Daniel Hryhorczuk: "Don't cease to be Ukrainians rushing to become Americans"

Mylana Semenyuk

Ukrainians that live in Chicago know very well how strong our community is. We have our own churches, museums, Saturday schools, a grammar school, countless organizations and foundations. But what we often don't realize, especially if someone is new, is how it all came to be. During and after World War II political immigrants from Ukraine that were escaping the regime settled in Chicago. They pooled their hopes, their dreams of better future, their pennies and together erected this world. They also raised their children to embrace the idea of free Ukraine and be prepared to work for it.

Ukrainians that live in Chicago also know how busy our community calendar tends to be with events happening most every weekend. But here is an extraordinary one. Here is the one that brings a very important story into the spotlight. This is a presentation of Daniel Hryhorczuk's new novel “Caught in the Current” that took place on November, 29th at the Ukrainia National Museum in Chicago. The book tells a story of a boy who embarks on a journey in search for himself in the liberating summer of 1970. He is taking an “Offbeat Europe” tour. But he also has a secret mission – to gather information while in Soviet Ukraine. While on this journey, Alec tries to define himself because he feels as much Ukrainian as American. And even with his inner struggles he succeeds in fulfilling his duty as a Ukrainian. This is at once a story of one person, fictional as he may be, and a story of many. The biggest proof of that is the fact that the main floor of the Ukrainian National Museum on Friday evening was full to the brim. People, different kinds of people, came to salute the author that in this captivating way paid homage to their lives, to their work and simply to who they are.

Daniel Hryhorczuk, MD is a Professor in the Colleges of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Visiting Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. He contributed greatly to the development of the environmental health and awareness in Ukraine. Starting in 1980's he has been regularly traveling to Ukraine. Here is a short interview about his first novel: 

What pushed you to write this book?

Before entering medical school, I studied creative writing at Northwestern University. One of my early works, “The Ice Cross,” - a short story about the everyday life of Ukrainian Americans - won first place in the university’s writing competition. I realized that we, the children of immigrants caught between two cultures, helped define what it means to be American. Our dual lives had a complexity and richness that was lost by those who became completely Americanized. Our generation has a story to tell. The political turmoil in American and Ukraine during the summer of 1970 provided the perfect setting for this story.

How did you come up with the name “Caught in the Current”?

The title refers to those of us who are caught in the currents of conflicting cultures. Are we Americans or are we Ukrainians? The story follows Alec’s journey of self-discovery as he tries to determine where he fits in. The cover of the novel depicts the confluence of the cultural currents of America, Soviet Ukraine, and independent Ukraine through the imagery of the colors of their flags.

How much of your own experience have you used and what has been borrowed from people around you?

This novel is a work of fiction that was inspired by my personal experiences. The historical references, such as the student strike at Northwestern, the Sixtiers (shestydecyatnyky) movement in Ukraine, the meeting with Patriarch Slipiy, are real. I take poetic license with the characters. I was aspiring to write a work of literary fiction, where the symbolism and meanings go beyond the facts of the story.

The novel reflects on the time when hardly any truthful information was gettingout of the Soviet Union. When researching the details of everyday life in the Soviet Union, what kind of sources have you used?” Any help from friends or professional historians?”

I grew up in America during the Cold War. The Soviet Union, or the “evil empire,” was a fact of life for ordinary Americans. It was in the news almost daily and was the subject of many movies and spy novels. Most of the reliable information about life in Soviet Ukraine came from interviews with my parent’s generation, the Ukrainian free press and work that had been smuggled out of Ukraine. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to visit the Soviet Union twice before it collapsed and see this harsh reality with my own eyes. 

The novel reflects on Alec’s search for himself, as a young man growing up in turbulent times, but also as a son of immigrants trying to find his identity. Who did you have in mind as a target audience when writing this book?

The novel explores what it means to be Ukrainian American, so the primary target audience consists of my peers. We spoke Ukrainian before learning English, we spent innumerable Saturdays in Ukrainian school, and we met our friends and mates in Ukrainian youth organizations. First generation Ukrainian American authors have tended to write about the experiences of our parents. We write very little about ourselves. My novel hopes to bridge that gap. The second target audience is our brethren in Ukraine. I hope to give them insight into what life was like in the diaspora.

If Alec was coming of age in today’s world, how different do you think Alec’s life would be?

That’s a fascinating question. The summer of 1970 was a revolutionary time in America. It was the height of the counterculture movement. It demonstrated the power of youth. Young people were rebelling against the war, materialism, and social injustice. When I reflect on the Orange Revolution and on the recent demonstrations for #Euromaidan, I again see the power of youth. Alec was a rebel. He would have felt very much at home on the Maidan.

What would you like your American reader to learn from this book?

As Alec searches for his self-identity, he reflects on the many things that make him Ukrainian. He recalls key moments in history such as the Christening of Kyivan Rus, the battle of Kruty, and the assassinations of Petlura and Bandera. He reflects on the writings of Shevchenko and visits the grave of Ivan Franko. Americans who read this novel will learn about our struggle for independence and why Ukraine will triumph in the end.

The novel beautifully describes the life the Ukrainian-American community here in Chicago. There are many Ukrainian Americans still growing up in this city. What is your message to them?

When I was graduating from St. Nicholas grammar school, there were 150 Ukrainian American students in my class. Today less than 50 of them remain active in our community. The others were swept into the mainstream of American culture and are pursuing the American dream adrift from their roots. My message to them is don’t abandon your heritage. In the novel Alec and his Ukrainian-American friends share their love of music and dance with an American glee club that they meet in Europe. Alec reflects: “This wasn’t the sterile, homogenizing effect of a Top 10 pop culture. It was the liberating effect of diversity. We can all be very different, and we can all still be Americans. That is the promise of America.” This message is especially important for the children of the Fourth Wave: in your rush to become American, don’t stop being Ukrainian.

As a youth traveling to Ukraine, did the Soviet reality line up with what you have heard about life there? What are your most powerful memories?

The Soviet Union was worse than I imagined. The communists, in denying religion, rewriting history, and downgrading the value of the individual, succeeded in creating a morally bankrupt society. It was a society that perpetrated the Holodomor and killed more of its own citizens than the Nazis. Paranoia and betrayal were a way of life. I trace many of the problems of modern Ukraine to the amorality of current leaders who were reared under the Soviet system. The real hope for meaningful change in Ukraine rests with those who were born in an independent Ukraine. A mantra of the American counterculture movement was “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” A corollary argument might be don’t trust anyone who grew up under the Soviet system.

Alec says “I am American, but I seek freedom for Ukraine.” Was life in a free Ukraine ever a dream of yours?

When I visited the villages where my parents grew up, I felt like I was coming home. Since independence, I have visited Ukraine over twenty five times. I continue to work on building capacity in Ukraine in the field of public health. I am a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Medical Sciences. So I am living my dream of helping to build a free Ukraine. My immediate roots – family, friends, and career – are here in Chicago. I feel I can more effectively help Ukraine by being a champion for her here in America.

Ukrainian political diaspora in United States was about preservation of language and culture, in times when their motherland was under oppression. Unable to return home they created one for themselves here. The times have changed, Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained independence. How do you think this has changed the role of our community?

During much of the last century, the Ukrainian diaspora communities were the guardians of the flame of Ukrainian independence. They fought not only against Soviet attempts to destroy their national identity, but also against the mundane forces that erode diaspora communities. When Ukraine became independent, the responsibility of preserving our language and culture shifted back to Ukraine where it rightfully belongs. The diaspora no longer claims to be a government in exile. The challenges to Ukrainian independence, however, remain as formidable as ever. Many of us in the diaspora have achieved significant positions in government, business, and professional life. We need to leverage our positions to bring world pressure on those who would take Ukraine away from its people.

Would you be interested in having this novel translated and published in Ukraine? What would you want people in Ukraine to learn from it?

I hope to have this novel translated into Ukrainian and published by a Ukrainian press. I want people in Ukraine to learn what life was like for us here in America especially during our counterculture movement. Quoting from the novel: “It was as if all the disparate movements – anti-war, civil rights, women’s liberation – had converged into an unstoppable current that together could wash away the old world order.” I am hoping that Ukrainian youth will come to believe that truth can overcome power.

Who is your favorite author? Why?

One of my favorite authors is Ernest Hemmingway who was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, not far from where I live today. His writing conveys a passion for life. His work is authentic. He lived what he wrote. I must confess I recently visited Harry’s Bar in Venice just to see the place where he used to hang out.

If you could change on thing about this novel, what would it be? 

If I were not constrained by the rules of historical fiction, I would have made Ukraine independent forty years earlier.

What are you working on now? 

I want to explore the boundary between imagination and reality in a political context. In the novel, one of Alec’s Soviet interrogators states, “The truth is what we say it is.” I don’t agree. I believe universal truths are embodied not just in religion but also in archetypes that find their expression through folklore. Einstein said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” I want to search for the hidden meanings in Ukrainian fairy tales and try to incorporate them into a modern story. So the simple answer to the question is: I’m reading Ukrainian fairy tales. 

The book can be purchased at the author's web-site: http://www.caughtinthecurrent.net/

or on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Caught-Current-Novel-Daniel-Hryhorczuk/dp/1626522685

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