Ever since my childhood in Ukraine, I have constantly solicited stories from my relatives about what their lives were like when they were my age. Sometimes, I was lucky enough to hear one of those stories that seem bottomless, that keeps branching into countless asides and substories until some urgent aspect of the physical world — the hiss of a boiling kettle, the shrill ringing of my telephone — truncates it.
Whenever I happened to hear a story like that, I felt like I’d hit a jackpot, beholding all the invaluable things being laid out in front of me. Afterward, I would scrawl greedy, hurried notes, careful not to let a single detail slip away for fear that my memory couldn’t hold them all.
Even now, I often find myself wandering the streets of Berkeley, on the phone with my mom as she vividly recounts scenes from her childhood in Kharkiv in the 1980s: living in a tiny room of a Soviet kommunalka with her entire family, singing kolyadki in the winter, falling through ice into a freezing lake and sitting atop her babushka’s clay pechka to keep warm. When I hear such stories, I wonder if it is possible to feel nostalgic for an experience I’ve never had or a time I’ve never lived in.
My story soliciting sometimes verged on interrogatory as I tried to milk my relatives’ recountings for as many details as possible. I learned, for example, how my probabushka (great-grandmother) hid from Nazi soldiers in her aunt’s vegetable cellar one winter, sitting on the turnips to avoid the frozen ground. It’s the details I savor. Memory ebbs with time and the past blurs into something amorphous. It makes me feel fortunate to know such specifics about something so distant, to watch the past come alive as I visualize it. From my limited point of view, I only see my relatives and ancestors in pieces. Storytelling is a way to fill in the gaps.
Where does my hunger for stories come from, and why is it so strong?
Perhaps it’s about cheating time, about using stories as a medium through which I make contact with a past that seems just out of reach. It’s a way of briefly being somewhere despite the fact that I wasn’t. It allows me to experience, however partially, a life that wasn’t mine, but that led to mine. Stories make these impossible things possible.
I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility for collecting and recounting these intergenerational stories because, from a young age, I understood that people live as long as our memories of them do. Even though my ancestors died long ago, I’m not quite ready to let them go.
Perhaps this hunger for stories is also partially fueled by scarcity.
Though I can easily communicate with my Ukrainian family, the Afghan half of my family remains a mystery to me. I have never met them, and, even if I knew how to find or contact them, we wouldn’t be able to freely communicate because I never learned to speak Farsi. So I settle for trying to rake my mom’s memory for any morsel of recollection about anything my father possibly told her about his family or his life in Afghanistan. These half-remembrances, meager and vague as they are, constitute my connection to my Afghan relatives and ancestors.
As a biracial and biethnic person who grew up in a white family and community, I have often felt disconnected from my Afghan half. I’ve wondered if I even deserve to claim Afghan as an identity because I have so few ties to that culture and to my family. Can I really claim a connection to a place if I don’t know its stories?
I often wonder, too, if the fact that I have access to the Ukrainian half of my history but not the Afghan half is a coincidence. Having the opportunity to learn about and trace one’s heritage is often dependent on being able to inhabit one’s homeland without fear of violence or persecution. For me and countless other children of asylee or refugee parents, things like displacement, fragmentation of families and language barriers create a barrier between us and the stories that should have been passed down to us.
I am sure that one day I will travel to Nangarhar, meet my Afghan family and listen to their stories when it is safe and possible to do so. But, for now, these unheard tales are a part of me that’s inaccessible. I continue to exist at an intersection of identities and circumstances that give me access to such stories as well as a lack thereof. And this accessibility and inaccessibility has made me realize how nourishing it is to hear and retell these stories as a way of learning and perpetuating one’s own history.
Stories, I realize, are a source of power. Though I’ve listened to my family’s stories for years and years, my hunger for them has yet to subside. I hope that it never will.