What do you do when calamity strikes the world yet again? How do you handle the confusion of trying to unravel the news? As someone who works at a library, perhaps it’s not surprising that I turn to...the library. What book or film can I find that connects me to someone’s story so I can more clearly see and hear the events from those involved.
In recent years, I've needed the library a lot! To better understand the Black experience in America, some helpful reads for me have been “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi, “A Black Women’s History of the United States” by Daina Ramey Berry, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (yes--a novel! I find fiction extremely helpful in growing empathy); to actually see and hear what it means to “build a wall” at the border of Mexico and the United States, I watched Ben Masters' documentary “The River and the Wall”; to find out what it’s like for the innocent people caught in the Syrian war, I watched Waad al-Kateab's documentary “For Sama”.
Most of the time, I’m playing catch up – only realizing too late how little I know of a different country or culture or group or person. And yet, digging into the history (even when it’s overwhelming and complicated) to try and understand the why of what’s happening now or listening to a personal narrative to grow empathy for what people in the struggle may be experiencing is a way I can actively participate as a first step.
These days the Ukraine is topping the newsfeeds, so I picked up a graphic nonfiction book by the Italian comics artist turned investigative journalist Igort, whose two books that were originally published in Italian in 2010 and 2011 were later translated into English (thanks to Jamie Richards) and published in one volume in 2016, giving us “The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks”. Pretty much every trigger warning you could think of is in here as he describes the appalling atrocities first of Stalin’s manmade famine in Ukraine during the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians, then of the more recent Russian war crimes in Chechnya, and finally a 2014 postscript of Putin’s annex of Crimea. The stories are somewhat jumbled, perhaps in part because of the multiple layers of translation, but the fitfulness seemed apt for the subject matter...especially as I could only read it in fits and starts myself because witnessing the horror stories of firsthand accounts was rough. Igort spent five years in Ukraine and Russia interviewing people, visiting locations, and researching – and his efforts to understand and relay what he found as honestly as possible are evident on every page.
I was a bit prepared for the barbarity of Stalin's Holodomor, “the Terror-Famine" (literally “death by hunger”) because I saw “Mr. Jones” last year, a film that follows the journalist who discovers what Stalin is doing and tries to get the truth out.
Here are more Ukraine-related books and films that I've bumped up to the top of my to-read/listen to/watch lists:
- “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine” by Serhii Plokhy
- “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid
- “In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine” by Tim Judah
- “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933" by Anne Applebaum
- “A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, From the Pagans to Putin” by Mark Galeotti (yes, this is on Russia, but it provides more historical context around Russia and Ukraine, which might shed light on what's happening now)
- “Bitter Harvest” -- fictional story set in 1930s Ukraine
- “Chernobyl” -- 5-part miniseries dramatization of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe
- "The Orphanage" by Serhiy Zhadan - a currently acclaimed Ukrainian author, I find reading literature from a country helps me better understand the culture and people than just reading historical facts
- "I Will Die in a Foreign Land" by Kalani Pickhart - follows Ukrainian protestors from 2013 and interweaves folklore and history
- "Good Citizens Need Not Fear" by Maria Reva - absurdist collection of stories about Ukrainians in a crumbling apartment building during and after the Soviet Union era
- Music - “Symphonies Nos. 3 & 7” by Sergey Prokofiev
- Recipes - “The New Ukrainian Cookbook: a Blend of Tradition and Innovation” by Annette Ogrodnik Corona
- Language – Mango Languages, Ukrainian
- CultureGrams - get a basic overview of the country--listen to the national anthem, learn a few Ukrainian words and phrases, discover a recipe
- Britannica Academic - an encyclopedic database where you can search for more interactive articles
And while I was searching our catalog, I realized a few stories I already knew were about Ukraine – the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer (film adaptation).
Always hoping these first steps of learning grow into something good.