Irene Zabytko grew up in Ukrainian Village in the 60s. But she and her neighbors didn’t call it that. “We called it a slum,” she says. “I lived across the street from a factory. There were gangs and there was a lot of violence.”

Though her mother was from Ukraine, and she had a Ukrainian-American father who’d grown up in Pennsylvania, Zabytko never felt she fit in at Saint Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Grammar School, where most everyone was fluent in Ukrainian. “I didn’t have the language skills, so I wasn’t selected for plays or as favored as some of the other children. Also I was an only child, so I stayed at home and read instead of going outside and playing with other children.”

At Tuley High School and later at Loyola University, Zabytko tried to act more “American.” But her friends were interested in her background, she says, so “it began to interest me as well.”

While she was in the premed program at Loyola but thinking about trying her hand at writing, Zabytko decided to visit relatives in western Ukraine, near the Polish border. That was in 1976. “Brezhnev was in power,” she says. “It was very communist. Because I was an American, nobody could talk to me. I had to sneak to visit my relatives.”

When she returned home she quit school and “meandered” for a while, “falling in love with a guy and moving to Vermont.” That move made her realize she should “go to school and do something more worthwhile than living with a guy and chopping wood.” She earned a humanities degree and an MFA in writing from Vermont College and started teaching English as a second language, splitting her time between Vermont and her parents’ home in Florida. She’d begun to write short stories about the people in Ukrainian Village, and they were getting published in anthologies and textbooks.

“There was an interest in ethnic writing and the ethnic American experience,” she says. But there weren’t many Ukrainian-American writers on the bookshelves. “A lot of Ukraine-Americans are scientists and engineers and pharmacists and teachers. But we don’t have a lot of writers.”

When the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl happened on April 26, 1986, Zabytko was at a feminist conference in Yugoslavia. “Nobody thought anything about it,” she says. “It was another Soviet foul-up. But even though I don’t know too many people in that part of the country, it kind of hit home. I have a cousin who went to clean up afterward, and we haven’t heard from him since.”

She decided then that she wanted to write about the accident but wasn’t inspired until 1991, when she read a newspaper article about a small group of elderly women who’d returned to their contaminated village near Chernobyl. Zabytko started to write a short story about life before, during, and after the accident from the point of view of a stubborn widow named Marusia, who returns to her village after her son dies of radiation poisoning. It became the rough draft of her first novel, The Sky Unwashed, published in March.

The Soviet Union was disbanded a few months after she’d finished that first draft, and Zabytko was able to return to Ukraine the following year, teaching English in Kiev and soaking up “the smells, sights, and sounds of the country.” This time she got a much warmer reception. “It was freer,” she says. “We could go wherever we wanted. People expressed their opinions openly. There were still Lenin statues, but there was also McDonald’s.”

After her students got over their surprise that she spoke Ukrainian (“The language is so despised in their own country”), they told her about their experience of the Chernobyl disaster. They recalled seeing the sky light up that night and then tasting something metallic in the air, thought they didn’t find out what had happened until many days later.

“The people I was living with were physicists who worked in a nuclear facility in Kiev, and they were very much aware that something abnormal was going on,” she says. “The mother went to the kindergarten and told everyone who was outside to go home, and no one believed her. When the government finally admitted that something was going on, they told everyone to wash themselves and their clothes and to change their shoes if they were going out on the street–as if that would help.” Zabytko’s students also told her about people who buried their belongings before being evacuated and how victims’ bodies were burned out of fear that they’d contaminate others.

They’d also heard about elderly people who’d snuck back into their villages. In an attempt to find some of them, Zabytko hired a private car to take her to Chernobyl, bribing the driver with her Swatch to take her inside the contaminated “dead zone”–everything within 18 miles of the nuclear plant–which is still off-limits. They made it to the edge of one of the villages before a policeman caught them and told them to leave before they got sick.

“I saw deserted villages,” she said. “I saw some geese, and I thought I saw a chimney smoking in the distance. But I didn’t see anybody up close.

“Also, I was in a relationship and thought I might want to have children one day. So it was OK with me that it didn’t work out.”

There have been plans to close down the remaining Chernobyl reactors for a long time, but no date had been set until recently; the one currently being tossed around is December 15. Zabytko–who’s completing her second novel, a “post-Soviet Ukrainian update of the Canterbury Tales”–says she’ll believe it when she sees it. She says that one reactor there has been leaking since 1987, and nothing has been done about it.

And that’s not the only unresolved problem in Chernobyl. “People are still sick from it,” Zabytko says. “The birth rate is the lowest in Europe, and there’s an inordinate risk of leukemia in children. A lot of the men are sterile. But it’s not as if the victims are being compensated or taken care of.”

Zabytko (who now lives in Florida) will read from The Sky Unwashed Sunday at 2 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago (773-227-5522), and on Monday at 7:30 at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake in Oak Park (708-848-9140). –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charity Makarewicz.