Mark Andryczyk, who teaches courses on Ukrainian literature at Columbia University, has recently published “The White Chalk of Days,” (see The Weekly, April 15), an anthology of Ukrainian literature in translation that brings together the writers represented in the first 10 years of the Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series, which is sponsored by the Harriman Institute at Columbia in New York and the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington,. One unseasonably warm February day in the Big Apple, we sat down to discuss the genesis of the book and the course of Ukraine’s literary process and the series itself. What follows is an abridged version of that discussion.
One of the goals of the series is to introduce Ukrainian authors to a Western, English-speaking audience. Central to this presentation is the live evening with the writer. How does this anthology further this goal and why is it important?
Obviously it kind of does the opposite, right? Because the whole idea was to bring the writer, not just the book, to an audience. So this is now kind of putting it back into the book. But what it does is it summarizes, it collects, it commemorates. So it furthers the idea in that it lets people who didn’t know about this series know it was happening and may continue to be happening. In that way it keeps it alive. Of course, they won’t have the live author talking, and, besides my teases in the introduction, you won’t get the sense of the discussion, but the texts themselves and hopefully my introduction will illuminate people a little bit on Ukraine.
A lot of the talks were recorded for the D.C. events and are available online on the Kennan Institute website. Some of the authors were also interviewed by Voice of America while in D.C., so there are short interviews with them. But again, the texts that were read there are now preserved in this volume.
You want your book to be a resource for students and teachers of Ukrainian literature. Who and where are these people? How do you think the book should be used in a university setting and how do you plan on using it in your own class?
Well, there are programs of Ukrainian studies in several universities in North America, both in Canada and the U.S. There aren’t too many of them, but they are growing, and Ukraine, from what I’ve seen, is increasingly being [approached as] a subject at such universities. I know this because a lot of institutes and universities have piggybacked on this series and have invited these writers to their places. They’ve had audiences there, and there have been wonderful events. So this book would, hopefully, be for students at these institutions.
I’ve actually been using it already for the last 10 years in my classes, just because I was either the translator of these texts or because I’ve collected these translations for the events, so I provided my students with these works over the years. And I know that some of my colleagues who teach contemporary Ukrainian literature have also benefitted from the translations that we handed out at these events.
That said, there was never a complete collection, an edited version. A lot of these translations were rushed and done just to be used at the event. But before we published the anthology, we went through several stages of editing so they’re in much better shape than they were when we used them at these events. They can be used in classes: you can present samples of various different writers and if a student then sees one writer or writers that they like best, then they can pursue other translations by that writer. As an anthology it’s able to present a sampling of a lot in one volume, which I think is helpful for somebody that’s being introduced to Ukrainian literature.
New Ukrainian literature’s been around for 26, if you want to be technical, but one thing that I like about this volume is that it’s condensed into 10 years and it kind of shows key points in this course. Have you noticed in your own classes that your students respond certain ways to different parts of this history?
Yes. For 10 years I’ve been teaching a course on contemporary Ukrainian literature every couple years and because it covers new works of literature, it’s always changing. So if every three years I’m teaching a class, you have a whole new group of writers, some of whom are worthy of analysis, and maybe even a translation is available so you can teach it in a class for students that don’t read Ukrainian.
The last time I taught this class I did notice a difference from the first time I taught it: things that some of the writers did in the early ’90s were scandalous and considered taboo – for readers of Ukrainian literature who welcomed things like that it was really very exciting and edgy – whereas the younger students now reading that think it’s kind of gross because it’s like, you know, their parents writing about sex and all. Because you’re moving away from that novelty; the students are always around the same age, but the writers are getting older every time they’re being read, so the gap between them grows. So things that are associated with youth and bravado and newness and youth culture, that a lot of the works in the 90s were concerned with, are seen less so today.
Do you see a particular trajectory over the course of the book? Can you identify some of the characteristics of the current generation of young writers?
I think what is common is a need to keep pushing the boundaries of Ukrainian literary language. Not only in style, experimenting with style and form – which is something that Liuba Yakimchuk very much focuses on; it’s paramount in her poetry – but also in what topics are covered in this language. So all of these writers are attempting to expand the Ukrainian literary language by trying different things with it. That has stayed true.
Do you see more diversity in the current generation of the youngest writers? I get the sense that in the early 90s there was this very obvious thing that people were writing against. And there’s a little bit more plurality in Ukrainian culture in general now.
Yes, yes there is and there has to be, of course. And things that I focus on in my monograph that were important for those first free writers in the ’90s, they were taken care of pretty well: dealing with Soviet inheritance and the Soviet myth; dealing with Ukrainian national inheritance and myth and what is expected of a Ukrainian writer; dealing with the West as a new concept. These are all things that were certainly the focus of some of the best works, and that’s what drove those works and made them interesting for this first generation.
And writers don’t need to do that as much now. Although the Soviet system, unfortunately, is still alive and well in Ukraine, in many ways and in many minds. And there still is, to a certain extent, a traditional duty expected of a Ukrainian writer, these limitations were challenged by the 80s writers, the “Visimdesiatnyky,” who were able to test those notions and open up new doors. So the younger writers perhaps don’t have to focus on that as much, and they’re able to maybe be more pluralistic and less concentrated on that. I would agree.
In your first publication, “The Intellectual as Hero in 1990s Ukrainian Fiction” (University of Toronto Press), you identify the intellectual as a common protagonist in Ukrainian literature. Does this hold true today?
It was important then for these Visimdesiatnyky because you so seldom saw it in Ukrainian literature. You had a little bit of it in the 1920s in some early modernist texts. You would have it in works by Lesia Ukrainka or [Volodymyr] Vynnychenko, even somewhat in [Ivan] Franko to a certain extent. And very rarely in other writers, but it wasn’t very concentrated. In the 1920s you start to see it more in works by [Mykhailo] Domontovych or [Valerian] Pidmohylny, among others. And I thought they really needed to do that in the ’90s, to focus on the Ukrainian intellectual as opposed to the Ukrainian villager.
And, of course, not all Ukrainian writers in the ’90s were doing that and some thought that’s not what Ukrainian literature should be doing. I think it still continues to this day. It’s not as shocking, again, as maybe it was in the ’90s – I don’t want to say shocking – but not as groundbreaking. I think this was all done earlier and now even with [Serhiy] Zhadan, he doesn’t feel the need to do that anymore because he emerged at the end of that period of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature. I used to call him “the closer” because he would always show up in these anthologies at the end of where the Visimdesiatnyky were. In his first prose work his protagonist is sitting on the bench in Western Europe drinking beer, and he’s not trying to tell people there that he’s European or that he is fascinated by the European way of life.
How would you characterize the relationship between contemporary Ukrainian literature and patriotism? You said the early, the first writers in the free Ukraine no longer had this responsibility, but to what degree does literature today – not simply in a post-colonial context, but in the midst of a war with Russia – “serve the ongoing cause of Ukrainian emancipation”?
Again, this is no longer as much of an issue as it was 20-some odd years ago, but in a way, still to this day writing in Ukrainian is a choice in Ukraine. Working within this language, is it patriotic? I don’t think so. Even a lot of the war literature, the good war literature, is not necessarily patriotic; it’s dealing with it as a phenomenon. And there’s literature in the Russian language written in Ukraine that deals with it and in the Ukrainian language as well. I don’t see it as patriotic. I think as writers they need to address this issue, but I don’t necessarily see it as patriotic.
So writers do not feel compelled to serve the cause?
Going back to what I started with, I think it’s still a choice and I think you are serving the cause whether you want to or not by writing in Ukrainian. Whether they want to or not is a different story, but it’s still a language that’s marginalized in its own country. Still a language that’s not going to get you a ton of translated publications. Still a literature that’s not very much known outside Ukraine. So, by working in the language, you are serving the cause in a certain sense.
What does contemporary literature tell us about the current state of the Ukrainian language?
That’s an interesting question because a lot has changed with the war and with Maidan, and there is more of an acceptance of the Russian-language writer, the Russian-language Ukrainian as being a conscious Ukrainian citizen and identifying with the country, not identifying with Russia. And it’s become an issue. How do you define Ukrainian literature now? Do you define it as only literature in the Ukrainian language? Do you define it as literature written in Ukraine in any language, Russian included, Polish? Do you consider Ukrainian literature any literature written in the Ukrainian language anywhere in the world, in New York City?
I think you could answer that question different ways. You could say that Ukrainian literature is any literature written by somebody living in Ukraine, whatever the language. You could also say that it’s any literature written only in the Ukrainian language. You could define it that way; it depends. I don’t think there’s any one way you could define it. The same way you consider [Nikolai] Gogol [Mykola Hohol] part of Ukrainian literature in some classes, and in some classes you don’t.
That said, I think the Ukrainian language in many of the really interesting literary works is almost like a protagonist itself. And that’s what makes it really interesting, the fact that you’re writing in this language that’s possibly still on the verge of extinction somewhere in the near future. That it’s a risky choice. I think that that’s what makes a lot of these works especially interesting. And because the Ukrainian language is on the edge it energizes this art.
So you could define what Ukrainian literature is in different ways, but I think some of the most interesting things in Ukrainian literature reside in this narrower definition of Ukrainian literature as that written in the Ukrainian language, which I think won’t be there in the Russian-language literature.
What’s something unexpected that these writers have taught you about Ukrainian literature or literature in general?
I’ve learned a lot about how the literary process works in Ukraine specifically. A lot of people may not see this on the surface, but when you have writers who are politically very different like Oleksandr Boichenko and Serhiy Zhadan – their approach to the Donbas, what should be done with the Donbas is radically opposed and people who are not close and have not spent time discussing these things with these writers would think that these people are at each other’s throats. But they don’t know that Boichenko is often an editor of Zhadan’s works. Serhiy entrusts his works to him before they come out. You get to see some of the inner workings of it.
On a less practical scale, this literature led me to other literary works. When I first read [Yurii] Andrukhovych, I started becoming interested in [Bohdan Ihor] Antonych as a writer. For me, these writers, these contemporary Ukrainian writers showed me Ukrainian literature of the past in a different light. And was that unexpected? I don’t know. Maybe, in some ways, it was. But it was certainly helpful in seeing that literature in a different light.
What positive developments would you like to see for Ukrainian literature?
There already have been positive developments over the past several years. Book publishing has really become fantastic. I think books look great now. There are really wonderful books being published by several different publishers like Mariana Savka’s Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva, A-Ba-Ba-Ha-La-Ma-Ha by [Ivan] Malkovych, and [Vasyl] Gabor’s Pryvatna Kolektsiya. I’m just naming these three because these are the guests that were in my series, but in general I think that’s very positive.
I think it’s great that there are places like the Knyharnia Ye shops, which are in a lot of cities in Ukraine, and have become places where people expect to go for readings, where a book can be discussed. They’re very informal; they’re in a bookstore – it makes sense. We kind of take it for granted now, but that certainly wasn’t the case in the past. It was really hard to find a place like that to do such readings. There were some places, in Kyiv at Kupidon, or Kharkiv had the literature museum. In Lviv you had the places that Dzyga was trying to keep open and the meeting places where things could happen. And they did happen, but now it’s much nicer to see it on a more kind of a popular level; it’s not just a club, you know, or a small group. You walk down the street and one of the bookstores downtown is a place where you see a poster: “Oh, so-and-so’s going to be having a reading.” So I think that is positive.
Where I’d like to see it go further – it would be fantastic if there were some more state support for popularizing Ukrainian literature abroad, Ukrainian culture in general. There’d have to be a functioning institute. Unfortunately, I don’t think Ukrainian politicians realize it’s in their own interests, in the interests of the country. The idea of soft power, which other nations of course are really good at, Ukraine just doesn’t understand. I think it’s a lack of self-confidence. I think they don’t realize: “Well, why would somebody be interested in Ukrainian literature?” Because a lot of these people in charge, they themselves have a hard time becoming interested in and coming to terms with their Ukrainian identity. But it exists. Ukrainian culture, in general, today is very interesting and Ukrainian literature is very interesting. So it’s not like they have to create this out of nowhere. These writers have been traveling and talking about Ukraine and representing it for years now. It’s just if there were some kind of way of supporting that, supporting translations, that would be fantastic.
Why isn’t there a bookstand at the Boryspil airport that has four or five of our top writers in German, English, French, Chinese? If you look at the number of stores at airports that are bookstores, the percentage is larger than if you walk down the street of a city, right? So obviously people buy books in airports. Oftentimes, I know people buy popular literature that they’re going to read on the beach or in the plane itself, but I would also think that some people at least, when they fly into a country would say, “Hey, I heard about this writer. Let me try to read something local while I’m here.” I think that everybody does that; I always did that. And the fact is that a lot of these people have already come to Ukraine. How about all these artists that come, or writers or filmmakers or scholars or even these politicians who come to Ukraine as advisers or to work on cultural projects? Wouldn’t they want to bring something Ukrainian back translated into their language, Polish, etc.?
So, in other words, the culture is there for export – high-quality culture. It’s managed to exist on its own. I believe there are enough people who would have an interest in it and I think the government can really step in and help to make this happen, without intruding of course. Just have some kind of support network for steady representation of Ukrainian culture abroad.