Poet and translator Iryna Shuvalova on the world of Ukrainian literature
The contemporary literary scene in Ukraine
If I had to use just one word to describe what’s going on in Ukrainian literature at the moment, I’d pick the word ‘exciting’ (and add an exclamation point to it). After several centuries of history playing its game of deconstruction with the Ukrainian cultural narrative, the country’s independence achieved in 1991 has opened the way for new writing, language experiments and exploration of the subjects previously too controversial for the official Soviet narrative and hence confined to the texts left unpublished or circulated in Samizdat.
All of this was a huge game changer for the writing process. Just imagine what it was like before: being a Ukrainian writer when your language is dismissed as a mere dialect, your country is mercilessly torn between a whole line-up of super-states and empires, and the majority of your people are consistently considered inferior and left to slave away for the ruling elites. The contemporary Ukrainian writers of the past two and a half decades reclaimed the forgotten (and forcefully erased) names of their predecessors, reconstructed and then, again, playfully dismantled the canon, and engaged with the audience through slams and mixed media performances.
Ukrainian literature today is written in Ukrainian and in Russian (although the writers from each of these two linguistic subgroups sometimes prefer not to mix). Both languages are also spoken throughout the country. And please: do forget the myth of the divided Ukraine, cut cleanly in half by the imaginary line, separating East and West, Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking population, pro-Russian and pro-European population… This clean division has been imagined by people who either do not know the country well enough, or have an interest in manipulating the facts (after all, the Ukrainian politicians themselves used to play the card of the ‘divided’ country, desperate to grab more votes). In reality, as it usually is the case, things are more complicated: in short, Ukraine is a big country (by European standards, in any case), and as in any big country its regions have their unique identity – culturally, socially, economically and even linguistically speaking. Russian does tend to be more widely spoken in the South and in the East, whereas Western and Central Ukraine tend to be more Ukrainian-speaking, however one’s linguistic identity does not determine political affiliation. For instance, many Russian-speaking authors, such as Borys Khersonsky, have fervently supported the ousting of the Russia-backed corrupt Yanukovych’s regime during the Maidan events. Many Russian-speaking regions, such as Dnipropetrovsk or Odessa, have fiercely resisted any attempts to stage the “rebel” coups like those that, sadly, succeeded in Donetsk and Luhansk.
It is relatively easy to become a part of the writing process in Ukraine: young writers usually start engaging with the community on the Internet, either through social media or through one of several big moderated or self-publishing literary websites, and then carry on through festivals and live events. The biggest annual book fairs slash literary festivals in Ukraine are the Lviv Publishers’ Forum (Forum Vydavtsiv u Lvovi / Форум видавців у Львові), taking place in September in the city of Lviv (West of the country, near Polish border), and the Book Arsenal (Knyzhkovyi Arsenal / Книжковий Арсенал) in the capital city of Kyiv, in Central Ukraine. Besides, many art, music and folk culture festivals aim to include literary performances as part of their offerings, so do come in summer to enjoy one of the many events held amidst Ukraine’s picturesque countryside, or in its historic cities. And, after all, no matter when you come, you are almost certain to find a reading, a literary discussion or a performance taking place near you. Just monitor the local book stores (such as the Ye (Є) chain present in all Ukraine’s major cities), art cafes (such as Kyiv’s Cupid (Kupidon / Купідон), Kharms (Хармс) or Lviv’s Dzyga (Дзиґа)), and sometimes local libraries.
Books from abroad are increasingly translated into Ukrainian, although due to the restrictive Soviet translation policies that favoured Russian as a major target translation language and grouped foreign writers into desirable and undesirable – friends and enemies of the Soviet state – we still don’t have all the classics covered. There is also an increased interest in collaboration with colleagues from abroad and inclusion into the global literary process. However, we are certainly still beginners in this respect, as most writers do not have a clear idea of the key global trends and are often not aware how they can, so to say, go international. What certainly does not help is the nearly complete absence of literary agents (let alone qualified ones). Still, some progress is being made, and most of the writers and publishers are very open to these new opportunities arising.
Must-read classics from Ukraine available in English
Ukrainian literature – both its classics and its best contemporary works – are drastically undertranslated into English. Besides, quite a few of the existing translations have to be taken with a grain of salt, as some of them are outdated (sadly, not all translations age well). The most lamentable fact is that only few of these books are easy to locate in the major book shops, as some of them were published by the academic publishing houses targeting mainly the professionals in Slavic studies, and some self-published or funded by the Ukrainian diaspora abroad, which occasionally also makes them hard to find. However, if you do make an effort and locate these, you will certainly be rewarded.
Let’s start with the 19th century. Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar – a collection of best Romantic poetry from Ukraine’s most loved (and arguably most famous) poet, first published in 1840. If you can, I strongly recommend that you also learn a bit about Shevchenko himself. This guy (sadly, best known from his portraits as a stern-looking man in a huge shapeless coat), was an incredible character (a rebel and a lover) and lived a life that would make for an exciting (if fairly tragic) period movie.
Next, if you can locate the English version of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (here we are moving into the early 20th century), I can promise you an unforgettable journey into the land of the ancient Ukrainian myths, where a tragic love story enfolds on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. The book is just as good as Serhiy Paradzhanov’s acclaimed 1965 film based on it. It was written in 1912.
Finally, I recommend the Essential Poetry of Bohdan Ihor Antonych published in 2010. In his 28 short years of life (he died of pneumonia in 1937) this Ukrainian Rimbaud similarly forged a unique poetic language of his own.
Best new books from Ukraine available in English
There is a very limited number of contemporary Ukrainian writers whose works regularly get translated into English. I daresay the situation with translations into German and Polish is somewhat better, although the most translated names do remain the same (to be fair, those are, indeed, some of Ukraine’s best-known and bestselling writers): Yuriy Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Serhiy Zhadan, Andriy Kurkov.
Kurkov is, arguably, the most lowbrow writer out of these four, some of his novels, in my opinion, suffering from to the author’s stubborn attempts to please everyone and create a book with a universal appeal. His translated works are rumored to sell the best out of this cohort, but statements like this can be notoriously difficult to fact-check. Meanwhile, Oksana Zabuzhko’s texts have a strong feminist and political charge: she is a writer in search of the nation’s lost memory, particularly interested in women’s voices. Yuriy Andrukhovych, member of the legendary Bu-Ba-Bu literary group of the 1980’s, creates playful postmodern texts reflecting the surreal everyday experiences of living in a post-totalitarian country. Serhiy Zhadan, the youngest of the four, is a poet, prose-writer, a rock star (he has his own musical project and performs regularly) and a public intellectual, regularly articulating his moderately leftist (and refreshingly sensible) views in the media.
In my top-3 choice, however, I would like, where possible, to go beyond these names. My selection would be as follows: Yury Andrukhovych’s surreal and vagabond novel The Moscoviad (Moskoviada / Московіада), Taras Prokhasko’s mysterious and poetic The UnSimple (Neprosti / Непрості) and Serhiy Zhadan’s rebellious and down-to-earth Voroshilovgrad (Ворошиловград). And if you want some good poetry, Oleh Lysheha’s Selected Poems (the translation that won the 2000 PEN Award) provide a deep immersion into the cruel and beautiful natural world somewhat reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s poetic universe.
Publishing houses that publish contemporary fiction
The Old Lion’s Publishing House (“Vydavnytstvo Staroho Leva”/”Видавництво Старого Лева”), often abbreviated as VSL, probably, deserves to be the first one named. They are definitely one of the market leaders, offering a great array of fiction and non-fiction titles for adults, young adults and children. Their contemporary Ukrainian poetry series is great, too, and their popularity with the readers is not just due to the selection of works they publish, but also to the fact they cooperate with some of the best artists and book designers in the country, and invest into marketing efforts – noticeably advanced compared to most of their competitors.
Next comes Smoloskyp – a legendary name in Ukrainian publishing founded in the US by the members of the Ukrainian diaspora and closely linked with the dissident movement. In addition to its nonfiction output (such as publishing historical documents and research), Smoloskyp house runs Ukraine’s oldest and most prestigious literary contest for young writers, publishing the winning submissions as separate books. This gives the publisher an advantage of often being the first to bring the new exciting names in Ukrainian writing to the reader. Besides, Smoloskyp has published a series of well-researched and meticulously edited collections of works by some of Ukraine’s best 20-th century writers – especially those belonging to the Executed Renaissance generation (writers who perished in the Stalinist repressions in the 1930’s) and the generation of the 1960’s (the so-called “shistdesiatnyky” – “шістдесятники”).
Finally, a remarkably named A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, that made a breakthrough as a publisher of lavishly illustrated children’s books, several years ago started expanding its portfolio with adult literature. In particular, they published a good series “The Ukrainian Poetry Anthology” encompassing books of selected poems by some of best known Ukraine’s 20-th century writers. By the way, it is a curious coincidence that two of the country’s top publishing houses are run by poets: presiding over A-BA-BA is Ivan Malkovych, an established name in Ukrainian poetry, while the abovementioned VSL is directed by Maryana Savka, also a Lviv poet.
Other big publishing houses are Family Leisure Club (“Klub Simeynoho Dozvillia” / “Клуб сімейного дозвілля”) and Folio (“Фоліо”). However, despite them being among the sales leaders, the quality of their output is sometimes questioned. The latest scandal occurred when Folio was accused of publishing in its world literature series translations made, in turn, from the books’ Russian translations, rather than from their respective original languages.
Literary magazines for contemporary fiction
The two that definitely stand out are The Courier of Kryvbas (“Kuryer Kryvbasu”/ ”Кур’єр Кривбасу”) and SHO (“Шо”). The first one is the ultimate go-to literary magazine launched in 1994 and currently published on a quarterly basis.
Courier is curated by Hryhoriy Huseynov, the winner of Ukraine’s most prestigious state cultural award Taras Shevchenko Prize. It includes poetry, prose, drama and literary reviews. It provides a fairly good and comprehensive overview as to what’s going on in Ukrainian contemporary literature at any given point. The magazine also regularly publishes work of Ukrainian writers and translators from outside Ukraine, such as Brazilian Vira Vovk or Vasyl Makhno from the Ukrainian diaspora in the US.
As for SHO, it is curated by the Ukrainian Russian-writing poet Oleksandr Kabanov and funded privately by a large business owner. SHO is not, strictly speaking, a literary magazine – rather a cultural review, publishing on visual arts, music, theatre etc. However, its every issue (it seems there are 4 or 5 published per year) does include book reviews, interviews with writers and relevant opinion pieces, as well as a good selection of poetry and short prose. SHO is remarkable in that it mixes languages indiscriminately, publishing texts both in Russian and Ukrainian. Same policy of linguistic acceptance is cultivated by the annual Kyivski Lavry (“The Kyiv Laurels”) literary festival organized largely by the magazine’s team and including its regular authors.
I will also mention a wonderful project that was, unfortunately, abruptly discontinued – quite recently, too. The Polish-German-Ukrainian literary magazine Radar provided its readers with a great opportunity to explore the delightful intersections of the three languages and even more national literatures. However, due to the changes in the Polish political arena and the consequent revision of the funding priorities in the country’s cultural sphere, this truly great project was shut down, taking a bustling and exciting literary field… well, off the radar.
And finally, new books or authors from Ukraine that absolutely have to be translated into English
Let me name three poets and three prose writers.
The poets would be Kateryna Kalytko (the poet of raw power and great lyrical depth), Ostap Slyvynsky (the author of incredibly delicate and observant poems) and Myroslav Layuk (one of the best voices of the youngest generation, a rebel and a traditionalist at the same time). I am, of course, very much aware that I am leaving out many more deserving names. As far as I know, none of them have a book-length translation out in English, while they are all more than worthy of translators’ and publishers’ attention.
As for the prose writers, I vote for my personal favourites: Taras Prokhasko – a rugged wise man from Carpathians (one of his books I already mentioned above, but I’d like to see his wonderful insightful essays rendered into English – such as the ones collected in FM Halychyna). I heard that the translation of Sofia Andrukhovych’s historical novel Felix Austria is already in the making – do pick that one up to explore an intricate love story set in fin-de-siècle Western Ukraine, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. And let me squeeze in both Yuriy Vynnychuk and Maria Matios, whose novels – successfully balancing between highbrow and lowbrow literature – could certainly help to introduce the English reader to Ukraine’s charm of being faintly familiar, and yet remaining tantalizingly exotic: a true terra incognita, yet to be discovered.
Iryna Shuvalova – Ukrainian poet and translator, she earned her MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College and is currently working on her PhD at the University of Cambridge. She is a Fulbright and Gates Cambridge scholar, holder of Stephen Spender/Joseph Brodsky Prize (2011) and numerous other awards for poetry and translation. She authored three books of poetry – Ran (2010), Os (2014) and Az (2014), as well as co-edited 120 pages of Sodom – the first anthology of queer literature in Ukraine (2010). She is also active as a translator, having recently rendered Yann Martel’s Life of Pi into Ukrainian. Her own works are translated into 9 languages. Her current research is into armed conflict and post-conflict trauma as reflected in oral poetry; she is particularly interested in contemporary Ukrainian folklore related to the War in Donbass.