Ukrainian Traditions, History & Storytelling In My Fiction Debut, ‘The Baba Yaga Mask’

By Kris Spisak

As a child, speaking to my mother about the strangeness of the English language—her second language and my first—I never realized how much these conversations would shape my professional future. As a young girl, sitting around my grandparents’ dinner table, hearing stories of World War II, the loss of homes and homelands, as well as fights for survival, these tales were never at odds with the singing, dancing, and joy that so often followed once the meal was done.

We don’t always recognize and cherish the details about our families that make them unique. We simply continue our traditions. We listen to old stories. We absorb them and make them our own.

‘The Baba Yaga Mask’, my debut novel, is my fourth book; however, it is my first foray into fiction. My nonfiction focuses on empowering our communications and our storytelling. As a professional wordsmith and editor and as someone with an endless fascination with the possibilities of language, I fully believe that well-written words and well-told stories can change the world. My fiction debut isn’t a plot twist in my author career; it’s an expansion rooted in the Ukrainian traditions of my blood.

I like to explain it by discussing Ukrainian Easter eggs. Stay with me. I promise this is on point.

Maybe you’ve seen intricately designed eggs around Eastertime. These eggs, known as pysanky, are a Ukrainian artistic tradition the world is loosely familiar with; however, what many do not know is that these eggs are not merely decorations. The word pysanky stems from a verb meaning “to write.” Every color and every symbol written upon them has a meaning. 

Wolves’ teeth for strength. A crisscrossed net, sometimes called a sieve, to always remember the separation between good and evil, right and wrong. Roosters for the fulfillment of wishes. Diamonds for knowledge. The symbols vary slightly from region to region, but by using artistic traditions passed down for generations, each egg tells a story. It makes a wish. It captures a moment. It shares a manifesto.

My first three books, ‘Get a Grip on Your Grammar’, ‘The Novel Editing Workbook’, and ‘The Family Story Workbook’, are as connected to pysanky as my debut novel. We have a lot to say. Let’s say it beautifully, just like the wax-designed symbols upon those eggs.

‘The Baba Yaga Mask’, though, is connected to Ukrainian artistic traditions on an even deeper level.

Beyond the borcht and varenyky on my grandmother’s table, the Ukrainian pride and love of family has filled me since my earliest days. Yet when I was a child, few friends knew where Ukraine was on a map. Some asked if I meant Russia, as if I was the confused one.

I waited for the Ukrainian perspective of World War II to be mentioned in history classes or in books I devoured on the time period, yet all through my childhood and into my adult life, I never found what I was looking for. So I decided to write it myself.

‘The Baba Yaga Mask’ is not my family’s story, nor are any of the characters people I actually know. However, it is based on the history that I’ve known my whole life—a time roughly eighty years ago, when Ukraine was in the midst of a fight for independence, an invasion by foreign forces, and a mass exodus of the country when so many women saw their homes destroyed and fled to save their families, while so many fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons stayed to fight against all odds. Even writing this sentence in the modern day is surreal.

I never dreamed my novel would parallel contemporary events. For the paperback and ebook (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing) to release weeks after the Russian invasion in 2022 and the audiobook (Tantor Audio) to release one year later with no end in sight continues to break my heart.

Yet what is the story of this book that has been embraced by book clubs and frequently paired with humanitarian aid efforts to help the people of Ukraine today?

In many ways, I seized upon the old writing adage to “write what you know.” The Baba Yaga Mask is a dual-timeline story that starts with two Ukrainian-American sisters (of my generation), searching for their grandmother (of my own grandmother’s generation). The grandmother (Vira) has declared she needs to see Ukrainian dancing on soil where it makes sense before she dies, so she books a flight, steps off the plane, then disappears. This leads the two sisters (Larissa and Ira) on a wild goose chase across multiple countries of Eastern Europe trying to ensure their grandmother is not hurt, not ill, or not in some tragic situation. However, they also know their grandmother, who has always been obsessed with Slavic folktale characters like Baba Yaga, might be up to something.

The novel moves back and forth between the sisters’ modern-day hunt and the grandmother’s teenage years in Ukraine in 1941, all tied together with the folktales the sisters whisper to each other like codes of bravery.

The power of storytelling and language has been fascinating to me as long as I can remember. ‘The Baba Yaga Mask’ seizes upon this fascination and threads it with Ukrainian history and heritage. The world has so many stories and perspectives that we should pay attention to—now more than ever—but this is one that I know I can tell. And I’m honored to do so.

Kris Spisak wrote her first three books—Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused (Career Press), The Novel Editing Workbook (Davro Press), and The Family Story Workbook (Davro Press)—to help writers of all kinds sharpen their storytelling and empower their communications. Her debut novel, The Baba Yaga Mask (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing), was inspired by her family’s experience in the post-WWII Ukrainian diaspora and has been called “A complex, poetic tale” by Kirkus Reviews. Her fifth book, Becoming Baba Yaga, is forthcoming from Red Wheel / Weiser Publishing. When not working on her own projects, Kris is an active speaker, workshop leader, and creative strategist. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.