Thursday, Jun 30, 2022
Outlook.com

Russia-Ukraine Crisis: 11 Ukrainian Writers You Must Read

In their works, Ukrainian writers reflect on the ravages of war and the landscapes of history, memory, and grief as well as the spirit of resilience and revelry.

Tamara Ivanovna Hundorova (left) and Serhiy Zhadan (right)
Tamara Ivanovna Hundorova (left) and Serhiy Zhadan (right)

Russia’s unprovoked and full-scale invasion of Ukraine follows Kyiv’s long and tense battle to retain its economic and political sovereignty ever since it became an independent nation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The newfound independence had come close on the heels of the Gorbachev-led reformist political movement that was defined by terms like perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency). Ukrainian literature, which had developed under the prolonged foreign domination over its soil — including those of the Romanian and the Ottoman Empire —was given a fillip by the Soviet dissidents during the post-Stalinist or post-totalitarian phase of the Communist system. In 1991, it broke free from the shackles of the censorship era and its tradition of social realism.

The increased freedom and openness brought about a marked change in the landscape of Ukrainian literature; it moved away from the shadows of Soviet and Classical periods and emerged into an era in which writers had the freedom to write about issues that were forbidden in Soviet Ukraine. For instance, there was no literary work about the catastrophic Holodomor or the Terror-Famine (1932-33), which was brought about by Stalinist policies and killed millions of Ukrainians, for nearly 60 years since it was never publicly acknowledged by political leaders. After Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922, there was a state-led attempt to impose the Communist ideology on everyone; the believers were branded as dissenters and sent to Gulag prison camps. The repression also extended to the choice of subjects and themes in literature.

After 1991, Ukrainian writers started experimenting with form and styles. As they reflected on the social problems of a newly independent nation and historical memory, they sometimes mixed genres or languages (called Surzhyk in Ukrainian), romanced with profanity, or gravitated towards postmodernism or neo-avant-garde. Here are some contemporary Ukrainian writers who dwell on the ravages of war and the landscapes of history, memory, and grief as well as the Ukrainian spirit of resilience and revelry.

Andrey Kurkov: President of PEN Ukraine, Andrey Kurkov, has been living in Kyiv for 59 years. When the war began on Thursday, PEN Ukraine released a video in which Kurkov, 61, states: “This is my city, my home, my country, my native land… I will never welcome Occupiers.” Described as a comic novelist for his surreal and satirical books like “Death and the Penguin,” the story of an obituary writer, Kurkov told ‘The Guardian’ that after the war he “didn’t feel ready to laugh at anything.” Kurkov, who writes in Russian and Ukrainian languages, is a longtime chronicler of Russian aggression. His 2018 novel ‘Grey Bees’ dramatises the conflict in Ukraine through the adventures of a beekeeper and combines the element of a fable as well as an epic. Another of his recent novel, 'The Milkman of the Night' is partly a surreal murder mystery, partly multi-stranded love story; it captures the strangeness of life in Ukraine.

Andrey Kurkov
Andrey Kurkov

Ilya Kaminsky: Born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa, the Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish-American poet, critic, translator, and professor, lost his hearing when he was four and has been writing deafness as a form of dissent against tyranny and violence, as ‘The New Yorker’ noted. His first full-length book of poems, Dancing in Odessa (2004), draws on the memories of a haunted city. The 44-year-old poet’s 2019 collection, ‘Deaf Republic,’ which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a parable in poems that captures the plight of an occupied country in the time of political unrest. “His poems move through the lives of others, known and unknown, connecting the sweet and bitter stories of lost worlds,” wrote E.M. Kaufman in the Library Journal.

 

Ilya Kaminsky
Ilya Kaminsky

Oleksandr Irvanets: Born in 1961 in Lviv, Irvanets Oleksandr has resided in Irpin, the Kyiv region, since 1993. From the beginning of the 2000s, his literary endeavours have veered around dramaturgy and prose. His works have been translated into English, German, French, Swedish, Polish, Czech, Belarusian, Russian, Italian and Croatian. In 1985, Oleksandr founded a literary performance group “Bu-Ba-Bu,” along with fellow writers Yuri Andrukhovych and Viktor Neborak. Its syllables derive from burlesque (burlesk), a puppet show or farce (balahan), and buffoonery (bufonada). The group gained enormous popularity in Ukraine during the late 1980s and the 1990s. In his latest novel, ‘Kharkiv-1938’, Irvanets employs dark humour to portray the alternative history of Ukraine, with Kharkiv as the capital that managed to preserve its independence amid the 1918-1919 civil war, a carnival-like city that stands in sharp contrast with its real picture: a city marked by the everyday fight for survival amid insecurity.

Oleksandr Irvanets
Oleksandr Irvanets

Viktor Neborak: A poet, prose writer, literary critic, and translator based in Lviv, Viktor Neborak (60) is one of the three founding members of Bu-Ba-Bu, which has played the central role in Ukraine’s cultural revival. In his meticulously structured second collection, ‘Litaiucha holova’ (The Flying Head, 1990), stood out for its linguistic and poetic experimentation: it circled around the carnival, eroticism, rock music, experimentation in form, and general revelry. In his subsequent collections, he zeroes in on the modalities of everyday life experiences. Neborak has also written two books of memoiristic essays about many of his contemporaries: ‘Return to Leopolis’ (1998) and ‘Introduction to Bu-Ba-Bu’ (2001).

 

Viktor Neborak
Viktor Neborak

Artem Chapeye: The 40-year-old author, who writes creative nonfiction and popular fiction, was born and raised in the small Western Ukrainian city of Kolomyia and has spent much of the last twenty years living in Kyiv. He worked as a reporter during the war in Donbas. Three of his books —  ‘Traveling with Mamayota in Search of Ukraine’ (2011), ‘The Red Zone’ (2014)  and ‘There Goes the Neighbourhood’ (2015) —  have been on the shortlist of the BBC Book of the Year Award. In 2015, Artem together with Kateryna Serhatskova published their collection of journalistic stories from Donbas “The Three-Letter War”. Proclaiming his love for Ukraine, he states in the Pen Ukraine video: “It’s my home. My kids are here. They have school… You are already so used to everything that you not only recognise people, but also some animals and birds in your area.”    

 

Artem Chapeye
Artem Chapeye

Tamara Ivanovna Hundorova: A literary critic, culturologist and writer, 66-year-old Hundorova is a professor and head of the Theory of Literature Department at the Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. She is also a professor and dean at the Ukrainian Free University. A member of PEN Ukraine, stated in the recent video that she saw hope in the fact that “the best, the strongest people of our home have taken their weapons and went to the front”. She added: “All the artists associating themselves with Ukraine should be here because that is where the cord that connects us is. (It is) our language, our culture that gives us power and opportunity to fight.”  

Tamara Ivanovna Hundorova
Tamara Ivanovna Hundorova

Kozlovskiy Ihor Anatoliyovych: Born in 1954 in Makiivka, Donetsk region, Anatoliyovych is a scientist, a poet and a prose writer. A former prisoner of Kremlin, he was captured by militants of the so-called “Donetsk Peoples Republic” and was in captivity for almost two years until December 27, 2017. Author of poetry collections and prose works, as well as more than 50 scientific books,  he actively advocates the release of political prisoners in Russia and in the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea. “I have experience of being in captivity. I know what Russia is. I know what Ukraine is. Russia is slavery and fear. Ukraine is freedom and joy. I know the difference between freedom and the lack of it,” he said in the PEN Ukraine video.   

Ihor Anatoliyovych
Ihor Anatoliyovych

Anna Bagriana: A novelist, poet, playwright, and translator, Bagriana was born in the city of Fastiv, Kyiv Oblast, and has worked as a radio and television journalist. A member of the National Writer’s Union of Ukraine, the Association of Ukrainian Writers, and the Slavic Academy of Literature and the Arts (Bulgaria), Bagriana (40) has published seven books of poetry, two collections of plays, and three novels: ‘The Etymology of Blood’ (2008), ‘Such a Strange Love This is’ (Kyiv 2010), and ‘The Pesterer’ (Kyiv, 2012). She has also compiled and translated an anthology of contemporary poetry from the Republic of Macedonia. Her novel, ‘Such a Strange Love This is' was translated into Macedonian. Her collection of dramatic pieces, ‘Plays,’ has been translated into Macedonian and Serbian.

Anna Bagriana
Anna Bagriana

Svetlana Alexievich: The Ukraine-born Belarusian Nobel laureate is an investigative journalist, an essayist, and an oral historian, who writes in Russian. She was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’. She is the first writer from Belarus to receive the award. In her 1997 book, ‘Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, she records the tragic event through the stories of people. “The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II’ (1985) shows how more than 200 Soviet women, who dreamed of becoming brides, became soldiers in 1941, participating on a par with men in the most terrible war of the 20th century.

Anastasia Dmitruk: The 31-year-old poet writes in Russian and Ukrainian languages. She earlier worked as an information security specialist. Her poem, ‘Never Ever Can We Be Brothers’, written in response to the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea, is her most popular poem. The poem celebrates the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and rejects “Great Russia”:

“Freedom’s foreign to you, unattained;

From your childhood, you’ve been chained.

In your home, “silence is golden” prevails,

But we’re raising up Molotov cocktails.

In our hearts, blood is boiling, sizzling.

And you’re kin? – you blind ones, miserly?

There’s no fear in our eyes; it’s effortless,

We are dangerous even weaponless.”

The YouTube video of Dmitruk reading her poem has got more than a million hits. The poem has been discussed in the press. It has also become a target of many parodies, especially by Russian readers who consider the poem ‘Russophobic’.

 

Anastasia Dmitruk
Anastasia Dmitruk

Serhiy Zhadan: Widely considered to be a ‘rockstar poet’, Zhadan is also a novelist, essayist, and translator. Born in Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, he taught Ukrainian and world literature from 2000 to 2004. Since then he has worked as a freelance writer. He is credited with having revolutionized Ukrainian poetry with his verses, which are less sentimental and revive the style of 1920s Ukrainian avant-garde writers like Mykhaylo Semenko or Mike Johanssen. Most of his poems draw upon his homeland: the industrial landscapes of East Ukraine. His latest novel, ‘The Orphanage (2021),’ excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In its vividness and stark depiction of a brutal landscape, it recalls Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan
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