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UBC Okanagan Critical Studies prof. Lisa Grekul is examining the experience of Canadians who return to their ancestral homelands in Europe - photo by Bud Mortenson
UBC Okanagan Critical Studies prof. Lisa Grekul is examining the experience of Canadians who return to their ancestral homelands in Europe - photo by Bud Mortenson

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 9 | Sep. 6, 2007

Home and Away

Scholar Explores Why Canadian Intellectuals are Making the Trek to Their Ancestral European Homelands

By Bud Mortenson

Novelist and literary scholar Lisa Grekul is about to become a tourist in her own past.

The fourth-generation Ukrainian Canadian “with no ties to Ukraine” will visit her ancestral homeland next summer, recording the experience through memoirs and on film. In the process she hopes to gain a deeper understanding of a relatively new Canadian cultural phenomenon: the contemporary nomad.

Grekul has coined the term “(Con)temporary nomads” to describe Canadians of Eastern European ancestry who, in growing numbers since the 1980s, travel “home” to Europe for the first time, then return to Canada and write about their experiences.

An assistant professor with UBC Okanagan’s Department of Critical Studies, Grekul has received $50,847 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a new research project, (Con)temporary Nomads: Canadian Autobiography and the Search for Home. It will include travel, scholarly literature review, writing, filmmaking and a lot of personal reflection.

Grekul’s maternal and paternal ancestors emigrated from southwestern Ukraine in the late 1890s and early 1900s – leaving behind the village of Szypentsi, bound for Canada. Her research will take her on the reverse journey.

“I’ll make a trip to Ukraine to understand what this sort of journey is about, and to grapple with the implications of traveling home as, more than anything, a tourist,” she says.

Her overarching interest is the study of Canadian public intellectuals, scholars, or established writers who feel an attachment to their ancestral homelands -- such as Janice Kulyk Keefer, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine (then Poland) in the 1930s, and Myrna Kostash, a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian whose grandparents came to Canada in the early 1900s. “What do they hope to accomplish through the publicization of their stories?” she asks.

Grekul will take along a graduate student, video camera in hand, to produce a film and website about the  month-long Ukraine experience. She’s planning two major writing projects. The first is a personal account of her “journey home.” The second is a scholarly book examining other stories of return, the experiences of homelessness and homecoming, exile and migration – plus unique perspectives from Ukrainian scholars about the arrival in the Ukraine of so many home-seekers from abroad.

“I really want to hear how Eastern European people feel about these homecoming Canadians,” she says.

Her plan is that by late 2010, two books, a film and website will be complete. “It’s an ambitious project, but it can be done,” Grekul says, noting that she welcomes the challenge of embarking on an intimate personal narrative and a critical analysis project at the same time -- it’s something she’s done before. “I find I am most productive when I’m working, simultaneously, on a creative and a critical project -- especially when the two are thematically related.”

Grekul’s 2003 first novel, Kalyna’s Song, is a semi-autobiographical story of a third-generation Ukrainian Canadian girl who grows up in northeastern Alberta and southern Africa. Grekul completed the novel while preparing her PhD thesis, which became her second book, Leaving Shadows: Literature in English by Canada’s Ukrainians, published in 2005 by the University of Alberta.

“I believe my personal experiences of both traveling back to Ukraine -- back, that is, for the first time -- and writing about my travels will provide invaluable first-hand insight into the unique challenges faced by contemporary nomads,” says Grekul.

“The authors -- contemporary nomads -- ask us to rethink the ways in which we experience and define ‘home,’ and in sharing their stories of homelessness, they invite us to reconsider our own.”

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Last reviewed 06-Sep-2007

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