Straddling Borders: Literature and Identity in Subcarpathian Rus'

Article excerpt

Elaine Rusinko. Straddling Borders: Literature and Identity in Subcarpathian Rus'. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 560 pp. Cloth.

Elaine Rusinko's monograph is a ground breaking book, the first history of Rusyn literature written from a broad historical and cultural perspective.

The status and even the name of the Rusyn language had been controversial for centuries, with many observers dismissing it as a Ukrainian dialect or even a substandard offshoot of Russian. It has only been barely a dozen years since the Rusyn language was standardized and codified as a separate East Slavic language apart from Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian (this occurred in 1 995 in Slovakia, but not in Ukraine, where many Rusyns belong politically). Elaine Rusinko stakes out her position in this controversy by the mere act of writing a history of Rusyn literature, which is truly a terra incognita for mainstream Slavic studies, and thereby acknowledging it as a distinct and independent literature. Given the complicated history of the Rusyn people, their national identity, geographic boundaries, and cultural affiliation have always been amorphous. The title of her book, Straddling Borders: Literature and Identity in Subcarpathian Rus', underscores this issue: in order to understand and study this literature, one needs a quite different approach than in the case of the Slavic literatures with a well-defined national identity stretching back for centuries. The Rusyn people have always lived in lands belonging to Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and even former Yugoslavia, where a fraction of these people lives today. As a result, the language is something of a hybrid, to use Rusinko's term; each regional variant incorporates substantial elements of the local host language, resulting from the inevitable diglossia experienced by the Rusyn population. Rusyn culture is also a hybrid, with local folklore embracing broader cultural themes from the Church (Roman and Byzanthian Catholic and Orthodox across the Rusyn territory). Finally, Rusinko's conception of "literature" is necessarily a hybrid of writings in various genres, lacking the clarity of their definition. The author successfully designs a new literary approach for this hybrid literature, adopting a broader cultural perspective as an alternative to ordinary critical methods. The interdisciplinarity of her cultural approach, with its unconstrained scope, provides a superior tool for describing the formation and development of this complex literary world centred around identity, and not merely aesthetics in the traditional sense. In view of the "in-between" nature of Rusyn culture, the heterogeneous language, and a literature closely intertwined with politics, Rusinko's post-colonial theoretical discourse seems to be a perfect fit. Although this is a new and challenging theory, Rusinko confines herself to reader-friendly language; therefore the book can be used not only by Slavic scholars, but also by lay people interested in Rusyn literature, including individuals with a Rusyn ethnic background. All the excerpts are given in transliteration and accompanied by the author's English translations. …