Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Book Notes: Kostash on family and photographs

Myrna Kostash, since the 1970s our philosopher of the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora, has a new memoir, Ghosts in a Photograph: A Chronicle, based on her extensive research and focussing on family photographs she has acquired over the years in Alberta and in the Galacian province of western Ukraine, from which her grandfather Fedor Kostashchuk emigrated in 1900.  

Ghosts in a Photograph is unusual among immigrant stories in that it does not present the pre-immigration moment as a complete blank. Kostash reports how she became aware that the homeland was more than some blank peasant anonymity from which the Kostashes emerged to become real people. It was actually more comfortable, and more cultured, than the 160 acres on the North Saskatchewan to which Fedor and Anna devoted their lives. She even discovers she is not the first writer and intellectual among the Kostashes/Kostashchuks. 

Even more vividly, she emphasizes (has done since the 1970s) that the Kostashs did not come to settle a blank and empty landscape. Barely twenty-five years separated Treaty Six and the clearing of northwestern Alberta's original people to "open" the land for settlement by her forebears. Indeed the dispossessed Cree still lived nearby, in 1900 as in 2020. 

She has made this reality a big part of her working life in recent years. The dispossession that made possible the settlement of the Kostashes in Swan Hills is here mirrored against the dispossession of the Kostashchuks from Galicia to make a vital part of this book  -- a process that needs to become a large part of all Canadian immigration and settlement narratives.

The book is built around photographs: of the Kostash family photograph that celebrates all the sons went from the homestead to university -- and neglects the one daughter who stayed home.  Of the young Kostashchuk resistance fighter who died fighting the Soviet Union ... in the 1950s. Kostash gives very detailed "readings" of each photo but has chosen not to include any of them in the book, the better to foreground her own readings of them. 

I remain unconvinced that this was a best possible decision.  I could see the photos and still be enriched by her discussions of them.  But there you are. Myrna Kostash has a very strong commitment to the power of prose.  

Update, June 13:  Myrna is hearing from readers and fans, and she has started posting the photos that are discussed but not shown in her terrific book on her Facebook page. 

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