The Everyday and Invisible Histories of Women: A Review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

We at Punctured Lines are grateful to Emma Pratt for her review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray and others). This review was planned before the war broke out and was delayed, among other things, by my inability to focus on much when it did. I am thankful to Emma for her patience with this process and for bringing Zabuzhko’s work to the attention of our readers. Please donate here to support Ukrainian translators and here to support evacuation and relief efforts.

Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko’s third book in English, Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray et al., Amazon Crossing, 2020), is a collection of short stories, some of which were previously published in various English-language journals and anthologies. The collection is edited by Nina Murray, the translator of Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, and features translations by Murray, Halyna Hryn (the translator of Zabuzhko’s first novel, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex), Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, and Marta Horban. The book includes eight stories and is divided into three parts.

The first two stories in Part I, “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “Girls,” feature Darka and recount her Soviet Ukrainian childhood. “Oh Sister, My Sister,” told in the second person, narrates an incident from Darka’s childhood when the KGB raided her apartment, and the aftermath for her and her family, in particular her mother, Natalia, and her sister, who was never born as a result. The story delves into the effects of this trauma on interfamilial relationships, particularly that between Darka and Natalia. Natalia has an abortion because she chooses to protect Darka at the expense of her unborn sister:

It was perhaps at that very moment, when she rushed to take you into her arms, to embrace and shield you with her whole body, that a realization flashed through your mother’s mind, an obscure, alarming truth: she would not be able to shield the both of you. She had no room for two. Thus you, by virtue of your fully realized, irrevocable presence in this world, edged your sister out of it.

Darka and Natalia are only freed from their memories of the unborn baby when Anton, Darka’s father and Natalia’s husband, passes away and is reunited with the little girl in the afterlife.

In “Girls,” an adult Darka attends her school reunion and reflects on her complicated childhood relationship with her friend, Effie. The sophisticated Effie filled the void of Darka’s “sisterlessness.” The two experimented sexually together, but following Effie’s scandalous sexual encounter with an older boy and accusations that she traded in smuggled goods, Darka denounced her at the Pioneer Council, which she remains ashamed of as an adult.  Her nervousness about the reunion comes to naught, as no one else remembers Darka’s denunciation and Effie herself doesn’t attend. The class gossip says she is now overweight and suffering from mental health issues. Darka goes home with another classmate, regrets the fling, and concludes that she needs to be more supportive of the people she loves.  

The third story in Part I, “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,” is a full version of the fairytale Darka reads in “Oh Sister, My Sister.” This story occurs at an unspecified point in the mythical past in a rural village, where sisters Hannusia and Olenka come of age and look for love. After Olenka gets engaged to Dmytro, the most eligible bachelor in the village whom Hannusia herself rejected, Hannusia becomes the bride of the devil. Her entanglement with evil ends in tragedy for Olenka, whose spirit helps catch her sister when visiting traders come to their home and play the flute. “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute” are connected by the themes of sisterhood, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. Reading the fairytale, Darka takes its message personally, feeling that the flute song accuses her of being the cause of her sister being aborted: “Gently, gently, my sister, play, do not stab my heart today; it was you, sister, who drove us apart, plunged a knife into my heart.” In “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,”  Olenka’s voice comes from the flute and sings a slightly different version describing how Hannusia murdered her: “Gently, gently, young carter, play, do not startle my heart today; it is my sister who made me depart, plunged a knife into my heart.” While Hannusia was directly responsible for her sister’s death, Darka was not, though she feels guilt for it.

Part II takes place in independent Ukraine in the early 21st century. The title character in “I, Milena” is a TV journalist who hosts a talk show featuring betrayed women, in whose own marriage the television set functions as the third member. When Milena’s mother calls her saying she looks pregnant on her latest show, Milena rewatches the broadcast and rushes to the studio, where she stumbles upon a surreal version of her life and encounters the other Milena, who she fears is trying to kill her. Milena and the reader become increasingly confused as Zabuzhko plays with the narrative point of view, and Milena becomes more and more frightened as she tries to understand what is happening to her.

The 2004 Orange Revolution features in “An Album for Gustav” and the title story, “Your Ad Could Go Here.” “An Album for Gustav” refutes West European stereotypes of Ukraine as cold and autocratic and scrutinizes foreign journalists’ work in the country. The unnamed first-person storytellers, a couple consisting of “She,” a historian, and “He,” a photographer, the only male narrator in the book, describe their experiences in the Orange Revolution while showing “his” photographs to the Dutchman Gustav, who is putting together a book about the protests. In addition to the explanations of Ukrainian politics, history, and culture, the story offers a glimpse into the couple’s relationship, tender though punctuated with frustrations and omissions, and Zabuzhko’s view of male-female relations. The “She” narrator says, “All men of the world are our children. Except during wars, of course. Or popular uprisings. Also, revolutions. Then they are different. All visible history belongs to them, to men—they know how to band together.” The stories in Zabuzhko’s collection, on the other hand, shed light on the everyday and invisible histories of women.

“Your Ad Could Go Here” describes the magical fairytale-like experience of buying bespoke, possibly enchanted, gloves, which see the narrator through the Orange Revolution. The gloves seem to choose other garments and

[i]n the fall of 2004 they suddenly fell in love with a flamboyant fiery scarf, which I then wore throughout the entire Orange Revolution—never mind that the scarf did not come from a fashion designer and cost a third of what the gloves had. They were perfect together, and press photographers all to the man wanted my picture in that orange scarf and my sunshine gloves.

Upon losing one of the gloves, she tries to replace it on a trip to Vienna only to find that the glove maker has passed away and the shop replaced by a chain. This incident leads to musings on consumer culture, the death of craft and tradition, and the impermanence of even the written word, which should be more reliable than an easily lost glove.

Part III moves to present-day Ukraine. “The Tennis Instructor” depicts a budding affair between Mrs. Martha, a writer, and the titular sports coach. Mrs. Martha’s husband, Oleh, enrolls her in the tennis lessons after she gives him a tennis racket “because I [Mrs. Martha] was feeling guilty about something I no longer remember, which has been happening more and more recently.” Her idea that when she learns to play she can partner with him to strengthen their marriage turns out to be ironic. While practicing serves, Mrs. Martha ruminates on her relationship with Oleh and her discomfort with learning new physical activities, stemming from a traumatic childhood bicycle lesson: “I will never be able to [play tennis], you can point a gun at me and I still won’t be able to move like that. Any situation that requires me to go through the process of acquiring a physical skill in public instantly throws me thirty years back, to that same little bike—I go deaf, blind, enter a stupor, and wait for it all to end so that I can be set free again.” Despite her struggles, Mrs. Martha ultimately serves correctly and has the epiphany that she will one day surpass Oleh’s skill. Her emotions all come to the surface and the instructor hugs her to comfort her, starting their romance and putting into question her future with Oleh.

The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine plays a role in the final story of the collection, “No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell.” It features Olha, a singer going through menopause and navigating the trials of explaining the loss she is feeling as well as the death of her abusive ex-boyfriend, who “was working for the Russians,” to her 17-year-old daughter, Ulyanka, whom she is beginning to see as a rival in femininity. Ultimately she realizes that because of the war, Ulyanka already understands loss. Olha muses, “She’ll go through everything I went through, but in her own way. My experience is of no help to her. I can’t help her. She simply won’t recognize it, she won’t see when she is walking in my steps—at least not until she reaches my age. Until she catches up to me at precisely this point—but I’ll no longer be there.” With this realization, Olha extends an olive branch to Ulyanka and treats her as a grown woman.

One commonality among the stories is Zabuzhko’s bringing to life interesting and realistic characters, overwhelmingly female, who are simultaneously successful and flawed. The book is unabashedly women-centered and probes themes such as relationships, love, marriage, sex, sisterhood, pregnancy, motherhood, and menopause. Her themes and characters have a lot in common with the much-maligned “chick lit,” but the collection is written in a more literary way for those who, like Mrs. Martha of “The Tennis Instructor,” would rather read a book than ride a bike. Part of what distinguishes the stories in this collection is the variety of narrative points of view: Zabuzhko employs first-, second-, and third-person narration. Although the stories have been translated by a number of translators, Nina Murray’s editing unifies them. Unlike Zabuzhko’s novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which has stream-of-consciousness narration, the short stories in Your Ad Could Go Here are written in more traditional prose and are therefore easier to read, while being full of interesting digressions and parenthetical remarks. This book is an excellent introduction to Zabuzhko’s writing and contemporary Ukraine. The buzz around her is well-deserved, and her work merits a wider audience in English, particularly as Ukraine tragically fills the headlines.

Emma Pratt is an Invited Lecturer in English at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. She holds a BA in Political Science and Russian Area Studies from Wellesley College and an MA in Slavic and East European Studies from the Ohio State University. Though most of her coursework and research focused on politics, she enjoyed the fact that her degrees also allowed her to study literature.

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