In planet-bpm.com as an European platform for Networking we are continuously seeking for new talents with no language and/or cultural barriers, and that is why we are extremely pleased to introduce you to Olya Thompson, and her contributions to universal literature by means of both her essays and articles. Olya’s cultural wealth and intellectual legacy – as a Ukrainian American – are constantly poured in her “seamless” writing, continuously triggered by both her personal experience and a deeply genuine perception of present times. Her concerns have to do with Europe, her origin. In her own words, “I am a writer of commentary and literary essays. I believe that there is a moral component of writing that consists of a sense of social responsibility”.
Please, sneak into our mailbox and meet Olya Thompson.
P-B: So Olya, when and why did you start writing?
Olya Thompson: I was always very interested in books and ideas and writing. I loved language. I was the family interpreter. I always thought that I would become a writer but did not know quite know how to do that. So I studied literature. But I really started writing professionally when I became a newspaper columnist, writing commentary that was recognized as distinctive for its quality of analysis, its point of view, its literary flair.
P-B: Among all your essays and articles, which one do you like best?
Olya Thompson: I like different essays for different reasons, because I write for different reasons. I write with a personal point of view. I write because I am fascinated with style and words. I write about ethics and social injustice. I particularly like an essay commissioned by a newspaper and reprinted all over the United States, “Ballet Dancers Dance Too Close to the Edge,” because it combines these three aspects.
It is about a topic I personally knew a lot about – the rigors of dance training in the nation’s most elite schools; the essay has interesting sentence and word rhythms that mimic the movements and rhythms of ballet; and it expresses concerns about the well-being of dancers that had a tremendous impact on dance training in this country. I also like “Return to Ukraine,” because it gave me an opportunity to talk about my heritage and about the sufferings of a nation under communism that many in this country knew very little about.
P-B: What fact and/or experience in your life has made you choose essay as preferred format?
Olya Thompson.: When I taught introductory writing or rhetoric at the University of North Carolina, I had to teach large classes of young students how to make a point, how to express an opinion, and tried make them realize, above all, that their opinion mattered. I tried to show students how the essays that appear to read the most smoothly were actually the ones that are the most carefully constructed. I became very interested in the form and structure of the essay and its relationship to conveying meaning. This experience, together with the direct, concise, and simple style I later developed as a columnist, added much to my writing.
P-B: Accordingly, your direct, at-times-concise-at times-symbolic journalistic style seems to be highly influenced by both cultures. How would you measure the weight of American and Ukrainian authors on your writing – i.e. 50% and 50% or differently? and more specifically which of them has more directly biased you?
Olya Thompson.:Yes, in a sense I have the advantages of a dual perspective, a way of viewing the world that is half European and half American, which I combine in my work.
As for direct influences, the Ukrainian culture that I inherited is a culture of artists and writers and poets that was unfortunately much damaged by centuries of repression. When I was in school, the nation did not formally “exist,” except as a region of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian literature was not studied. I did not personally know any Ukrainian scholars or writers or students. Interestingly, my major influences were both Romanian.
Matei Calinescu, Romania’s most prominent intellectual and an exile from the brutal Ceaucescu regime, was my academic advisor. Rather than focus on the now-outdated somewhat obscure “academic writing” that I found so oppressive, he challenged me by his emphasis on clear writing and independent thought. Andrei Codrescu — whose National Public Radio essays I listened to in my car on my way to teach writing at the University of North Carolina- showed me there was a way of existing as a writer by his participation in journalism. Like my parents, both men were refugees from the communist regime.
My studies in Comparative Literature also contributed to the international perspective in how I see the world. The theme in Russian literature of the role of the writer to speak the truth also had an influence. As for specific writers, Tolstoy, I would say, is my favourite writer, for his emphasis on ethics and his moral complexity. I also like Graham Greene, for the same reason, for his moral universe.
P-B: In your opinion, how has internet affected writing and the publishing industry? further else and particularly in your case, has it somehow helped enhance or enforce your creative drive?
Olya Thompson.: If not for the internet, I would not be speaking to you now! It was you, Arantza, in Spain, who noticed my work. The internet has allowed me to interact with an international audience, something I never did before as a journalist for American newspapers. It quickly lets us see how we all relate to the same human concerns. I am sad, though, about the lack of permanence in writing, now that so much has moved to the internet. We are also flooded with too much information, making it difficult to distinguish between the trivial and the important, and we have less time to read deeply, to reflect, and to think..
P-B: You have devoted a long part of your life to teaching, and in your essay Airport: A Reflection on Single Parenting you talk about the long hours spent sitting at your desk while shrinking with anguish at the thought of your daughter and the time you would gladly spend with her…what is your conclusion – and further recommendations too¡¡¡ – on family-work combination?
Olya Thompson: My advice, based on a time when not many women were in graduate school — not to mention women with children — is that it is so very important to pursue meaningful work, not the type of work that just wears you down and hands you a pay check, but a career you can build on and feel a passion for –important both for yourself and to model for your child or children.
P-B: When you speak about Ukraine, you drop a lot of Austrian names, specially those referring to food – i.e. Linzertorte- how and to what extent has the Austrian-Hungarian Empire affected Ukrainian identity and history? Living under the Hapsburg’s government seems to have had a huge influence over it and further consequences – both positive and negative.
Olya Thompson: Certain traditions from Austria Hungary are ingrained in Western Ukraine, such as the influence of Vienna as a cultural center. There is the influence of classical music, formal dance, the architecture, the cuisine, the manners, a whole way of thinking that is very Western. My family is descended from a prominent family there.
People don’t realize thatUkrainewas split for a long time, half under the Hapsburg Empire, half under the Czar. This accounts for the very real political and cultural differences between East and West inUkraine. Western Ukraine only came under Soviet or Russian influence after the Second World War.
P-B: Our audience is made up mainly by students and young expats with a very international profile which you are strongly familiar with, what sort of piece of advice would you be willing to give them?
Olya Thompson: That we have more in common than we are different. We have a lot to learn from each other through the sharing of our experiences. My other advice is to follow your conscience and your intuition and you will become who you want to be. To do what you love and to stand up for what you believe in. Ethics do not vary from culture to culture!
P-B: As a matter of fact, you devote some of your essays to what both being as well living as an expatriate means.
Olya Thompson: Being an expatriate poses a dilemma, particularly if the exile is forced. When I visited Ukraine, I was suddenly surrounded by people just like those I remembered from my childhood. Everything was so familiar, just like it was in the expatriate community inNew York Cityin which I grew up. Living as an expatriate puts you in contact with people who are different, have a different culture, and you at times feel a sense of longing for what is familiar to you, and you feel a sense of loss… This theme recurs in my work….
P-B: You seriously believe in the individual commitment to improve the world, in your particular case by writing and making people think about universal conflicts affecting the whole humankind because, among other reasons One cannot ever afford to be complacent….has this determination to speak up ever brought you any problems, in terms of readers and/or authorities who simply did not agree with your opinions?
Olya Thompson_ No. Never. Actually, my work has been cited for how I handle difficult topics with sensitivity and insight and tact and get to the heart of the matter, so to speak. I do not tell people what to think. I simply and honestly and clearly state what I observe. I am most interested in the relationship between writing and ethics, that is, writing with an unbiased ethical perspective. I am aware how privileged I am because we do have freedom of speech here inAmerica.
P-B: In Planet we have so far focused on prose, which seems to be your favourite battle front too. However, we are stepping into other literary fields and just started organising Poetry Workshops,…have you ever “flirted” with poetry or at least ever thought of doing it?
Olya Thompson: I wrote poetry when I was young, because I thought it the most expressive form. But I subsequently discovered that you can do that in the essay too, and I am fascinated with this form. I use literary devices, such as those found in poetry. For example, alliteration, rhyme, repetition. I also emphasize the sounds and rhythms of speech in my essays, as is done in poetry. I use objects as symbols, for example, a water globe, in an essay on the TwinTowers, an engraved solid silver ladle, in an essay about my long lineage. I like to pile up visual images and create scenes that are evocative in the mood that they create. My style has at times been referred to cinematic. Often, it is referred to as poetic. My essays also express emotion as does poetry. I myself have referred to one of my essays as a prose poem.
The style of the sentence in the essay is different from that of fiction or narrative. It calls for a kind of compression and even sudden insight or discovery, the kind that you find in poetry.
P-B: In On attending a Taras Shevchenki Poetry Slam you focus on the poet’s human side as well as his legacy in Ukrainian hystory…
Olya Thompson: Yes, I’ve heard it said that every writer writes about himself, and it is true. And that, ultimately, is the universal human experience that people relate to.
P-B: Still talking about On attending a Taras Shevchenki Poetry Slam you keep talking about the Ukrainian diaspora and mention the poet’s life in exile, just longing to be buried in his own land….how do you feel now, in a place which once gave you an opportunity for reinvention?
Olya Thompson: I was saying thatAmericais a land that gives people an opportunity for reinvention. Although I grew up in a transplanted Ukrainian culture and this is my ancestral genetic identity, I am not fully Ukrainian. I have never lived there.Americais where I was born and grew up. And significantly, I write in English, which was the main language in my education and my work.
It is a confusing situation coming from a long lineage yet not knowing an extended family or having never known my grandparents who were killed during the war. And my parents died relatively young, partly due to the traumas of the war. So I am indeed alone, except for a daughter who also values her culture. I would say this theme of uprootedness and alienation and disconnection is present in my work.
P-B: And the other way round, how would you feel now back to Ukraine? In Return to Ukrainie you openly say Cut off from my past, like many Americans, “I find my roots in one land and myself in another. It sounds really nostalgic…
Olya Thompson: As I said, because Ukraineis my country of origin, I was amazed at how easily I could blend in. But I don’t know anyone there and I never lived there. I don’t know what it would be like to adjust. And the political situation there is very difficult, without the freedoms we take for granted here. Then there is the political corruption and the desperate economic situation.
P-B:In The Ladle: A reflection on a Family Heirloom, you start talking about an eating tool and end up keep talking about your mother’s beauty and what seems to have been once upon a time an important relationship….In what way has your mother’s past influenced both you and your work? You seem to have mixed feelings towards your relationship with her.
Olya Thompson: Actually, this essay is one where I also deal with the impact of communism and the war and my family. Here, I reflect on my mother, who was a beautiful, delicate, sensitive, woman with exquisite manners and taste who came from an influential family that was targeted by the communists in unspeakable ways. I cannot even talk about the brutality that occurred. It is unimaginable …. My mother managed to flee the country when the borders were changing and met my father at an American displaced persons camp in Germany. My father had been fighting the war on two fronts, against the Nazis headed one way, and the communists headed the other, and ended up a prisoner of war under the Nazis.
It makes me sad, as I reflect in this essay, to think about the impact of the war on my mother’s innocent privileged life as a young girl… I don’t know how one recovers from something like this. As you know, the communists targeted the intelligentsia, the religious people, the aristocracy, the artists and writers…. The ones with the most losses, I noticed, were those for whom the adjustment to this country was the most difficult…. It makes me sad, to think about how my mother, as she got older, retreated more and more into her happier memories, and became so different from the vibrant vivacious woman she had once been, and was lost to me and that loss was painful….This made me feel even more isolated in my youth, and even to this day, when I see my counterparts whose parents are still alive.
I must say, in many ways, I am my mother’s child. She had a lovely singing voice and I remember her lullabies that she sang to me as a child. She taught me how to draw and she taught me the names of all the wild flowers when we spent summers in the countryside. I inherited her manners, her taste, her features…. And her sensitivity. Her aesthetic sensibility and emotional sensitivity, together with my father’s propensity for reading and logic, are what made up the beginnings of the writer I am today.
However, there is also that theme of Ukrainians stressing beauty that is almost a cliché in the culture. There is even an old folk saying, “A man need only look a bit handsomer than the devil, but a young girl has to be smiling and pretty.” Now this is a difficult legacy for a culture to impose on a woman, and one that certainly short changes her, particularly when it comes to her other attributes. I wrote a short story, called The Dress, playing with this idea.
P-B: Concerning content, you straightforwardly deal with a lot of interesting up-to-date issues, such as Anorexia, American vs European Parenting, Bilingual Education, so much debated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean….How would you feel about being read by people in Spain, France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany?
Olya Thompson:It is amazing for me that my pieces are now being read abroad. Yet it is wonderful because we share the same concerns and experiences. I would like nothing more than to write a regular blog or series of thoughtful essays that are intended for an international audience because, in the end, we all, particularly in this era of globalization, have so much in common. This is what I am working on.
P-B: Finally, I would really like to have your open feed-back on both Europe and particularly, Spain
Olya Thompson: I am an American with a European sensibility and European roots. I share those European interests that are not always valued in this country, like intellectual pursuits, an appreciation for culture, the arts. There is more of a sense of aesthetics and a respect for tradition in Europe than there is here. InEurope, the countries are more like states, and Europeans are easily multilingual. European nations have a more homogeneous population.
America is an open country and is very accepting of diversity. It is also a relatively new country and is very isolated on a separate continent. It is not common here to be fluent in several languages. Europeans are not as committed to capitalism as an ideology; there is more of a social sense of responsibility for others. America is a country of individualists where the Puritan ethic is still considered a predominant influence. Americans are more pragmatic and I would say focus more on material things, while there is more of an enjoyment of life, an ability to relax, a sense of fun inEurope.
I still love the European customs and traditions passed on to me. It’s almost as though I had been brought up in the 19th century. For example, I remember as a child my father bowing and requesting a waltz with me. I would hold on to his arms tight, and my feet would never touch the ground, and we would go around in spinning circles.
As for Spain, I know the country has suffered much under dictatorship but has made remarkable strides in recent years. It is multifaceted, with a lot of different historic influences. The country has contributed much to the visual arts: its prehistoric caves, religious paintings, its numerous painters, Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro. It’s known for its many films. In particular, director Pedro Almodovar comes to mind, who is very popular here. I know Madrid is growing in its reputation as a major international center and as a center where students flock to study the arts. In the end I would say Spain’s people are very warm, are much interested in culture, and as this interview shows, in an on-growing exchange of ideas.
Skype chatting with Olya Thompson – from her house in New York – was really a pleasure.