Discovering our authors, Alexander Motyl

Most of my novels deal with questions relating to my multifaceted identity.

I was born and raised in a tight-knit Ukrainian community in New York City. My Ukrainian father was born a subject of the Habsburg Empire in a tiny village north of Lviv (or Lemberg as it would have then been called): he lived through two world wars, Stalinist and Nazi occupations, and the hardship of displaced person status in West Germany before coming to this country in 1949. My half-Ukrainian, half-Polish mother was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, grew up in interwar Poland in a small town east of Lviv (or Lwów as it would have then been called), survived World War II, and then, after three years in Slovakia, came to New York in 1947. I have close relatives in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia. I also developed extremely close ties to Vienna through my former marriage and used to refer to myself as “half Viennese.”

Am I American? Ukrainian? I usually elide the question by saying I’m a New Yorker who speaks English, Ukrainian, German, Polish, and Russian with varying degrees of fluency.

Living at the interstices of several cultures and histories has its advantages. You develop different, usually complementary, perspectives on life. You can more easily step outside your native prejudices. You can feel at home everywhere, precisely because you’re never quite at home anywhere.

It also has its disadvantages. The perspectives on life you develop often clash. You can step outside your prejudices, or you can find yourself immersed in them. You’re always a foreigner, everywhere, even if you think you’re not.

In any case, I’ve found these clashes to be an especially fruitful source of creativity.

Last year, 2014, I also discovered that having so many roots in Ukraine can be traumatic. In November of 2013, Ukrainians launched what they call a Revolution of Dignity that culminated in the overthrow of their dictatorial president. I watched the events unfold on a daily basis—and pretty much lost touch with what was going on around me in the United States. Indeed, although physically in New York, I found that, over time, I was increasingly living their lives and living their emotions. I shared in their sorrows when scores were killed by regime snipers. I shared in their joy when the revolution triumphed.

When Putin invaded the Crimea in March 2014, I feared war between Russia and Ukraine would ensue. As Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and the fighting escalated, as thousands fled or died, as friends and relatives in Ukraine told me of their fears of aerial bombardment and a Russian land invasion of all of Ukraine, I came to understand—however superficially—just what my parents had lived through in World War II. For the first time in my life, I think I understand what real fear is, what the desire for revenge is, and, alas, what deep hatred is. This is knowledge that I would prefer not to have.

But I have it. And so I, too, have joined the struggle. I write a weekly blog on Ukraine; I write op-ed pieces and longer analytical articles. I give speeches.

My novels have also joined the fray. A just-finished manuscript pokes fun at the erstwhile Ukrainian dictator. A work in progress satirizes Russia’s dictator, Putin. Why satire? Because, as Jewish comedians know, laughter is the weapon of the hopeful.


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