IMAGES OF AMERICA
TO THE AMERICAN WITH UKRAINIAN GRANDPARENTS
By Kateryna Babkina, translated by Hanna Leliv
Your eyes shine whenever you tell me about it, as if you're revealing a great secret, as if you're opening your heart to me in order to share your most intimate—and happiest—childhood memory. It may as well be true. As if I don't hear the same thing nearly every day from dozens of people—mostly old, because the young don't often recall their pasts.
Your face lights up.
"You're Ukrainian?" you ask, then say,
"You know what? One of my grandparents was from Ukraine."
"Wow," I say.
So many times now I've just said wow and fallen silent to open up a space for a story. If there was one, of course.
Over the past three months that I've lived and traveled in the United States, I've thought of my homeland and imagined it the way that Americans have described it to me, not the way that I've known it.
When you tell me about it, I see a boundless land of grandparents.
Gardens with swings, endless sunflower fields, old bikes jingling along the paths, neat little houses and cozy apartments smelling of chicken broth and apple pie. In that country, rivers and lakes were only there to fish at dawn, forests to pick mushrooms, follow unusual animal tracks, watch birds, and learn the names of plants. Fluffy snow fell there during the winter so people could go sledding and skiing, and the ice was always so nice and smooth, perfect for skating.
There's only so much that people remember about their grandparents.
In that imaginary country, slow-paced, calm, and caring grandpas and grandmas grandparented from dawn until dusk; read their grandparentish newspapers and books; cooked their grandparentish meals; watched their kind and naive grandparentish T.V. programs; listened to their grandparentish morning radio shows; came up with new grandparentish stories.
How did that imaginary land come into being? Well, the very first Ukrainian grandparent arrived in Jamestown in 1607 on Captain John Smith's ship. It was only two centuries later, in 1877, that the first significant wave of immigration brought 350,000 Ukrainian grandparents to the United States. Most of them worked in Pennsylvania's coal mines, though four hundred slaved away on Hawaii's sugar plantations until they were forcibly released in 1899, an experience rarely shared with other white Americans.
Another twenty thousand—the second wave—arrived between the two World Wars. During and after WWII, the United States got one hundred thousand more grandparents. The fourth wave of grandparents, still in their youth, crashed on the American shore in the final years of the Soviet Union—when the government was too weak to support the Iron Curtain—and immediately after the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The fifth wave is rolling in right now, those displaced after Russia occupied Crimea, an action that triggered the war in Eastern Ukraine. These immigrants have yet to become someone's grandparents.
There are as many Ukrainian grandparents in the United States as there are people living in San Francisco or Austin, slightly more than in Detroit, Seattle, or Portland. What do these people tell their grandkids when they reminisce about the days when they lived back in Ukraine? What do old people remember best about their youth, the times when, despite all the hardships, they were still strong, beautiful, and full of hope, when their hearts burned and their futures promised unknown wonders, when they could rejoice because all the good things were still ahead of them? Those were the times when they fell in love, when they had not yet lost their loved ones, when they didn't think much about the passing days. The times when they could change anything for the better. Which memories did they feel like keeping when they became grandparents? Only the best ones—I'm sure I don't need to tell you about it.
Only the best ones, my dear stranger. I've never heard anyone tell me so many wonderful things about my home country as you have, the things that you learned from your grandparents' stories.
At various events, discussions, lectures, and readings here in the United States, I talk about my country. I talk about the ongoing war with Russia, which has claimed the lives of more than ten thousand Ukrainians; about the bloody revolution that we went through a couple of years ago; about the Soviet legacy that we're trying to get rid of day after day. About our complicated past, with its wars and plunders; attacks and tributes; slavery, or, as they called it, serfdom; the ban on our literature, language, and art; the denial of labor rights, religious freedom, self-fulfillment, and identity; famines and genocides; pogroms and mass shootings; deportations, arrests, tortures, and concentration camps; humiliation, misogyny, and prejudice. I talk about the things that grandparents ran away from, the things that wouldn't have let them survive and become actual grandparents had they decided not to suffer, leave everything they loved behind—and flee. I also talk about the political gridlock and the occupied Crimea. About the things that force my Ukrainian peers to leave our country, and one day, perhaps, become American grandparents. I talk about all of the things that I still fight against in my country today, things that made us what we are, things that we're working hard to change.
But sometimes, when I meet people like you—people with grandparents, people whose faces light up dreamily as their childhoods sparkle in their eyes—it occurs to me that I could talk a bit less about it. Then, that kind and blessed grandparents’ land would come to life at least in those American grandkids’ imagination: a Ukraine full of strength and youth, hopes and promises; a Ukraine where everything is possible and all the good things are ahead; a Ukraine where everything will be all right.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND TRANSLATOR
Kateryna Babkina is a Ukrainian writer and screenwriter. She’s the author of three poetry collections (St. Elmo’s Fires, The Mustard, Painkillers and Sleeping Pills), a novel (Sonia), and two short story collections (Leloo After You and Happy Naked People). Her stories, essays, and poems have been translated into English, Swedish, Polish, German, French, Spanish, Romanian, Czech, and Russian and published in Esquire Ukraine, Le Monde, Harper’s Bazaar, The Kenyon Review, The Washington Square Review, German-Polish magazine Radar, and elsewhere. In 2018, she participated in the International Writing Program, the acclaimed writing residency in Iowa City, USA. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.
Hanna Leliv is a freelance literary translator, originally from Lviv, Ukraine. She received her MA in English Language and Literature from Lviv Ivan Franko National University. In 2017-2018, she was on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Iowa’s MFA in Literary Translation program. Among her translations are two short story collections by Ernest Hemingway and the novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (forthcoming). Her translations appeared in The Washington Square Review, Apofenie, The Adirondack Review, and The Puritan. You can find her on Facebook.
Photo of Kateryna Babkina by Alina Kondratenko; Photo of Hanna Leliv by Hanna Leliv
Photo Credit: Voffka Offka