Imagine that you are inaudible, but only among certain people.
(Fifteen years of writing about your cultural identity integrated with all of your other overlapping identities. No one had done that before, even though it seemed like the logical thing to do. Indeed, amid the excitement and swirl of ideas that was postcolonial thought, it was the only possible way)
Imagine that you sing in a particular language, that only people who do not speak that language can hear.
Imagine all the mistranslations, all the false acceptance, imagine how you might be patronized, or seen as primitive, or included only that once.
And when you do mingle among those who speak your mother tongue (but cannot hear when you speak it) – imagine that they ask only if you are someone’s daughter or sister, and never acknowledge/have no inkling of your four books, your nine films and all the ways you have remembered and reinscribed your/their ethnic culture.
And then, after some time – an entire generation, really – has passed: imagine walking into a room where your book is everywhere, placed carefully onto banquet tables, held reverently in peoples’ arms. Imagine that the details of this book have been reproduced throughout the room: in kitschy flower arrangements (roses and spatulas!), in recipes from your book embedded among the flowers; in a menu (created by Chef Steffan Howard, of Palais Royale), that includes and reinterprets dishes mentioned in your book.
Imagine that the food is spectacular but also deeply familiar- an appetizer of minestrone soup, from your book; perogy with pickled beets; a foamed green borscht; your mother’s mushroom sauce – and that the chef comes out to greet you, holding your book to his chest, and hugs you and tells you how much he loved your book.
On March 6, I attended the Kobzar Literary Award Ceremony, as an author shortlisted for a $25,000 prize.
I had to buy a dress for the occasion, I had to gather all my wits about me. I’m not usually the kind of author who is invited to swanky $250-a-plate dinners. I felt nervous, I felt proud, I felt wary.
If I tell you any more you won’t believe it, it was so over the top. All I can say is that there was love, and respect, and excess in the room. That there were so many people coming up to me, remembering my deceased brother Roman, also an artist (yes, I am somebody’s sister), and then asking me to sign my book (yes, I am an artist too), or telling me that they can’t wait to read it, or that they really, really wanted me to win.
Each of the authors was asked to do a brief reading from their book. I read a passage from the introduction that mentions my father’s breakfasts, my mother’s perogies, my family, lovers and friends and as I read, I could feel everyone listening and understanding in a deep way. I felt I was being heard by this community for the very first time.
I didn’t win. (I now understand the strain of the non-winners’ face as the winner is announced!) Ad yet, I have been given something. I’m so amazed to now experience a community that feels secure enough to embrace difference and that takes its writers so seriously (of course that’s nothing new- the most revered figure in our culture is a writer).
After the winner-who-wasn’t-me was announced, I bravely swallowed back my dessert, and it calmed me down. It was as though the chef had sent me a love letter, a reminder to stay true to myself.
The desserts were all from my book: the chocolate truffle cake that cured heartache; my dear friend Carolyn’s strawberry rhubarb pie (reinterpreted into a tart); the carrot cake I made in a frenzy of femme-homebaking-love.
Those desserts brought me back into my world: a world of dark alleyways and underground spaces; of insider humour and wry, self-effacing laughter; a world of unshakeable belief in the power of protest, of words, and art and deep, passionate, subcultural desire.