In Ghosts in a Photograph, award-winning nonfiction writer Myrna Kostash delves into the lives of her grandparents, all of whom moved from Galicia, now present-day Ukraine, to Alberta at the turn of the twentieth century. Discovering a packet of family mementos, Kostash begins questioning what she knows about her extended families’ pasts and whose narrative is allowed to prevail in Canada.
This memoir, however, is not just a personal story, but a public one of immigration, partisan allegiance, and the stark differences in how two sets of families survive in a new country: one as homesteaders, the other as working-class Edmontonians. Working within the gaps in history—including the unsolved murder in Ukraine of her great uncle—Kostash uses her remarkable acumen as a writer and researcher to craft a probable narrative to interrogate the idea of straightforward and singular-voiced pasts and the stories we tell ourselves about where we come from.
Rich in detail and propelled by vital curiosity, Ghosts in a Photograph is a determined, compelling, and multifaceted family chronicle.
About the author
Born and raised in Edmonton, Canada, Myrna Kostash is a full-time writer, author of the classic All of Baba’s Children, the award-winning No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls and Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe. Among her other books are Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River, The Frog Lake Reader, The Seven Oaks Reader, and Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Runcimann Award (UK), and which won the 2010 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Wilfred Eggleston Award for Best Nonfiction. In 2010, Kostash was awarded the Writers Trust Matt Cohen Award for a Life of Writing.
Alongside writing for numerous magazines, Kostash has written radio drama and documentary, television documentary, and theatre cabaret. Her journalism, essays, and creative nonfiction have been widely anthologized. She has been a frequent lecturer and instructor of creative writing as well as a writer-in-residence in Canada and the US.
Kostash has lectured across Canada and abroad in Kyiv, Warsaw, Cracow, Belgrade, Nis, Skopje, Sofia, Athens, Szeged, and Baia Mare. She has also served as Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Conference of the Arts and the Board of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta. She is co-founder of the Creative Nonfiction Collective, has been a volunteer at the Carrot community café, and serves on the Board of St John’s Institute in Edmonton.
Myrna Kostash makes her home in Edmonton, Alberta. For more information about her work, visit her website at myrnakostash.com.
Excerpt: Ghosts in a Photograph: A Chronicle (by (author) Myrna Kostash)
Excerpt from the “FOREWORD”
At the point of emigration or immigration, a family history splits in two. Ghosts in a Photograph is a Canadian granddaughter’s account of her grandparents’ lives in Canada and the mystery and strangeness of the lives left behind in Galicia, now Ukraine.
Each narrative of my grandparents is assigned a kind of vita. There are five of them, the fifth being my mother’s stepfather. They all emigrated from villages within shouting distance of each other in Galicia and immigrated into Canada between 1900 and 1910. Their stories, as I received them, began on day one of their settling in Canada.
When I had first thought of the project that has become Ghosts in a Photograph, it had been a century since all my grandparents had arrived in Canada. It was also some forty years since the publication in 1978 of my first book, All of Baba’s Children. That book had been written from the intense curiosity I felt — in the era of official and popular multiculturalism, so enthusiastically embraced by Ukrainian Canadians — about the life experiences of my parents’ generation, the first born in Canada. As for the immigrant settler generation represented by my grandparents, they had been reduced to the stultifying pieties of stories of “pioneers” as assembled by grateful descendants in Canada, and dismissed by me as of little interest.
Now, however, informed by my own history, literary and personal, that ranged over issues of feminism, the New Left in Canada and Eastern Europe, the dissident movement of artists and intellectuals in Soviet Ukraine, Slavic roots in Byzantium, narratives of violent Indigenous and settler conflict in Western Canada — I was eager to look again from multiple perspectives at the lives of my grandparents, be they farmers or child-bearers, members of a local intelligentsia or working-class menials, socialists or the pious unlettered.
It all began with a photograph and the revelation (better late than never) that my grandparents, all of who had emigrated as adults, had had a life in the villages of Galicia before their momentous leave-taking for Canada. And in those villages their lives had intertwined with family members and relatives of whom I had little or no inkling. An exception was the small family of my maternal Baba with whom she had been corresponding since the early 1960s, but even so there were gaps, sensationally so.