Of Migration, Literature, and Grain

The war came to my house a few weeks ago – in the form of my family. My cousin and her 5 children are now in Canada, via Kyiv, via a long drive across Ukraine, via Poland, via the Atlantic Ocean, via the airport queue, and my house in east end Toronto.

The long lines of migration, from my grandmother’s voyage, my father’s exilic journey, my own bifurcated diasporic existence, are being retraced and reproduced. But this time, people are fleeing hell.

russia* now controls 20% of Ukraine. Cholera outbreaks are anticipated in several of the occupied cities, especially Mariupol, where bodies heave out of the land when I rains. It is a horror movie, it is your worst nightmare.

It’s clear that russians do not see Ukrainians as human. Or, perhaps, only human enough to work as the enslaved, in fish-packing factories in Siberia; as prisoners sewing police uniforms in the Gulag. I do not shy way from using the word slavery: it’s been part of the strategy of the colonial countries of Europe for a very long time. Slavic people were enslaved by Spanish Muslims as early ninth century AD. Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was born into slavery in the 19th century Polish-occupied Ukraine. Under the rule of imperial russia in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were slaves (or serfs as they were then known). Indeed, the word slave derives from the word Slavic.

This, I believe, is the only way to understand the grotesque brutality of their occupation. It could be said that their soldiers, most of whom come from very poor families, many of whom are from ethnic minorities, are also, essentially indentured labour.

Grain is the currency of enslavement in Ukraine. Poland, which dominated Ukraine for even longer than Russia – 4 centuries – used serfs to harvest its grain, which then produced enormous wealth for Polish landlords. During the Holodomor, Stalin used grain as a way to resettle Ukraine with russians, by stealing every last bit of grain and inducing a famine that killed 4 million Ukrainians. Currently, Russia is estimated to have stolen 500,000 tons of grain, worth $100 million, while Ukrainians in the occupied cities queue for water and bread.

The war comes to my house via contemporary Ukrainian literature as well. I am reading the playful yet searing writing of Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, in which disability becomes a symbol of resistance. This long narrative poem, set in an unnamed occupied territory, begins with an occupying solder shooting a young Deaf boy. This causes the whole town to go (or act?) Deaf, communicating with one another via a subversive code – sign language: “In these avenues, deafness is our only barricade.”(22). The poems ponder the meaning and weight of silence – of speaking, or not speaking; of the sounds of war versus the sounds of peace: “What is a child? / A quiet between two bombardments.” (28).

Lyuba Yakimchuk’s Apricots of Donbas was written after she fled her childhood home in that occupied region. The apricots in the title refer to the abandoned apricot tree in her backyard. She uses a fragmented cadence to embody the ways in which war rips us apart, creating a country in pieces, and a cultural language that, long since disavowed by colonization, seeks to find its own coherence and logic.

there’s no poetry about war
just decomposition
only letters remain

Over a hundred days of war. We have gone numb, more or less. My six-year-old niece makes drawing after drawing of a house, always the same house, but coloured differently each time.

So much about migration is a waiting game.

Waiting for papers, for money, a job, a home.

*Some writers in Ukraine are using lowercase to symbolize their contempt for Russia.