BookForum 2023

30th anniversary BookForum in Lviv: Reflecting on wartime language and literature


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The 30th anniversary of BookForum, one Ukraine’s largest and oldest book festivals held annually in Lviv, took a notable experimental approach this year. It introduced a new venue and a hybrid format, moving away from the previous online iteration. The key topic of the festival was “Writing the Future.” What events did it include? How did publishers feel about the book fair’s new location? What pressing questions did the audience poise to the foreign speakers and what happened at night, or rather, during the evenings of poetry and music? Read about these and more in our report.


This year the festival adopted a hybrid forma, offering a blend of in person and online events. All events were broadcast on the Bookforum website in Ukrainian and on the platform of the Hay Festival, the festival’s digital partner, in English. This made it possible to stream events with the participation of such writers as Ozren Kebo, Art Spiegelman and Slavenka Drakulić, scientist Eva Thompson and many others. At the same time, many international guests had no fear of attending the festival in person. Among them were reporter Wojciech Tochman, historian Timothy Garton Ash, reporter Luke Harding, journalist Catalina Gómez, scholar Uilleam Blacker and others.



The central theme of the literary festival was “Writing the Future: life, happiness and culture during and after the war”. Sofia Cheliak, BookForum program director, noted:


“We want to talk about how we can influence our future and shape it ourselves. Even despite the fact we don’t see the future because of our trauma and suffering we are experiencing,” she said.


This year, the 30th BookForum allowed free attendance to its events. The festival organizers reported that over 20,000 people participated in the festival. Spanning five days, the event included about 150 activities hosted at eight different locations as part of the literary festival.


Talking about the war

Kateryna Kalytko, Ukrainian poet and activist, started her conversation with Ozren Kebo, Bosnian writer and author of “Sarajevo. A Beginer’s Guide” with the words “Unfortunately, we are again talking about the war.” The conversation between these artists opened the 30th anniversary Bookforum.


“In the midst of the war you live only a day, and you are completely deprived of the future,” Kebo added.



The majority of the events at the festival were dedicated to the topic of the war. Ukrainian writer Oleksandr Mykhed recounted an experience about a week before Russia’s full scale invasion, when he first heard the term “language of war.” The phrase was used by Ukrainian soldiers, who were having a meal with Oleksandr and his wife. “When the soldiers were describing what they thought about the war and the enemy, they used, mildly speaking, obscene words, and one of them would occasionally turn to my wife and say: “Excuse me, I’m using the language of war.” I think we speak using exactly this obscene layer, and it was present in the first month. It was the only possible way I could express myself .”


The writer shared that being with and inside of Ukrainian language and “the feeling that at least I can control something, just as an element of my native language” gave him some sort of sense of control over events. Oleksandr emphasizes that the simple sentences his texts are written with are also part of the language of war, as they reach the reader faster. Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher, writer and the president of PEN Ukraine, picks up on the point: “Language is a reality, and you can play with it. You live in it, and it becomes the home of existence. Or the McDonald’s of existence. It depends on how lucky you are.”


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In his opinion, such books as “Job’s Call Sign. Chronicles of the Invasion” by Oleksandr Mykhed and “The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister” by Olesya Khromeychuk are closely tied to our experience in such a way that they no longer exist outside of it, and are a kind of seeding. It is an integral part of our journey living through the war.


During one of the discussions, it was suggested that the language of war gives us new words. “It is often that the surprise of our own language comes from foreigners,” says Volodymyr Yermolenko. He added that during one of the events Krzysztof Czyżewski, Polish writer and cultural activist, said that Ukrainians had invented a new word — “victory.” This is how Volodymyr Yermolenko explains it: “Victory means to be able to do way more. Much more than your enemy and yourself.”



At the Liv Book Forum, the focus also turned toward the Crimean Peninsula. Discussions revolved around the problems of restoring the language, literature and history of its indigenous peoples, as well as its reintegration into the Ukrainian discourse. At one of these events, the already classic anthology of works about Crimea, “Crimean Fig/Qirim inciri. Küreş”, was presented. The new edition of the anthology bears the subtitle “Küreş” — a Crimean Tatar sport that means “fight.” The term not only reflects the struggle for existence, but also highlights a particularly reverent and important part of this collection: literature written from behind bars. It includes three authors who are now the political prisoners of Russia: the first deputy chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people Nariman Dzhelal, citizen journalist Server Mustafayev and activist Asan Akhtem.


Alim Aliev, Deputy Director of the Ukrainian Institute, journalist, human rights activist, researcher and manager of educational and cultural projects, read an excerpt from the text sent by Server Mustafayev:


“You can imprison all activists, ban journalism, recognize everyone as extremists, terrorists and so on. But lies, falsification and tyranny will never be able to throw the truth into the shadows, deceive common sense and break the true faith.”


The words of Server Mustafayev might be the best summary of this discussion:


“To break a finger is easy, but to break a fist is impossible.”



There were also active discussions in the framework of the festival. One of them happened between the audience and the speakers at the end of the panel conversation “War as the collapse of civilization: Can there be happiness after war?” with Vakhtang Kebuladze, Anne Applebaum, Tetyana Oharkova, Slavenka Drakulić and Maksym Yakovlyev. Ukrainian journalist and blogger Yana Brenzey asked Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić if she blurred the line between the good and the evil in her book “War Is The Same Everywhere” when comparing the loss of a son in the war to a Ukrainian and a Russian mother.


In her response, Drakulić suggested that the reader “a little bit misunderstood what was written.”


“I was not trying to show their experiences as equal. I was talking about the way they both lost their sons. This is just the result — both women lost their sons. And this is the key thing in this story. I also disagree with you that the mother of a Russian soldier, accused of war crimes, could have influenced his attitude, his actions or even his decision to go to the army. I would not put the blame on his mother. In this story, the emphasis is on the mother whose son dies. And this is what puts them in the same situation,” Drakulić said.



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Minutes of silence

The main venue was overcrowded. Bathed in the blue glow of the spotlights, Tetyana Teren, Executive Director of PEN Ukraine, read a poem by Victoria Amelina, who was killed in July by a Russian missile strike on Kramatorsk.


“For me, this is the first event dedicated to Victoria, and it is very painful — to be here and to be her voice today.” Teren expressed.


Following the reading, the speakers led a minute of silence to commemorate Amelina. Such solemn moments were a reoccuring theme during the festival. Another minute of silence observed on the second day in memory of the victims of Hroza village tragedy in the Kharkiv region, which claimed 55 lives.


Several events were dedicated to the artists who died during the full-scale invasion on the last day of the literary festival. Recalling the dead Ukrainian cultural figures, Tetyana Teren noted that since the beginning of the full scale invasion, Russia killed more than 70 artists.


Among those deceased cultural figures is Volodymyr Vakulenko, Ukrainian poet, children’s writer, who was also involved in volunteer work and activity, and whose diary was found by Victoria Amelina. To honor his memory, the speakers read his poems on stage.


Investigative journaliust and documentary filmmaker Kateryna Lykhohliadspoke about her investigation into Vakulenko’s death during the presentation of his diary.


“We have completed the investigation so far by finding witnesses, the place and how the children’s writer was murdered,” she said. “And I am sorry that the end of my investigation was like this,” she added.


In conclusion, the speakers read out the lines written by Vakulenko. Some of them chose to read his poems for children, others read the text by Victoria Amelina for this book.


“The city will be liberated, the village will be liberated, and there will be victory. In the meantime, I remain in my underground, waiting for the inevitable destruction of the occupier,” read Radoslava Kabachiy, Cultural Initiatives Manager at International Renaissance Foundation.


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Vivat publishing house notes that this book was among the top sellers at Lviv Book Forum.



Book fair

There were two large stands with explanations of what to do when an air raid alert was announced in front of the entrance to one of the festival’s locations. They also had the addresses of the nearest shelters on them.


“We will hand out instructions with maps to the nearest shelters, which we have agreed with at the entrance to the fair. We encourage participants and visitors to go down in case of an air raid alert. And for our part, we are trying to provide everything possible, but we really hope that each of the participants will be personally responsible and follow our requests,” says Sofia Cheliak, program director of the Book Forum.



This year’s book fair featured about 50 publishing houses, a decrease from the approximately 300 publishers who attended in previous years. Cheliak said that they decided to try to place the book fair venue outdoors. She says that this is an opportunity to scale up and develop this format of the fair.


A large shelter right next to the entrance has a stand with books on the Russian-Ukrainian war. Hlib Malych, director of the Syaivo Knyhy bookstore, says that this stand contains about 400 books on military topics. These are the books written by the military, journalists and volunteers.


Publishers said this year people were more interested in books on military topics, buying chronologies of events and literature written by soldiers about their experiences. There were also boxes of books near this stand. You could bring books from your library or buy something at the book fair and send it to the military. During the two days of the fair, two boxes of such books were collected.



Many festival’s events were dedicated to children’s literature and how to talk to children about the war. They took place in the Lviv Regional Library for Children. At one of the events, Tanya Stus, Ukrainian writer, literary critic and art manager, read from her book “Secret Stories of Small and Great Victories”.



The book approaches the topic from a different lens, aiming to explain many things to her young readers. For example, she writes about an “anxious backpack” as something that supports and helps a child. And the sound of an air raid alert in her books warns of danger, which makes it more useful than scary. Stus advises to talk to children about war in maximum contact with the child and be sure to monitor their reaction. After all, children have different experiences and levels of sensitivity.


The Night of Poetry and Music event has already become a tradition, and this year it turned into an entire evening. This event was held in the Lower Hall of the Lviv Puppet Theater. There were many visitors, and it was not that easy to get closer to the stage. Iryna Tsilyk, Kateryna Kalytko, Halyna Kruk, Ostap Slyvynsky, Svitlana Povalyaeva and others recited their poetry. The musical part of the evening was performed by the “Pyrih i Batih” band and the poetry group “Landschaft.”



The 30th anniversary BookForum was held without air raid alerts and with a frenetic rhythm. An ancient defense structure, the Gunpowder Tower, became the epicenter of the literary festival’s events. Book presentations, discussions and literary talks took place around it at other locations. Neither war, nor rain could prevent this literary festival from taking place.


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We thank Diana Horban and Kateryna Drobyna for helping to create this material


Chytomo spotlights:Ukrainian culture on and after frontline” project. The project is funded by the Stabilisation Fund for Culture and Education of the German Federal Foreign Office
and the Goethe-Institut.