Sunday, March 6, 2016

Immigrant Fiction -- My Story

January 6, 2013

Now that Crossing The Border is out in the world,  I’ve been asked some interesting questions about the meaning behind the title I selected, as well as other authors’ influences on my work, and even if my Ukrainian background will play a prominent role in my future writing. You can check out my interview with Patti Abbott here, but for now I’d like to reflect a little on how important it was for me to discover other contemporary writers who came from different cultures and backgrounds, and interwove their personal histories into their fiction.

I grew up in Hamtramck, Michigan, a little city in the middle of Detroit, which was primarily populated with Polish, Ukrainian, Yugoslavian and Albanian immigrants at that time. I spoke Ukrainian at home, learned Polish choice words from my friends down the street, and played kickball in the alley with the Albanian kids from the next block over. My life was multicultural from early on, and yet when I first got to college, the stories we read and discussed didn’t reflect the diversity I had grown up with.
When I moved to Chicago, my literary world opened up and all of a sudden writing about my Ukrainian background was what I wanted to focus on. One day Harry Mark Petrakis, a Greek-American writer who had grown up in Chicago, came to Columbia College to give a reading and talk about his work. He was very dynamic and blew me away with both his presentation and the excerpts he was sharing with us. I remember that he was loud and funny, expressive and inspirational all at once. His books are filled with Greek-American characters and his vibrant cultural background is interwoven seamlessly throughout. I walked out of the auditorium that evening very excited and happy. Somehow that evening reinforced what I wanted to do in my own writing.
Afterward, as I started working on my stories, I tried finding other Ukrainian-American contemporary writers, but at that time in the early 90s, I didn’t know of any. I suppose I wanted camaraderie and to see if other writers from my background were tackling the same issues I was wrestling with. A couple of years later I discovered Askold Melnyczuk in the pages of a writer’s magazine, and in 1994, his wonderful debut novel What Is Told was published. Then in a small bookstore in Vancouver, I pulled out a collection of short stories by Ukrainian-Canadian author Janice Kulyk Keefer. I still remember that moment in the bookstore when I stood in the corner and leafed through the pages, eyes soaking up the words. Now, some 20 years later, there are many American and Canadian writers of varying immigrant backgrounds. It’s wonderful to be able to travel the world, as well as specific regions of our own country in this way, and discover amazing new writers.
That thrill of discovery–new writers, new worlds or even familiar worlds revisited—has all become easier with a simple click on a search engine. Personally I have fond memories of scouring bookstores for interesting new titles but there’s no denying how easy and effective the Internet is when you’re in search of something. And now there’s listmania and listopia and I am having great fun making my own themed lists of books. With that, I’ll close with a link to Eastern European Immigrant Fiction that I recently compiled for anybody interested in checking out great fiction with this focus. I’ll feature other lists from time to time since I’d like to spotlight other writers in this blog as well.
Happy reading!

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