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.
On Myrna Kostash’s new book, Ghosts in a Photograph
By Laurie D. Graham, crop samples
Archival deep dive into Ukrainian family history considers settler narrative
By Paula E. Kirman
Issue 81, Fall/Winter 2022-23
Newest Press (Oct 1, 2022)
In her erudite family memoir Ghosts in a Photograph, Myrna Kostash searches for her Western Ukrainian grandparents’ histories in Alberta, Canada.
Tracing her family back to Tulova in Galicia (now part of Ukraine) in the 1900s through photographs, relatives’ autobiographies, quotations, and mementos, Kostash reconstructs a story of immigration, beginning with her paternal grandfather. But she questions, too, its familiar arc, in which “peasants fleeing oppression … become the heroes of our own stories,” even though European settlement meant overtaking Indigenous lands. Despite the frequent erasure of colonization’s marks in stories that surround Ukrainian Canadian pioneers, and despite the unknown gaps in her “ancestral memory,” Kostash shapes an intriguing patchwork tale in which she reconciles what she thought she knew about her family with fuller truths, examining their wider place in Canadian history.
In between the concerns of settlers (the most poignant pertaining to her grandmothers’ domestic labors), Kostash reflects on the materiality of photographs, research, and the broader aspects of writing one’s way into fragmented narratives. Her keen descriptions allow memories to linger. Even as they are acknowledged as mutable, and sometimes based on other people’s recollections, her memories retain a semblance of truthfulness.
Throughout, Kostash weighs the responsibility of bearing two homelands within her: the inherited Ukrainian one and the one rooted in Canadian soil. The result is a sensitive, challenging inquiry that mixes travel with forays into literary records. As Kostash traces the patterns of her people moving from a homestead toward education and urbanization, her place within their story is elucidated.
In the memoir Ghosts in a Photograph, ancestors populate vintage albums, their voices echoing across time in recorded interviews. But more salient, their efforts join in a personal, generational story about making a home on the Canadian plains.
Reviewed by Karen Rigby
September / October 2022
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