The Lonely Voice: "My Sister" by Yevgenia Belorusets
Yevgenia Belorusets is the Ukrainian author of the story collection Lucky Breaks. First published in 2018, it was published in English in March of 2022. The stories depict the lives of ordinary, anonymous women 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.
Imagine a situation where a Ukrainian woman would consider willingly leaving her hometown and the life she has known for Russia. For love perhaps. But we don't really know. We can't. And it doesn't matter.
In the story "My Sister," it is a day in early July in the year 2014. Russian forces have been in the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. In her daily life, the narrator's sister has waited on the Russian men in her waitressing job. She has spent some time serving them food, listening to their stories. It seems she has fallen in love with one of them and he with her. Maybe. On this day, the sister is deliberating. She will leave Ukraine with the men. But something makes her relent at the last minute and she declares loudly above the din of the traffic that she will not be going after all, that she will stay in Ukraine. She will not get in their car. But the men make sure she gets in the car and drive away with her.
The story "My Sister" is yet another of Yevgenia Belorusets' stories about small moments inside big, major events.
In the essay "All Lives Are Interesting," Peter Orner discusses "In Plain Sight," a story by Mavis Gallant. The character of Henri is an old writer. He is "so old that no one dies in his novels anymore." He lives in Paris where the air-raid sirens go off "and remind him of the not-so-distant war." He has an upstairs neighbor whom he has studiously ignored for years. And then rejects her sudden and sincere offers of companionship. He is so cruel in his rejection of her. Writes Orner, "It is so remorseless as to be miraculous."
The thing is we don't understand what Henri is going through. We don't know what he wants. We might think it is our role as readers to figure this out, but we can't. And most people don't really know what they want either. Most people remain mysteries to themselves sometimes—in very small and very large moments.
Writes Orner, "Gallant reminds us that fiction writers must--in order to create lasting characters--imagine people who are as inconsistent, as foolish, as rash as we are out here beyond the page."
Yevgenia Belorusets' star-crossed sister is all of these things. She is inconsistent and foolish and rash—as she changes her mind at the last moment, yelling in the street that she will not be going off with the Russian men—and then is moved into the car by the men.
And what happens next? What emerges, as we read about the reaction of her family silently watching the departure, provides an answer in the moments of silence and what is not ever revealed. That is the only way we can understand any of it.
Peter Orner offers us this about the Mavis Gallant story, and it gives us some insight about "My Sister." He says that "one human being is a kind of nation-state." He writes, "Mavis Gallant saw into the souls of other people who, when all is said and done, are often as distant from us as other countries."
Yevgenia Belorusets is the author of “My Sister.” 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.
The essay "All Lives are Interesting" is by Peter Orner and can be found in the essay collection Am I Alone Here: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live. He is the author of two novels and three story collections, including Maggie Brown & Others. A new collection of essays, Still No Word from You, will be published in October 2022. Peter Orner is the director of creative writing at Dartmouth College.