Typical Literary Forum events take place in a cozy room on Geneseo’s campus where students, faculty and other interested parties can slump into comfortable chairs and listen in awe to the event’s guest speaker. As with everything this year, the Literary Forum had to switch to a virtual meeting—luckily, most of us still had comfy chairs from which to observe.
For the first event of this year, Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Kristen Gentry organized a time to showcase lecturer of English and creative writing Sonya Bilocerkowycz. Bilocerkowycz used this platform as an opportunity to discuss her 2019 essay collection, On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine published by Mad Creek Books/The Ohio State University Press.
Bilocerkowycz wrote this essay collection over a 5-year period, from 2014 to 2019.
“It’s kind of the intersection of personal history and larger or world history,” Bilocerkowycz said.
Bilocerkowycz was pleased to finally have a time to speak, since the event had been cancelled twice before due to the illness then the emergence of COVID-19.
To set the scene for discussion, Bilocerkowycz read about 10 pages from one of her essays titled, “I saw the Sunshine, Melting.” This essay spoke to her roots and complex emotions involving life in Ukraine.
“It’s ‘Ukraine’ not ‘The Ukraine,’” Bilocerkowycz said. “Using ‘the’ beforehand is something left over from the USSR, which Ukrainians don’t like. We don’t say ‘The Russia.’”
Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster that released around 5 percent of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s radioactive reactor core into the environment, occurred in Ukraine. Bilocerkowycz explained to the audience that the wind blew a lot of this radiation north, to Belarus.
One of Bilocerkowycz’s great uncles was a bus driver who helped evacuate people from the zone of radiation. He lost contact with the rest of the family a few years after the Chernobyl disaster.
In her essay “I saw the Sunshine, Melting,” Bilocerkowycz told her great uncle’s story. She spoke about the day of the evacuation, including a visceral image of the yellow buses he drove, which were named after Icarus of the famous Greek myth.
In the same essay, Bilocerkowycz explained what it was like living in Belarus. She described the downfall of a community so deeply impacted by the radiation that the radiation became “sapped of its drama,” and the people began to see it as commonplace.
To write her essays, Bilocerkowycz sat down with her family to talk about their history.
“I was afraid how people would receive it,” Bilocerkowycz said. “Would my friends and family like how they are portrayed?”
Bilocerkowycz also made time to speak on the current protests in Belarus against the authoritarian government. She noted that Belarus is likely not at the forefront of many Americans’ minds because travel to Belarus from the United States is rare. Belarus doesn’t even maintain a U.S. Consulate.
On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine was called a “magnificent debut” by the Chicago Review of Books, winner of the 2018 Gournay Prize and named one of 2019’s “most anticipated essay collections” by LitHub, according to an email from professor Gentry.
Bilocerkowycz is Ukrainian, but she was born and raised in the U.S. She joined Geneseo in Fall 2019 to teach creative writing.
“It’s been great,” Bilocerkowycz said. “I love working with Geneseo students so much.”
Bilocerkowycz would like to thank her partner and her mentors her MFA program for their support during this project.