March 12: Of Music, Food and Diaspora

 

I cannot bear to look at images of bombed streets any more. Partly it’s because I think this is how people have always seen Ukraine, if they saw it at all. So many trips there; and then, coming back, friends and colleagues ask only Did you eat perogies? and, Were you safe? Yes, of course I was safe! I was in Kyiv, which was fast becoming the hipster capital of Europe! Did I eat perogies? I ate seared salmon with sweet potato purée, Georgian stew, deruny (potato pancakes) with mushroom sauce, veggie burgers, meat pies, macaron, and omelette;  I ate an innovative breakfast dish in Kharkiv that included free-range eggs and organic quinoa.

When filming in Ukraine, my crew spent the long hours of travel between cities researching restaurant reviews. With the Ukrainian currency exchange rate so low, a lavish meal for four in one of the best restaurants in Kharkiv cost me far less than catering, so these women took full advantage, and I was happy about that. So, no, we didn’t eat perogies, thanks for asking.

I’m used to the trivialization of Ukrainian culture. In fact, I’ve joined in. As a young feminist,  I learned to make self-deprecating jokes about Ukraine, and to memorize the ways of Anglo-Saxon whiteness. We sang songs about Celtic goddesses ; I never spoke about the matriarchal culture of Ukraine. We learned songs and slogans in Spanish, Italian and French; it would never have occurred to me to mention the rich music and poetry of dissident feminist writers of Ukraine, like Lesya Ukrainka and Olha Kobelianska. 

As a lesbian, I had to flee the Ukrainian diaspora for a time. It was a cultural exile. And so,  I was filled with shame about my mother tongue and the traditions with which I was raised. The only way to survive was to assimilate into a kind of whiteness that was whiter than what I knew. I was never really able to pull it off. Partly because of my name, which hardly anyone would ever say (are names not like pronouns? Shouldn’t we learn how to say them?) and because of my art practice.

Every repressed and unseen, unheard word and image of my culture went into my art. A now-defunct feminist press, Press Gang Publishers, created a space for me to begin a writing career on my own terms, grounded in my hybrid, diasporic subjectivity, what Samie Dayal has called the “double consciousness” of diaspora. I began a slow , awkward journey towards finding an authentic voice, which, I realize now, was crucial to my mental health.

But now there are yellow and blue flags everywhere. The singer Patti Smith has taken to singing her version of Ukraine’s national anthem, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Died”, which she has refashioned into a peace song. At a benefit concert for Ukraine, my friend M and I joke about how, suddenly, Ukraine is cool. We do not know how long this will last, but we plan to take full advantage! The concert is packed with mostly, young clubgoers. Pandemic measures are slowly being lifted in this province, and this event, with its sense of urgency and its roster of young pan-Slavic local musicians, is the coolest thing happening in town that night. M and I sit sedately on a couch on the balcony;  the floor in front of the stage is packed with maskless, dancing bodies. 

The drone of Georgian harmony, the sweet, high tones of Black opera singer Masha Gruberman, the mournful notes of a lone trumpeter playing the national anthem, the wail of a Tatar song; all of it is strange, discomfiting and empowering. Dayal writes that diasporic doubleness “destabilizes the border zones of cultures […] fracturings of the subject that resist falsely comforting identifications and reifications ” (48). The music is a reprieve from the margins; for the space of a few hours we are centred.

Solidarity and ‘trending’ may be interchangeable right now, but it’s better than the cold shoulder of indifference that Ukraine and its people have lived with for such a long time.

Notes:

Dayal, Samir, “Diaspora and Double-Consciousness”, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association , Spring, 1996, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 46-62