Monday, January 23, 2012

as love is, home is (erin mouré)

local foxtails in a local field, taken on solstice, dec. 2011

(Dear blog, I am sorry for neglecting you! Sometimes months go by. I still haven't finished my autumn chronology of photos, but soon...)

Mostly I just want to exclaim with great anticipation over Erin Mouré's new book, which is currently finding its way over the Atlantic to me; I vaguely knew it would be appearing, and that it dealt with her mother's childhood emigration from Western Ukraine, but I found her blog about the book the other day and it brought me such excitement I ordered the book immediately.

It's a little collection, this blog, of excerpts and related links, parts of the process of the book coming together, and already I cannot wait to immerse myself in her narrative(s). It's a book-length poem, her mother's story of 'coming from nowhere', from a place caught between the Ukrainian and Polish borders, complicated by wars and top-down struggles of exclusion/inclusion that didn't mirror the way her people felt. I am just so excited that it examines the idea of the 'local' -- tuteshnyj, in Ukrainian -- that is less about ethnicity and more about the belonging to a place, to a community of people (of beings, of entities) which is something that needs to be examined deeply and seriously, especially in this part of the world.

(if you read nothing else on the blog, read this bit -- this is the essence)

She alludes to the violence caused by ethnic and religious labels, of the various ruling powers' (Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Soviet, Ukrainian) need to categorise and create not only physical but mental, emotional borders between people, and how this was so utterly destructive. From a family considered 'half-Polish, half-Ukrainian', she discusses the trauma that this caused her grandparents, and the dismissal she even received recently about her 'ethnic heritage':

Although today’s independent Ukraine is still rife with confusions and the need for new historiography that fully admits all parts of its past (imagine here: the professor in L’viv who eagerly asked me my family name then responded flatly and without interest “that’s a Polish name,” effectively expelling me again from national territory that is just as much mine as it is hers), it does now include as its citizens everyone who lives on its territory. All, today, regardless of background, are Ukrainians. And I am half Ukrainian, of the Hamulyaks of the earth and of the Hrandyshi of the air, the tuteshni, the people “from here.” I come from people of the Ukrainian earth who trade with and recognize the legitimacy of all the peoples.

(Erin Mouré, Here.)

My own family's story is a little bit simpler, at first glance -- they lived much further away from the Polish border, in a town 'overseen' by Polish landlords but there did not seem to be such tensions between the two 'peoples'. I've heard other families from the area arguing about whether their names are 'Polish' or 'Ukrainian', but in my family it seemed less contentious -- my baba identified herself as Ukrainian, mentioning Hutsuls and Boikos (Ukrainian 'subgroups', according to ethnographers, and another issue in itself!) as what her people were often called locally ("but there were many Polish people, and Jewish people too" she said), and maybe it's because her own mother's family had Tatar ancestry and she married my grandpa who carried an old Czech name, but Ukrainian-ness itself was not something she mentioned much. The nationalist aspect didn't seem to interest her much.

(On my grandfather's side -- also from Nebyliw -- there was more tension, but in terms of religion, not so much ethnicity, with Eastern Orthodox and Jewish people being forced to 'convert' to marry Greek (Eastern) Catholics, causing some rifts when children of the 'converted' decided to take up the other faiths, etc. But I don't know the full story there, it's only becoming unearthed as of late*)

What struck me more was the way she referred to the place she was from. She didn't talk so much about 'Ukraine' -- after all, that wasn't so much what it was called when she lived there, other than for a few brief years when she was very young -- but of Nebyliw itself, her village, and of the Old Country.

In fact, one my earliest memories of this is from when I was about 4 and I was playing with my globe. My dad had been teaching me country names and I was just learning to read so I was trying to identify them. I searched and searched, but got quite frustrated and indignant when I couldn't find 'The Old Country' anywhere on the map. "But that's what she calls it!" I said to my father when he laughed at me.

This reference to the old and to the new made it seem to me that it was less important to her about being from 'Ukraine', the imagined community, but rather, it was this old country, from Nebyliw, that physical place, where there was a community of people who spoke at least three different languages and herded cows, and sheep, and planted crops and brought fish and eels to the nearby market in exchange for salt, and ran logs from the mountains down the Lymnytsya river.

And so I am eager to read the story of Mouré's mother, and the village of Hlibovychi Velkye, to better understand these border stories, the way her family experienced the local, the being from here, in a place that saw great turmoil and great tragedies. It heartens me that links to this site about a whole project aiming to research Ukraine from a non-nationalist point of view (rare in the post-Soviet regions, let me tell you!) and it gives me hope for new ways of analysing and understanding this place my own mother's multifaceted relatives came from, and understanding what I have inherited through my family's fraught history, and understanding what place meant to them.

*I also wish I had asked my own baba more about what happened in her village in WWII (it was a site of combat in WWI, when her own father died, and sometimes families were split by the border of fighting for Austria-Hungary vs. fighting for Russia), but they left shortly before things got really awful in Western Ukraine, and I wonder how much she really knew, what her relatives told her. I know some of her relatives helped hide some people from the Galician SS and from Stalinist purges at various times, but again, I don't know the whole story. (This is another reason that Everything is Illuminated destroyed me especially thoroughly, knowing that such things likely happened there too, in Nebyliw, to my relatives).