Dear Sonya Bilocerkowycz,
My name came from my maternal great-grandfather who fled from the Ukraine just before the man-made famine. Truthfully, I knew little about the Ukrainian side of my family, and what I did know was based largely in family legend or the Eastern Orthodox Church my mother re-discovered in adulthood. But reading your collection of linked essays, On Our Way Home from the Revolution, felt like I was exploring a portion of myself I only previously knew in pictures and mythology.
This powerful collection navigates questions of power, family, ancestral trauma, and the beauty and complexity of a culture, land, and people in constant political tumult. You begin to adroitly navigate these deep waters through the titular essay “On Our Way Home From The Revolution” in which you document your time teaching at the Ukrainian Catholic University. While there, demonstrations break out in Maidan and the nation is caught in the hope of a better future, you included. But once in Maidan, the hope is extinguished by violence, “We cough on tear gas,” you write, “My chest stings and I cannot catch a breath. My boyfriend will say later that it was like an asthma attack, only external, the size of a whole city.” This juxtaposition of hope and violence is a constant in your work. This essay works as a fork in the road that we return to over and over again.
If the reader turns left at the fork, they get to be a part of your exploration into what it means to be American and in America in the time of Trump and Putin. Such searing essays as “Article 54 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR,” “Swing State,” “The Village (Reprise),” among others do this brilliantly. For instance, “Swing State” begins “This one is red, communist red, the color of tomato paste and new cars. South Dakota has been easily carried by the Republicans in every election since 2000.”
The right path of the fork is paved with essays such as “Veselka,” “Bloodlines,” “Encyclopedia of Earthly Things,” “Samizdat” among others, in which you explore your Ukrainian ancestry and how your grandmother, father, and others have indelibly impacted your identity. For instance, “could my father’s distrust of Russia be a manifestation of something hereditary, or a fearful message first coated on the chromosomes of my grandmother? Do my cells signal Russia as the enemy? Am I somehow biologically more sensitive to the crimes of rogue states?” Each time you take us through the path, you point us to a different Ukrainian beauty. The dark soil. The blue sky. The sunflowers. Each time we return to the fork, the following exploration seems new, as does every sharp, heartfelt trip down either path. By the end of the collection, the two paths have converged back into one. What emerges is a beauty that is as fragile and complicated and as imperfect as it is undeniably powerful.
Thank you so much for this collection.