It has been several since Field Work in Ukrainian Sex was published.
What does Ukraine look like today? Are the Ukrainian people more aware of being
independent, living in a democratic country?
Field Work in Ukrainian Sex certainly does have a strong political message, which must be the reason why in 2006 a national readers’ poll named it “ the book which has most influenced Ukrainian society in its 15 years of independence ” . Yet the message, I am afraid, proved to be more long-term than I could have predicted. What I ’ ve always been most concerned about - in this novel more directly than in my other writings - is today ’ s degradation of human sensitivity, our “ sentimental impoverishment ” . Malgorzata Szumowska, who directed Katarzyna Figura ’ s solo play based on Field Work , grasped this nerve of the book very well by saying that she sees it as the story “ o tym, jak nie umiemy kochac ” . It ’ s the same story everywhere, our current condition humaine, democracy or no democracy. Democracy is even more spectacular when it comes to revealing human troubles. What in a suppressed society might show itself in families only, under the sun of political freedom bursts out on a massive scale, like a tropical disease. What once used to make private the drama of Oksana and Mykola, now provides electoral support to Julia Tymoshenko who, of all things, knows how to conduct a show: to the crowds of Mykolas she sends the message “ I ’ m yours – beautiful, sexy, and ready to take care of you ” , - and to the crowds of Oksanas – “ I ’ m your revenge for all the men who have wronged you ” (the show, as some analysts have observed, is very similar to the one fancied in my other piece - “ Ja, Milena ” from the Siostro, s iostro collection). It ’ s just one example that might explain why Field Work in Ukrainian Sex , though written in the mid 90s, is still on the bestsellers list. Interestingly, the young generation of Ukrainians now reads this novel with a much better understanding as compared to their parents of 10 years ago who, more often than not , indignantly refused to recognize themselves in the mirror. Maybe this is a sign that my compatriots are really growing more confident about themselves, like people in a free country should be.
2. How has your life been influenced by a living in Ukraine?
I mean in a country where politics was so strongly connected with everyday
Of course, it has – to the extent that in the past four years I ‘ ve had to flee abroad and to hide myself in the woods of international writers ’ asylums whenever I need to write undisturbed. No retreat within the country would work – journalists would still be calling for my comment on some urgent political issue, public activists would still be knocking on my door for my support of their causes, glossy magazine photographers (the worst part!) would be there for my picture for the country ’ s “ top 10 women ” , “ top 100 VIPs ” , or some other featured “ top ” list, not to mention innumerable requests from the reading audience... The problem is, Ukraine is a country where nation-building is still in process, and public figures, celebrated writers included, are destined to play the role of so-called „ moral authorities “ . You may like it or not, but if you feel committed (and I don ’ t believe any serious writer could feel otherwise!), you can ’ t skip this part of your professional makeup. How can you reject appearing at a demonstration protesting against the planned destruction of one of old Kyiv ’ s historical sites, where some construction company with a strong parliamentary lobby has its interests, if you know that your appearance will help to medialize the event, and, in the end, to stop the barbarians? How can you say „ sorry “ to a group of cultural activists from Dnipropetrovsk who ask you to come and give a free reading, if you know that in Russian-invaded Dnipropetrovsk it ’ s most likely going to be the only „ Ukrainian event “ in weeks? Western guests never fail to admire the huge crowds that literary events gather in Ukraine ( „ with us “ , as my German colleague once noticed when attending my Sunday morning reading in a newly-opened bookstore on the outskirts of the capital, „ only one author could ha ve in similar circumstances received such an audience – Günter Grass! “ ). But I have to reassure the enthusiasts that it ’ s not due to our being a high-cultured country; it ’ s rather because culture is taken, especially by the young generation, as an instrument of national identity building, which our current education system fails to provide. I indulge myself in many excess activities which don ’ t have anything to do with my immediate writer ’ s interests ( „ motherland-saving “ , as we ironically dub them in our family), simply because I happen to belong to the first, „ pioneering “ generation of post-colonial intellectuals who know that, unlike their colleagues in „ luckier “ countries, we still have some power „ to change things “ - to introduce new cultural patterns which might work for generations to come. There ’ s, of course, a „ dark side “ to this, but what human condition doesn ‘ t have one ?
3. It seems you are, as well as other writers, are strongly attached to the mother
tongue, aren't you? But in your case, isn't it caused also by a compulsion
to use Russian in the past?
I don ’ t think my growing up in the shadow of the then official Russian has anything to do with this. True, I am what is known as a „ language writer “ , but that ’ s my „ blood group “ , so to speak. After all, I first made my name as a poet (that ’ s how I am still best known, for example, in English-speaking countries), and a poet ’ s relationship with the language is by definition much more intimate than that of a „ generic “ story-teller. I love to bathe in the sensual pleasure of the language, to play with its different layers - from the archaic baroque style to the present-day youth argot; I enjoy small nuances and subtleties which give the text density and flavour, and even as a reader I prefer prose that makes a reader work through it. And I think writing in Ukrainian is today extremely advantageous. As a „ newly liberated “ language, not yet completely formalized, nor even fully established in all the social spheres, Ukrainian offers to a creative writer a freedom long forgotten, say, in French, Russian, or other languages with a monolithic and centralized imperial tradition (remember how Celine used to lament over the „ dead stiffness “ of literary French?). And to think of the current diversity of Ukrainian sociolects – what a luxury! By one greeting pronounced by your character at first appearance you can in one stroke show his/her background, education, milieu, and, sometimes, even political views! (The Ukrainian of the „ newly converted “ speakers who have switched to it as grown-ups, differs from that of native speakers). Of course, how all this exuberance is to be reproduced in translation is another question. But that ’ s the problem that humankind has been facing since Tower of Babel times...
4. You've lived in the USA. How do you remember those times? And wouldn't you
like to live abroad? I mean have you decided to stay in Ukraine because you
want to demonstrate something, want to be a great Ukrainian writer in
Ukraine? Or Ukraine is just the best place for you to live in and there
aren't any hidden motives?
5. You say there are two different types of artistic sensitivity - lyric
which is "internal" and epic which is "external", the first one is
masculine and the second is feminine. If it is really so, why did you start writing prose?
But prose can also be “ lyrical ” ! It turns so when it ’ s major concern lies not with the events, but with how the events are experienced by characters, reflected in their inner world. Faulkner ’ s The Sound and the Fury, in which the same story is told from the standpoint of four different narrators, is the most “ lyrical ” novel one can imagine. Joyce, Proust, Musil, Virginia Woolf – all those classics of the 20th cent. were great “ lyrics ” . Not to speak writers like Angela Carter, Elfriede Jelinek or Jamaica Kinkaid, with whom I am most often compared by critics.
I think we mustn’t ignore the crucial cultural shift which occurred in the past century: the function of story-telling, which since Homer ’ s times used to be the exclusive priority of literature, has been largely taken over by film and TV. Soap opera serials are nothing but a contemporary version of the classical “ epic ” , of Scheherazade ’ s tale. Some 200 years ago crowds gathered at publisher’s doors in await of a fresh issue of the newspaper with the new series of Richardson ’ s Clarissa for the same reason that today millions gather at night in front of their TV sets for new episodes of Doctor House: to find out “ what happened next ” . No author, trash or genius, can any longer aspire to repeat Richardson ’ s success (Balzac ’ s, Dickens ’ , Zola ’ s, Dostoyevsky ’ s – you name it, for all classic novelists were “ soap writers ” !) – in this regard we are lost and must give up. Like horses in the age of steam engines. Or, if you prefer, like portrait painters upon the advent of photography … Yet, where literature remains irreplaceable, and, most probably, will always remain so, is in the domain of human feelings, the inner drama of the characters with whom a reader can identify. And that ’ s precisely what interests me in prose. I try to write “ from under the character ’ s skin ” , so that “ external ” events appear to a reader first and foremost as a part of human experience. Interestingly, during one of many unsuccessful attempts to transform Field Work in Ukrainian Sex into a narrative film the scriptwriter confessed that it wasn ’ t until she ’ d cut into pieces five (!) copies of the book and pasted episodes together in chronological order, that she discovered that the book had a plot at all! – a “ normal ” plot, like any “ properly written ” love story. I took it as a compliment, even though it wasn ’ t intended so.
6. The history of your family dates back to the XVI century, doesn ‘ t it?
First, how do you know that? Did you create something like a family tree?
It ’ s not exactly so. One of my ancestors used to be a Cossack colonel back in the 17th (not 16th!) century. For the next century the family disappeared from the public stage, having receded down the social ladder, as was the case with all Polish „ Ruthenians “ who refused to convert to Catholicism ( „ przejsc na polskie “ ). Yet, interestingly enough, in 1830 Theodor Zabuzko, my grand-grandfather ’ s grand-grandfather, took part in the Polish uprising – apparently, collaborating with the Russian empire didn ’ t appear an attractive option to him either... I grew up in an atmosphere of such stories, which have been kept in our family generation after generation, - a case, I daresay, rather exemplary for the Ukrainian sense of history. Ukrainians owe a lot to the oral tradition: how otherwise could a nation which first lost its nobility, then, in Stalin ’ s time, its intellectual elite, manage to have preserved its identity? In totalitarian times, when the empire aimed to destroy every trace of a „ separate “ Ukrainian memory, only oral history kept in families proved to be valid. When I watched Krzysztof Zanussi ’ s Cwal, I had something like a deja vue: ciocia Emilia ’ s clandestine school reminded me of my own „ family training “ in the Soviet 1970s, under the same motto: „ Musimy przetrwac! “ My own „ ciocia “ never missed the chance to do things like pointing out to the little one through the window train: „ Look! Remember! That ’ s your grandmother ’ s land that we ’ re passing! “ – even though the land was taken by the kolkhoz when she herself was a little girl. Remembering has been a form of cultural resistance – the „ deeper “ you remember, the stronger you feel.
7. And second, why is origin and social background so important? Were
there other situations except the one when you were getting married, that
you felt the meaning of descent?
A favourite of mine, Taras Prochasko, has a wonderful autobiographical story about his ancestry, with a notable entry on how, as a student, he was offered „ to collaborate “ with the KGB. At that moment, he writes, he felt behind his back the presence of some fifty shadows of those killed, imprisoned, or otherwise victimized in his family by the organization which was demanding his collaboration, and realized that culture in an individual is nothing but this invisible presence. I also think that in real life it works better than any number of the books read to help you to maintain certain moral standards.
8. What did you inherit from your female ancestors? In your autobiography in Sister, Sister you wrote there were some haggish, strong and imperious women in your family...
To begin with, were it not for the women of my family - my mother, grandmother and aunts, all of them ardent readers - I would ’ ve, in all likelihood, completely missed my most important „ literary mothers “ - Lesya Ukrainka, our foremost woman classic, misread and misinterpreted by official Soviet culture as only a noblewoman (which she actually was) could be by a crowd of boorish bumpkins, - and Iryna Vilde, a first-rate novelist who ’ s always been overshadowed by her male contemporaries. And without these role models I would probably still be struggling to find my own voice. It ’ s never easy for a woman author to free herself from the prescriptions of the dominant culture - we always grope for precedents (for example, in my university years I translated dozens of poems by Sylvia Plath, before I felt that I, too, can „ speak bodily “ !). And I was lucky to have been born, on my mother ’ s side, within a very self-aware and self-supportive „ women ’ s subculture “ which greatly enabled me to reinvent my literary lineage. Siostro, siostro is my tribute to the spirit of sisterhood which I owe to all these women - and my recent book, published in 2007, Notre Dame d ’ Ukraine: Ukrainka in the conflict of mythologies – a voluminous, 650-page study on women ’ s heresies, and on women ’ s writing as „ modern heresy “ – came as my personal monument to this „ lost culture “ , centuries-long, and by now almost forgotten. Lesya Ukrainka has been my „ guide “ through it - she authored 20 dramas in which she „ rewrote “ from a woman ’ s standpoint the key highlights of European cultural mythology, from the Trojan war and early Christianity to the Don Juan myth (her version of Don Juan is undoubtedly the best in all of 20th c. European literature); and I am really happy that my book turned out to be an unexpectedly sensational success, having sold by now some 20 000 copies, and winning all the literary prizes for non-fiction, including the Book of the Year: it feels like I ’ m bringing back to light my female ancestors, so that they can now nourish new generations of women...
9. In the story to Ivy, to Bed column you presented the women' struggle for power. What was the idea for the story?
I am not good at „ converting “ my own stories into ideas, but now that you asked, I guess this one continues my „ reinventing female tradition “ lost in the darkness of the past. The Zhoravnytskis, a Volynian noble family from the 16th cent., aren ‘ t fictional characters, their story is real and well-documented, no Ukrainian historian of the Middle Ages omits it. Yet, what I ’ ve always found most fascinating about it, was the distinctly female voice resonating through the „ court-case “ poem – a voice, full at once of pent-up bile, of giggling-and-teasing girlish playfulness, and, all the same, of certain feminine refinement, even elegance, if you wish... The temptation to reconstruct a living woman, and a living drama hidden between the lines – the same way palaeontologists reconstruct extinct animals after one bone – has been absolutely irresistible. It ’ s the same „ detective method “ used in „ The Reedpipe Tale “ (Bajka o kalinowej fujarce?) from Siostro, siostro. Only there I ’ ve „ reconstructed “ a full-fledged tragedy out of a 2-page folk tale, or, rather, out of its opening passage, in which one girl ( „ mother ’ s daughter “ ) kills her sister ( „ father ’ s daughter “ ) for no reason mentioned. I love such petrified debris – a couple of lines here, a half-hint there – which keep shimmering with long-gone mysteries, like the light of the dead stars.
10. You've been working on your next book. Can you lift the veil of secrecy?
You nailed it, for, believe it or not, the title of my forthcoming novel (I ’ m now at the finishing-and-polishing stage) is - The Museum of Abandoned Secrets! But I have to say at the outset that „ secrets “ in this book carry a double metaphor: it ’ s the name of a very strange game played in Ukraine by little girls (as I was told, in Poland it ’ s known as „ niebko “ ) – they dig a hole in the ground, make in it an application with flowers, beads or other colourful stuff, cover it with a piece of glass, and then again with earth, to make the whole thing inconspicuous for strangers. One of the characters in the novel, a painter who has done a series of bricollages under the same title, develops her own theory about this game – that it dates back to the times of the Bolsheviks ’ advent, when our grandmothers had to hide in the ground their family icons, which, in the Orthodox tradition, are the guardians of the home... So much for the clue, for the novel has some 450 pages (which took me a full five years of work), and covers some 60 years of recent Ukrainian history (which took me a hell of a lot of research!), from World War II and the postwar UPA resistance through the late Soviet era and the tumultuous 1990s until 2004, so it ’ s not easy to reveal all its secrets in one sentence. I guess it could be best described as a saga, a story of three generations of one family, were it not more of a detective story, for the members of the family, „ locked “ in different times, don ’ t even suspect how closely they are interconnected - and what skeletons are kept in their closets... It ’ s the protagonist, Daryna, a TV director of the early 2000s , who keeps this whole intricate world centered, investigating, through the whole book two enigmatic deaths, separated in time by sixty years, both dramatically interfering with her own life. It ’ s her job – to dig up the „ abandoned secrets “ of the past, to discover, in the end, how the dead find their posthumous ways to go on with their interrupted missions. Like in real life, men in this book act as the agents of history, while women remain its invisible keepers.