Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land
Kalani Pickhart's novel "I Will Die in a Foreign Land" follows four characters at a crossroads during the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution
Kalani Pickhart’s novel I Will Die in a Foreign Land takes place in Kiev during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, a time when Ukraine was at a crossroads—citizens were protesting the president’s close ties with Putin and failure to sign a referendum with the European Union. The protests were being violently put down, with military police shooting into the crowds of peaceful protestors, killing over 100 people.
The book is told in short fragmentary chapters, integrating historical documents and following the lives of the four main characters. Katya, a Boston-based doctor who emigrated from the Ukraine as a child, comes back to her homeland after suffering a tragic loss. She treats the others in the makeshift medical clinic in the St. Michael’s monastery. One of her patients, Aleksandr, is a former KGB officer who plays piano during the protests. Another patient, Misha, is an engineer whose life was profoundly shaped by the atomic disaster in Chernobyl. And his friend, and former lover Slava, a blue-haired protestor who survived sexual trafficking and is being persecuted for being in a same-sex relationship.
The book is gripping, the stories of the characters wrap around each other like vines, and around the reader–choking and pulling them through. Pickhart uses the device of the Kobzari folk singers whose lyrics function like a Greek chorus, weaving together the pain of the individual characters and placing it in a broader cultural context. I was surprised to learn that the story did not come from Pickhart’s own family history because it felt so assured and well researched.
I talked with Pickhart about the political situation in the Ukraine, the impossible desire for a home that doesn’t exist, the Kobzari folk singing tradition that inspired her, and the ethics of writing fiction about recent historical events.
Katya Apekina: For people reading who have only a vague sense of what was happening in the Ukraine at the time your book is set, could you give a basic overview/primer?
Kalani Pickhart: This is a complex political situation, but the elevator version is that essentially, the former president of Ukraine in 2013 promised to sign a referendum with the EU and didn’t end up doing so. There was talk of him signing a trade agreement with Russia, which caused non-violent protestors to show up in the street—most of them young, college-aged people, and later, all walks. Things were fine for a while, until the government unleashed the military police force on them, beating the protestors with iron batons. The police response escalated to gunfire as protestors became more determined to stay out in the city center, resulting in a significant number of deaths and injuries. Ultimately, the former president fled to Russia and a new election took place. In the interim, Russia took the opportunity of civil distrust and unrest to invade Crimea as well as eastern Ukraine, where there is an ongoing war. That’s where we are today.
KA: What drew you to writing about Ukraine and about the protests that were happening in Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity?
KP: I was moved by the documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy, which I happened to watch while I was in a novel workshop in the first year of my MFA. It was all synchronicity: I was reading Kundera at the time, and I was struck by the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people against their government. There were just a number of echoes calling me toward this one direction and everything seemed to fall into place. I was also writing this novel during the 2016 US Presidential Election, which was a significant election for Ukrainians as well.
More specifically, in the documentary, it’s explained that the bells at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery all rang at once for the first time since the Mongols invaded Kyiv in 1240AD. It was a means of warning the people that the city was under attack. So you have this foreign threat the first time pillaging the city; then 800 years later, they are sounded against the police force meant to protect its people. That haunted me—I watched footage of the bells many times for this book. Seeing St. Michael’s in person was probably one of the most emotionally powerful moments in my life.
KA: What are the challenges of writing about a place and political conflict that most American readers probably know very little about?
KP: The research I did for this book was intense. I didn’t feel right writing the book without feeling as if I were an expert—I am not Ukrainian or Russian, so I took examining multiple perspectives on the conflict very seriously.
My editors, Eric and Eliza from Two Dollar Radio, helped me set up some context before the reader even gets into the book. Simple logistical things to act as a guide. There’s a timeline, a map. There’s also an “article” right before the initial narrative section that contextualizes the Euromaidan by describing the first deaths. Everything is provided in a bite-size, collage-like way in order not to overwhelm.
All of those things are important tools for the book, but as far as keeping a reader invested in the story was to have the initial narrative of the story through the perspective of an outsider. Keeping in mind that many Americans would also be unfamiliar with the conflict as well, it allows the reader to digest everything that’s happening as they might if they were there.
In this case, Aleksandr and Katya are the outsiders of the Revolution of Dignity, while Misha and Slava are the Ukrainian protestors. Katya’s perspective in particular was a conscious choice on my part: she’s a Ukrainian-American who grew up in New England. She’s familiar with stories about Ukraine from her adoptive parents, she understands and can speak Ukrainian and Russian, but she’s very much a Bostonian. When we meet Aleksandr, he has a slip of paper in his pocket with an address from Los Angeles, and these are all things an American reader can easily access and become intrigued by. Bit by bit, more context is provided, which helps readers who are unfamiliar with the environment and political landscape become more comfortable and settled in the story.
KA: When writing fiction around real historical events (particularly recent ones), what are the do’s & don’t’s you felt ethically when fictionalizing things?
KP: I think when writing about traumatic historical events, it’s important to be as true to the facts as possible. There is always some reaching you do when you’re writing fiction, but for the most part, in my mind, it’s possible your audience will be survivors, especially if the event happened in recent history.
So much of the research I did on this project was reliant on news articles, journalism, and documentaries, so it felt integral to the work itself as things were falling into place. It seemed impossible to write the book without mentioning the real-life people who told its story. There are news articles about Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, as well as the stories of real-life journalists who were abused or disappeared during the protests. The names of the victims of the Revolution of Dignity and the Malaysian Flight MH17 are also in this book to remind the reader that there have been real lives lost throughout this conflict. For an American audience, it’s likely they are learning these names for the first time. It felt important to me to honor them, to share their names and stories, not only for Americans to learn about them, but for the families and survivors who have been affected in Ukraine and around the world.
KA: The theme that I felt really connected to as an immigrant is the idea of home—there’s no place like home and you can never come home again—the way the character Katya from Boston comes back to her ancestral home, but is an outsider there, or the way that Misha’s mom and some others come back to the area near Chernobyl where they lived in before the disaster, because even if it’s radioactive, it was still their home. Is this something that resonated with you in particular?
KP: It’s not at all the same thing as immigrating or being a refugee—my dad is a first-generation American, and he doesn’t often talk about his transition to American life from Austria. I can’t conceive of the psychological and emotional impact immigrating has on an individual, or a collective.
The way I do relate to this, though, is during the 2008 financial crisis, we lost my childhood home. Well, it was our home for about 10 years—I grew up lower-middle class, so it was the first home my mom and stepdad actually owned. Before, it was a series of apartments, moving in with grandparents off and on, etc. I never had my own room. We slept a lot on couches and floors. I remember when we got the house, sleeping in my room for the first time. I was so excited to paint my own room: I painted it bright blue, and then years later I painted it bright orange. It was the first time a space felt like mine. When they lost the house, the family was split up: my mom, stepdad, and my much younger “half” brother and sister went up north where my stepdad had work; meanwhile my “full” sister and I went to live with our dad full-time for the first time in our lives. I was 22, the first in my family to graduate from college. Things were supposed to be taking off, but they were falling apart. I was always hearing from my mom that we were going to lose the house—we would miss bills, water would get turned off. It didn’t occur to me that it would really happen, that we would be evicted. That same year my grandmother died of Alzheimer’s and that comfort was gone, too. It was probably one of the most traumatic periods of my life, and for my siblings. On the flip side, I grew to have a much closer relationship with my dad, which I am extremely grateful for. Fathers and daughters are a huge part of this book, too.
While I was writing this book, I was also living semi-nomadically. I went through a breakup with a boyfriend I was living with for four years, and I moved in with what I believed to be a close friend in my MFA program. The friendship revealed itself to be toxic within a few months, so I moved out quickly and back in with my ex, who remains one of my dearest friends. After I recovered a little financially through the holidays, I moved into an apartment on my own for the first time in my life, and it was a little taste of that childhood joy of having my own room again. I was so proud of it.
I’m currently in-between places again due to the high cost of living in Arizona, so this question really resonates with me right now. The complexity of emotions around having lost a home are still very present, and every one of the people in the book is affected by “home” and what it means to them. I think I am still trying to figure out what that means and looks like for me, too.
KA: For me writing about people who have no autobiographical similarities to me was both scary because I worried that I was getting it wrong/not an expert, but also really freeing because it allowed me to write about personal things in a way that didn’t feel exposing,like I could transpose my emotional landscape onto totally different situations. Did you feel this way?
KP: I think there’s a lot of freedom and catharsis in being able to write through the perspective of someone completely different than you. It’s this liminal space where you’re able to protect the truth of your own circumstances and the open wounds you’re working on healing, while also being able to access the truth of someone else. It’s another layer of reality that exists despite the book being a work of fiction: my whole heart is in it.
KA: The book had Kobzari folk singers working as a sort of Greek chorus? Can you talk about what inspired you to do it that way? I loved it.
KP: I was doing so much research, especially while reading this invaluable book, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, that while I was writing there was this peculiar slippage into this omniscient voice that started telling folk stories and narrating portions of the Euromaidan. It seemed to me at first that it was Aleksandr, but there was just no way he would know certain things it wanted to tell, and it wasn’t his place as a Russian to tell them. Once I learned more about the kobzari, the bards in Ukraine, I felt these portions finally had a name.
Some of my favorite parts of the book, though, are when the kobzari slip into one of the main narratives to provide larger, historical context. They do function like a chorus: they can see what the POV sections cannot, almost like they are breaking a fourth wall, and they can comment.
KA: Can you talk about the title?
KP: At Maidan, the protestors sang several Ukrainian folk songs along with the national anthem. Some pop and rock artists, like Ruslana and Okean Elzy, also made appearances at the protests and lifted the spirits of the people by leading songs on stage. Music, like journalism, is critical when telling the story of the Euromaidan.
The title comes from an English translation of a lyric from a Ukrainian lament, “Plyve Kacha” or “The Duckling Swims.” It’s a conversation between a young soldier going to war and his mother, asking who will bury him if he dies in a foreign land. This is an important song for survivors of the Euromaidan, as it was sung and played at a mass funeral in Kyiv, where the caskets of the victims of the police shootings were carried through the streets. The song is beautifully overwhelming even if you don’t understand the lyrics, and it’s a song I listened to often while writing.
Beyond the historical significance, there are thematic ones as well: exile and home: all the primary POVs in the novel have been orphaned by one or more parent at least, and by the end of the book, none of them end up in the place where they were born. The only one who intends (or is able) to return to their homeland is Slava, though it’s unclear how long she will stay. Meanwhile, the kobzari stories, which are folkloric in nature, intentionally echo Taras Shevchenko (the most influential poet of Ukraine and considered the kobzar), whose poetry often celebrated kozaks who went off to fight battles in foreign lands.
As I was testing it out, it became a guiding light. It reminded me why I was writing the book, the historical importance, the lives lost at Maidan, and the fact that it was a song—it was far and away the only title for the book.