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Divided Loyalties, Kulyk Keefer
JANICE KULYK KEEFER is the author of seven books: the short story collections The Paris?Napoli Express (Oberon, 1986), Transfigurations (Ragweed, 1987), and Travelling Ladies (Random House, 1990); the novel Constellations (Random House, 1988); the poetry collection White of the Lesser Angels (Ragweed, 1986); and the critical studies Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Maritime Fiction (University of Toronto Press, 1987) and Reading Mavis Gallant (Oxford University Press, 1989). Born in Toronto, she has lived for extended periods in England, France, and Nova Scotia, and has recently returned to Ontario to teach at the University of Guelph. She spoke with Paul Stuewe in Toronto. BiC: Much of your fiction deals with individuals who are in various ways unfulfilled by the lives they lead in Canada and are drawn to Europe ?and especially to France ?? in search of a fuller and more satisfying existence. Is this a reflection of your own experiences while growing up in Toronto? Janice Kulyk Keefer: My mother emigrated from Poland when she was 14 and my father was horn in Canada just off the boat from the Ukraine, and in our home I was very much conscious of a kind of uncompleted sense of self. So many of the really important and haunting stories that I was told had to do with these lost countries, with worlds that seemed prehistoric to me. These stories came to me in bits and pieces: I would overhear my relatives talking with one another at family gatherings, and their conversations were often about dramatic, intense, perhaps even traumatic events that struck me as much more significant than anything I had experienced myself BiC: What sort of neighbourhood did you grow up in? Kulyk Keefer: We lived in the Etobicoke area of Toronto, where everyone else was Anglo to the core, in a maze of little streets that were all named after members of the royal family. The names tended to become more and more obscure, because each time there was a new royal baby a new street would he named after it. BiC: Did this seem to underline how different your family was from the rest of the community? Kulyk Keefer: Yes, I always had the sense that, because my background was so unlike those of my classmates, I had to try to get back to what my family had left behind and try to find out about it. But this was complicated by the fact that I didn't grow up speaking either of my parents' languages; and then when I did start learning Ukrainian, I was taught by people who assumed that since I had a Ukrainian name, I actually did know how to speak it and was just being stubborn. But I really was almost totally ignorant of it, and this made it very hard. My father is a dentist whose patients are almost all Ukrainian or Russian or Polish, and sometimes I helped out in the office when his secretary was away. I would answer the phone and have to talk to someone who was in agony because of an abscess or some horrible problem with their teeth, and I wouldn't be able to understand them. I could deal with very basic conversations about "Isn't the weather lovely?" and "What would you like to eat?," but I couldn't handle anything more complicated than that. And when my Ukrainian teachers made me feel that I was incapable of speaking the language, this added to my feelings of loss about not being able to hear all the stories that I wanted to hear from my family. BiC: In some of your stories theres a very palpable sense of how older people who have come here from Europe are unable, to tell us of their pasts: either they don't want to because it would affect their children too strongly, or they may simply be unwilling to relive what they went through. Kulyk Keefer: I think there is an impetus in my, writing to try to fill in the gaps in these stories; it's very important to me to preserve them before they are completely lost. BiC: One of the things that intrigues me about ?your work is its relationship to the question of literary exile. This century's writers have often felt the need to become exiles, whether they actually left their native lands or not, and although you couldn't be called an exile, in that you haven't unilaterally rejected your background, you ?? arid many of ?your characters ?? are obviously attracted by the prospect of a fuller life in another country. Kulyk Keefer: In a sense I did exile myself from what I perceived as the ghetto of Eastern European culture in Canada. Although I grew up in a WASP suburb, my family still had \,cry strong ties to the Ukraine: the summer camp I went to was a recreation of a Ukrainian village. There were a lot of things in that Culture that I found disturbing and very problematic, which people would not deal with, such as the anti?Semitic tendencies that seem to he indigenous to Eastern European Culture. When I was at university, where many of my friends were Jewish, I found Out that one of the men I had been taught to regard as a hero of Ukrainian culture was one of the worst inciters of pogroms. That kind of collision of values made me very leery, and made me want to distance myself as much as possible from a closed community in which any attempt at asking questions was seen as a criticism or a betrayal. That coincided with my going to England to do graduate work in English, and so I thought that the best thing to do was to put all that pettiness of growing tip in an ethnic ghetto behind me and strike out for shores that seemed hill of new possibilities. BiC: In retrospect, was the time you spent in England a kind of transitional phase between distancing yourself from Canada and being strongly attracted by continental Europe? Kulyk Keefer: I was eager to live in another Culture, and I happened to get a scholarship to the University of Sussex to do graduate work on Virginia Woolf. Her biographer, Quentin Bell, taught there, and so it all fell into place. I was passionately in love with everything English, and I must have been all absolute pain to visit or to correspond with at that time. I kept gushing about the excellence of everything English and what a superior culture it was compared to North America. BiC: But that passion for things English doesn't seem to have carried over into your writing. Kulyk Keefer: No, I think I was making a kind of leap over the colonial WASP?dom that stilt dominated Toronto in the early 1970s. I always felt very vulnerable in relation to it: there was this idea that if you were a WASP you had the edge on everyone else. My aunt, whose last name is not Anglo Saxon, was told when she graduated from medical school that she would have to change it if she wanted to practise at a prestigious Toronto clinic. There was always a sense of not being quite good enough if you weren't a WASP, and so by going to England I was choosing a society that was just as disdainful of Canada's colonial culture as I was. BiC: Were you at all influenced by the example of writers such as Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, and Edith Wharton, who also fled what they perceived as stiflingly colonial societies? Kulyk Keefer: I did my doctoral thesis on Henry James, and Katherine Mansfield is one of my very favourite writers, so I imagine some of their influence has percolated down. For my thesis I read almost everything James ever wrote, and I'm sure that this must have had some permanent effect upon me. BiC: What other writers have influenced you? Kulyk Keefer: As an adolescent I read promiscuously, Dostoyevsky one week and Jane Austen the next. I just bolted everything down. Then I went through a long period of attachment to Virginia Woolf, reading all of her work and very much wanting to be her; after that I turned to Henry James with some, thing of a sense of relief, because he wasn't part of that intense Bloomsbury scene. I'm also attracted to Joseph Conrad, probably because, like James, he was in between two cultures; and Conrad, of course, was of Polish extraction. BiC: What happened to this rabid Anglophilia when you went to live in France for a year? Kulyk Keefer: Having been smitten by England, I fell totally in love with France ?? it sounds like I was terribly unfaithful, doesn't it? But suddenly all the truisms about the awfulness of English cooking and the English climate became immediately apparent when I was living in France. Initially we were in Burgundy, where people are incredibly hospitable, and when they invite you to dinner they always bring Out their best. We also made a great many friends there, often through the schools that our children attended: in England you meet people through your dogs, in France you meet them through your kids. BiC: There are some affinities here with Mavis Gallant, aren't there? Kulyk Keefer: My first serious encounter with Canadian writing came when I lived in Ottawa during 1979 and 1980, after six years of being abroad. I was browsing in the book section of a downtown department store, and there on the remainders table was a copy of Gallant's From the Fifteenth District. I must have stood there for an hour and a half, I just couldn't stop reading this immensely accomplished writer, who of course turned out to be a Canadian writing about places ?? France and England ?? where I had lived. This seemed to come together into a vision of possibility: perhaps, one day, I might follow the same route and become an author. I really had no landmarks or guidelines about writing in Canada. I'd read books by Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Laurence, but I hadn't particularly thought of them as people whose experience as writers and as Canadians I could follow. So, ironically, it was Mavis Gallant, the exile, the expatriate, who became my guide. BiC: What are the specific things about Gallant's work that appeal to you? Kulyk Keefer: I admire her style and technique of writing tremendously, and I feel much more drawn to her than to more experimental or radical writers. What attracts me about Gallant is her complete mastery of language, her ability to make it do whatever she wants. This probably stems from my own childhood experiences of being between two languages, feeling that English was really my mother tongue but constantly meeting people who thought that I should be perfectly fluent in Ukrainian. I knew that I couldn't speak Ukrainian with any kind of ease or fluency, so I determined that I was going to acquire absolute precision in English and prove that I could at least master one language. I also admire Gallant for her achievements during a period that was hostile to women who produced anything besides babies or mounds of carefully ironed shirts. BiC: I see what you mean about the relatively traditional character of Gallant's writing and to some extent your own, when compared with avant?garde work, but neither of you could be described as literary conservatives. You've both made very effective use of one of the hallmarks of postmodernist writing, the unreliable or naive or completely indeterminate narrator, in several stories. Kulyk Keefer: What I was referring to is the kind of radical questioning of the nature of language, of its capacity to mean anything, that some contemporary writers are making. BiC: Well, you may not be a card?carrying deconstructionist, but in a story such as "The Dark" in Travelling Ladies ?? which comes to us via an agitated, dislocated sensibility that certainly does question the nature of reality, if not necessarily of language ?? you're going some distance beyond the kind of well?made but essentially traditional tale that dominates collections such as the journey Prize Anthology. Kulyk Keefer: The experience that "The Dark" recounted seemed to call for a different kind of technique, one alternating between a sense of control and a sense of lack of control. BiC: It struck me as a kind of letting go, in contrast to the firm hand at the helm in most of your earlier work. Kulyk Keefer: I think that in Travelling Ladies there is a movement towards opening up and letting go; the final page of its last story, "A Really Good Hotel," has one character tell another to "just let go." In Travelling Ladies as a whole I was trying to convey a sense of movement, of passing through a variety of stages, while exploring different kinds of travelling. For example, in "Prodigals" I was looking at travelling in terms of time rather than space, and how one can have vestigial memories of important occurrences that resurface in oblique form, in dreams Or fantasies. "A Really Good Hotel" stems from a nightmare that I had about dying and going to hell, with hell being a place where there weren't any good books. I think that must go back to some of my youthful experiences of being in libraries where there wasn't anything in the children's section worth reading. BiC: Between 1982 and 1989 you lived in small communities in Nova Scotia and wrote a novel, Constellations, and a literary?historical survey, Under Eastern Eyes: A Critical Reading of Maritime Fiction. What was the genesis of these? Kulyk Keefer: I was doing such a lot of reading for Under Eastern Eyes that I was starting to go bananas, so I took a month off and wrote a novella that eventually became Constellations. One of the things I discovered in Maritime fiction was a paradigm in which characters who had gone away, and received educations that fitted them to work elsewhere, came back and were literally torn apart by the conflict between what they had learned and their native environment, and I found this occurring in Constellations. BiC: Two of the characters in Constellations, Claire and Hector, certainly exemplify it. What about Bertrand, the very elitist Frenchman whose collisions with what he perceives as a cultural wasteland are both funny and poignant? Do you think he might represent your attitude toward some of the less admirable aspects of French society? Kulyk Keefer: No, if anything he stands for my fears about losing my painfully acquired French accent in the midst of an Acadian?speaking region. What I was trying to do with Bertrand was pick up on the massive inferiority complex of Nova Scotia Acadians: they feel looked down upon by both the French and the Quebecois, and a person such as Bertrand ?? who is supposedly a kind of cultural ambassador from France ?? makes them very uneasy. There is also a sense in which, like Bertrand, I thought of myself as being trapped in a complex culture that I Could not penetrate; the only way I could make sense of it for myself was to write about it. Therefore I had to choose characters who reflected my experience of having one foot in the Culture and one loot Outside it. BiC: Flow did the Acadian community react to Constellations? Kulyk Keefer: I have been called the "Salman Rushdie of the French Shore." I was tit England when the book came out and Was sent ?? anonymously ?? a review in the local paper by someone who had read no further than page 43. Claire is the only narrator tip to this Point, and so the reviewer assumed ?? wrongly, since there is a native Acadian character who plays an important part in the book ?? that the entire novel was related from the perspective of someone who wasn't a pure Acadian, and just Wanted to dump on them. This disturbed me very much, because it was a kind of repetition of my previous experience of growing tip in a Ukrainian community in which you weren't allowed to criticize anything, because to do so was to commit an unforgivable act. So now here I was on the French Shore of Nova Scotia, thinking that I had finally gotten away from that, and I found myself tit exactly the same situation, where the person who is not at home in a particular culture is not allowed to criticize it. Fortunately, not all the responses were like this. I recently gave ,I reading at the National Gallery in Ottawa and got some questions about Constellations afterward, even though I hadnt read from the book. (?)Ile woman came LIP to me and said, "I want you to know that I'm from the French Shore, and I agree with everything you say, and that's why I'm living here." BiC: How did you come to write Under Eastern Eyes! Kulyk Keefer: Basically, because I wanted to try to understand the place where I was living. Before this, I had exercised most of my critical energies on Woolf, James, and Conrad, and I felt that I needed to take a closer took at Canadian writing. This was a wonderful way of finding out things, and of clarifying my own ideas about what I thought was important. I was also curious about how people who lived outside Ontario felt about it. BiC: And now you've returned to Ontario to teach at the University of Guelph. Kulyk Keefer: Yes, I'll be teaching creative writing and Canadian literature courses, one of them on multiculturalism as a literary phenomenon. I'm fascinated by some of the issues involved, Such as how you define the position of Native writers and French writers outside Quebec, and the role of birds of passage such as Brian Moore and George Faludy. Another reason why I'm delighted to be living near Toronto is that I want to work on ,I novel about my parents' backgrounds and my own experiences of difference and divided loyalties. Such as at the summer camp that was Supposed to recreate a Ukrainian village, where we sang both the Ukrainian national hymn and "God Save the Queen" translated into Ukrainian. That's the kind of anomaly I really want to explore.

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