Intense and vivid “Our Familiar Hunger”

2020 Kobzar™ Book Award recipient Laisha Rosnau

Daria Bajus for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

Ukrainian-Canadian novelist and poet Laisha Rosnau was the recipient of this year’s Kobzar™ Book Award presented by the Shevchenko Foundation.

Residing in British Columbia, she is the Educational and Cultural Program Coordinator of the Greater Vernon Museum & Archives and occasionally teaches as an adjunct professor at UBC Okanagan. Her work has been published across Canada, in the U.K., U.S. and Australia.

Although successful, Rosnau’s journey to becoming an author was not a simple one.

As a high school dropout who struggled with depression and keeping several low-paying jobs, she found her way back home to attend community college. This, in turn, led her to attain a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

“It wasn’t until I was there that I began to take the notion of ‘being a writer’ seriously,” she said. “And even then it seemed like a pipe dream. To be honest, often it still does.”

Her award-winning book of poems “Our Familiar Hunger” (Nightwood Editions, 2019) explores generations of women from Ukraine who immigrated to Canada and the hardships that they’ve experienced. The poems move back and forth between women in the early twentieth century to the 21st century with its sex trade and internet-arranged marriages.

Rosnau began writing the book in 2015, around the time a couple of high profile Canadian men were accused of sexual assault and harassment, followed by the #MeToo movement. She explained the difficulty in writing about both individual and shared experiences of women.

“There’s a danger, perhaps, in writing of ‘women’, or ‘the hardships of women’ as a collective unit, in that individual lives and a sense of humanity can be lost,” she said. However, she believes that there is also power in a collective voice, “especially once it reaches the volume that it can be heard in a wide, popular culture calling out mistreatment, abuse and injustices”.

After travelling to Ukraine in 2018, Rosnau was uncomfortable having written about the sex trade. “Women were just as diverse in terms of career, appearance and lifestyle as they are here. I felt as though I’d played into a stereotype,” she admitted. “I felt – still do, really – who am I to write about these experiences?”

Rosnau describes the collection of poems to be a story of her baba’s and immigrants all over the world who escaped hardship. Immigrating to Canada on her own at the age of 17, her baba went from being a domestic servant for a wealthy landowner in Ukraine, to end up in a “sod-roofed, dirt floor house on a farm” in Canada.

“Sometimes they escape one kind of hardship for another,” Rosnau said.

This type of “escape” is illustrated in her poem “Castle Mountain, Canada”:

The posters promised farms, fields/ stencilled yellow against the stamp/ of sky burning blue.
We’d not seen picture books, our own/ stories not illustrated but told, but we were/ lured by drawings like children. Tricked.

“Often, their children and grandchildren can be living quite comfortably being the benefactors of all their forebears went through,” Rosnau continued. She emphasizes this in “Still Hungry”:

Our grandmothers were hungry/when their new husbands were taken,/ boots pulled from the rutted soil of farms/heavy with stone and filled with the forced/labour of prison camps, while our grandmothers/were left to work the land on their own,
Our mothers were hungry for the New World/for miniskirts and hot rods, riding/with the top down, music tonguing the air.

Rosnau mentioned that, in her family, Ukrainian female names had been adjusted to Canadian “standards.”

When her baba Nastya arrived in Canada, she was “given” the name Nancy. Her mother, Lesia (named after Lesia Ukrainka), attended a Ukrainian school, however, she was “given” the name Lorna by an English teacher.

“Because my grandparents were illiterate, other people filled in both my mom’s birth and baptismal certificates,” she said. “On one she was listed as Elsie and on the other – Patricia. So, she used her school report cards as documentation of her name – as Lorna.”

Rosnau explained that although the family still called her mom Lesia, they often shortened it to “Lesh” or “Laish.” And from that came her name – Laisha.

This idea of adjusting to Canadian “standards”, not only through names but throughout women’s lives, is outlined in the poem “Let’s Call It”:

Let’s call it a day, call each of us/ imposters, our names Tatiana, Maria, Olga,/ Anastasia or Franziska; Eugenia, Eleonora,/ Natalya or Nadezhda. Let’s call ourselves out,/ Call each other more often. Let’s call/ ourselves whatever we choose/ then change our minds.
Let’s marry men called Jack and George/ and call it a day.

Rosnau’s book of poems is written so fiercely and vividly that one can’t help but feel a hint of “guilt” as one realizes what those women went through. When asked if she intended to evoke such emotion in her readers, Rosnau responded, “I’m ‘glad’ you felt that kind of guilt, because I feel it too.”

She continued, “I think of how my baba was, essentially, illiterate – she was a peasant, and a domestic servant in Ukraine, a farmer in Canada – and I was able to win an award for writing poetry. Again, it feels so trivial and privileged. And yet, I know this is why they immigrated and what they hoped for – for their children and grandchildren”.

Laisha Rosnau recognizes the Kobzar™ Book Award as a significant honour of her literary life. She thanks the Shevchenko Foundation for “creating and supporting an award of this magnitude to address work that expresses the experiences of a group of Canadians that were historically discriminated against and discounted”.