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