Love in Times of Terror: A Conversation with Kalani Pickhart

November 13, 2021   •   By Sonya Bilocerkowycz

IN 1966, THE CZECH PHILOSOPHER Karel Kosík argued that a person is historical in two senses: “[H]e is always the actual product of history and simultaneously the potential maker of history.” At the heart of Kalani Pickhart’s ambitious debut novel, I Will Die in a Foreign Land, released in October by Two Dollar Radio, are four revolutionaries who don’t so much comment on this simultaneity as embody it. The novel follows Katya, Misha, Slava, and Aleksandr Ivanovich through Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, which overthrew the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, and into the subsequent (and ongoing) proxy war with Russia in the Donbas region. Amid the terrors of revolution and war, these four lives become intricately entangled, with paths of revelation connecting them to one another and to the Ukrainian, Soviet, and post-Soviet histories that inform their present choices.

I read Pickhart’s novel in August, the same month my Ukrainian American family was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the USSR. Since 1991, Ukraine has experienced three revolutions, and Pickhart elegantly captures how these events build up inside a person, giving many Ukrainians an acute awareness of the self as both agent and consequence of history. For a man like Aleksandr Ivanovich, who wears insignia of the fallen Soviet empire to the 21st-century revolution, each uprising bleeds into the next. The book’s structure enhances this duality through short, fragmented chapters, folk songs, news clips, and a chorus of Kobzari bards; history is rendered diffuse and polyphonic, a tapestry of actors, concerns, and subplots. In our conversation, Pickhart discussed the elaborate form of her novel and the shifting relationships between revolution’s heroes and aggressors, its insiders and outsiders.

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SONYA BILOCERKOWYCZ: I found it refreshing to see an English-language depiction of contemporary Ukrainians who are so big-hearted and resolute in their struggle against corruption. (This is in sharp contrast to what the previous US president reportedly said of Ukraine: “They are horrible, corrupt people.”) What first drew you to this material and these characters?

KALANI PICKHART: It was the grit and determination of the protestors at Maidan, for sure. I found the optimism and hopefulness in Kyiv during the demonstrations especially moving. The singing, the tents in the frigid cold for months, in the midst of horrendous violence from their government. Their collective, ardent, fighting spirit just absolutely inspired me, and the importance of music to the protests, and their culture, was resonant.

I’ve never seen anything else like the vigil at Maidan, where they carried the open caskets of the fallen citizens through a crowd, singing a folk lament. It’s been called the Revolution of Dignity. It just moves me. I think it always will.

I wonder if you might talk about some of the ethical considerations you’ve had to navigate in fictionalizing the events of an ongoing foreign conflict. In terms of the ethics of representation, what felt at stake in telling this story?

This is such a great question, and one that I still am navigating. I am often asked if I am Ukrainian, or have Ukrainian roots. I am not Ukrainian. I have familial roots in Austria and Serbia. I felt compelled to tell this story, but I did struggle initially with the question of whether I should. I was in my first semester of an MFA program at Arizona State, and I was in a novel-writing workshop taught by Matt Bell that was purely focused on content generation. There was no judgment, just the opportunity to explore. I thought, if I was going to write this story, this was the time to do it. But being sensitive to the fact that I am an outsider to this story meant that it was imperative that I understood the historical, political, and cultural nuances — I essentially needed to become a scholar. I sought out the Melikian Center on my campus, which provided me access to Ukrainian and Russian contacts and resources that were invaluable to the work of this book, and I participated in their first Ukrainian-language cohort in 2018 by being awarded a fellowship from the US Department of State. As I spoke to Ukrainians and told them about the project, I was almost apologetic — I felt I needed to ask permission to write it. But never once was I discouraged. Conversely, I was overwhelmed by their excitement, blessings, and gratitude. It gave me the courage to go deeper and headlong.

I went to Kyiv and Prague in 2018, which was a profoundly emotional trip for me. Walking into St. Michael’s, which is the epicenter of the book, was a significant turning point in my connection to the manuscript. It was in the church that I felt the presence of the people in my book. Misha, Katya, Slava, Dascha, Aleksandr — they aren’t simply “characters.” I hate to use that word when describing them. I find it frustrating as a writer that you’re strangely limited in how you can communicate about the work you create. There’s no other way to say it, though, that they are real to me.

I’m anxious when a Ukrainian American, or Russian American, reads this book because I’m not confident with either language. There were moments in the story where I wasn’t sure of exact details, and I knew I had to reach; and I wrote in facts about Ukrainian and Russian history that were nearly erased or that remain controversial. I had phenomenal support with Two Dollar Radio, who publish a number of Eastern European authors and books, and their fact-checking was invaluable. One of my editors, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, took on the incredible task of making sure every single name on the MH17 manifest was correct, as well as the names of the Heavenly Hundred. Though I had transcribed everything as carefully as possible, having her there with this vehement attention to detail gave me confidence that I was working with editors who also care about the gravity of every life lost. There’s something unifying in that, something grounding. I care so much about it. I care about doing this story justice.

Some of my favorite parts of I Will Die in a Foreign Land are the sections narrated by Kobzari, a chorus of roving bards who recount aspects of Ukrainian history through song. How do you envision this collective voice functioning in relation to others in the book?

I’m so glad you enjoyed the Kobzari, because they were absolutely some of my favorite parts to write in this book. I wasn’t sure how those parts would be received, and Eric Obenauf [publisher of Two Dollar Radio] and I talked a few times about them. Initially their parts were more verse-like, but I agreed with Eric that shifting into a prose form would work better for the book.

While I was writing Katya, Misha, and Slava, I kept experiencing this overwhelming, almost omniscient voice that started inserting itself into their sections. At the beginning, I thought it was just some extension of Aleksandr, who has a similar way of delivering profound truth in a direct, no-nonsense manner. We see the voice slip into their narratives — for example, when Katya and Misha are drinking soup and tea in the cold, the scene ends with this telescoping perspective into the future where the couple will remember this moment. That surprised me, but I loved it and I wanted more of it. Once that happened, I realized that it wasn’t Aleksandr speaking — it was something else, something more knowing, and I continued to just allow that voice to come out whenever it seemed necessary.

As the voice started to reveal itself more, it became clear that this was a chorus narrating an epic, with an ocular role in the book. I loved that it seemed to be naturally dipping into the prodigious Slavic history I had been researching, and so it clearly asserted itself as the voice of the Kobzari.

While writing this book, I was listening to a lot of music to bring me into the story. This was an absolute indulgence and joy: I listened religiously to DakhaBrakha, Dakh Daughters, Khrystyna Soloviy, Okean Elzy, The Hardkiss, Boombox, ONUKA — I sought out folk songs, especially “Plyve Kacha,” from which the novel takes its name. Because Ukrainians, and truly Slavs in general, are a musical people, the integration of music throughout this book was both intentional and happened often without effort. These songs are the survivors of the Ukrainian language and history, which was nearly lost many times.

The Kobzari, though, are not just singing history — they are the earliest journalists in Ukraine. Truth-telling starts with them. Just as the journalists at Maidan and other politically fraught environments are at risk for abuses, kidnapping, and silencing, so were the Kobzari, who faced near-extinction during the Red Terror under Stalin. In many ways, the Kobzari act as a spiritual patron of the journalists in the book, especially those who lost their lives at Maidan.

That’s fascinating how the Kobzari voice inserted itself in your process, and how it facilitates these historical “intrusions” throughout the novel’s narrative present. In the primary narrative, events are also nonlinear, often doubling back on themselves. How did you find your way into this complex structure, and what organizing strategies did you use for these various timelines?

Oh, it was a mess! I wrote each narrative straight through, one at a time, so I could get a sense for each story arc. Then, it was a somewhat sloppy chop job, with the goal being to just get things together in one document. I started writing titles with dates and locations to keep track of who was doing what and where — those have stayed in the book. More of the journalism pieces and Kobzari pieces materialized in subsequent drafts. Time was a consideration for the main story lines: the narratives mostly move chronologically. In terms of transitioning between perspectives, I was always on the lookout for key words to assist, so there was a feeling of connection between parts. Sections that are told from Aleksandr’s POV, for example, lead into sections for Katya in the church where Aleksandr is receiving care. The Kobzari and journalist sections are frequently connected soon or after Slava. It took a lot of combing and a lot of editorial eyes — when we moved a section, inevitably there were edits for consistency. I’d say this was the heaviest lifting we did — we were rearranging sections up until the final print!

While reading your novel, I kept thinking of the historian Marci Shore’s argument that Maidan was “the return of metaphysics” to Europe a space of moral clarity and earnest investment in discerning good from evil. You have a character like Aleksandr Ivanovich, for example, who is haunted by such questions: “Sasha, what is Goodness? Is it God? Is it perfect? What is moral? Kant says: Goodness without qualification or judgement.” I’m curious if you had a certain philosophical framework in mind while writing the novel. Did your sense of Maidan’s moral legacy shift during the composition process?

This is another great question. I didn’t have a philosophical framework in mind when I set out — only that I wanted to write about love in times of terror. I knew I was moved by the bells at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, and I knew I was moved by the young people holding hands, kissing, and singing at Maidan. I wasn’t thinking about a moral legacy, per se, so much as I was thinking about telling a story about love and grief, and how circumstances outside of our control — both “good” and “bad” — are defined as such by our individual and collective perception.

Misha struggles with whether he’s a good man for working with an oligarch during the time of his wife’s illness; Katya struggles with whether she was a good or fair partner to her husband after the death of their son, while also questioning her own identity and abilities as a doctor and a mother, having lost her son to a heart defect. Slava is the only one in the book, I think, who doesn’t worry herself with morality — she’s lived a life of unspeakable trauma, and she is aware of her own inherent goodness. She knows what evil is capable of and has made her life’s mission to fight against it.

Aleksandr Ivanovich, though, is preoccupied with morality above all. Like Katya, he is an outsider to the Ukrainian Revolution, and he often reflects on his role as a young soldier and KGB agent in then-Czechoslovakia during the Warsaw Invasion. He enters Prague on a tank and is completely unsettled when he realizes that he’s not entering as a hero but as an aggressor.

Aleksandr’s obsession with being “good” shifts in his lifetime — and for him, I think, it becomes opaque what being “good” actually means. Being the good Soviet soldier, for him, meant not questioning what is good or evil — it meant doing the job that needed to get done because it was what his commanding officers ordered. There’s no discernment, no nuance.

As an old man at Maidan, Aleksandr is again an outsider in the midst of an immense uprising. In this moment of redemption, he chooses a different side, with a different weapon.

I wonder — does that decision make Aleksandr Ivanovich not an outsider after all? I’m thinking, too, of the concerns you had initially expressed about writing this story, and my own experience of being on Maidan in 2014 and questioning if I belonged there as someone with an American passport. “Plyve Kacha” and the book’s title ask us to consider foreignness, but what, ultimately, invites a person into revolution?

Oh, absolutely. Aleksandr could certainly be considered part of the revolution, and Katya as well. This is such a good point. Every revolution is different, and it may be naïve to think this way, but I can’t imagine a situation where, if someone wants to join a protest or participate in a revolution in earnest, that they would be turned away. At Maidan, I heard about instances where politicians got onstage and tried to use the protests as a platform for their agenda and they were booed off.

Katya and Aleksandr are accepted into the revolution because of their earnest commitment to being useful to the movement, and they have a symbiotic relationship to the others around them. You need the spokespeople with the megaphones, the marchers, the sign-holders, the providers, the doctors, the spirit-lifters, and their intentions aren’t selfish or showboating. I think that allows them access. If one’s intentions are “true” (by that I simply mean sincere — sincere curiosity, sincere concern, sincere belief), and you come to participate in something larger than yourself and to offer your gifts for the greater mission, I think that must be where it starts.

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Sonya Bilocerkowycz is the author of On Our Way Home from the Revolution (Ohio State University Press, 2019), winner of the Gournay Prize for a debut essay collection. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Lit Hub, and elsewhere.