Reviews

Selfhood And The Perilous State

A review of Sonya Bilocerkowycz's new essay collection, "On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine"

Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s debut essay collection, On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine, was recently named by Literary Hub as one of the fall’s most anticipated essay collections, alongside new releases by Elena Ferrante, Leslie Jamison and Rebecca Solnit. Bilocerkowycz was raised within the Ukrainian diaspora, between South Dakota and Chicago, attending Ukrainian summer camp in Wisconsin. In search of ancestral and cultural discovery in her collection, she arrives in Lviv in 2013 to teach at Ukrainian Catholic University, eager to “earn [her] name.” Soon after, she bears witness to the Ukrainian revolution — she comes across as a clear-eyed witness. “Revolutions require heroes,” she writes, “and I wish to be one.”

Bilocerkowycz is no mere tourist: she has family in rural Ukraine and she can speak Ukrainian and some Russian. She attends protests against Moscow’s “dictatorship laws” with her boyfriend while they keep secrets from each other; as a Fulbright fellow in Belarus, she is plagiarized by the Belarusian opposition and coerced into writing a “positive” follow-up in order to resume her job. What begins as a meditation on the word “thug” to describe Vladimir Putin culminates in a confrontation with Russians heckling her, insisting she is brainwashed, as she stages a mini picket line in Columbus, Ohio, on the 10th anniversary of journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. Her observations invite a serious interrogation of selfhood in relation to the individual’s often perilous relationship with the state.

As a narrator, Bilocerkowycz is vulnerable on nearly every page, but her collection is not about millennial navel gazing. Rather, the vulnerability is in service to the exploration of some of the most urgent questions of our time, such as: How do we regard nationalism when it’s the product of well-documented victimhood? The question is never asked explicitly, yet it pulses throughout the narrative. “Is it bigoted to dislike those who march through the world with imperial aims?” she asks early on, and then tangles the question throughout the essays that follow.

An anecdote in the penultimate essay has the author reflecting on her decision to “…[wave my]…hand…to inform my teacher that our textbook was misleading, that the world’s worst nuclear disaster had not just happened in the USSR but rather that it had happened in Ukraine, which is now a sovereign nation, not at all Soviet, and not at all Russian.” Her correction isn’t wrong, but at the time of writing, she sees it as “a sign of how preciously we hold our victimhood.” What strikes me as remarkable about the essays is not that Bilocerkowycz has a life full of anecdotes that are as political as they are personal, or that she lived in three former Soviet-bloc countries in her twenties and did not appear to sit on the sidelines for very much of it, but that the stories of her life are relentlessly shoved under her own microscope to be probed, without imposing a political agenda.

The most memorable persona on the page is Bilocerkowycz’s grandmother, Busia. Busia warns the author not to answer the door, lest authorities come and take you away; they sing the Ukrainian national anthem together before breakfast, and Busia asks her granddaughter, well into adulthood, if she is eating enough. One passage that floored me also seemed to explore most powerfully the collection’s themes of troubling nationalism and Ukrainian displacement:

“Busia is taken as an ostarbeiter, or ‘eastern worker,’ into Germany. She is a foreign slave from the occupied territories, shipped here to alleviate Germany’s wartime labor shortage…Busia passes the racial screening. Her Ukrainian peasant features are Aryan-looking enough for a home placement, which means the racial purity of Nazi Germany won’t be terribly disrupted if the father of the household decides to rape my grandmother.”

This kind of direct and gutting writing guides us through one of the more honest examinations of family history I’ve encountered. How do we make peace with our ancestors, Bilocerkowycz must ask herself as her search deepens? What if those ancestors are not the victims we have long imagined? As she pieces together mythology and public records to try to understand her great-grandfather’s life and decisions, she discovers “…he was, essentially, a stateless man, and a stateless man is a weak man.” The essays build to a shocking discovery that provides a thud of misunderstanding about our collective pasts — our very ideas of ourselves —  that is so profound that I have a hard time imagining a reader who will not feel equally stunned and seen.

This is one of the many values of this magnificent debut: it expanded my intelligence of terrifying political trends around the world. “By now I’m convinced our existence begs to be written, an entry composed for each coincidence,” Bilocerkowycz writes late in the book. If we consider this collection as an answer to this call, it’s a hell of an entry.


NONFICTION
On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine
By Sonya Bilocerkowycz
Mad Creek Books
September, 2019

Sonya Bilocerkowyz’s essays and poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Guernica, The Southampton Review, Ninth Letter, ImageCrab Orchard Review. On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine is her first book.

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