A Celebration of Myrna Kostash’s Prodigal Daughter: A Journey To Byzantium

March 16, 2011

Open Space Gallery,
510 Fort Street, Victoria
January 20, 2011
Reviewed by Judy Leblanc

Since I am not usually a follower of non-fiction, I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to an evening with Myrna Kostash at Open Space. The Edmonton author is known for the intellectual rigour she has applied to a body of award-winning non-fiction books, numerous articles, radio documentaries and playscripts. The evening unfolded in the way she describes her book, Prodigal Daughter (published by The University of Alberta Press) as, “part this, part that.” Her readings, interspersed with commentary, swept me along on a journey that was as much intellectual and spiritual as it was personal. I found myself wondering what icons I might pursue were I so inclined.

To write the book, Kostash pursued the legend of a third-century saint named Demetrius. She made two trips through the Balkan countries of the former Byzantium Empire. Her research culminated in Thessalonica, where Demetrius, killed during a period of Christian persecution, was martyred 200 years later.

A hushed audience of just 11 people, the airy gallery and the topic for the evening made for a vaguely hallowed atmosphere. Kostash applied a light touch to what could have been some heavy slogging. The audience laughed when she said that in the seventies she had the  “big fat attitude” that preceded the New Journalism. At one point, she stepped aside from the podium, pointed to the image of Demetrius on the cover of her book, and asked if we knew who it was. Apparently, none of us did.

“Have you heard of Thessalonia?” she asked eagerly, pleased to get some nods.

The ease and accessibility of her verbal delivery was evident in her selected readings. Kostash, the co-founder and past-president of the Creative Nonfiction Collective, has long been a champion of creative non-fiction. She described Prodigal Daughter as “part memoir and part reportage.” The narrative is rife with personal anecdotes. Her attention to detail, common in fiction, drew me into the story. She read from the first page of her book: “I was nine years old, sitting at a worn wooden desk, in a handsome brick school…”  Kostash has thoroughly assimilated her research; that’s a blessing because the book’s bibliography is 15 pages long.

Demetrius employed miracles to defend his beloved Thessalonica from barbarians, essentially the Slavic peoples: Kostash’s people. Kostash, from Edmonton, is of Ukrainian descent. In spite of the Slavs status as barbarians, centuries ago they adopted the Orthodox Church, complete with Demetrius. This curious fact was the impetus for her book. However, the story’s vision shifted into something unexpected.  Kostash reminded us that creative non-fiction often has two levels: “apparent subject,” and the story below, that which is “driving all this.”  She went on to relate a conversation she had with Saskatchewan writer, Trevor Herriot. She had asked him how she might persuade people to care about her book. He challenged her with the question, “Why do you care?”  He suggested that the writing of the book expressed a “yearning for the divine.”

Ever a researcher, Kostash’s recent return to the Greek Orthodox Church of her childhood came from wanting to understand who Saint Demetrius is to people who have faith. She confessed to having some “issues” with the church. Later, an acquaintance of hers told me that Myrna is “shaking things up” in her church. I don’t doubt it and more power to her. Institutions of all kind, not only churches, need thinkers like Kostash in their midst.

Prodigal Daughter, with its esoteric concerns and scholarly background, may not have a large commercial appeal. However, its intelligence and its author’s passion for her subject set this book clearly above the current glut of facile spiritual-journey accounts.

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