Blending folklore, journalism, and a quartet of interwoven narratives, Kalani Pickhart’s debut novel, I Will Die in a Foreign Land, takes place during the 2013-14 Ukrainian Revolution amidst a wave of winter protests. Set in Kyiv at the heart of the civil unrest, the novel is orchestral and electrifying, with its main characters—Katya, Misha, Slava, and Aleksandr—orbiting around its central location. The novel has already garnered starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Kalani and I had the opportunity to collaborate briefly when I was the managing editor at TriQuarterly, where we worked together on her forthcoming short story, “Propinquity.” We later emailed about writing a first novel, MFAs during the 2016 election, and including journalism in fiction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I’m not sure how to explain this, but I feel like there’s a sort of commercial pressure with multiple point-of-view novels that the author performs a number of complicated technical maneuvers without going overboard. In other words, the novel is expected to do too much while somehow remaining spare, clean, and cohesive. Maybe it’s my imagination. Still, I never felt that with I Will Die in a Foreign Land. How did you go about writing something that is especially structurally complex without losing sight of the central narrative or characters?
During the early stages of writing this manuscript, I only knew Aleksandr and Katya. Eventually, new voices started to manifest, bringing about Slava and Misha. Once I knew these were the four main storylines in the book, I started writing each of the perspectives straight through, which isn’t usually how I work, but it was the only way that made sense to me at the time. I wrote all of Katya, then Aleksandr, then Misha, then Slava. It was important to me that I intimately knew each person’s story and that I felt a true connection to them, even if all the information didn’t end up in the book—it seemed the most natural way to approach things. I’ve never written a novel before, and never attempted to before, so it all came down to what felt right. After I had all the stories written from each perspective, I started stitching the story together, paying attention to how each one complimented or enhanced the others.
I have been working on this book since 2016, so I knew the general arc of each of the narratives, I knew each of the characters deeply, and most of all, I knew the emotional and tonal movement of the book by the time I was working with Two Dollar Radio. The glue, though, has always been the Kobzari voice. There are sections dedicated to the Kobzari, but it’s also peppered throughout. It shows up in the news articles and shows up as poetry. It’s this omniscient, primordial voice of Ukraine that slips into the story at these unexpected moments. Even Aleksandr is able to tap into during the last weeks of his life while recording his memoir. The Kobzari is definitely the tonal thread stitching the book together.
That being said, looking back this book was super uneven when I was querying it, and I’ve been fortunate to have such thoughtful and careful editors for this manuscript at 2DR. I can’t fathom the manuscript before Eric and Eliza entered the picture: there are massive changes we made to Aleksandr’s storyline and Slava’s that make the original unrecognizable.
On that note, one of the things I loved about IWDIAFL was the blend of folklore and current events, there’s a sense of the immediate, but the urgency is grounded in something more timeless, whether that’s grief, location, or something else. How were you thinking about presenting a contemporary moment in a larger historical and cultural context?
A great deal of the book, especially through Katya and Slava, is told in present-tense, which can be an unsettling experience for a reader because it does convey urgency and a sense of being unmoored. Both women are trying to move past their trauma without looking at it – those moments that they do look inward or backward are especially difficult for them. Everything at Maidan feels as if it’s all happening at once, but because everything is happening at this particular church, it’s something for the reader to hold onto in this unfamiliar world. Conversely, Misha’s and Aleksandr’s storylines are more often or exclusively reflections into the past – and both are emotionally ensnared by it, and unable to move on. I didn’t intentionally make these choices, though. I wasn’t thinking, I will write Misha more reflective and Slava less-so; it just kind of happened as I entered the consciousness of each person. For example, Katya, as a doctor, is very much steadily responding to things as they come. It’s when she has a break to take a smoke or something that she starts reflecting, and most of those reflections are painful, and not unlike Misha’s or Aleksandr’s.
An important part of writing for me is finding the singular thread that brings everything together. Synchronicity, chance, fate—whatever you want to call it—is what helps me make up the connective tissue of a narrative.
I wrote the first draft of IWDIAFL in a novel writing workshop. It was the first workshop of my MFA, and it was taking place during the 2016 US Presidential Election. It was even on a Tuesday night, so we were all in class but checking our phones, watching things unravel in real-time. Meanwhile, I was in a novel literature course where we were reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. In many ways, I was simply immersed in all the right material, in the right circumstances, at a unique time. I was researching the events at the Euromaidan in Ukraine, which mirrored many aspects of the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Prague in 1968. The results of the US election left many nations like Ukraine uneasy—how would the new president impact international relations, especially since the president was so friendly with Vladimir Putin? Literally every bit of media that I encountered at the time seemed to be speaking to the book, whether it was Kundera, The Atlantic, or Twitter. The importance of the project just never stopped being real for me.
I was in my MFA at the same time, and I remember that feeling of constantly checking my phone around the election in workshop. I think it can be really difficult to put words to the uncertainty and anxiety of that period. How has your writing changed since then?
I guess I would say that that anxiety really hasn’t let up, especially with the ongoing pandemic and political landscape. There are very few millennials I know who aren’t feeling existential dread and fatigue and I’m certainly one that does. The interesting thing though, is that despite it, I have never once asked myself “what’s the point?” when it comes to writing. You’d think that in times like this people would abandon their passions, but we’ve only seen people lean into them more.
Since 2016, I’ve definitely slowed down when it comes to writing. Part of that is time: not being in an MFA makes things harder to get into a mindset, and by extension, it takes longer to work through. For example, the story I have coming out in TriQuarterly only took me a couple days from first draft to full revision, but I had been thinking about that story since October 2019. I’d like to have at least a first rough draft of my new novel by the beginning of the new year. I don’t like this feeling of being unmoored. But I’m more willing these days to take things as they come. It’s like falling in love: it’ll take time.
Speaking of, time, from my reading, is also central to this novel’s shape and tone. Many of the chapters are time stamped and there are news articles dated as well. How were you thinking about time? I’m curious about this both in terms of organizing the novel and in the story itself.
This is a tough one! I typically struggle writing narratives straight through. Even many of my short stories are made up of vignettes. I think I am always a bit more focused on the emotional movement of the story and the interiority of the narrator than I am with telling a straightforward narrative, and my work tends to feel as if it’s a stream of consciousness, or a string of memories. I like to really get into the psychology of the person I’m writing about, and for me, accessing the speaker’s internal life is where I ultimately discover story. I’m much more interested in the person than I am about plot points. Most of the time, I don’t know the story before I write. I either have an image or a voice, and the rest is pure psychological excavation.
For the most part, though, this book does move forward in time, give or take a day or two – and there is a complex plot. The most non-chronological areas of the book are probably the news articles, which are positioned in such a way as to add texture to the landscape at Maidan for the reader, as well as set up certain plot points. Because of this the articles don’t always fall chronologically in time with the main narratives, but they are working really hard in the places they’ve landed. For example, it was absolutely intentional to include articles and Kobzari sections about disappearing journalists before we meet Adam and Dascha. The content of those articles was more important than the actual date stamp.
Some of the earliest challenges I had in writing this book revolved around knowing how to begin: how do you tell a story that isn’t just about one current event—that this story is, in fact, hundreds and thousands of years old? The only way I could conceive of beginning something this complicated was to start with the thoughts inside one person’s mind, and that person was an outsider, like me.
As I plodded along and I knew everyone’s arc and the greater message of the book, it was clear to me that the story would end during the War in Donbas. There are a couple different reasons for that. First, it marks the end of the protests at Maidan; second, it leaves the current readership in our present day and grappling with the new understanding and context of the war; lastly, we go from winter into the spring, which is an important thematic moment for the continuity of the novel.
The largest storyline of the novel takes place from late 2013 to early 2014 during Euromaidan, an event I am embarrassed to admit I had very limited knowledge of. Moreover, Ukraine is still at war with Russia, and thousands have died over the past 7 years. The events of the novel are still ongoing.
Ukraine has become a forgotten nation for western Europeans or Americans— which wasn’t something I understood until I went deeper into its history. Ukraine is still called “the Ukraine” by many Americans and Europeans; many don’t realize that the article implies that Ukraine is not a country, but a region (of Russia, or the USSR). The truth is that Ukrainians have been asserting their independence from Russia for generations, so the misnomer still happening today is deeply problematic.
The truth is that this history is messy and complex—but it’s imperative that we are diligent in our study of it. Tyrants, dictators, destructive cult leaders—they know the history. We need to arm ourselves to combat misinformation, to see the whole of the past and not turn away from it, because every step forward is critical. Especially in how we talk or write about it.
I’m curious about the relationship you see (or don’t see) between your novel and journalism. Several of the characters in the novel are activists and journalists, and in certain chapters, there’s a tone of reportage.
Journalism is absolutely critical to this book and this story, yes! Most of the research I did for this book was dependent on the work of journalists and both amateur and professional documentarians in Ukraine. In a country that has a history of oligarchical control over the media, broadcasting the truth of this story was so dependent on the work of Ukrainian citizens and journalists present at Maidan. These individuals were risking their lives to tell it, and sadly, many perished as a result. Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, and even in the United States, we have seen an increase in violence and murders of journalists since 2017, which seems unthinkable.
Even kobzari, which functions as a folkloric oral history of Ukraine in the novel, is journalistic. The kobzari were bards, traveling from place to place singing stories about Ukrainian heroes and battles in the Ukrainian language. Stalin attempted to have them exterminated, and he was nearly successful. Fortunately, many managed to survive, and we were able to record their history. In my mind, the kobzari function as an earlier, almost spiritual mirror to the journalists at Maidan.
To shift a little, I’ve had the privilege of working with you when I was an editor at TriQuarterly, where you have a story forthcoming that includes images and a dimensions guide. This wasn’t exactly the case in the novel, but it felt related in some ways to how everything is organized. In what ways do you think about the relationship between visual art and your writing?
Wow, awesome question. I mentioned it briefly before, but usually when I am compelled by a story it’s because I have some kind of image in mind that emanates a particularly stirring tone and mood. If I can hear a voice with it, or a song, the more likely I am to be able to access a voice and complete it. The story you’re referring to has a lot of imagery related to architecture and schematic drawings—part of that comes from working at a design school at a university and being absolutely fascinated by the way designers and other visual artists create and the way that they think. That story in particular involves a woman trying to understand an architect she becomes romantically involved with, so the images play up this concept of perception—these are two people who view and see the relationship as completely different things. It also is about measurement and depth: emotionally, physically, psychologically. How close is this relationship, in reality? Is it just a projection or misperception, or is there something there that is incalculable, unsayable, and unseeable?
When I was writing about Maidan in Kyiv, I could always see the church in my mind. It acted as a touchstone and kept me grounded in the story. I watched recordings of the protests, phone recordings of pianists at Maidan; I must have watched The Rite of Spring and interviews with Igor Stravinsky a hundred times; and, I only listened to a number of Ukrainian musicians while writing this book. Writing is a very sensory experience for me, and it was especially important in order to write this book and have it feel absolutely as true to life as it was when it happened. I think this constant layering of media ultimately gave the book this collagist feel, which wasn’t planned, but I think works really well.
I probably should have started here, but can you talk about the novel’s title?
Yes! It’s an English translation of a song lyric from a Ukrainian lament called “Plyve Kacha,” which was sung at the mass funeral in Kyiv in February 2014 only a few days after the military police shot and killed protestors on Hrushevskoho Street. It’s a beautiful, mournful song about a son going off to war and his and his mother’s fears of him dying in a foreign place.Poems of exile were also written and popularized by the Ukrainian poet, artist, and hero Taras Shevchenko, whose poetry opens the book in an epigraph. Shevchenko was exiled by Nicholas I to St. Petersburg for his criticism of the Russian Empire and for promoting Ukrainian independence. He later died there and was buried in St. Petersburg, but his closest friends arranged to move his remains back to Ukraine, where he was buried among several Cossack hetmans (essentially, Ukrainian generals). Along with the Ukrainian historical connection, this story is an epic. I was often thinking of the Odyssey while writing it. Its thematic core is this idea of searching for home and yearning for home while also fearing one may never succeed in finding it. No one in the book ends up where they started, and there’s this underlying anxiety of not knowing where they’ll end up.
by Kalani Pickhart
Two Dollar Radio
October 19, 2021
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com