September is Ukrainian Heritage Month here in Ontario, so I wanted to share some recommendations from our Ukrainian collection. You loyal readers out there will hopefully be tempted to explore some of these intriguing reads. Included below are Ukrainian, Canadian-Ukrainian, and other authors with ties to the country. Given that they make up a significant proportion of our population, Ukrainian people have substantially contributed to our society (Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian-Canadian, for example). This contribution includes the development of a spectrum of rich artistic and cultural expression.
Andrei Kurkov was born in Russia and writes his fiction in Russian, but he moved to Kyiv when he was only two years old. His identity has been steeped in the experience of living there, and he’s become one of the most well-known Ukrainian writers the world over. With the advent of the war in Ukraine, he has become something of a representative for his people, even sharing a personal war diary with BBC Radio 4. Here he talks with the Guardian about getting used to air raid alerts sounding through his cellphone several times a day.
Art imitates life, of course, and the war has permeated his fiction. Grey Bees takes place before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in the ‘grey zone’ between the Russian-backed separatists and loyalists in conflict in the eastern part of the country. Kurkov’s narrative favours the everyday struggles of his protagonist, Sergey Sergeyich, a beekeeper trying to find a new home for his hives with the fighting going on around him. The absurdity and endearing quality of that premise, coupled with a deft nuance, all make this novel entirely appealing. Kurkov himself seems like he would make an excellent dinner party guest.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Ukrainian-Canadians is Dr. Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman to become a NASA astronaut. She was also the first neurologist to reach outer space and by all accounts an incredibly impressive individual. I remember doing a school project on Dr. Bondar in elementary school.
A well-intentioned, slightly distorted drawing of her features still comes to mind whenever I think of her. I have no idea what the project was, but it resembled a postcard. The drawing was on the front, carefully outlined in thick pencil crayon and delicately coloured in, and a paragraph of generally punctuation-less text was on the back.
I’m not surprised to find that Dr. Bondar is continuing to do remarkable things. One of which is being an excellent photographer. We have her book of Canadian national parks photographs in our collection. Passionate Vision has over 100 accomplished pictures and even some from space. Curated quotations reflect the diversity on display, and Dr. Bondar includes autobiographical elements as well, reflecting on the inherent connections to her own life story. We have another of her collections in our catalogue as well, entitled simply Canada. This latter one is devoted to landscape photography as well. Evidently, Bondar has a deep and abiding love for the beautiful vistas we have in Canada.
Originally from Ukraine, Maria Reva grew up in Vancouver and received her MFA at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. This is a writer with an intimidating CV. Publications with hefty names abound: Best American Short Stories, McSweeny’s, The Journey Prize Stories (familiar to those who’ve read my blog post here), and Granta. Her short story collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear uses a block of apartment buildings in Kirovka, Ukraine as the central setting, thereby creating continuity from one short narrative to the next. The stories here cover a wide range of time, from the time of the Soviet Union to after its dissolution. Focusing on one specific apartment block sounds fascinating as a means of drawing a detailed portrait of that location, but also setting the stage for a wider political discussion about the effects of a totalitarian government on the people of Ukraine. Definitely sounds like an engaging read.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is the subject of The Zelensky Effect, a non-fiction exploration of the man as a symbol of everything the nation has come to represent. Along with Henry E. Hale, Onuch includes extensive research into the history, as well as political and social forces, that have resulted in a strong Ukrainian national and civic identity. Along the way, vignettes from Zelensky’s past are included to illustrate the authors’ point: Zelensky’s story is the story of the Ukrainian people.
And if you’re interested in Ukrainian history, I will briefly mention The Gates of Europe as a seminal historical text from American-Ukrainian writer Serhii Plokhyi. Going all the way back to neanderthal times and then journeying all the way forward up to 2015 is no mean feat, even for a Harvard professor. For a survey of the complex cultural and political influences that have shaped the area and its history, look no further.
Please do share your own favourite authors with ties to Ukraine in the comments or other artistic people that come to mind, and check out the list created by another one of our staff members below for more recommendations!