Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hey, Waitress!

Hey Waitress and other stories / Helen Potrebenko
Vancouver: Lazara Press, c1989.
167 p.

I picked this one up in a second hand store recently, simply because of the cover and the fact that the author is a Canadian Ukrainian. I am always fascinated by Ukrainian content, and this book had a lot of such subject matter. This is a collection of short stories by a writer I'd never heard of before: such a shame, as she is fantastic. And her book Taxi! is one of the seminal working class novels in Canadian writing, apparently -- little did I know, as I never studied such things in school!

Potrebenko has a fascinating style. She is very concerned with women's lives, and with the lives of workers of all kinds. Waitresses, of course, but also bank tellers, office temps, old women, immigrants, etc., and she speaks from a place of equality with them. Yet her work is not only 'about' issues, it is full of strong characters and excellent writing.

I really enjoyed her perspective. Each of the stories in this collection has great characters -- lots of women making the best of a bad lot, always with a sense of perseverance and quiet determination. Humour helps as well. A few of the stories deal directly with the Ukrainian experience -- 'Three Days in Kiev' is a story of Kiev in 1968, long before glasnost or the Westernization of Ukraine; 'A Different Story' reveals the misery of racism and deprivation that immigrants to Canada suffered as a matter of course; 'The Interview' follows the attempt of a young writer trying to get a life story from an old Ukrainian woman in a home, whose tales of history and family upheaval can't be kept to the lines of the interviewer's expectations.

A few of the other stories also have characters with Ukrainian background but who are just another part of Canadian life. This thread weaves in among the others, those of feminism and labour history. The women in these stories are clearly held back by politics, both of gender and class, and there is nothing about them as individuals that can be the cause of such troubles. Potrebenko has a wide vision of how each of these elements plays out within a wider society, and how ethnicity, gender and class can not be treated separately. Everything is interconnected, and to blame or assign cause to an individual in such a society is a facile argument.

If you're looking for short stories that are not insular or inward looking, that are instead wide-open and engaged with everyday life, you couldn't do better than to try Helen Potrebenko. To give you a feeling for her narrative style, I'll share a bit of the title story, 'Hey, Waitress'. In this story, Stella is a career waitress who has raised her daughter as a single parent and wants better for her daughter. The first excerpt introduces her to us, and the second is a discussion about Ginny going back to school and the arrangements they have to make to suit their new circumstances.

Mom, what's wrong? Ginny leaped up from the couch in alarm.

Nothing, Stella Sutcliffe snarled. I've just been smiling all day and now I'm resting my face.

Oh, Ginny said, relieved. Well, there's no need to snarl about it.

I'm not snarling! This is what's left of my voice after talking syrupy all day. ...


Go back? I don't know. I'm having a baby now. You must have noticed.

Sure, I noticed. Mothers are very observant. We can share the child care.

Get real, there's no way you can support yourself and the two of us. Besides, I'll want my own place eventually. I was talking to Kelly and she just works the lunch hour and gets a welfare supplement-- that way she can send Peter off to school in the morning and be home after school.

The baby isn't even born yet so it will be a few years before it goes to school.

Don't be too sure, Ginny laughed. It might be a genius, you know.

Stella would have liked to say that with a father like that, they'd be lucky if the child learned to tie its shoelaces but instead she said that while the baby was little, Ginny could work the early shift while Stella babysat and Stella would try to get changed to the late shift.

You can read many of her poems and stories at her website. I was intrigued and inspired by her fresh voice and her stalwart committment to saying what she means. Very interesting writing that anyone with a political interest would find engaging, and that I think should be rediscovered by Canadians -- and everyone else -- since it is still so relevant.

Helen Potrebenko, one of Vancouver’s most uncompromising feminist writers, was born on June 21, 1940 in Grand Prairie, Alberta. Her best known novel, Taxi, was published in 1975, shortly after her move to Vancouver. As she says on her website "My husband and I are landed gentry living in Burnaby, BC. With the help of medication, my blood pressure is now lower than my I.Q. My books can be purchased from Lazara Press or borrowed from your local library."


  1. I love this:

    "If you're looking for short stories that are not insular or inward looking, that are instead wide-open and engaged with everyday life, you couldn't do better than to try Helen Potrebenko."

    I definitely want to read this book. As I read your review, I wondered if you might like the nonfiction book by Candacy A. Taylor called Counter Culture - The American Coffee Shop Waitress. I thought it was wonderful. I wrote a bit about it on my blog if you'd like to know more.


  2. This sounds fabulous. I'm trying to read more short stories, and this looks like a great collection to try. On the list it goes!

  3. Nan - thanks for commenting -- I will certainly take a look at your words about Counter sounds really good.

    Teresa - I hope you can find a copy, this is a great collection indeed.


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