Corruption Trickles Down: A Conversation with Sonya Bilocerkowycz




SONYA BILOCERKOWYCZ’S LAYERED and lyrical debut collection of essays, On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine, considers Ukraine’s past and current geopolitical struggles as well as life in the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States. It amounts to an emotionally urgent personal reckoning with suffering, corruption, and culpability. The granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees, Sonya grew up steeped in the myths, the language, and the fierce politics of her Ukrainian-American community. On Our Way Home from the Revolution, which won the Gournay Prize and was released this September on Mad Creek Books, opens on the moment when some of these myths and political convictions begin to fray. The subsequent book-length unraveling becomes an affecting meditation on how our identities are formed, and to whom we are responsible.

The week Sonya and I spoke over video chat for this interview Ukraine returned to the foreground of American consciousness. All week, it seemed, we all became rapt spectators in American democracy’s dramatic third act. And I became uncomfortably aware, once again, of how riveting I found all this corruption, how sickeningly entertained I was — and still am — by the constant revelations and twists and inevitabilities finally unveiled. My conversation with Sonya served as a kind of moral corrective: a reorientation toward what it means to be implicated in the long history of our present moment — to look in the mirror and feel your own teeth, as she puts it.

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JOHN DIXON MIRISOLA: The book opens with you in Ukraine in 2013, just as revolution is breaking out, thinking, I was born to be here. I wonder if you could describe a bit about the Ukrainian diasporic community you were born into, and how that personal history led to such a sense of ownership regarding current events in Ukraine.

SONYA BILOCERKOWYCZ: My grandparents were part of the wave of immigrants that came to the United States directly after World War II and settled in places like Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Back in the old country, they had experienced a lot of oppression — their language, their national identity, their politics, their culture had been demonized by their different occupiers — the Poles, the Russians, the Germans. There are sort of two ways that an immigrant group can handle this question: you try to assimilate, or you lean back into your native culture. And they chose the second. Of course, it was a privilege to be able to do that. They formed these super tight-knit communities with really active arts organizations and scouting organizations; they purchased real estate together and formed these mini-Ukrainian enclaves in the United States.

My grandparents had this sense, I think, that things were so much better in the States compared to the multiple-occupier situation they had dealt with in Ukraine, and now that they had the privilege of residing in the States, they also had some responsibility to the old country. So they were extremely politically active, and that’s something that got passed down. I remember my dad taking me to a protest in 2005 in downtown Chicago about the rigged election that was happening in Ukraine, and I was a child, I didn’t really understand what was going on, just that it was our responsibility to be there and to tell American politicians to pay attention to Ukraine. So when I found myself in 2013 in Kyiv and there were protests, it felt extremely natural that I would participate on some level, that I had already been doing this in the States.

Then you come to this realization that you’re fighting for something that you haven’t sacrificed for, and that you are able to leave if you want to — which is a striking reversal.

I had been told my whole life, You are Ukrainian, you are Ukrainian, identify as Ukrainian, advocate for Ukraine. But then I was in Ukraine and I realized, oh wait, I’m not. I am American. But I’m also Ukrainian. But it wasn’t the same thing.

You spend a lot of time discussing myths in this collection. The whole atmosphere in which you grew up was saturated with these stories of your distant relatives and your great-grandfather, but also images of storks and glowing mushrooms and black earth and beets — two different kinds of beets. The essay “Encyclopedia of Earthly Things” is basically a collection of lyrical or mythical definitions for these sorts of terms. What’s the importance of building that mythology for the reader?

The narrator spends a lot of time being troubled by and troubling myths that she has inherited — these classically Ukrainian myths — but as I was writing I still wanted to participate. I found myself slipping into myth-building, which I think maybe is just a really human impulse, or maybe it’s something I inherited culturally that I’m never going to be able to escape. But I kind of imagine that essay as a work of speculative nonfiction, basically proposing: What if our myths were rooted back in the land, and back in the flora and the fauna? I didn’t want to ignore history and politics, and they’re definitely present in that essay, but I was wondering: What happens if I approach politics through an ostrich, or through a cream soup? What happens when we revert back to these basic elements of life?

I also think that essay is kind of an experiment to test out the idea that maybe art can provide a different kind of context for belonging. I have a good essayist friend, Rachel Toliver, who in a lecture recently talked about speculation being a “capacious space,” and that, in speculation, imagining one group’s utopia doesn’t necessarily have to result in another group’s dystopia — speculation can afford room for everyone to thrive. So I think this essay is also an attempt to consider if it’s possible to build a more inclusive Ukrainian mythology, or at least maybe a more benign Ukrainian mythology, one rooted in those earthly things.

As I read, I thought a lot about this double-edged sword of national identity — how we find this sense of belonging at the cost of potentially betraying this deeper human truth, that “all are responsible for all” as Father Zosima says in The Brothers Karamazov. How did your thinking on patriotism and national identity evolve as you were writing this book?

Father Zosima is super important to this book. I read The Brothers Karamazov twice in a row while I was writing. His insistence that we are responsible “to all for all” really haunted my composition process. And I think, specifically on patriotism, I’m pretty wary of a patriotism that wants to celebrate these things that appear good, but doesn’t have any room for considering these parts of identity that are implicated in something evil.

As it emerges in the book, I’m wary of an American patriotism that prides itself on being a world leader in human rights, but has trouble admitting the hourly crimes against human rights that we commit. I’m also wary of a Ukrainian patriotism — and this is incredibly complicated — that has basically leveraged its own experience with oppression to justify shirking responsibility elsewhere. I’m suspicious of a patriotism that doesn’t want to examine the whole picture.

And that’s where you get into this idea that “there’s something vaguely criminal about being alive.” It’s a fascinating move you make from that position, because I don’t see you engaging in a kind of both-sides-ism. You seem clear-eyed about the evil and corruption in the world. How do you balance that? How do you talk about common guilt and shared responsibility without succumbing to that “both sides” posture?

I actually think that’s still a problem, and I don’t know if I’ve really figured it out. I worry about inadvertently slipping into whataboutism, which is used so deftly by both Putin and Trump to deflect from whatever it is that they should be taking responsibility for. But I guess intention matters in this case. The deflection of propaganda is, Don’t look here, look over there. Whereas I’m hoping my essays can say, Look here, and look over there, and look back here again after that.

But the metaphor of looking is problematic. I write at one point in the book that if you’re wondering about your own guilt, you should look in the mirror, and the answer is the feel of your teeth. So it doesn’t matter if you can see it or not. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been exposed to the truth. There’s this shared sense we all have as humans that we’re guilty of something — that humanity itself is capable of so much evil and that my personhood can’t be separated from that. I have some very deep religious inclinations, so I’ve often found it helpful to think of that phenomenon as original sin, but I don’t think that’s the only way to consider it. I basically want to be able to hold these three things at one time: first, that as humans we are all guilty and implicated; second, that there are particular crimes that I specifically have had a hand in; and third, that there are particular crimes that other people have specifically had a hand in or have committed — and that all three of those things can be true at the same time. I just hope that my imagination can contain them all.

It reminds me of the Sufjan Stevens song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” The song is a meditation on the horrible acts of this serial murderer. And the whole meaning of the song is changed in the final verse, where he sings, “In my best behavior, I am really just like him.” It’s not a turning away, but it’s making space in yourself to see what you’d most condemn in the rest of the world.

I didn’t know it when I started the book at all, but I think ultimately that became its primary goal, in a sense: to figure out how close I really am to the criminal over there. How close is that criminal, actually, to me? How much am I like that person?

At one point in the book, you write about the headlines making you angry, and then on this once-removed level you also feel sort of satisfied, because you are one of the people in-the-know. I wonder if this might help explain my fascination with all of this recent news about Trump and Ukraine, and why this whole swirl of events just makes me feel gross, and implicated, and trapped inside of this circus that I’m both a participant in and a spectator of. It’s repellent and it’s riveting at the same time. And I wondered if you’d been thinking about that at all this week — or if you’d ever stopped thinking about it.

I think it’s the latter. Since I started writing this book, I haven’t stopped. I think my narrator’s cardinal sin is her self-satisfaction, which is constantly undermined and destabilized. But in her case, she finds corruption very riveting, and I think the riveting factor comes from the notion that she is at a distance from the crime. That is Criminal X. They are far away. That’s our television president, not related to me. But then, obviously, in Father Zosima’s vision of the world, Criminal X is not so far away; Criminal X is very close to you. He may even be you, in the sense that you too bear responsibility for his crime. So the narrator starts to think about corruption as a trickle-down effect. If anything trickles down, it is corruption. We are implicated in what the top is doing.

Recently I’ve just been thinking that for every moment I spend feeling angry at the idea that Trump has withheld aid from Ukraine, I should probably spend a hundred more moments considering my responsibility in the series of events that have led up to this point. I realize that’s exhausting, and I’m not sure how sustainable that is, but that’s where I am right now.

It seems as though this plays into the preoccupation with the word “thug” in your book. There’s this section where you try to bend the ear of every Russia expert you can get in a room with, and you ask them if they think that “thug” is the right word for Vladimir Putin, and you get these different answers from Timothy Snyder and Masha Gessen and others. Why did that question come into your head, and where did it take you?

When I ran into John Boehner randomly at a restaurant in my hometown in Rapid City, South Dakota, he sort of drunkenly told me that Viktor Yanukovych was a thug, and Putin was a thug, and all those guys were thugs, and I just agreed with him. And I realized after that encounter that I couldn’t really stand by that word, that I didn’t really know if that was the right word. I wanted to be intentional about whether I was going to use that word or not. So I set out to test that, to see if I could use it intentionally. I would say in the end, probably Timothy Snyder’s answer resonates with me the most, which is that calling Putin a thug flatters us — which isn’t to say that Putin’s regime is not brutal and murderous, because it certainly is. But I suspect that “thug,” especially when it’s used by American politicians, serves as another deflection. It’s a word that’s used to other, to say, That’s something happening over there.

You’re grappling with the absurd in this book, especially in the impossible choices that corrupt systems seem to force — between speech and silence, action and inaction, cooperation and rebellion, us and them. The way you approach the subject reminds me a lot of metamodernism — this notion that what comes after the irony and detachment of postmodernism, and what could be a fitting response to existential absurdism and the deconstruction of ideology, might be to just accept absurdity as a precondition of living and then decide that you can seek out meaning anyway, as an assertion of human agency, as you suggest in one essay. The world is full of these impossible choices and overwhelming absurdity, but we can still speculate that things might get better, and we can still act as though they could. So what I wonder is, what does it matter to you to still find something to hope for in a world as absurd and as troubling as the one you write about in your book?

This makes a lot of sense to me. This is a spoiler alert, but the book ends in a similar place to where it began. Revolution is a circular word. But what gives me hope is that I think the narrator has changed so much over the course of the essays. She is hopeful at the end, and her hope is rooted in a refreshed and sincere optimism because she is different and has learned things. I guess I just really love the idea that irony and sincerity don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Not to reduce it to pop culture, but as a shorthand — we grew up in the post-Simpsons generation. Instead we have shows like Parks and Recreation, which tend to be ironic about systems and sincere about people.

Yes, I think that’s super important. I think the narrator comes to that. And systems being everything — mythology, national identity — she wants to be cynical about those things. But there’s sincere hope about art, and there’s sincere hope about people.

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John Dixon Mirisola is a Boston-based writer and editor. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and is currently working on a novel.

 

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