Genres for War: Writers in Ukraine on Literature

From The Paris Review:

I was almost done with a draft of my novel when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Amid the destruction and devastation that followed, continuing with my novel felt impossible; I turned toward journalism, which had always been a part-time job for me. For seven months, I have been working as a war correspondent in Ukraine. I have found that I can only read war reports: I am constantly turning to On the Front Line by Marie Colvin. I have wondered about the role of literature, especially in wartime: Are we simply supposed to let documentaries and daily news take over? Or do we find—and provide—an escape from the unbearable?

I began to ask other writers these questions and was surprised by the variability of their answers. Five Ukrainian writers from the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions—the areas devastated by the war—spoke to me about the genres they have been reading and writing during the war. In Kharkiv, a literature professor told me about his rare books being burned in the stove by the Russian military. He also told me about a Ukrainian officer seeking reading recommendations the day before being killed at the front. “I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over,” writes Serhiy Zhadan. On the other hand, says Lyuba Yakimchuk, “The task of poets is to put the unspeakable feelings in words.” Olga Kryaziach, whose apartment and books were also burned by the Russians, reads and writes on her iPad, taking notes for a different future.

Iya Kiva

I have started to become spatially disoriented because of the war. Once, as I was getting back to a rented apartment, I couldn’t figure out where I was or how I got there for hours. I lived in a Soviet project-style block of flats called khrushchyovka surrounded by identical buildings, and I couldn’t understand which one of those khrushchyovkaswas my home these days; I was shaking and I couldn’t breathe. In another one of my rented apartments, I was always hitting my head while entering. At home, I needed to turn left after entering, but in this new space I had to turn right.

Can I write? Yes and no. On the one hand, I prefer that my story and the stories of my loved ones are not told by others, like the Russian authors who started writing poems during the first weeks of the invasion. But I have been forcing myself to write rather than feeling an inner need; even short diary notes are incredibly tiring. I have also noticed that all my poems are about the inability to speak. This is true both on the thematic and architectonic levels, including pauses and a rather restricted range of ideas. The way I write now feels like a score of silence.

During the first months of the full-scale invasion, reading was similar to learning a new language. Not Ukrainian, Polish, or English, but language as is—as the ability to understand the meaning of particular words, to combine them, make phrases and sentences, to correlate what you’ve just read with your experience. Sometime in March I realized, with surprise, that if merely one word from a page of text aroused associations in my mind, then that was good. It meant I hadn’t unlearned how to think yet.

The only book that I have managed to read from the beginning to the end since February 24 is I Blame Auschwitz by Mikołaj Grynberg. Importantly, I read it in the original Polish. I have noticed that reading comes more easily in foreign languages now. It’s like I am tuning the radio of war to other frequencies.

Serhiy Zhadan

I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over. For now, there is only enough space and time for direct reflections. Everything else—novels and poems—everything that requires continuity in time—will emerge later. But humor is a completely different matter. It seems to me that even under the circumstances, Ukrainians have no problems with their sense of humor or irony. I think it is evidence of the power of faith, and I am saying this as an agnostic.

I am rereading Bruno Schulz, strange as it may seem. I am reading him despite the fact that he didn’t write about war—but maybe that’s exactly why. I want to continue translating Paul Celan, and I think I will get to it after our victory. But I am not reading him now. For me, Celan’s poems always had an “afterwar” feeling to them. It is unlikely that they could be written in the thirties. During war, there are no poets or non-poets; there are those who are ready to fight and those who are not.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review