Week of The Festival: European Poet of Freedom, Poland

Ukrainian Literature On Its Feet

/ by Justyna Czechowska

Iryna Vikyrchak (b. 1988) is a Ukrainian literary activist and culture manager. Between 2010 and 2013, she was the director of the Meridian Czernowitz International Poetry Festival. In 2015, she founded the Intermezzo Short Story Festival in Vinnytsia, and in 2016 she was invited by the Read My World Festival in Amsterdam to be a curator of the Ukrainian part. She was the first director of Creative Europe Desk Ukraine. In the beginning of 2014, Iryna received a Polish Governmental scholarship, Gaude Polonia, and spent six months in Warsaw. Back then, I interviewed her for the Res Publica Nowa magazine (http://publica.pl) concerning the current events in Kyiv.

Justyna Czechowska: When we talked in the beginning of 2014, in the very moment of EuroMaidan, you speculated that the Kyiv events will have a big influence on how Ukrainian literature will look. What happened during last four years in the literature?


Iryna Vikyrchak: Maidan in its course had also become a platform demanding arts and involving writers very actively. At the beginning of these events, at the end of 2013 and early 2014, writers were the most trusted opinion makers in society. The blogs of Yuri Andruchovych, Yuri Vynnychuk, Oksana Zabuzhko and others were rating as the top ones during those days of turmoil. This was connected to the lack of trust of the people to any politicians and a deficit of known and trusted political analysts.


From the beginning, a number of new literary festivals in cities other than Kyiv and Lviv appeared and they still keep growing. These are ‘Knyzhkowa Toloka’ in Zaporizhzhia, ‘Intermezzo Short Story Festival’ and ‘The Europe Island’ in Vinnytsia, ‘Translatorium’ in Khmelnytsky to name a few. This is kind of a decentralization, which is always very healthy for the culture and its recipients. It includes also a literary initiative in the East of the country, which was neglected in this sense before. Groups of writers travel there to meet their audience, even in the small towns close to the front line, individual writers began to include these places in the promo tour itineraries, which was not taking place before, as it was considered that there is no proper audience for literature in this part of the country.


It also affected the problematic and topicality of literature, of course. Eastern-Ukrainian authors, who thematise Eastern Ukraine or the war in their writing are hitting the top and getting recognition not only in Ukraine, but also in Europe and beyond. The best examples would be Serhii Zhadan, who went on a promo tour for the English edition of his Voroshilovgrad across the USA last year and poet Liubov Yakymchuk, whose Apricots of Donbass was recently published in Poland, translated by Aneta Kaminska. By the way, just last week Serhii Zhadan’s German translators received a prize from the Leipzig Book Fair.

At the beginning, the tragic and tense events of EuroMaidan evoked lots of emotional amateur literature, which was rather for therapeutic means than good writing. With time and distance from the events, and having war as a daily part of the lives of 45 million Ukrainians, the literary reflections on the events have become filtered, deeper and professional. I would distinguish Oksana Zabuzhko’s collection of materials on the role of a writer in the conditions of the hybrid war.


As for the institutional changes in the sphere of literature, the Ukrainian Book Institute was founded by the Ministry of Culture, first headed by Tetiana Teren. This is a very important step towards creating proper mechanism for promotion of reading and Ukrainian literature in the world.


JC: They say that crises have always had a ‘positive’ impact on the development of culture and literature. And what about society? Daily life? Was the revolution necessary?


IV: Yes, absolutely. To me, it seems like the awakening of the whole society. It became also more inclusive, more conscious, more proactive. Numerous volunteer movements started during the Maidan and still are supporting those in need, be they kids with oncological problems or soldiers on the frontline. And the society has become more responsive to calls for raising funds for a certain purpose. By the way, Maidan had about a dozen of interesting book initiatives, like ‘The Maidan Library” in the building of the Ukrainian House, writers’ action at the Lukianivska prison for the support of the politically arrested, numerous literary readings, book crossings etc. Another case which is still relevant among the artistic and literary community is the political imprisonment of the Ukrainian film director and writer, Oleh Sentsov, in Russia and the fight for his freedom.


By saying that the Ukrainian society have become inclusive, I mean that it has become common that a Ukrainian citizen can be an Armenian (like Sergiy Nigoyan, the first victim out of the Heavenly Hundred), Jew, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Pole, Crimean Tatar and this line can be continued to all 127 national minorities living in the territory of Ukraine. It also affected literature: Russian-speaking writer Andrei Kurkov and famous poet Boris Khersonski from Odessa solved the manipulative issue of where they belong by declaring clearly that they are Ukrainian writers writing in Russian. Literature festivals slowly began to draw attention to writers in minor languages: In Hungarian from Uzhhorod, in Crimean-Tatar from the Crimea, in Romanian from Bukovyna, etc.


Readers in Ukraine had no choice but to buy more books produced in Ukraine, not Russia, as the political situation caused a ban on importing books from Russia. That is a disputable decision of the government, but it is, at the same time, a great support for all agents the Ukrainian book market.


Another, very important change is that the population of Ukraine was to a certain extend ‘remixed’, displaced persons from the East and Crimea settled down in all parts of the country, eliminating a lot of cross-regional stereotypes and cooperating with local communities and businesses.


JC: I remember, when we talked four years ago, you had this great dream of going back to your country and make changes with other young people. And you did it. But now you are in Poland again. And together with you around 3 million Ukrainians. Is that because the situation in Ukraine is financially heavy? Is Poland offering something more? Especially now, when the political situation here, and in the whole of Europe, is not particularly friendly to anyone from the outside.


IV: Yes, Poland has made huge progress in very short time. But Ukraine as well: Most of the Ukrainian immigrants to Poland are highly-qualified young specialists, mainly in the IT sector.


We all remember how supportive Poland was during the Euromaidan and I know not a single person in Ukraine who dislikes Poland or expresses aggressive emotions towards our western neighbour. Quite the opposite. The visa-free regime for most people meant that they can visit Poland as tourists whenever they want. Of course, I’m talking about my circle. Artistic and academic circles are especially grateful for numerous scholarship programs, Ukrainian-Polish events, residency programs in Poland. There is a huge friendship and understanding between the Ukrainian and Polish artistic and literary worlds. Common heritage is an enriching working material for us. On the other hand, historical heritage – which is never simple between any two neighbouring countries – is artificially used for political manipulations.


JC: Only five years ago, Poles didn’t know much about their neighbours from East, only some books and thousands of stereotypes were present in Poland. Would you say that this huge immigration of Ukrainians to Poland did change something in how we look at and treat each other?


IV: True, the number of Ukrainians living in Poland has grown drastically in recent years. But it is most important that the quality of this category has changed, as I mentioned before. At present, I am taking part in the program by the American-Polish Freedom Foundation at the Jagellonian University and every day I observe numerous students from Ukraine studying on a regular basis there with their Polish peers. I am sure it affects Polish society, as well: Someone’s friend or partner is Ukrainian, someone’s teacher, colleague etc. This kind of interaction is the most influential.


There is a literary club in Warsaw conducted by Oleksandra Iwaniuk and I am conducting such a club in Cracow at the “Zustricz” Foundation. We cooperate and share our experiences of using literature as a tool for a dialogue and mutual understanding. It is not always easy, especially when a topic tackles political issues. The events are conducted in Polish, mainly. In my case, I focus on the connection between Ukrainian and Polish worlds of literature, inviting Ukrainian writers who speak Polish and write in Polish (like Zanna Sloniowska, for example) and vice versa. This helps to use universal stories and literary language for overcoming the intercultural barriers or misconceptions.


JC: Poets from Ukraine will join the Versopolis project. Who are your favourites?


Kateryna Kalytko and Halina Kruk definitely are very much recommended.

Justyna Czechowska

is a specialist in literary studies, a cultural manager, a translator from Swedish into Polish, an author of articles, anthologies and interviews. A co-founder of the Foundation for Literary Studies and the Polish Literary Translators’ Association. Among others she translated Swedish Versopolis poets: Athena Farrokhzad, Linn Hansén, Ida Linde and David Vikgren. Czechowska is co-author of the program of the festival “Odnalezione w tłumaczeniu” [Found In Translation].