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Trauma, Romance, and the Diasporic Memory Keepers of the Holodomor in Erin Litteken’s The Memory Keeper of Kyiv

Mateusz Świetlicki

Abstract

A few months after its publication in North America, Erin Litteken’s bestselling historical novel The Memory Keeper of Kyiv (2022) has already been translated into fourteen languages. Thus, it is plausible that for many readers the novel will be the first encounter with the complex topic of the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine. This article examines the narrative techniques used in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv and demonstrates that the combination of romance and historical fiction enables Litteken not only to introduce readers possessing little to no knowledge of Ukrainian history to the Holodomor but also show the links between Ukraine and North America and those between the present and past genocides in Ukraine. After a brief introduction to the historical context of the Holodomor, the article shows that by using two timelines—one set in 2004 and the other during the Great Famine—Litteken showcases the intergenerational and transcultural character of individual and collective trauma. Finally, it points to the fact that the novel’s present-day protagonist reflects the belated recognition of the Holodomor among the assimilated representatives of the Ukrainian American diaspora and their alleged responsibility to prevent the memory of the Famine from falling into oblivion.

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  • 1 The famine is briefly mentioned in numerous North American books, including Janice Kulyk Keefer’s T (...)
  • 2 The first edition of this picturebook was self-published in 2019 and features different illustratio (...)

1Ukrainian Canadian historian and educator Valentina Kuryliw argues that “[t]he study of the Holodomor is crucial in understanding political processes in Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general, as well as Ukraine’s struggle with Russia for the right to national self-determination” (Kuryliw 7). The growing awareness of the famine outside of the Ukrainian diaspora1 in North America and the rising interest in Ukraine’s present and past have contributed to the appearance of Anglophone books of various forms and genres about the Holodomor. In addition to the countless publications by Western historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, the theme of the Great Famine can be found in works of historical fiction for various age groups. At least five such major publications were issued in 2022 and early 2023: Erin Litteken’s mainstream novel The Memory Keeper of Kyiv (2022), Adrian Lysenko and Ivanka Theodosia Galadza’s graphic novel Five Stalks of Grain (2022), Carola Schmidt and Anita Barghigiani’s picturebook Tell Me A Story Babushka (2022),2 and two middle-grade novels by award-winning authors, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Winterkill (2022) and Katherine Marsh’s The Lost Year: A Survival Story of the Ukrainian Famine (2023). Unlike most earlier texts about the Great Famine, which were either self- or independently published, these books have been met with critical and commercial success.

  • 3 Marsh’s The Lost Year has three alternating timelines set during the Holodomor, the Great Depressio (...)

2Litteken’s bestselling debut book has already been translated into sixteen languages, including French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Polish, and Dutch. Thus, it can be argued that for most readers, considering the wide circulation and mainstream character of the novel, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv will be the first encounter with the complex topic of the Great Famine. Referring to Janice Radway’s influential study on romance novels, in this article I examine the narrative techniques used in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv and demonstrate that the combination of romance and historical fiction enables Litteken not only to introduce readers possessing little to no knowledge of Ukrainian history to the Holodomor but also show the links between Ukraine and North America and those between the present and past genocides in Ukraine. After all, as various trauma studies scholars have argued, “trauma can build bridges between people from diverse historical backgrounds” (Garloff 211). After briefly introducing the historical context of the Holodomor, I argue that by using two timelines—one set in 2004 and the other during the Great Famine—Litteken showcases the intergenerational and transcultural character of individual and collective trauma.3 I concur with Brent Bezo and Stefania Maggi, who in their study on the Holodomor maintain “that collective trauma and its intergenerational transmission affects not only the individual, but also the family and community-society, and retains a historical perspective” (92). Finally, in my reading of The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, I point to the fact that the novel’s present-day protagonist reflects the belated recognition of the Holodomor among the assimilated representatives of the Ukrainian American diaspora and their alleged responsibility to prevent the memory of the famine from falling into oblivion.

1. Introduction to the Holodomor

3The Memory Keeper of Kyiv features two timelines: one set in Sonyashnyky, a fictional village in the Tetiïv region in Ukraine, in 1929-1933, and the other in Illinois, USA, in 2004, the year the aforementioned Mariupol monument was built and Ukraine made international headlines because of the Orange Revolution. During his presidency, Viktor Yushchenko, who became Ukraine’s president after a series of protests provoked by the falsified election, actively supported the commemoration of the Great Famine. At the same time, however, the Russian Federation continued to either refute its genocidal character or deny its occurrence in general.

4The Holodomor, Ukrainian for death by starvation, was the aftermath of dekulakization and forced collectivization of the Ukrainian countryside during Stalin’s Five-Year-Plan. As Norman Davies notes in Europe: A History, the Great Famine “was a dual-purpose by-product of collectivization, designed to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and the most important concentration of prosperous peasants at one throw” (207). While the Soviets attacked Ukrainian intelligentsia, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, and clergy, the group affected the most were farmers, who were 80% of Ukraine’s population. Because farmers were the “carriers of the language and culture,” collectivization was synonymous with the destruction of the traditional structure of the Ukrainian countryside (Kuryliw 22). At first, joining the collective “was supposed to be voluntary,” and the Russian activists were to “persuade” Ukrainians farmers into joining the kolkhoz (Applebaum 118). However, most Ukrainians were hesitant to do so, which angered the activists and led to violence. Thus, collectivization turned into a campaign of intimidation and torture, during which farmers were forced to give up their land and property to the state (cf. Applebaum 113-139; Kulchytsky; Malko).

5The Soviet government starved a few million people to death in 1932-1933 by setting high grain quotas and confiscating not only grain but also all other types of food, including “fruit from trees, seeds and vegetables from kitchen gardens—beets, pumpkins, cabbages, tomatoes—as well as honey and beehives, butter and milk, meat and sausage” (Applebaum 227). Because all food produce was considered state property, in August 1932, the government introduced The Law of Five Stalks of Grain, according to which all villagers, even children, “stealing” any grain from the collective fields were to face the prospects of execution (cf. Kuryliw 23). To prevent Ukrainians from escaping starvation and prosecution, in January of 1933, Ukraine’s borders were closed. When Ukrainians were starving, the Soviets were selling grain and dairy to Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, at very low prices.

  • 4 Notably, France’s former Premier Edouard Herriot visited Soviet Ukraine in the summer of 1933. Afte (...)

6Stalin got away with the famine by the use of denial, cover-up, propaganda, and revoking press privileges for most Western journalists.4 “The organized denial of the famine began early, before the worst starvation had even begun,” observes Anne Applebaum in Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (303). Although some journalists, most notably Gareth Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Rhea Clyman, informed the West about the artificial famine in Soviet Ukraine, most governments, still struggling with the Great Depression, ignored the deaths of millions of Ukrainian farmers, including children.

  • 5 As Applebaum notes, “[t]he active suppression of the famine story by Soviet authorities also had, i (...)

7Despite the Soviet—and then Russian—campaigns of disinformation, the memory of the famine survived, to a large extent due to the written testimonies of the survivors and witnesses, many of whom immigrated to Canada, the USA, Brazil, and Western Australia. For decades openly denied or its scale minimalized,5 in the last three decades the Holodomor has been recognized as a genocide by Ukraine and twenty-five other countries, and has been studied extensively by Ukrainian and Western historians, including Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, and Stanislav Kulchytsky. Although Ukrainians in North America were trying to spread awareness of the Holodomor already in the 1930s and actively fought against the pro-Soviet sentiments in the West, only in 1988—two years after the publication of Robert Conquest’s influential The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine—did The U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine come to the conclusion that Stalin knew about the famine and, thus, committed genocide (cf. Kuryliw 75). After all, acknowledging the Holodomor after the Second World War meant admitting that the Allies collaborated with Stalin, a dictator who had starved millions to death.

2. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv: Branding as Historical Trauma-Romance

8Originally announced as Beneath the Sunflowers, Litteken’s debut novel was issued in the spring of 2022 as The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, even though none of its timelines take place in the capital of Ukraine. The change of the initial title, which better reflected the story, can be read as a deliberate “branding” choice on the part of the publisher, who recognized the timeliness of Litteken’s book’s publication right after Russia’s February 24 attack on Ukraine. The book’s attractive cover further reflects the publisher’s branding intentions: first, it shows a photograph of the back of a young woman carrying a few stalks of grain, which echoes both the “Bitter Memories of Childhood” Holodomor monument in Kyiv and the covers of most best-selling historical trauma-romance novels; second, it contains information that “a share of proceeds will be donated to DEC Ukraine”; third, it features a quote by novelist Kate Quinn, who calls the novel “Powerfully moving” and thus gives Litteken her seal of approval. Moreover, in addition to the book blurb by Quinn, whose dual narrative historical novel The Alice Network (2017) was a New York Times bestseller, the others were written by other currently successful authors, for example, Christy Lefteri (The Beekeeper of Aleppo, 2019), Fiona Valpy (The Dressmaker’s Gift, 2019), Deborah Carr (An Island at War, 2021), Paulette Kennedy (Parting the Veil, 2021), and Lisa Wingate (Before We Were Yours, 2017). The publisher’s promotional note further markets The Memory Keeper of Kyiv as belonging to the genre of popular historical trauma-romance because it compares the novel to Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) and Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Notably, similarly to the aforementioned novels, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv received a wide distribution: it was issued in paperback, hardback, Kindle, and audible formats, and it contains an additional set of book club discussion questions. All of the formats—most importantly, the instantly and widely available Kindle and audible ones—topped numerous lists of bestsellers on Amazon.com, including “20th Century Historical Romance,” and have received thousands of positive reader reviews on various platforms, including Goodreads. Moreover, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv was named the best historical book of 2022 by the readers of Shereads.com, beating Quinn’s The Diamond Eye, among others.

9Despite being meticulously researched and historically accurate, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv subscribes to the formula of the accessible and popular historical trauma-romance novels, usually about the First or Second World War, which are omnipresent in North America. Such texts, available not only in bookstores but also places like airports and supermarkets, deliver small batches of historical facts with little to no graphic descriptions into largely conventional and heterosexual romance plots that threaten to overshadow the complexities of history. However, they may just as well be read as familiar historical trauma-romance plots, the present-day equivalent of traditional romance novels, that strategically address middle-class women readers and offer them perspectives they might not otherwise have considered.

10As Janice Radway has observed in her influential Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, the readers of romance novels—in her 1984 study white middle-class women from the American Midwest—“rely on standard cultural codes correlating signifiers and signifieds that they accept as definitive. It has simply never occurred to them that those codes might be historically or culturally relative” (190). Similar observations can be made about the implied readers of the omnipresent historical trauma-romance novels that rarely feature overly-graphic or disturbing descriptions of atrocities, yet always contain significant heterosexual romantic plots which allow for a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. Familiarity with literary codes and types of characters, as I believe, can enable readers to better understand the historically and geographically distant surroundings of the protagonists. Considering Radway’s argument that “[i]t seems likely that romance readers find it easy to dub these simple descriptive assertions about the past or places they have never seen as ‘fact’ because those other descriptions of familiar domestic environment are so evocative of the world they inhabit,” it can be argued that the inclusion of hopeful romantic plots and the present-day timelines in many popular historical novels is supposed to make history understandable and more tangible for a particular type of reader (197).

11Hence the use of such a narrative convention in the context of the Holodomor, a genocide little-known in the USA, can be interpreted as the publisher’s way of making sure the novel sells and as Litteken’s attempt to reach—and educate—a particular type of vivid readers: predominantly middle-class women similar to her midwestern protagonist, Cassie. This can be accomplished by making the book widely available and appealing to the readers’ usual preferences. When the readers’ typical expectations are met, those unfamiliar with Ukraine and its history may want to reflect on the non-romantic elements of the plot and, consequently, recognize the transcultural importance of the Holodomor. Such recognition is of particular importance because the occurrence of the Great Famine is still outrageously denied by Russia, most recently by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Twitter. Thus, the familiar romantic plots and the present-day timeline taking part in the American Midwest in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv can make the history of the Holodomor more tangible and help to position it as a fact.

  • 6 Katya was “long ago christened Bobby when a young Cassie had butchered the Ukrainian word for grand (...)
  • 7 Although the novel contains a few elements of magical realism, all contacts between the living and (...)

12In the last ninety years, many survivors of the Holodomor who immigrated to the USA and other Western countries published memoirs or gave interviews, yet others refused to talk about their traumatizing experiences, even to their own children. The latter approach is reflected in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, which is focalized by two women who struggle with different types of trauma: Cassie, an American of Ukrainian heritage, and her Ukrainian grandmother Katya, who had immigrated to the USA after the Second World War with her late husband Nick/Kolya. Cassie, the book’s 2004 protagonist, is a journalist in her early thirties who has not written in more than a year as she is grieving the tragic death of her husband, Henry. Fourteen months after his fatal car crash, Cassie and her daughter Birdie, who had stopped speaking as a result of the accident, move back from Wisconsin to a small town in Illinois to live with Katya. The ninety-two-year-old woman, nicknamed Bobby,6 is hit by a car and needs supervision. Moreover, she has been showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, such as hoarding food in unusual places, speaking Ukrainian to herself, and leaving notes asking someone called Alina for forgiveness. Although she never talked about her past, Bobby/Katya realizes she is dying and wants to finally share her life story with Cassie, thus preventing it from falling into oblivion. Because the memories of her youth are still too traumatizing, Bobby/Katya gives Cassie her old journal, which contains her testimony of the atrocities she survived and witnessed (cf. Eaglestone). Cassie speaks no Ukrainian, so Bobby/Katya encourages her to ask Nick, her handsome Ukrainian American neighbor, for help. Reading about her family’s—and Ukraine’s—tragic history, Cassie learns about the Holodomor, starts working through her trauma of loss and survivor guilt, and falls in love with Nick. Nick, who is a conventionally handsome and educated Ukrainian American man, takes Cassie on romantic dates and helps her take care of Birdie. While her mother is reading the journal and bonding with Nick, Birdie keeps on drawing pictures of two girls standing in front of a field of sunflowers. She also regains her voice because, as she believes the ghost of Bobby’s/Katya’s late sister Alina, who died during the Great Famine—and whom Cassie and her mother Anna take for Birdie’s imaginary friend—asks the girl to deliver Katya a message of forgiveness.7

13The novel’s historical narrative includes elements present in most other Holodomor-themed books: the arrival of Russian activists, forced collectivization and dekulakization, exiles to Siberia, collaboration of criminal elements, requisitions of food, starvation to death, and the consequent destruction of the countryside (cf. Gal; Karpenko; Skrypuch). The Memory Keeper of Kyiv also addresses the post-Holodomor denial of the famine and the struggles of the farmers to survive as individuals and as Ukrainians. Nevertheless, the novel is not graphic in its depiction of atrocities and various acts of physical violence, including sexual abuse. In the first scene of the historical timeline, sixteen-year-old Bobby/Katya, the focalizer, poses for a photograph with her sister Alina in front of a field of sunflowers in their village of Sonyashnyky, named after the Ukrainian word for sunflowers, which explains the novel’s initial title. While Bobby/Katya never forgets about her life in Ukraine, for years she refuses to plant sunflowers in her yard, as they “made her too sad” (8). However, when in the 2004 timeline Cassie’s daughter Birdie, who emerges as Alina’s messenger, starts speaking again, she helps Bobby/Katya realize that next to the traumatic memories of the Holodomor she has also repressed the good ones. With the help of Birdie, who regains her voice physically, Bobby/Katya eventually regains it metaphorically when, after sharing her traumatic experiences, she finally plants both the sunflowers in her yard and the symbolical seeds of memory in her granddaughter’s mnemonic repertoire (cf. Świetlicki 3).

3. Her Memories. Her Love Story: Widowhood and Grief

  • 8 When Cassie says: “That’s unbelievable. I feel so dumb. I’m of Ukrainian descent. I should know wha (...)

14Together with Cassie, who reads Bobby’s/Katya’s journal, the novel’s implied readers learn about the Holodomor and the Soviet attempts to deny its occurrence.8 Moreover, they get to see the numerous similarities between the experiences of Bobby/Katya and Cassie, two young widows struggling with grief and survivor guilt. Notably, what makes the novel different from other Holodomor-themed texts—and similar to most trauma-romance ones—is the role played by the romantic, and conventionally heterosexual, plots in both of the timelines. After the loss of their father, teenage Katya and her sister Alina fall in love and marry their childhood sweethearts, Pavlo and Kolya, respectively. Although the two couples are in love and quickly become pregnant, collectivization and the deadly Famine prevent them from living happy lives. Katya’s child dies, but since Alina’s physical and mental health deteriorates, the protagonist has to overcome grief and breastfeed her niece, Halya, whom she promises to keep alive. In the 2004 timeline, this need to keep the child alive is another aspect of Bobby’s/Katya’s life with which Cassie identifies. After the death of her husband Henry, she “didn’t care if she skipped dinner or ate saltines for breakfast, but she was determined to make sure Birdie received all of the nutrition she needed, even if her clothes didn’t fit or she never spoke again” (1). Thus, making sure Birdie is physically healthy and not hungry becomes her main life goal.

15While reading the journal, Cassie is surprised when she realizes that her grandmother also lost her first husband, and that she later remarried. It is Pavlo, Bobby’s/Katya’s first love, who right before dying encourages her to keep a journal: “You must survive this and tell the people of the world what has happened here, so it doesn’t happen again. Use your pencil and paper and weave your beautiful words to keep our memories alive. Don’t let me die in vain, Katya” (136, emphasis mine). Notably, by asking Katya to write, Pavlo is encouraging her to bear witness and work through her trauma. After all, “[w]riting one’s own story may serve as a self-witness. As an object, the story is separate from the writer, removed from ugly origins, possibly lifted into an aesthetic place” (Natov 59). However, although Katya writes her story down, she treats the act of writing as an obligation to bear witness. Only when she shares her memories with Cassie a few days before her death, does she truly stop them from falling into oblivion and makes sure they are kept alive.

16Bobby’s/Katya’s unwillingness to talk about the past stems from survivor guilt and the complexity of her trauma, both individual and collective. To prevent her family from starvation during the Holodomor, Bobby/Katya steals food from the collective field and is seen by Ivan, who “must be only eleven or twelve” (194). She is let go, but a few days later, when Bobby/Katya is not home, the authorities come to arrest her for “st[ealing] grain from the state,” a fatal crime according to the 1932 Law of Five Stalks of Grains (197). To ensure that her sister and daughter Halya survive, it is Alina who confesses and is eventually executed. Bobby/Katya blames herself for Alina’s death but makes sure to keep the promise of keeping Halya, Alina’s daughter, alive at all cost. To do so, she has to repress her own grief and do whatever it takes to survive the Famine. In addition to survivor guilt and the trauma of loss, Litteken points to Bobby’s/Katya’s traumatic experience of sexual abuse, which many women in the Famine-struck Ukraine underwent in the 1930s. Although The Memory Keeper of Kyiv does not feature any explicit descriptions, one of the novel’s historical scenes implies that next to the loss of many loved ones, Bobby’s/Katya’s repressed memories also include that of being raped: “Do you think I willingly bartered my body for potatoes? You have some nerve, Kolya. My choice was this or my life. I chose life” (211).

17After the deaths of Alina and Pavlo, Litteken introduces another romantic relationship, the surprising one between Bobby/Katya and her late sister’s husband, Kolya, who in the USA became known as Nick. The last wish of the protagonist’s mother is for Kolya to marry Katya to give Halya a full family. While at first they are only trying to stay alive, “the bond of survival they shared” brings them closer, and eventually Kolya and Katya ask Alina for forgiveness and stop fighting their feelings (317). After the Second World War, they decide to forget about the past, “look to the future,” and move to the USA, “the land of opportunity… [w]ith food and jobs for anyone willing to work for it,” where they assimilate and raise their daughter Anna (248). The history of the unexpected relationship between Bobby/Katya and Nick/Kolya encourages Cassie to rethink her growing feelings towards Nick, whom she also eventually marries.

  • 9 Halya is one of the protagonists of Litteken’s second novel, The Lost Daughters of Ukraine (2023).

18After years of repressing her own traumatic memories, Bobby/Katya realizes that she cannot escape the past. Next to the recollections of her youth during the Holodomor, Bobby/Katya shares with Cassie the knowledge that “[l]ooking to the future doesn’t mean you have to forget the past. You can have both, Cassie, and be all the richer for it” (324). It is love for Pavlo which eventually encourages Bobby/Katya to give Cassie the journal, her written testimony, and ask her to become the memory keeper: “I promised Pavlo that I would write our story and tell the world what happened to us. What was done to us. I did what he asked. I wrote it here... But I could never tell the world. I was too scared. I don’t just want you to know my story, Cassie. I want you to write it for me. Share my story, our story, with everyone, so what happened to us never happened again” (303, emphasis mine). Before dying, Bobby/Katya keeps her promise and shares the story of the Holodomor with Cassie, who agrees to write a book about it. Therefore, with the help of her grandmother, Cassie also overcomes her writer’s block and publishes a successful novel. In the epilogue, which takes place in 2007, Cassie learns that Halya, who, as Bobby/Katya believed, died in a bombing during the Second World War, survived.9 Thus, Cassie, now pregnant with Nick’s child, bears witness to the fact that Bobby/Katya did keep the promise she gave her sister.

19The experience of her grandmother encourages Cassie to work through her own grief and survivor guilt and stop denying the feelings she has for Nick: “How had Bobby opened her heart after such tragic losses? Will I ever be able to do the same?” she wonders (314, emphasis in the original). Hence, by giving Cassie her journal and later talking with her, Bobby/Katya helps her granddaughter work through the loss of her American husband and connect with Nick, a Ukrainian American. Ultimately, Cassie realizes: “Bobby lost so much more than me, but she found a way to go on. Maybe I can, too. I think… I think Henry would want me to live my life” (325). The entanglements of individual and collective traumas and the historical and present-day ones in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv are problematic as they may lead some readers to assume the experiences of Cassie, a middle-class Midwestern woman, and Bobby/Katya, the survivor of a man-made famine, are comparable. Nevertheless, the present-day timeline and the romantic plots can make the distant history of the Holodomor more tangible to the novel’s implied readers.

4. Transfer of Memory and Intergenerational Trauma

20In the “Introduction to Literary Trauma Studies,” Collin Davis and Hanna Meretoja observe that “[b]eing recognized as traumatized is a privilege not equally available to all trauma victims” (5). Collective trauma, such as the one associated with the Great Famine, is usually associated with the traumatizing event only (cf. Garloff 213). Litteken points to the structural character of the Holodomor trauma connected to the destruction of the traditional social structures, the erasure of various markers of national identity, the refusal to let people commemorate the loss of their close ones, and finally, the denial of the occurrence of the Famine. Bobby/Katya tells Cassie that the famine became a taboo: “Stalin denied the famine, and the world believed him because they needed his force to beat the Nazis” (322). The lack of recognition of her experience, and the consequent impossibility to work through her trauma(s), provoked Bobby/Katya to repress her memories. As she says, “[s]peaking of it or sharing my journal should have only drawn attention to us, and people were arrested for such things and sent away to labor camps for decades” (322). Moreover, as Cathy Caruth has famously observed in her influential contribution to trauma theory, what haunts trauma victims “is not only the reality of the event but also the reality of the way that its violence has not yet been fully known” (Unclaimed Experience 6). Thus, Litteken points to the fear which accompanied Ukrainians when more than a decade later they left the country after the Second World War. The Soviets, as Bobby/Katya recalls, “were repatriating people like [her] back to the USSR every day, telling them they were going home but really sending them to gulags and labor camps for ‘collaborating with the enemy’” (322-323). Hence, even after immigrating to the USA some survivors of the Holodomor were too afraid to speak about the famine.

21Bobby’s/Katya’s repression of the memories of life in Ukraine became her coping mechanism and a way to protect her US-born daughter, for whom she became “a wonderful mother,” from her own collective and individual trauma (232). While Bobby/Katya refused to talk about her experience with her daughter Anna, she did teach her traditional Ukrainian recipes, embroidery, and the art of writing pysanky. Thus, Anna, and then also Cassie, grew up feeling Ukrainian American but knowing little about the old country’s rich and traumatic history. Furthermore, Anna and Cassie never learned Ukrainian and grew up detached from the Ukrainian community: “My whole life, I’ve had no idea who my grandparents were or if I had any cousins, or aunts and uncles,” recalls Anna (141). At the age of ninety-two, Bobby/Katya belatedly realizes that “[t]here was much more [she] could have shared but opening [her]self up to [her] old life hurt too much. So, [she] kept everything locked away” (302). This, as she says, is her biggest regret.

22In their study on the intergenerational transfer of the trauma of the Holodomor, Bezo and Maggi refer to Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory and note that “the communication of knowledge and oral accounts between generations, whether verifiable by independent sources as fact or lore, constitute memories in their own right that operate in the present and impact descendants” (92). This impact is reflected in The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, where Cassie, who knows little about her Ukrainian roots, begins to suspect there must be something about her grandmother’s life no one knows about, “[s]ome kind of trauma she went through long ago that’s exacerbating this whole thing” (141). Instead of telling her granddaughter about the famine, Bobby/Katya decides to give Cassie her journal, saying: “Surviving through it once was hard enough. It’s important that you know, but I will not relive it” (144). Thus, Cassie has to indirectly experience—or appropriate—her grandmother’s memories and trauma(s), including that of rape, before she becomes the eponymous memory keeper. Moreover, to do so, she has to connect with Nick, who speaks Ukrainian and thus can help her read Bobby’s/Katya’s journal and explain Holodomor’s cultural importance for the diaspora.

  • 10 While Anna has also never heard about the Holodomor, she remembers situations from her parents’ lif (...)

23Litteken points to the two approaches to the memory of the Holodomor found within the diaspora: oblivion and commemoration. Throughout the novel, Cassie reads about Bobby’s/Katya’s traumatic experiences during collectivization and the Holodomor, which, next to starvation, include the loss of her parents, husband, son, and sister, as well as sexual abuse. This provokes Cassie to look for more information online about the famine, and “[t]he first entries shocked her. Holodomor, death by hunger, terror-famine, Stalin, death toll estimates from 4-10 million” (230, emphasis in the original). At the age of thirty-one, triggered by the shocking events described in her grandmother’s journal, Cassie, an educated American journalist, for the first time hears about the Great Famine. This makes her recognize the complexity of her grandmother’s trauma: “How did I not know about this? If [Katya] lived through a forced famine, it’s no wonder she hoards food” (230).10 However, when Cassie tells Nick about the famine, he replies: “You mean the Holodomor? Of course. I thought you realized that’s what we were dealing with in your Bobby’s journal” (233). His reaction shocks Cassie, as she understands that for many Ukrainians it is, indeed, “common knowledge” (233).

24Dissimilar to assimilated Cassie and Anna, Nick “learned about [the Holodomor] in Ukrainian school,” so it has always been a part of his mnemonic repertoire (233). Notably, unlike Bobby/Katya, Nick’s grandmother, who came from Western Ukraine, did not directly experience the Famine. Here Litteken, whose own family came to the USA from Western Ukraine after the Second World War, points to the fact that because talking about Stalin’s atrocities and commemorating the famine was easier in the West, paradoxically, its memory was maintained by people who had not been directly affected by the genocidal hunger. While the Holodomor became “the defining catastrophe” for the Ukrainian diaspora, many survivors, like Bobby/Katya, were too traumatized, not only by the event but also the denial and refusal to commemorate its victims, to talk about it, especially before it was recognized as a genocide (cf. Satzewich 182). Only at the end of the novel does Cassie realize that “[t]he scars of living under an oppressive regime ran deep, and she hadn’t realized the extent of her grandmother’s wounds” (323). Bobby’s/Katya’s written testimony helps Cassie deal with her own loss and find inspiration to start writing again. Therefore, Cassie becomes the eponymous keeper of memory who has the responsibility to share the story of the Holodomor with the world and challenge the Soviet propaganda popularized decades ago by journalists like Duranty.

5. Conclusion

  • 11 The genocidal character of the current war has been acknowledged by various scholars, most notably, (...)

25“There is now a wide recognition of how past violence leaves marks on the present and future, how the past haunts us and how past injustice needs to be remembered and worked through so that we can avoid repeating it,” write Davis and Meretoja in the introduction to The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (3, emphasis mine). However, repressed and denied injustices can lead to repetitions of violence; this seems to be the case in Ukraine. Not incidentally did Litteken set one of the timelines of The Memory Keeper of Kyiv in 2004, right before the Orange Revolution, as at that time, a series of socio-political changes occurred in the country. The role of the memory of the Holodomor in Ukraine’s mnemonic politics increased after it was recognized as a genocide in 2006. However, Russia continues to deny the genocidal character of the famine. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv was published a few months after Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Thus, its readers were introduced to the Holodomor while witnessing another genocide11 happening in Ukraine. Like the Great Famine last century, also this war has been denied by the Russian regime, which in its campaign of disinformation refers to it as a “special military operation.”

26At the time when commemorating the Great Famine was prohibited in Soviet Ukraine, the diaspora in North America helped to spread awareness of the atrocities committed by the Soviets and to prevent the memory of the Holodomor from falling into oblivion. Now, when the Russian government is trying to destroy Ukraine and actively denies the occurrence of the Holodomor, the publication of popular and approachable books about the 1932-1933 Famine written by authors of Ukrainian heritage is of great importance. Although Litteken’s use of two timelines and conventional/heterosexual romance codes may alienate some readers, for the same reasons, as I have argued, it can help her book reach many others, including those who otherwise would have never heard about the Holodomor. Hence, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv may help its readers notice the transcultural links between Eastern Europe and North America and the past’s impact on the present and the future.

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Bibliography

Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Penguin Books, 2017.

Bezo, Brent, and Stefania Maggi. “Living in ‘Survival Mode:’ Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from the Holodomor Genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 134, 2015, pp. 87–94.

Caruth, Cathy. “Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, Johns Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 3-12.

---. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cipko, Serge. Starving Ukraine: The Holodomor and Canada’s Response. U of Regina P, 2018.

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford UP, 1996.

Davis, Colin, and Hanna Meretoja. “Introduction to Literary Trauma Studies.” The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma, edited by Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja, Routledge, 2020, pp. 1-8.

Eaglestone, Robert. “Trauma and Fiction.” The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma, edited by Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja, Routledge, 2020, pp. 287-295.

Gal, Valentina. Philipovna: Daughter of Sorrow. MiroLand, 2019.

Garloff, Katja. “Transcultural Empathy.” The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma, edited by Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja, Routledge, 2020, pp. 211-219.

Jensen, Meg. “Testimony.” The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma, edited by Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja, Routledge, 2020, pp. 66-78.

Karpenko, Kat. The Photograph. BookBaby, 2020.

Kulchytsky, Stanislav. “Why Did Stalin Exterminate the Ukrainians? Comprehending the Holodomor. The Position of Soviet Historians.” The Holodomor Reader: A Sourcebook on the Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine, edited by Bohdan Klid and Alexander J. Motyl, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2012, pp. 26-35.

Kuryliw, Valentina. Holodomor in Ukraine, The Genocidal Famine 1932-1933: Learning Materials for Teachers and Students. CIUS Press, 2018.

Litteken, Erin. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv. Boldwood Books, 2022.

Lysenko, Adrian, and Ivanka Theodosia Galadza. Five Stalks of Grain. U of Calgary P, 2022.

Malko, Victoria A. The Ukrainian Intelligentsia and Genocide: The Struggle for History, Language, and Culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Lexington Books, 2021.

Marsh, Katherine. The Lost Year. Macmillan Books, 2023.

Natov, Roni. The Courage to Imagine. Bloomsbury, 2018.

Orwell, George. “Notes on Nationalism.” England your England, and Other Essays. Seeker & Watburg, 1953, pp. 52-53.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. The U of North Carolina P, 1991.

“Russia Removes a Monument to the Holodomor, the Genocide Perpetrated by Stalin in Ukraine,” 19 Oct. 2022, https://www.outono.net/elentir/2022/10/19/russia-removes-a-monument-to-the-holodomor-the-genocide-perpetrated-by-stalin-in-ukraine/?fbclid=IwAR3qEfnTdbKwt52YZAliwPuceS_YFfojESAsIqkKhsDlfpVXkHNrFUtOKks. Accessed 15 March 2023.

Satzewich, Vic. The Ukrainian Diaspora. Routledge, 2002.

Schmidt, Carola. Tell Me a Story, Babushka. Illustrated by Anita Barghigiani, Reycraft Books, 2022.

Skrypuch, Marsha Forchuk. Enough. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2000.

---. Winterkill. Scholastic, 2022.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, 2010.

Świetlicki, M. Next-Generation Memory and Ukrainian Canadian Children’s Historical Fiction: The Seeds of Memory. Routledge, 2023.

Ulanowicz, A. “‘We are the People’: The Holodomor and North American-Ukrainian Diasporic Memory in Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Enough.” Miscellanea Posttotalitariana Wratislaviensia, vol. 2, no. 7, 2017, pp. 49-71.

“U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine,” report to Congress. Adopted by the Commission, April 19, 1988. Submitted to Congress April 22, 1988. United States Government Printing Office, 1988, p. 524.

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Notes

1 The famine is briefly mentioned in numerous North American books, including Janice Kulyk Keefer’s The Green Library (1996), Eva Stachniak’s Necessary Lies (2000), Sandri Mitchell’s Under this Unbroken Sky (2009), and Amanda McCrina’s Traitor (2020). Since the publication of Enough (2000) by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch and Michael Martchenko, the visibility of the Holodomor in children’s literature has also significantly increased (cf. Ulanowicz; Świetlicki 133-167). It is worth noting, however, that for years Skrypuch continued getting death threats, which stopped only after the official recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide by the Canadian government in 2008.

2 The first edition of this picturebook was self-published in 2019 and features different illustrations by Vinicius Melo.

3 Marsh’s The Lost Year has three alternating timelines set during the Holodomor, the Great Depression, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This technique and the numerous references to video games and popular culture are supposed to make the historically and geographically distant events closer to the novel’s implied young readers.

4 Notably, France’s former Premier Edouard Herriot visited Soviet Ukraine in the summer of 1933. After being presented with a Potemkin village, he categorically denied the occurrence of the famine (cf. Kuryliw 53). As George Orwell observes in his “Notes on Nationalism,” “[f]or quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps were often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles” (52-53; cf. Cipko).

5 As Applebaum notes, “[t]he active suppression of the famine story by Soviet authorities also had, inevitably, a powerful impact on Western historians and writers. The total absence of any hard information about the famine made the Ukrainian claims seem at least highly exaggerated” (339). The lack of data partially explains the initial disbelief of the scale of the Holodomor in the West.

6 Katya was “long ago christened Bobby when a young Cassie had butchered the Ukrainian word for grandma, babusya, and refused to use the traditional nickname, baba” (3).

7 Although the novel contains a few elements of magical realism, all contacts between the living and the dead are dismissed as creations of Birdie’s imagination or “strange” Ukrainian customs, typical of the old country (cf. 230).

8 When Cassie says: “That’s unbelievable. I feel so dumb. I’m of Ukrainian descent. I should know what my family went through. How have I never heard of any of this?” Nick informs her about the Soviet propaganda spread by Western press, especially Walter Duranty (234).

9 Halya is one of the protagonists of Litteken’s second novel, The Lost Daughters of Ukraine (2023).

10 While Anna has also never heard about the Holodomor, she remembers situations from her parents’ life which indicate that they were actively trying to repress their traumatic memories of the Famine: “Mama never let me waste food, no matter what. She used to say, ‘Bread is life. You always eat it.’ And there were those few times my father was sad, like the day in the garden. But that’s normal.... This is anything but normal” (232).

11 The genocidal character of the current war has been acknowledged by various scholars, most notably, Timothy Snyder.

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References

Electronic reference

Mateusz Świetlicki, Trauma, Romance, and the Diasporic Memory Keepers of the Holodomor in Erin Litteken’s The Memory Keeper of KyivEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-4 | 2023, Online since 07 November 2023, connection on 04 March 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/21013; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.21013

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About the author

Mateusz Świetlicki

Mateusz Świetlicki is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wrocław’s Institute of English Studies (Poland), Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture, and Deputy Dean for Student Affairs at the Faculty of Letters. His most-recent book, Next-Generation Memory and Ukrainian Canadian Children’s Historical Fiction: The Seeds of Memory(Routledge, 2023), examines the transnational entanglements of Canada and Ukraine. He has recently co-edited Navigating Children’s Literature through Controversy: Global and Transnational Perspectives (Brill, 2023, with Elżbieta Jamróz-Stolarska and Agata Zarzycka) and a special issue of Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literaturetitled War and Displacement in Children's Literature (2023, with Chrysogonus Siddha Malilang). Świetlicki was a Research Scholar at the University of Florida’s Department of English (Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship), a Fulbright scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (2018), a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto (2022), and has held multiple other fellowships (Munich, Kyiv, Harvard). He is the deputy editor-in-chief of Filoteknos, a member of the editorial team of John Benjamins Publishing’s “Children’s Literature, Culture, and Cognition” series, and a representative of the Childhood & Youth Network of the Social Science History Association.

By this author

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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