My father was a good storyteller and entertained us with the Ukrainian stories he remembered from his youth. He taught me my first Ukrainian poem, Our Mothers, written by our Ukrainian national hero Taras Shevchenko, which I recited for a church fundraiser at the tender age of three. I fell in love with words then and credit my father, Anatolyi Rybalka, with the gift of stories that he awoke in me.
At the Ontario School for the Blind, now W. Ross McDonald, my grade one teacher, Miss Watt, a newly graduated young woman, saw that the children had free hours in the evenings with nothing to do, so she read aloud to us every Tuesday. Many staff members donated countless beloved hours reading to us. Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Margaret Sidney’s The Five Little Peppers, and how they grew, and The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum are just a few that I remember, not to mention the classics like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I read everything I could get my hands on, though the selection was limited as Braille books were the mainstay of my school library, with talking books only becoming more available to me in my later high school years. I escaped a lot of homesickness by getting lost in the travels of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and in the family mishaps of The Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche. When I finished those, I graduated to The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In truth, there isn’t a well-written book that I won’t read.
While studying at McMaster University, my reading covered everything from William Blake to Christina Rossetti and Earnest Hemmingway to William Faulkner. I discovered that my area of the city of Hamilton was diverse in culture and peopled by interesting characters, not unlike those found in Dickens’ writing. Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” and E.M. Forester’s prescient “The Machine Stops” are two of my favourite Shevchenko short stories. I looked to Stuart McClean as a model for dialogue.
Some of my stories are too big to be contained in the short story genre. How my mother lived through the Holodomor, the Ukrainian genocide required the writing of a book. I am grateful to the Ontario Arts Council for granting me the Writers’ Works in Progress award for this project in 2012. I was influenced by Amy Tan’s Kitchen God’s Wife while writing it, and I worked with Marina Endicott, the writer in residence at Toronto’s Reference Library, in 2013. She is known for her historical fiction and also teaches at the University of Alberta. The story of my mother’s struggle through the Holodomor is coming soon.
I also enjoy sharing my stories orally. I am an active member of 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling. It is a group of tellers that has been meeting in Toronto since 1978 and has moved the art of storytelling forward in Canada over the years. This is a wonderful way for me to try my story ideas. The open stage format allows me to hear the gut reaction of my listeners. It also emphasizes the difference between the writing and the telling of a story. I am humbly proud to say that I have attracted a small following there.
I have spent many years developing my writing skills. I graduated from McMaster with distinction and have put much effort into honing my writing ability.
- Works in Progress: Writing the Novel. Ryerson University, 2009-2011.
- True to Life: Writing Your Own Story. Ryerson University, 2008.
- Transforming Life Into Writing. McMaster University, 2005.
- Writing Non-Fiction. McMaster University, 2004.
- Creative Writing Course. McMaster University, 2002.
- Master of Arts – English. McMaster University, 1996.
- Bachelor of Arts – English. McMaster University, 1994.