Third Person Plural
by George Melnyk
with a Foreword by Aritha van Herk
First Person Plural by George Melnyk is a collection of essays on the subject of identity and self-image. The book begins with the author’s personal memoir as a Canadian of Ukrainian heritage who arrived in Canada from a “displaced person” camp after the war. It also studies similar questions of identity and image as they affect other persons, including the Serbian-Canadian novelist David Albahari, artists Natalka Husar and Marie Elyse St. George, and Leonard Cohen. Other essays deal with the bombing of Hiroshima as portrayed by Japanese manga comic books, and the perception and image of movie stars like Marilyn Monroe. Numerous photographs complement the essays.
George Melnyk is a cultural historian and essayist. First Person Plural is his 26th book and it continues his essay publications that began with Radical Regionalism (1981), and then continued with Beyond Alienation (1993), New Moon at Batoche (1999) and My Mother is an Alien (2003). George is the author of the two-volume Literary History of Alberta (1998-99) and numerous books on Canadian cinema, including One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (2004) and Film and the City (2014). He lives in Calgary, where he teaches at the University of Calgary.
Why I recommend this book:
This collection of essays, a meditative gathering that focuses on images and their affect, connects characters as disparate as Marilyn Monroe and Leonard Cohen with George Melnyk himself. In the process, he examines how images project and protect identity, and how we come to understand ourselves through images.
The book’s epigraph, by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, declares, “Everyone has three lives: a private life, a public life and a secret life.” This interesting premise is augmented by other lives, George Melnyk’s visual life, textual life, and visionary life; and these writings throw his projections onto the shadowed screen of individuality and community.
The most interesting and effective motif in these essays is Melnyk’s conflictedness about his Ukrainian roots, his admission that he is part of a triple diaspora, and thus has been pulled in multiple directions. He says, “My escape into western Canadian identity was a conscious way of avoiding the problematic past and its ongoing iterations in contemporary Ukraine.” This “hiding/revealing” informs both the content and the approach of the essays. He confronts directly why he for a long time repressed his Ukrainian heritage and the effect his family’s displacement and migration has had on his choices and his intellectual enthusiasms. His sense of being an outsider, “of being ashamed of who one was,” delineates the profound reverberation of subtle alienations.
These essays are written with Melnyk’s straightforward style, his bluntness both unusual and disarming. They are best when he is personal, when he looks intimately at those images that compel our attention, whether they are photographs of Marilyn Munroe or of himself as an infant, sees himself as the stateless refugee, “Melnyk, Urii Roman,” on his way to Canada. That is a powerful platform from which to investigate his fascination with art and image, the play of history and fiction.
These essays are most compelling when they dare to investigate what matters to an individual and his reading of himself. In his projection of the personal, Melnyk succeeds in living that Kroetsch line of “unhiding the hidden” even while he dons another disguise. He says, “The essays hold up a mirror to different parts of me—my ethnic self, my artistic self, and my new regional self. When I combine them into a single self I become the kind of western Canadian I am today.” His yearning to imprint himself “onto a known geography” ventures into the unknown with a journey that collapses the familiar and the strange, and that engages with both known and alien geographies. He becomes the “kind of western Canadian” who embodies then our doubts and our determination, our archive and our aspiration. And what could be better than that?
Guest reviewer’s latest title or project:
I am working on a book about Calgary, and a place-biography of Robert Kroetsch.
From The Alberta Award of Excellence site: Aritha van Herk is an acclaimed author, teacher and mentor who has made significant contributions to the canons of Alberta and Canadian literature. Her work has enriched the lives of readers across Canada and around the world, helped to shape a generation of writers and fostered a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Albertan. Aritha van Herk’s work to enrich the lives of her fellow Albertans and Canadians includes her eloquent and ardent contributions as an advocate for the arts. In 1983, she joined the University of Calgary’s Department of English where she helped to develop the school’s nationally and internationally regarded creative writing program; she played a key role in the development of Canada’s first English PhD program in Creative Writing. Aritha’s reputation as a professor and mentor is one of exacting standards tempered with the compassion, guidance and insight young writers need to develop their craft. Many of the students Aritha has worked with at the U of C have gone on to become productive and celebrated Canadian authors in their own rights and they all acknowledge her guiding hand as an important factor in their success.