Archival deep dive into Ukrainian family history considers settler narrative

Led by photographs and bolstered by research, but Myrna Kostash writes herself in as well

A picture says a thousand words, but for Myrna Kostash, a photograph led to an entire memoir exploring mysteries about her family’s history. Ghosts in a Photograph: A Chronicle delves into the lives of the Edmonton-based writer’s grandparents. All of them moved from Galicia (present-day western Ukraine) to Alberta at the turn of the 20th century. Also included are the, often elusive, stories of a few assorted relatives left behind.

After discovering some family photographs, Kostash began to question what she knew about her extended families’ pasts. Through her research, she creates a narrative to fill in the gaps and confronts the idea that linear voices can make up one’s personal stories.

According to Kostash, Ghosts in a Photograph began with a photograph of a Kostashchuk in Ukraine (the “chuk” was dropped in Canada), someone neither she nor any of her Canadian relatives had ever heard of. “In fact, mysterious relatives who never emigrated kept popping up in photographs that came my way,” she says.

An additional stimulus included family photographs taken in Canada, “which provided another kind of challenge,” she explains. “I set myself the task of looking at them through the lens of who I am now, 120-plus years after the families’ settlement in Alberta.”

Kostash’s research was, in her words, “formidable. Besides secondary sources, many online, I ransacked archival documents and files, conducted interviews, looked again into my own notebooks from ages ago, and, of course, studied family photographs.”

There were some surprises along the way. For example, there had been two writers called Kostashchuk about whom not a word seems to have been spoken in Canada – “except, as I discovered through sleuthing, in one line in a letter my father wrote to a cousin in Ukraine,” says Kostash.

“Another surprise was to realize how the prehistories of my grandparents aligned with their circumstances in Canada: land poor in Galicia and proletarians in Canada; wealth in land in Galicia and a productive homestead in Canada.”

Myrna Kostash
Myrna Kostash

Readers may become inspired to delve into their own histories to discover information about their personal narratives. “In the end we all inherit the family photographs. And we learn things about our past that keep on speaking to us long after the people in the photographs are no longer among the living,” says Kostash.

“And most of us probably come not that far back from settlers who brought some family stories with them and abandoned others. I invite the reader to place herself into my shoes and see where they take her among her own ‘ghosts.’ ”

Kostash is very conscious of her and her families’ settler status, and she ends the book with an exploration of her own relationship to the land and to the Indigenous Peoples who share it.

“I wrote Ghosts very much in the era of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the conversations that have flowed from its Report,” she says. “As the granddaughter of homesteaders on Treaty 6 Territory and as a writer committed to the values of human solidarity and community, I conclude Ghosts in a Photograph: A Chronicle, by turning the lens on myself.”