This profile is based in part on a conversation I had with Janice Kulyk Keefer in July prior to the publication of her family memoir,
Honey and Ashes (HarperFlamingo
), her book of poetry,
Marrying the Sea (Brick Books), and a collection of short stories which she co-edited with Solomea Pavlychko,
Two Lands, New Visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine (Coteau)
Photography and the haunting of contemporary Canada by a European past make up an important thread in the fiction of prizewinning novelist and poet, Janice Kulyk Keefer.
Kulyk Keefer was born in Toronto in 1952 of first-generation Ukrainian-Polish immigrants. She grew up feeling marked by a marginal ethnicity because Ukrainians tended to be stigmatized as other by the dominant Anglo-European culture. At the same time, the Ukrainian community encouraged its own kind of insularity. "Although I'm the daughter of first-generation immigrants," she told me in conversation, "my skin colour doesn't give me away as `other'. But the kind of childhood I had, the growing up between languages, my family's experiences of discrimination, all filtered down and marked my sense of who I was. We were always talking about `the English'-even if they were Irish or Scots-and never `the Canadians', and the term `nashi' or `our own' became a talisman against assimilation.... I grew up in a community that demanded that you keep to your own for reasons of communal survival."
Canadian literature was seldom taught in the fifties and sixties, and Canada had not yet been blessed by the official policy of multiculturalism. Though multiculturalism was intended to foster diversity, writers from ethnic or racial minorities have often seen it as yet another constricting label indicating their folksy otherness from the mainstream.
Kulyk Keefer describes being haunted by her family stories of a country that no longer existed, and of a Kiev that was the "ancient mother city of Ukraine". Yet it took her twenty years to write about "that other country by which immigrants' children are so often obsessed." For writers in whose work this ancestral country is as important as Canada (e.g., Daniel David Moses, Joy Kogawa, Rohinton Mistry or Ven Begamudre), she prefers the term "transcultural". "Transcultural" accommodates rather than erases difference and suggests a critique from a borderline perspective between two cultures. Moreover, she relates, the "transcultural writer is writing in a global context where to be displaced, to be an immigrant, a migrant, is one of the most common human conditions and experiences."
Kulyk Keefer's participation in Canadian literary life was spurred by an eight-year absence from Canada when she was working on post-graduate degrees at Sussex after graduating from the University of Toronto. Her critical work on Virginia Woolf flows into her second novel, Rest Harrow (1992), in which an enthusiastic female biographer of Woolf goes to live in a small Sussex village and gets embroiled in the personalities and politics of the Thatcher era. There is a veritable gallery of female characters representing different perspectives on women's work and private life: Varti, a dedicated doctor; Cressy, the local media manipulator and squire's wife who is perpetually pregnant; Rosalind Oliver, a modern-day Shakespearean figure, a lesbian landlady who challenges heterosexual norms and social expectations. Finding herself thrown among them, Anna English discovers that Woolf's life and death had a local dimension that she hadn't anticipated, that European disasters and crises pour into the cracks in women's lives that have been created by personal disasters of divorce, abandonment, the loneliness of single parenthood. Here, too, photographs are important. In a politicized recreation of Woolf's own path toward suicide during World War I, the character of Fiona makes a macabre wallpaper out of newsprint and disaster photographs for her study.
Anna English resembles Kulyk Keefer in her quest to understand the relationship between Canada and the parent culture. "When I went to England," she explains, "I thought I was disburdening myself of a very problematic sense of Canadianness which for me has been fraught by the way I'd grown up, between cultures.... I thought I could reinvent myself." At the end of Rest Harrow, during which Virginia Woolf's ghost is exorcised (are all women writers afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Anna is about to board a plane travelling back home to Canada: "She can only be sure of this: that there will be a plane waiting for her at the airport; that she will claim her ticket and make her way on board. That on the flight home she will accept the newspaper the steward offers her, knowing that from the solid, menaced world lies no escape to free and open water. And that she and the child she's carrying will step out at last onto a different continent, where they'll breathe in the same half-poisoned, yet sustaining air."
Kulyk Keefer went from critical work on Woolf to a doctoral thesis on two expatriate writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Conrad, in particular, is an important reference point for a writer who has a mother who grew up in Poland and who is interested in the history of colonialism and "decolonising the mind", to draw on the resonant phrase of Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Kulyk Keefer uses a Conradian title for her groundbreaking work on the literature of the Maritimes, Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Canadian Maritime Fiction (1987). Intent on dispelling both ignorance and myths about the Maritimes as a non-literary region, she identifies traditions and genres in Maritime literature which display a tension between conservative and radical forces, and which arise out of specific local traditions.
Her account of a Maritime belief in an accessible world of common human experience contests the overarching explanations of "the" Canadian literary sensibility offered earlier by Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood. Frye saw Canada as a continent dominated by a terrifying wilderness, by a frontier between civilization and barbarism, and by colonial guilt. Kulyk Keefer sees this myth as derived from an American ethos. Atwood's key term for Canadian literature and imagination, "survival", also stressed an individual pitted against wilderness, even though in her own work this wilderness is often shown to be internal and an effect of social norms. Kulyk Keefer argues that Atwood's study became another centralizing myth projected from one region, Ontario: "Survival seems to be designed to do a kind of disappearing act, to deconstruct, to show its own inadequacies as any kind of monumental or master narrative or paradigm for the whole nation." Other paradigms for Canadian culture, such as Hugh MacLennan's "Two Solitudes" model which is based on English and French cultural power and political hegemonies, she believes, have "squeezed a multicultural nation into a bicultural mould."
Kulyk Keefer's critical work thus decentralizes Canadian literature and critique from two perspectives: from the perspective of expatriate writers such as Mavis Gallant, about whom she has published a book-length critical study, and from a regional perspective that emphasizes diversity. Canada is seen as a country of regional tensions which have ethnic as well as social justice dimensions given the varying economic loads and patterns of federal funding and unemployment. This in turn impacts on literature and the kind of voice that is privileged within regions. In the Maritimes, for example, she points out that women have had to struggle against traditional roles. Writers like Antonine Maillet, Susan Kerslake, Nancy Bauer, and Donna Smyth have emerged only in the last ten or fifteen years. Kulyk Keefer sees the historic role of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of that Canadian chestnut, Anne of Green Gables, as paving the way for such women to move from silence to speech, and into professional literary production.
Religious and social conservatism, an emphasis on marriage and fertility, and the constriction of women's lives play important roles in the Catholic Acadian communities of the Maritimes that Kulyk Keefer represents in her first novel, Constellations (1988). Here, an interesting range of Acadian characters are in conflict: an academic spinster, Claire, who has come back to her Acadian roots; a European trained philosopher, Hector, who has returned to Spruce Harbour to work as a janitor; an unhappy and exploited girl of Acadian-MicMac background, Mariette; Mariette's MicMac mother, Delima, whose secret relationship with Claire's father reveals a covert relationship between the Acadian and MicMac communities.
These characters are thrown into new constellations by the visits of two Europeans: Bertrand, a snooty Francais de France who lives in the fantasy world of a Maritime idyll, and Halyna, a young Polish musician who is presented as a model of artistic dedication and professionalism. Bertrand's photo of Mariette, encapsulating her history and memory of physical abuse, creates a powerful moment in the narrative and captures the multilayered abuse and exploitation of indigenous women in Canada. A high point in the story is a performance by two talented musicians. This scene stages a spirit of cultural cooperation: it draws together two female figures, surrogate mother and daughter, and shows how indigenous and European traditions can mingle gracefully and effectively as they do in the novel itself and in Canadian cultural life. The novel, in an allusion to Conrad's Victory, ends with Claire's conflagration, which can be read as a warning to inward-turning individuals or communities which live only vicariously.
Kulyk Keefer says that the writing of Constellations allowed her to experiment with many voices, and to explore the novel structure in order to locate the most effective way of articulating the problem of place and belonging: "I didn't want to write a straight linear narrative with a fixed point of view, but to jump around in the heads of many characters, including the Francais de France, who is a complete stranger, and the principal character, Claire, whose mother is English from England and whose father is Acadian and therefore who doesn't belong anywhere, certainly doesn't feel Canadian, unless one defines Canadian as constantly being à la recherche de son pays. One of the interesting things about talking to Acadians on the French shore who'd been living there for centuries was that many of them said: `Canada is not my country; Quebec is not my country; my country is Acadie, and Acadie has no political power.' So I was always aware that I was living as a stranger in a community that felt itself to be a floating island and that had cultural traditions that were a mixture of imperial and indigenous manufacture."
She has always written poetry and short stories as well. Her second collection of poems, Marrying the Sea, was released this year. But, she acknowledges, publishers tend to want novels, which can win literary prizes and capture public attention. And she herself enjoys "the kind of freedom the novel gives you, in terms of scope, invention, and the tools to bring all kinds of things together".
The Green Library (1996) seems to have given her the freedom to explore her Ukrainian heritage in a positive way. Here, Eva's family romance, which begins in an atmosphere of persecution and distress with the discovery of a partly obliterated photograph, takes her on a positive quest to engage with Eastern Europe.
The reality of Kiev, which she visited for the first time in 1993 after Ukrainian independence, contrasted sharply with the image she had constructed of the city: "To be there was fantasmal. In November you didn't see the sun at all. Everything was leafless trees and white mist. It was also dismaying, the city was economically ravaged. The streets weren't lit. People would steal light bulbs from outside fixtures for their apartments. It was quite extraordinary, very moving, also alienating, but certainly something I wanted to write about. I started a draft before I went to Kiev and had fantasized all kinds of scenes, thinking Kiev was just another European city. But then I found the idea of, for example, a café in an art gallery in Kiev in 1993 was ludicrous. You didn't have cafés but hideous barn-like structures where you stood up at a table while waitresses tried to push you out. They didn't want you there." Kiev resembled, in her words, an "occupied city".
The Green Library rests on these paradoxical relationships between a fairly affluent, technologically advanced, peaceful country like Canada, and the many historical layers of Ukraine, both in Eastern Europe and as a historical presence in Canada. It moves freely between Toronto and Kiev, turning a ghost story into a reconstituted ancestry that overrides class, ethnic, and economic difference.
Kulyk Keefer has just published a memoir which further explores her Eastern European heritage, specifically the then-Polish, now-Ukrainian village in which her mother grew up. She relates: "The first part of this new book, which is called Honey and Ashes, deals with the timeless world of a small village on the border between Poland and Soviet Ukraine. The middle part deals with the larger public world that surrounded and penetrated that small timeless village and attempts to contextualize the family narrative in crucial ways. The third part is a travel narrative which takes me back physically to the village where my mother was born. So there is the shock of an imagined reality being displaced by actuality."
Kulyk Keefer's writing thus constantly works on the borders of European and Canadian consciousness and culture, and her images of women travelling between countries evoke Canada's history of immigration. By decentring national myths she draws attention to the local histories of regions, and their tension with an imagined national arena in Canada. Her sense of historical dispossession underwrites her depiction of women's histories as they struggle with conventional roles and the threat of shadowy, partly remembered selves. In writing a love story between a Canadian woman and a Ukrainian janitor's son in Kiev in The Green Library, she eroticizes a historical connection and makes it the vehicle of new understanding of family and ancestry. Alex is "Eva's first experience of this kind of radical difference," she says. As a consequence, both home and nation become constantly reinvented places of multiple lives: "there are many different tellers and listeners of stories...I wanted that sense of heterogeneity and of multiple lives going on at once, overlapping and infringing."
Kulyk Keefer's work contributes to an understanding of Canadian history and the imaginative geography of regions. It also makes us see Canada as an element in a wider geopolitical order where some damaging boundaries have fallen, and where new forms of community and artistic expression can thrive. Women's writing careers and working lives are shown to be uneven and difficult despite the commanding role played by women writers in modern Canadian literature. Elements of play, pastiche, and parody mark Kulyk Keefer's work, as part of what Linda Hutcheon has called the Canadian postmodern, but a postmodernism that serves to remind readers of political and social struggle. In the fiction of Canadian writers such as Kulyk Keefer, Michael Ondaatje, and Rohinton Mistry, Europe and Asia are revealed as Canada's Others, regions that haunt the selves and dreams of postmodernity and that must constantly be reworked imaginatively in forms of psychic and national reintegration.
Cherry Clayton is a lecturer in English and Women's Studies at the University of Guelph. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with Canadian women writers.