Zychowicz_Sept 2021

Jessica Zychowicz

Director of Fulbright Ukraine and IIE: International Institute of Education Kyiv Office

When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?

I used to travel from California to Ohio as a kid in the summer to visit my grandparents, who spoke English in public and Polish at home. They inspired me from a youngJessica Zychowicz, by Oksana Briukhovetska 2021 age to connect to that side of my family’s ethnic roots, but honestly, I was not interested in Slavic culture of any kind at all until much later. I was more into my immediate cultural context in California, which was Spanish speaking. It was not until I went to undergrad at U.C. Berkeley and took a course from the Poet Laureate Robert Hass that I learned about Czesław Miłosz. I was an English major interested in translation as well as political philosophy. I was also active on campus in various social movements to bring attention to the problems of the targeting of minorities just after 9/11, when Bush declared the Iraq war. My years as a student at Berkeley spanned from 2000-2004, so I acutely felt the fissures and shockwaves of that moment throughout our wider campus communities. I joined in protests in S.F. against the war. Some of us students wore green armbands on campus to signify our solidarity with students of Muslim backgrounds. I remember one day when a young Muslim woman my age asked if she could walk with me across campus. She just wanted me to walk her from one building to another, where her other class was going to start; she was scared. Of course, I walked with her. She shared a lot of her fears with me in that short span of time. Later, I recounted this experience to one of my professors, the African American author Ishmael Reed. He explained to me what “white privilege” is in society and thanked me for subverting the negative with a positive visual expression of solidarity across color lines. This opened my eyes to a lot of things I wanted to explore regarding my own identity. I started to read more about the history of civil rights movements in the 1960s in the U.S. alongside other readings about civil rights and protests against communism not only in Poland, but throughout the former Eastern Bloc countries. I also familiarized myself with the dissidents who challenged totalitarianism in the U.S.S.R. I used to go to a bookstore in Berkeley called “Revolution Books” on Telegraph Avenue. They sold books that had been banned around the world. These were mostly textbooks, and some of them had been banned in the U.S. at one time or another. I started to think about my responsibility not just as a student, but what citizenship is really about, what my rights are as a woman. I learned the names of Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, Bell Hooks. I enrolled in courses and studied with Sadiya Hartman. I then got to know Lynn Hejinian in an honors course, and also as an author because I was interning at SPD: Small Press Distribution, which is a key hub for poets in the Bay Area. She told me about her visit to the Soviet Union where she was invited by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko in the 1980s in the first conference organized by avant-garde poets there. She went with Barrett Watten, with whom she collaborated on many projects. I was totally inspired and awed by what she described. And I read everything I could by those circles she frequented in the Bay Area that are not really a legacy of the beatniks—maybe we could say the “avant-garde” language poetry movement if we want to be official about it—but basically, I also discovered artists and writers of my own generation tangential to them who are also always critical of power.

What support have you received throughout your career that has allowed you to advance your scholarship?

I received a Fulbright Scholar Award in 2017-2018. I have also received support in the form of grants and scholarships from Canada, as well as two long postdocs (from U-Toronto and U-Alberta). I have been hosted as a visiting scholar at Uppsala University in Sweden, and at the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators in Gotland, Sweden. I have enjoyed many invitations to speak at universities, cultural institutions, and museums in Europe, the US, and Ukraine in both my work as a scholar and my engagement with artists and curators. I am also a member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in NYC. My book has received two Honorable Mentions: the MLA Scaglione Prize for Slavic Studies, and the ASEEES Omelijan Pritsak Prize (sponsored by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University) for Best Book in Ukrainian Studies. My book is also currently being translated and published into Polish by the Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie (Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw) and into Ukrainian by Krytyka Press.

What is your current research/work project?

I am finalizing an anthology of voices from Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus on feminist protest taking place in these countries today. All of the contributing authors are prominent scholars who work on the study of aesthetics and power.

How do you envision your current research projects within the broader field of SEEES?

I would like to create a roundtable presentation or another way of highlighting the critical feminist work in creative contexts in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus today. Too much emphasis on geopolitics with Russia tends to overlook the fact that in the creative cultural production happening in these countries today more often than not the optics of nation and nationalism are tertiary or not considered primary. Solidarity and intersectionality are more often the lens through which visual and other language experiments are unfolding (and usually in subterranean or queer ways which defy categorization on principle).

Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?

I’m a foodie. I love to cook, and this passion runs deep in my family. My grandfather was a Polish grocer with a deli/butcher shop that is still thriving under my uncle and cousin’s leadership. They produce the best kielbasa in Northwest Ohio and the recipe is over 200 years old, brought over from Galicia by my great-grandfather who immigrated through Ellis Island. I also love to try different wines since I grew up on the West Coast, in a small wine-growing valley in California. I do not like pretentious wine culture, but the rural and family-owned businesses and small eco-friendly vineyards that aim to educate and share with a wider community the knowledge about the natural environment that growing and caring for vines involves. In Ukraine, where I now live, the laws recently changed in the past year to allow for decentralized production of wine and spirits, effectively breaking prior state monopolies over the craft. So, there are now more and more small-scale wineries producing excellent wines especially in the Odesa, Kherson, and Mykolaiv regions. In some restaurants in large cities in Ukraine you can also find homemade Crimean Tatar wines that locals are still able to make outside of Crimea, but the grapes, unfortunately, are not from the occupied zone. That is part of what makes wine special—more than any other food or beverage, it is always about the connection to a place. It is about natural cycles, weather patterns, and ancient human rituals. We should free nature. Free the grapes! That’s what I say.