobyl:  Linda Allison, Chairperson, and all the members of the AUGB-Scotland; and to all at Gladstone’s Library in particular the Hearth Festival organizers: Louisa Yates, Amy Sumner, and for the initial invitation to Gladstone: Katharine Easterby, and Peter Francis, Warden of Gladstone’s Library.


Fulbright Scholar Program:

Gladstone’s Library:

Association of Ukrainians of Great Britain (AUGB SCOTLAND)

Jim Gillies book, TO CHERNOBYL, WITH LOVE (with Murray Scougall) is available on

My Chornobyl Documentary Film website:

My website with links to my books:

NEXT POST: Return to Ukraine and the secret city of Mykolaiv.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at: and

Copyright © 2017 by Irene Zabytko.  All rights reserved.

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 6): “Another Gogolian Heir–Bruno Schulz”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.ukraine-small-23600_640

I am very fond of Drohobych, a mid-sized ancient city dating back to the 11th century in Western Ukraine and about 85 kilometers from Lviv. I taught English there in the summer of 1994 and probably the first American to appear before my students after Ukraine’s independence.

Those were highly challenging times for Ukraine— store shelves were empty, lines were long for the few things left on them, and people were confused on how to adjust to a dwindling economy after divorcing Russia and the Soviet Union. The citizens were undergoing tremendous economic hardships in adapting to circumstances that they were not prepared for–many yearned for the end to Communism, but few had the resources to survive its departure.

My personal attachments go even further back in time. My mother went to school in Drohobych in the 1930s. She was a village girl whose natural singing abilities were recognized early, and with much sacrifice from her family, she went to live with a family in Drohobych near the school where she was taught music and voice lessons. Eventually, she proved to be talented enough to go on to the music conservatory in the bigger city of Lviv where she trained as a mezzosoprano before giving it all up to come to America.

Unbeknownst to her, she lived in the same neighborhood as the writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), and I often wondered if she had past him on her way to her beloved music school, and he to his detested job as an art teacher. If not, then she certainly shopped at his father’s cloth store for the materials she needed to sew her own clothes especially when she appeared on stage or at auditions. Continue reading