Ksenia Rychtycka’s aptly titled debut collection, Crossing the Border, features characters that do what readers might expect: they cross borders. But they do it in unexpected ways, crossing not only physical borders as they move across the world, but emotional, psychological and even political lines. Most of the nine stories are set in the United States and Ukraine, with characters weaving across continents, pulled by loyalty, nostalgia, curiosity or desperation. Though many of these characters are prisoners—of history, politics, disillusionment, or fear—there is an undercurrent of hope and even salvation that is delivered in quiet but profoundly poetic ways.
The book opens impressively with “Homecoming,” featuring a woman who has crossed thorny physical and emotional borders to return to the homeland of her youth. Having lived in the United States for decades after fleeing Soviet occupation, Vera now finds herself navigating the political tension of a newly liberated Ukraine, one that mirrors the emotional tension between her, the one who escaped, and her cousin Stefko, the one who stayed behind, but made a deal with the devil to survive. Rychtycka wisely explores the terrain of guilt, betrayal, and loyalty by offering historical context in place of judgment or criticism, as seen in Stefko’s simple but resonant comment, “We all have to make our choices.”
“The Artist” also subtly but effectively explores the effects of political upheaval on personal relationships as Valeriy, a young artist unable to paint after returning to Ukraine from a year-long cultural exchange overseas, distances himself from his friends and from the arts community because he is so shaken by the changes in his country, “which had finally gotten to call itself independent but was now in worse shape than before he’d left.” Like most artists, Valeriy is a chronicler of his milieu, a bold, independent seer who is broken by the vision of a country he no longer recognizes or likes. Rychtycka takes the reader to the edge of despair, making us feel every bit as discouraged as Valeriy, before offering hope to the artist and the reader in a vibrant and revelatory street scene perfectly fit for painting.
Hope again subtly overtakes gloom in “The Bell Tower.” Under the oppressive regime of the Soviets, Ukrainians are not allowed to attend religious services or speak freely. “Even the walls in this country have ears,” Marta says to her husband Petro, warning him to choose his response carefully after learning that his own son has joined the KGB. So Petro feels he has little to lose when he steals the key to the church on Christmas Eve, determined to voice his resistance, to reclaim his dignity, to offer a more optimistic future to the child he meets on a freezing night that will forever change his life.
As in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Rychtycka explores the universal dilemma of culture, identity and immigration through personal crises: the dissolution of marriage, the loss of self, the brutality of oppressive regimes that people not only endure but overcome. Like Danticat’s Haiti and Lahiri’s India, Rychtycka delivers an authoritative political and social history of Ukraine without being didactic due to her deep knowledge of and passion for her topic. Natasha and Other Stories, a collection by David Bezmozgis about Soviet Jewish immigrants, likewise probes the terrain of émigré culture but without the optimism subtly woven into Rychtycka’s stories. In “40 Days” the reader is offered a new and striking perspective of the corruption that continued to plague the country even after its liberation. Roman, a poet and political dissident who had spent years in a Siberian labor camp, decides against his family’s wishes to become a presidential candidate. When he dies under suspicious circumstances, the family is torn between quietly grieving and publicly denouncing the officials responsible for his execution. Like most of her stories, “40 Days” displays a compelling combination of heartbreak and hope delivered in beautifully poetic lines: “Luba can hear the birds singing around them as if life is just beginning, and one has only to reach deep inside to let the melody take hold.”
Though many of her characters suffer great losses and have earned their bitterness, they do move forward, often in memorably restrained ways. “Orange in Bloom” opens with a simple declarative sentence, underscoring how a seemingly inconsequential event can alter a life: “The bird’s arrival changed everything.” Military troops may be congregating nearby in anticipation of a political protest, but the elderly protagonist is determined to brave the streets in search of supplies for the parakeet that abruptly lands on her balcony. The bird is a good luck omen, one that counteracts the tragedy that often, like the tiny feathered creature, arrives without warning. The characters that inhabit the pages of Rychtycka’s book are authentic: Anna, who brings a curious tradition from Ukraine to the United States; Lesia, who migrates in search of money but instead finds love; Lina, an American girl whose Ukrainian grandmother shares heartrending stories of their family history. The settings, too, are vibrant and rich with detail, delivered by someone who has clearly done her research. Ksenia Rychtycka is a writer of astonishing compassion and honesty, a writer to be cherished and watched, and Crossing the Border is a must-read collection.