Kateryna Olijnyk Longley
In this paper I want to talk about a particular kind of autobiographical story-telling, that of people who have made a major and irreversible crossing from their own cultural world to one that is vastly different. My special interest in this comes from my many years of collecting, translating and writing the oral histories of my Ukrainian parents in Australia. Because I have learned so much from doing this, I have, in recent years, begun to include fragments from their stories in my academic writing about intercultural narratives, and I will do this here. The main thing that I have learned in the course of hearing and collecting such stories from my Ukrainian family is that the extremity of their dislocation from their familiar language, culture, place, time and history highlights the more subtle dislocations that govern memory and the autobiographical process everywhere.
Like many Australian non-British immigrants who arrived after the second world war my parents, Nadja and Petro Olijnyk, could never return to their homeland for political reasons and eventually came to Australia after many years as German prisoners of war or post-war refugees. Although the examples I use are specific and personal, I also want to look for some more general patterns that may allow us to better understand the special difficulties of those who have crossed over from one culture to another, difficulties that are reflected in their story-telling. My reason for doing this is partly personal but it is also because I believe that at this historical moment, at the turn of the 21st century, the need to understand the experience of refugees is just as urgent as it was at the end of the Second World War. With ethnic wars in Kosovo, Rwanda and Indonesia and with politics or poverty driving people to desperate lengths to find new worlds, the problem of accommodating refugees has become a global priority. Ironically, in spite of a greater sense of collective social obligation, there still seems to be too little compassionate understanding world-wide of what it means in personal terms for people to be forced to leave their country and home against their will. Social and political histories can help to raise awareness, as can the news reports of the mass media, but the latter, if anything, seem to suck the reality out of the events, packaging them as captivating capsules so that they are experienced as entertainment, or like advertisements. It is this problem that my paper seeks to address. My argument is that the 'face to face' power of autobiography can play and is playing an important role.
Autobiography is, by definition, always a story about something that has been and gone, something that is over. But the kind of autobiography I am drawing attention to has the special extra feature that there is a huge chasm between the world of the narration (the now of the telling) and the world of the other place, the lost home, which becomes super-charged with emotional and mythological energy precisely because it is the place of no return. To be forced out of one's homeland on pain of death is a kind of death. From the new place, the pain and shame of banishment is relived and retold as though posthumously, from someone else's world, someone else's life. Even when that new life is a 'good life' in material terms, the loss is immeasurable. As I have already mentioned, this makes cross-cultural autobiography the extreme case that illuminates the many one-way crossings that shape all narrations of self. In fact, autobiography is always a fantasy of return to a lost world.
A few months ago my family celebrated the 50th anniversary of our arrival in Australia as refugees from the former Soviet Union. There were many shiploads of us that year and we were known officially as 'displaced persons'. In our family there were 6 of us: my father and mother, both in their mid thirties, my maternal grandmother, my two older brothers, both in their early teens and myself, then five years old. From the first moment of arrival there was much to celebrate. Finally fear had been leftbehind. Like many other 'new Australians' my family had experienced years of Nazi occupation of their city in their case, Kharkiv, in Ukraine before becoming prisoners of war in Hitler's Germany, where I was born. Before that they had lived through the infamous famine that was engineered by Stalin in the 1930s, killing somewhere between 9 and 13 million Ukrainians, the equivalent of more than the whole population of Australia at the time of our arrival, and before that they had experienced the Russian Revolution. But even the end of the war didn't bring the longed for end to the fear that had become a way of life for more than decade for the thousands of Ukrainian displaced people who were between worlds in a kind of 'limbo' in Germany. This is because when it all seemed to be over, peace brought a further deadly twist of the knife in the form of the Yalta agreement which required all Soviet refugees to be repatriated immediately to their homelands whether they liked it or not. For most this amounted to a death warrant.
There is not enough time, in this paper, to describe the post war horror that Yalta brought. But it is important say that Yalta meant having to fight yet another enemy; it meant having to escape from the displaced persons' camps in order to go into hiding again, this time in the dense forests of northern Germany, to evade the guns and trucks, not of a Hitler or Stalin, but of friends and allies the Americans and the British. I need to mention Yalta briefly in the context of the 1949 arrival in Australia because it is not widely understood in Australia that for many ex-Soviet displaced persons the experience of being under attack extended far beyond the official span of the second world war. It became a way of life that went on and on for many years, both before and after the war itself.
After all this, Australia represented freedom, sanity and safety. I can clearly remember the excitement of stepping over from one world to another as our old American troopship, the General Stuart docked at Adelaide's Outer Harbour on a cold day in July. Arrival marked the end of hiding and running, the end of scavenging for food and the end of the humiliation of being hunted. It also marked the end of specific nightmare experiences that are still too painful for my parents to speak of beyond the family. Most of all, arrival meant that Europe's war-crazed world could finally become a narrative with closure and certainty. Arrival put a firm line, accentuated by great distance, between the old world and the new. And so Australia became the empty space where the past could be made into a story or, more precisely, where selected stories of the past could be progressively fashioned and polished into a fabulous repertoire of family myths and legends. To this day these stories continue to be told in a ritualised way around the kitchen table by my parents, now in their late eighties, in the old Adelaide family house, to any visitor who will listen. They know the stories off by heart.
In my family each performance of these stories is a solemn drama, requiring close attention by the audience, no matter how familiar the story or how tiresome the repetition. The explanation I have for this is that every instance of this ritualised process is an intensely personal act of self invocation, a conjuring of an old lost self, a frozen self, into the new living reality, across an impossible chasm.
All over the world stories are told and myths passed on, generation to generation, within families, but what I am saying is that those told by people who have lost their historical and cultural place in the world are different.
How are they different? First there is the dramatic sense of crossing over that is a special feature of first generation displaced immigrants' stories. Of course, there is in every story about the self, in every moment, that same line to cross from past to present, from the old self to the new, from the self as object to the self as subject and from life as story to life as storytelling. The difference in the case of forcibly displaced people is that one of those lines cuts their world in two and is therefore experienced painfully as the sign of loss and trauma. Confusingly, for refugees, this line marks both the end of belonging to a homeland and the escape into safety at the same time. It therefore becomes the symbolic crossing point that obliterates the countless other minor crossings from finished experience to becoming that govern daily life with varying degrees of intensity and significance.
At the same time this line highlights the crossing over from memory to story that gives shape to auto/biographies. In this case it serves the special purpose of becoming the fixed gateway to the re-narration of the past so as to render it bearable, speakableand containable as a basis for building the future. Storytelling becomes a necessity and an obligation. I use the case of my parents because it is the one I know best in order to show that the stories through which they endlessly refashion their severed past play out in a magnified form the paradoxes and dilemmas of displaced peoples' identity struggles everywhere, even in situations where the past is so 'close' that it seeps into the present at every moment.
Narratives of a past experienced in a far distant place can more convincingly achieve the appearance of closure through the structure of a story. But as with all autobiographical storytelling there is no way of stopping the past bursting into the new world of the present. For an immigrant the new present is a wilderness of openings onto the unknown and threatening. This is so even in a welcoming "lucky country", such as Australia, as I shall try to explain. And so, displaced immigrants are drawn by the past, however appalling its memories might be, because there at least some semblance of stability can be achieved by packaging the past as a set of rehearsed stories. And, of course, the past, in spite of everything, always represents home and homeland. At the same time, storytelling is a way of forcing attention on the bodily experience of suffering, that is obscured by historical narrative's smooth stylising gestures. And that is perhaps why so many post Second World War immigrants, and war survivors everywhere, tell their stories over and over again. 
There is however another feature of displaced storytelling that distinguishes it from stories told from a secure home base. From time to time there are breaks in the routine narrative that momentarily hint at further worlds of untold and perhaps untellable secrets. Of course this happens in the telling of any personal story but there is more scope for self-censorship and invention when constructing stories that are so far removed psychically, as well as physically. Who would question them? Again, surviving to tell these tales is very much like coming back from the dead, and this bestows upon the teller the Dantean privilege and ordeal of being locked into a story of one's own making as its controller and victim at the same time. Whenever I listen to and transcribe my parents' stories, I am frustrated by the stylistic flourishes and disappointed that the 'best bits' are being withheld (the real story, I imagine). But I also recognise and respect the fact that the withholding is for a purpose, a critically important political purpose, that has to do with the special needs of displaced people. They have to construct, maintain and strategically position a coherent past self out of shell-shocked fragments so that it can somehow be put to use in and for the present. Without a sustaining language and culture, this is a very tall order.
Enforced exile in its many forms robs people of their pride in themselves personally and collectively by robbing them of the means to control their lives whether by taking away language, land, property, freedom of movement or freedom of speech or by the brutality of colonial historicism. Refugees are often seen as a different, more fortunate case because, by definition, they fled from a worse past to the hope of a better future. They are obviously 'better off'. This has the effect of making them less visible to postcolonial theory, at least in Australia. If postcolonial theory is to be of any practical use to displaced people it needs to respect strategies by which postcolonial communities can rebuild their lives out of and against the backdrop of their humiliating histories. And if the building process is painful and difficult that is because it has to take the past into account, to honour the past even when it is almost too monstrous to look at after the mutilation it has undergone as in Auschwitz, Kosovo, Rwanda, Dili or Sarajievo, for example, or as in all of Aboriginal Australia.
That brings me to my central point and that is that the freedom that the new world provides is precisely the freedom to manipulate at will, to conceal and reveal at will; in other words, to have the power over the auto-biographical narrative over the past as a story that it was not possible to have over lived experience. The self there can be remade at will. And this can be done from the new space as long as that space can provide a context, an audience, that can meet the narrative half way. In other words, something needs to be conceded, given up, so that the story can take hold meaningfully in the new space, dialogically to use Mikhail Bakhtin's term.
What was this space like for post war displaced people? For my parents Australia did not yield the hoped for paradise, precisely because of the problem I have begun to explore. The right conditions were undoubtedly there plenty of work, political freedom, good schools for the children, a wonderful climate and beachside landscape a dream landscape to move through freely, for the first time in decades. This is not to say that there was no poverty or hardship. My parents followed the typical immigrant pattern of working sometimes at several jobs at the same time, night and day. But that was not the problem. The problem was that a new daily fear entered their lives, and to some extent the children's lives too in the early days, and it is one that still stalks my father after 50 years of citizenship. It takes many forms and reveals itself in many ways but I believe it can be best explained in terms of deeply ingrained anxiety that comes with a sense of the loss of coherent selfhood and with it, pride. In practical terms, it has to do with the unnerving experience of having to reinvent the self of the present an empty and artificial self just to get through each daily social demand, and with this, a habit of guardedness that requires faking and concealing and acting a part. Then it is the past self that has to be relied upon as the source of strong identity.
As with so many displaced or colonised people who have lived through violent upheavals at great personal cost, my father clings on to the lost self he constructs through his old stories, as a matter of daily survival because it is still the only one he can believe in. It is sadly ironic that, increasingly, that self is out of phase and out of place. To some extent this happens with every generation and its memories of former ways of being, but again, the experiences of the radically displaced and dispossessed are of a different order. The pattern they reveal is much more than a sign of the cliched concept of the generation gap. It is a sign of the psychic crisis and cultural dysfunction that are central to the history of post-colonial diasporas.
There has been a great deal of attention paid lately to the shadowy dividing line that marks the crossing between truth and fiction in autobiography but I want to refocus onto these other equally nebulous lines of personal crossing between various mutations of the self where questions of truth and fiction are barely relevant. As stories of self these mutations are all, of course, fictions, and yet because they represent the selves we survive by they are deeply 'true' at the same time.
I bring the idea of survival into the picture because autobiography is a way of holding on to one's life, as one would like it to be read. In other words it is a way of giving one's life coherence and significance. And if we think of autobiography in micro terms as the moment by moment construction and reconstruction of the self in language then autobiography is the most aggressively political of genres. Working to gain advantage and favour it perpetually refashions the self to win approval, sympathy or other advantage within the tight constraints of the various genres of daily self representation in specific cultures. We do it all the time in daily interactions, as a reflex action, even when we are firmly anchored in a culture and place. The difference for displaced people is radical: their stories inevitably enter alien and uncomprehending territory, however genuine the gestures of welcome might be and, to their new audience, because of the great gap that has been crossed, their stories are simply unintelligible. That is why diasporan cultures depend so much on family and ethnic communities, and why the Australian national policy of assimilation into which we stepped 50 years ago, coupled with Soviophobia, compounded the confusion and fear about what we were and what we should become. Our stories were simply not welcome in Australia. Repeatedly, the reactions of authorities, employers, even friends told us that we should forget the past and get on with our new life in this wonderful place. But the past was all-consuming, it was what made us what we were and so learning the habit of burying it or dressing up acceptable bits for public display, to satisfy curiosity when called upon, was itself a distressing aspect of arrival.
Knowing this, I listen to my father for perhaps the hundredth time, presenting himself as the cheerful hero against the grim backdrop of the Prisoner of War camp in Hildesheim or the Nazi occupation of Kharkiv or of himself as a child in his village, Rublivka, caught up in the confusion of revolution and civil war. The story I will tell here, at his request, reflects my focus in this paper on radical displacement and lost worlds.
My father, Petro Olijnyk, a former Soviet electrical engineer of great distinction and for 30 years an engineering draftsman for the Commonwealth Department of Works in Adelaide, is the narrator. I have followed his words as closely as I can in the translation from Ukrainian and I will end my paper with his words.
'At the beginning of the autumn of 1923, I was 12 and living in the village of Truhanyivka on the outskirts of Rublivka with my mother and two brothers. My father had been killed 6 years before, by the Bolsheviks, in the very first days of the revolution. I used to walk to the neighbouring village to go to the school which had five classes. I had finished all of these and wanted to study more. I loved school. Only two of us went there from our whole village. Most of Truhanyivka didn't believe in that nonsense. Children were needed at home to go and get water from the well each day. It was 21 yards (arshin) deep and it took ages to turn the handle to bring the bucket up.
I decided to try to keep going to school. Mama tried to talk me out of it. "Even now you've had too much education," she said. But I decided to go. Some of my school friends had said they were going on to the sixth grade in the village of Opishna (famous for its beautiful pottery) and others in Kotelva. They would have to live there and pay for their board. I badly wanted to do this but I knew I would have to earn my own money for it. My mother had none.
The revolution was almost over. Inflation had settled down and wealthier people could pay with money now instead of goods and that meant they could plan ahead. For six years it had been impossible. There had been so many warring groups the whites and reds had fought it out in the villages. And the rules and laws kept changing in the villages because the local governments kept changing back and forth as the battles were won and lost. They were small wars attacks, raids, coups all the time. One day we had to speak Russian, the next Ukrainian. The villages were a prime target because the food was there and only there . Sometimes it was the invaders who robbed us and sometimes the incumbents. That is what revolution means.
You couldn't side with anyone ever or you could be dobbed in by a neighbour of the next group in, who could be on the opposite side. Whoever they were, those in power helped themselves to vegetables, grain, piglets, anything at all. There would be new 'taxes' dreamed up all the time such as 10 kilos of potatoes required from each house immediately, by order, but sometimes they would just walk in and take what they could find. We could be shot if we refused. We were lucky that our house was at the end of the village, the very last one, and so sometimes they had enough before they got to us. It still went on like this in pockets of Ukraine, right up until 1927. It was extremely difficult for my mother to have enough left to feed us and so when our cow died, it was a disaster for us. That is when I decided to try to go away to secondary school and find a way to look after myself.
Four of my friends also 12 years old, were going to Kotelva in September. It was all set up for them in this big village where you could study up to year 7. You had to go to the bigger and further towns, either Khorikov or Poltava, to go to higher levels. What should I do?
So I packed a hemp bag, a shoulder bag, with a little bottle tied on, like a medicine bottle. I put some sunflower oil in the bottle and into the bag I put a piece of bread, some salt cucumbers and a fresh one, some apples and pears and two boiled eggs. I then set out to Kotelva, a distance of 25 kilometres. I had never been there but I knew the road because I had often been on the other side of our village grazing the cow and there was a sign to Kotelva.
On the way, on the left of the road, there was an old Cossack hill-fort, a mound (mohila 300 metres long and as high as a small real hill. It was hollow inside, like a volcano, and with a moat around it. In spring and winter the moat would be deep with water. The fort was a remnant from 1000 years ago of one of the many battles the Ukrainian Cossacks fought for their soil. Cossacks was the name of our Ukrainian horse soldiers. It was only much later that the Russians began to claim it. I don't know which battle was fought here it could have been with Turks, Mongols, Tartars all were attracted by Ukraine and its rich soil at various times in its history. There were many such forts across Ukraine. I had learnt about them at school but this was the first I had actually seen, so I climbed up to look at it.
The moat was lush and grown over but without water. From the rim of the hollow I could see a long way all around and I wondered at the labour required to build this with wooden tools, I supposed, bringing soil to create this artificial hill. I thought about the poem by Shevchenko about such a hill, "Rosrita Mohila ("Ruined Mound"), that I had learned at school. Up there I opened my bag and put oil on my bread by tipping over the bottle and pressing the oily lid onto the bread. I then sprinkled salt on and sat there on top of the world eating and feeling happy.
In the late afternoon I came to the streets of outer Kotelva and began to knock on doors. The houses were spread far apart at first but they were all closer together as I walked further in. The first house I chose had someone in the garden, a woman, working there. I had prepared and practised what I was going to say.
"I am Petro of Truhalinka. My school only went up to five grades and I want to study further. I have no father and my mother has only a horse. The cow is dead now and so I need to make my living and study. Can I live with you? I will work for you in any way you want."
"Get out! I've got five of my own to feed. Go back home and forget school. Come over here, though, and I'll give you a kopek.
I walked on to the city centre. There was a wide square (ploshchad,) and onto it faced two churches and the school right there in the corner. I went to look at it, climbing onto the window ledges to see in. No one was there but I saw the rows of seats and clean slates.
Then I walked on beyond the school to try my luck again. At the first house they said no but at the second house from the school they seemed interested and invited me in. "Will you take the cows out to feed? Will you wash bottles and take them to the cellar?" I said yes to everything of course and they said, "Fine, let's try you."
The man's name was Sherbak and he lived there with his wife and son. He was a kvass maker and seller who made kvass from fermented sugar beet and he had two cows. I began to go to the school.
Not long after that, in January 1924, Lenin died and everything changed again.'
 Over the past decade there have been many publications that deal with trauma, especially the holocaust. In Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1996), Kai Tal explores the representation of traumatic events, the holocaust amongst them, in ways that are relevant to this discussion.
 Kali Tal makes a similar point about those who tell the stories of trauma: "Their responsibility as survivors is to bear the tale. Each one also affirms the process of storytelling as a personally reconstitutive act, and expresses the hope that it will also be a socially reconstitutive act changing the order of things as they are, and working to prevent the enactment of similar horrors in the future." (p.121)
 Cf The ANZACs whose stories celebrate war memories in order to turn humiliation into glory.
 The story that follows is repeated with the permission of my parents, Nadja and Petro Olijnyk.
|Kateryna Olijnyk Longley is a Ukrainian Australian who is currently the Pro Vice Chancellor for Regional Development at Murdoch University where she also holds the position of Professor of English and Comparative Literature in the School of Arts. She has published extensively in the area of contemporary Australian literature and culture, with a special interest, in recent years, in the role of autobiographical story-telling in the lives of elderly immigrants who were forced to leave their homelands, never to return. For the past 20 years she has been collecting and translating the stories of her family who came to Australia as postwar refugees. These stories have inspired and underpinned much of her research. Among her publications are the co-edited books Striking Chords: Australian Multicultural Literary Interpretations and Samuel Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama: Texts for Company. Kateryna Longley has served in many professional roles including: Chair of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies; Editor of the journal SPAN; and member of the world panel for the Commonwealth Literature prize.|