By Marylu Walters
Award-winning author Myrna Kostash has lived and travelled in far-off places most people will never see in their lifetime. As a teenager, she hitchhiked across Europe from Spain to Istanbul and has since traveled in Australia and Egypt and spent extended periods of time in Greece and eastern and central Europe.
Kostash says that during her high school years she was always fascinated by things foreign and expected that her life would extend beyond the walls of her Ukrainian-Canadian upbringing in Edmonton. But the possibilities of life in the larger world became real to her in a French class taught by Margaret Hardy (later Simpson) at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard Composite High School.
“I had a very active fantasy life,” Kostash says. “I thought I would study languages at university and go into the foreign service and work in Paris or Moscow. Miss Hardy was an ambassador from the other world, the link to my fantasy life.”
Hardy had spent time in Paris and spoke of it in her classes with infectious enthusiasm. She treated her students to what Kostash describes as a show-and-tell about France. She brought a portable record player to class and shared the music she had grown to love while living in Paris. She introduced students to Paris Match, a weekly news and entertainment magazine of popular French culture. With vivid descriptions, she brought the streets of Paris to life in her Edmonton classroom, leaving the young Kostash spellbound with the possibilities of life beyond the classroom walls: “She had a passion for life and represented to me the excitement of the foreign.”
Kostash did not go into the foreign service but has lived her life with an intellectual passion that has taken her far and wide and produced an eclectic body of work including fiction, nonfiction, biography, stage drama, radio documentaries and translation. She has been a writer-in-residence at several universities, libraries and other institutions, most recently at Haig-Brown House in Campbell River, British Columbia.
Her bestselling book All of Baba’s Children traced the experiences of second-generation Ukrainian-Canadians. Her books No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls and Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe both won Alberta Culture and Writers’ Guild of Alberta prizes for best nonfiction.
Kostash is currently putting the finishing touches on her latest book, tentatively titled Memoirs of Byzantium, about the Byzantine martyr Saint Demetrius. Research for the book, which has been five years in the making, took her back to the Balkans and Istanbul. She also spun material from her research into a two-part documentary called “Six Things You Need to Know about Byzantium” for the CBC Radio program Ideas.