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

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 5): “The Gogol-Franko Connection.”

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.

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My parents and their families came from the Western part of Ukraine—in the area known as Halychyna (also called Galicia in English and not to be confused with the Galicia in Spain).

Unlike Eastern, Central and Southern Ukraine which were dominated by the Russian Empire before the Soviets did, Halychyna had its own parallel history of overlords by another empire–the Austro-Hungarian one.

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Postcard of Lviv  (then called Lemberg and Lwow), c. 1915.

Later, it was given to Poland until 1939 when the Soviet Union annexed Halychyna as part of the Ukrainian S.S.R., and still remains part of independent Ukraine although in many ways and because of different historical legacies (and tyrannies),  Halychyna differs in its identity compared to the rest of the country.

In my mother’s time (she came to the States after marrying my father, a Ukrainian-American in 1937), Polish was the predominant language and Ukrainian was denigrated and prohibited especially in the capitol city of  Lviv which was called Lwow by the Poles, Lemberg by the Habsburgs, and Lvov by the Russians.

These days, Lviv is very much a Ukrainian city although I hear more and more Russian spoken everywhere probably because of the many people who fled to Western Ukraine from the ongoing war in Donetsk. Still, it is a beautiful city and retains much of the Habsburg influence with cafes and cobblestoned streets and outstanding architecture like the Opera House which mercifully was not bombed by the Soviets or the Nazis during the Second World War.

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Lviv Opera House (officially called the Solomyiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet), built in 1897-1900, Lviv, Ukraine.

Too bad Gogol never visited Lviv. He would have gotten around quite well speaking in Polish (which he also knew). He probably wasn’t even aware he had fans in Western Ukraine and that his books—especially those with Ukrainian themes like his story collection EVENINGS ON A FARM NEAR DIKANKA and the historical epic about Ukrainian Cossacks, TARAS BULBA were immensely popular in Halychyna.  No doubt, Gogol’s works were consciousness-raising  mediums for the Western Ukrainians living through their own repressions and who needed a literary icon to resurrect their pride in being Ukrainian—and despite the persistent fact that Gogol’s books were written in Russian, yet another colonial language Ukrainians were forced to know.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 4): “Something More About Nizhyn…”

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.

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Unless you’re a besotted Gogol fanatic as I am, then you probably have never heard of the town of Nizhyn. It’s situated about 100 miles from Kyiv: an hour an half by train, less than that by car if the wheels aren’t blown out by the many, many pock-holes on the highways, and probably about four or five hours by carriage if you were living in the 19th century.

There was a very good reason why Prince Bezborodko decided to build his Lyceum for noble boys (and the school where Gogol attended for eight years) in Nizhyn and not in Kyiv because at the time, in the 1820s, Nizhyn was a very important cultural center and the government seat of the province of Chernihiv. Much much later, Nizhyn had another history under the Soviets when it became a secret city with aerodromes and weapons technology which is probably why you had never heard of Nizhyn much if at all.

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Nizhyn, 19th Century Lithograph by P. Borelya (Gogol Museum, Nizhyn Gogol State University).

It’s very accessible now and the town center is quite attractive thanks to several older and non-Soviet style buildings still in evidence. There are also a lot of churches with the obsequious Eastern Orthodox onion domes making up much of the sky-line. No doubt, many were visited by the young Gogol who may not have been very religious as a student (that was to come later after his fame as a writer) but now and then, he must have been enticed by the sonorous bells, the glorious choirs, and the sacred chants he learned by heart well before he left his village home in Sorochintsy to attend the Nizhyn school at the age of nine.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 3): “Something About Nizhyn, OR An American Rushes in Where Fools Fear to Tread.”

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.

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I have been to Ukraine many times in the past but never to Nizhyn which is where I was heading on an awful flight from the U.S.A. in early September 2016.

I’ll skip all the tumultuous things that happened en route—suffice to say that everything that could have gone wrong did indeed go very badly–except a crash landing which I truly am grateful did not happen. And so I was grateful to have landed in Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport disgruntled but intact along with my battered luggage (which was brand new when I boarded the plane) and will someday write a post about that adventurous (!) flight.

But I was back in Kyiv! The city had changed and grown so much since I was last there in 2014 as an American observer for the Ukrainian presidential elections. For one thing, there were more bizarre and no doubt oligarchic-inspired skyscrapers that marred and overshadowed many of the still beautiful historical buildings (why is it that oligarchs have such bad taste?), but even so, there is a stalwart soulful core within Kyiv that Gogol also acknowledged and loved.

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Nikolai Gogol as a student in Nizhyn, circa 1828.

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Ah, Nikolai Gogol—the reason for my being in Ukraine. To do research and live in the town of Nizhyn  where the 19th century Ukrainian writer spent most of his childhood years at what was then called Prince Bezborodko’s School of Higher Studies for noble boys. Gogol was 11 when he attended the school in 1821, and remained there as a boarding student until age 19 in 1828. Continue reading

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 2): Who is Nikolai Gogol and Why Do I Love This Guy?

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

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I’ve been living with Nikolai Gogol for seven years.

By that I mean for all those years, I was consumed by trying to figure out this very enigmatic writer and person.

Like an obsessive groupie, I was searching for something, anything about him so that I might become closer to his mysterious personality. I read and reread everything he wrote. I searched and researched articles and biographies. I watched documentaries about his life, and movie versions of his plays and stories.

I found other Gogol lovers who enjoyed talking about this mercurial, vexing, and yet incredibly brilliant 19th century Ukrainian writer.

My conversations with my non-Gogolite friends were monopolized by my gushing lectures about the recent glimmerings I discovered that made him more real (for me at least). For instance, I would tell them things like: “Did you know that Gogol used to knit to keep calm? He also drank enormous amounts of water. And he invented a macaroni recipe. The secret ingredient– rum!”

Seven years is a long time in any relationship and is especially wearying when it’s one-sided. I am in love with a ghost whose life revealed many human flaws. Gogol was in his time misinterpreted, misunderstood, and actually disliked by many.  He was also adored, beloved and worshipped as a writer of genius and originality.

Everything about him was conflicted and unpredictable—which can be both challenging and exhilarating for a writer such as myself who has taken on the mountainous task of writing (and rewriting and rewriting) a novel about him. Despite his idiosyncratic behavior and absolutely backward views on most things—I still feel very smitten over this guy. Continue reading

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 1): Discovering My Literary Role Model

Foreword: To all of my email subscribers to my previous blogs and posts, so sorry if you haven’t heard from me in a while. 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.

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Here I am in Ukraine—a country you may have heard about but perhaps only fleetingly because it comes and goes in the news very quickly. Lots of historically significant events and upheavals are happening even as I write this, but hopefully in my new series of blog posts, you may become as interested, captivated and concerned as I am over this country and its beauty and people.

I’ve been to Ukraine many times before, and was aware of this part of the world because my mother was born here. My father was ethnically Ukrainian but born in the States. Much later, he came to Ukraine where he found my mother and whisked her away–and her glorious operatic voice—to Chicago where I was born and raised in the part of the city called “Ukrainian Village.” It’s a very chic and upscale area, but when I was growing up it was hardly so; in fact we called it “the Ukie ghetto.”

My first language was Ukrainian, I attended Ukrainian school and churches in the neighborhood and despite its rich culture, I ignored it as a young adult because I wanted so very badly to become an “American” writer.

At first, I tried copying the great literary classic writers–American and others–that I loved to read: Cheever, Woolf, Austen, Hemingway, Dickens and of course, the Russians. I devoured Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekov and someone named Nikolai Gogol.

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Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol) c. 1840s

I supposed I glommed on to the 19th century Russians because I eventually realized that I could never be a true American no matter my citizenship, and whenever I tried to create characters with names like Brooke and Skippy drinking champagne in their posh Connecticut mansion, it never worked well in my stories. It did for Cheever and Fitzgerald, but not for me.

But the Russian novel characters with long sweeping Slavic names were more familiar and natural to my sensibilities. Instinctually, I understood their dolorous behavior, their incessant winters, their sentimental love affairs. My senses embraced the scent of birch wood burning in their stoves, the sour taste of the kvass they drank, and their indigenous harmonic melodies of their songs when threshing wheat in golden fields.

 

Actually, I was more in love with the works by Nikolai Gogol (especially his fiction) than the other “Russian” writers, and it wasn’t until I started an MFA in Writing Program when I discovered that Gogol was not a Russian, but a Ukrainian! Like myself!

What a revelation! A world class writer who not only wrote about Ukrainians, who knew and embraced the Ukrainian language, culture and history, but was himself ethnically a Ukrainian!

This was an enormous gift for my fledging writing because in Nikolai Gogol, I found a mentor who not only shared an ethnicity I myself had abandoned, but his works encouraged me to turn my eye back on the people and culture I grew up amongst and reclaim them for my own stories.

After many years since this eye-opener and two books to my credit, I began writing a novel based on the strange and bizarre life of Nikolai Gogol. The novel began to take shape except that I didn’t spend much time writing about his early life in Ukraine.

It was then I decided to apply for a Fulbright—a wonderful opportunity for scholars and artists to travel to another country to do research or teach. And after winning it, I came to Ukraine for the purpose of researching the early years of Nikolai Gogol’s life in Ukraine and as a Ukrainian.

If you are not familiar with Gogol–google him! I will explain more about him and his hold on me and my hold on him in the next post.

LINKS:

For more information about the U.S. Fulbright Program go to: http://www.cies.org/

Read the first chapter of my novel about Gogol as first performed by the Liars League NYC: http://www.liarsleaguenyc.com/the-death-inspector-generals-report-by-irene-zabytko

More information about Irene Zabytko’s WRITING WISDOM: http://www.irenezabytko.com

https://www.facebook.com/izwritingwisdom/, https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001K8J908,

NEXT POST: Why I love Gogol despite his many flaws.

Thank You, Edna Ferber—An Appreciation on International Women’s Day

I was twelve when I decided I wanted to be a writer. There was no logic or precedence to this dream, since no one in my blue collar immigrant family in Chicago’s west side were role models.

Even more daring was my wanting to be a fiction writer–but that came later thanks to Edna Ferber.

Prior to that, I suppose I first discovered the escape and solace of a good story whenever I was having a bad day at school (many of those), or to drown out my warring family members, or feeling yet another betrayal by friends who were anything but friendly.

Stories provided the adventures and the companions that were more fascinating than my real life where I could forget my then miserable young self and not worry about being yelled at or mocked by Jo March, or David Copperfield who were having their own troubles.

My ambition to become a writer came to me unexpectedly.

It happened after my gang-infested neighborhood library became too treacherous a trek to visit whenever I needed another book. Instead, I discovered another more glorious one—the magnificent main branch of The Chicago Public Library.

The trip there meant taking a long bus ride, but I was glad to get far, far away from the pornographic graffiti on buildings, and garbage swirling around the many broken cars, often resting on bricks, that were forever being repaired by our unemployed neighbors.

The main Library was located in a beautiful 19th century building near Lake Michigan. It was a swanky part of Chicago, but I always felt comfortable until the time I was in the middle of an outdoor book sale on its property.

The Library was actually selling its discarded books as a fundraiser. It seemed strange and out of character to me that such a grand building needed to do something akin to a garage sale to stay alive.

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Why Fiction Is My First Love

I wish it wasn’t—there is something strange and bizarre about an adult spending time alone making up imaginary stories along with equally imaginary people who will be featured in tense drama, and clashing conflict and probably unbearable unhappiness all because the writer is in need of expressing oneself by concocting a whopping tale to entice strangers into readers.

Perhaps some bond will be made with the unknown readers who chance upon the story, maybe will like it, maybe not, or will be moved by it in some incalculable way. Or they will find meaning in it that the writer had never intended, but even so the writer is grateful anyone paid attention and so writes another tale, and maybe another.

I’ve been on both ends of the bonding process. As a reader, I am most faithful to fiction because I love the unfolding of a good story, the characters growing or devolving because of the action they are in the midst of, and if it’s a good well written story, I will slavishly follow it to the end for the ultimate outcome whether it’s in the form of resolution, reflection or remedy for the characters I get to know throughout the telling. And then if it’s a story that changes me along with the characters, and the story is memorable well, then it’s one I will recommend, cherish and even reread someday again. Or wait for the movie version. Continue reading

10 Quick Writing Tips To Woo Editors and Readers

When I wasn’t writing or teaching, I often had the pleasure (and the agony) of being an editor for various fiction publications and publishers. As the first reader of many, many (far too many) unsolicited fiction manuscripts that found their way to my diminishing desktop (real and virtual), there were immediate telltale signs of which writers would be published, and which ones would be getting that familiar and discouraging, “Thank you for your submission, but…” letter of rejection.

Often the writer is unaware of the various turn-offs editors find when they read your work for the first time. It’s almost like going out on a date—if you don’t exhibit a polished, fascinating and amazing story that is going to make an editor fall in love or at least be mesmerized by what you present, then there will never be that second date. Or third, or even a real relationship in the form of a committed promise for publication.

Here are some tips I gleaned over the years that may help you win the love—or at least the admiration of an editor and certainly your readers too: Continue reading