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The Lonely Voice: 'The Woman with the Black, Broken Umbrella' by Yevgenia Belorusets

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Yevgenia Belorusets
Olga Tsybulska/One Direction
Yevgenia Belorusets

Yevgenia Belorusets is the Ukrainian author of the story collection Lucky Breaks. It was first published in 2018 and depicts the lives of ordinary, anonymous women—a florist, a cosmetologist, sisters, friends, acquaintances, people who read horoscopes or play cards. They are all people trying to survive amid the ruins of a war—not the one we are watching played out now in 2022, but an earlier one in 2014.

The stories in her collection help document the ways that life—all facets of it for the Ukrainians—are deeply penetrated by trauma.

Belorusets writes in her preface to the book, “The insignificant and the small, the accidental, the superfluous, the repressed—all of these things attract my attention because they will never turn into…the trophies that winners carry from the present into the future so that they might lay down their booty, like bricks, to construct the dominant historical narrative.”

In these stories, places of work that were once thriving, close from one day to the next. Nothing is the same, and can never be the same. Many of the stories are about the refugees from other parts of Ukraine struggling to survive in Kyiv in 2016.

In “The Woman with the Black, Broken Umbrella,” the protagonist obsessively abandons and then retrieves her broken umbrella. She not only obsesses over it; she also talks to it. Personifies it.

Part of the confusion—and the question—for the narrator has to do with the obsessiveness of all of the characters in these stories, with small objects or quotidian concerns and daily routines. With life as they knew it now upended, the women are in mental distress of varying degrees.

Peter Orner
Peter Orner

We learn through the character in this story who talks to the umbrella, that she’d had to stay in the combat zone because of the umbrella—or because of whatever the umbrella represents to the author—someone, perhaps, who needed her attention and care-giving. By extension, we can see that the umbrella represents yet other losses. It is at once indispensable, but unreliable. It's easy to forget, but impossible to be without. It's a part of everyday life, but something we take for granted. It's a terrible weight and a burden she wants to leave behind and can never fully surrender to the past that still haunts her every day in this new place where she must try to make a life.

Belorusets today shares a war diary. There has been an entry each day since the aggressive invasion by Russia on Ukraine in February. It has been published in several languages, including, notably, in Chinese by a Beijing newspaper. Each day I read a new entry in the war diary that includes anecdotes about explosions and deaths and all the ways that people she encounters in Kyiv are trying to survive. Throughout the day, I refresh her Facebook page to see if she might be sharing yet more stories in real time. When she wrote recently that she’s finally been issued a flak jacket she had requested, I felt a strange sense of vicarious satisfaction. However, I also knew it meant she’d be using it to venture into even more inhospitable and dangerous places to document the stories of even more people.

How can we understand what is happening today in Ukraine, in Donbas, in Kyiv, in the storefronts and kiosks, in the kitchens and basements, from reading Yevgenia Belorusets’ book—the stories in Lucky Breaks? It’s easy to conflate the stories from 2018 with the war diaries and Facebook posts of March 2022.

There is a timelessness to her stories that I find paradoxically moving but also wretched because it means that all of Belorusets’ remarkable documentation of this time she is living through now will be yet more photographs and stories of people who will have endured such damnable and senseless losses.

Yevgenia Belorusets is the author of “The Woman with the Black Broken Umbrella.” It can be found in the collection Lucky Breaks first published in 2018 and recently published in 2022 by New Directions. It’s translated by Eugene Ostashevsky.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels and three story collections, including Maggie Brown & Others. His collection of essays is titled Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. A new collection, Still No Word from You, will be published in October 2022. Peter Orner is the director of creative writing at Dartmouth College.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.