Kate Tsurkan: Ukrainian authors can teach the west about bravery


You see an error in the text - select the fragment and press Ctrl + Enter

Kate Tsurkan – is a writer, editor, translator, and passionate promoter of Ukrainian literature. In 2017, she cofounded Apofenie Magazine, which primarily publishes literature in translation.

Born and raised in the US, she has been living in Ukraine for the last five years, and remains in Ukraine following the start of the invasion. With her help, readers of  The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, Vanity Fair, Harpers, and The New Yorker were introduced to Ukrainian literature and wartime dispatches. We talked with Kate about the promotion of Ukrainian voices worldwide and how Ukrainian literature changed her life.

Kate, you have been advocating Ukrainian culture long before the escalation of war. Could you tell more about your first attempts at writing about Ukrainian literature for a US audience? What were your main challenges?


A Bulgarian journalist once told me, “You’re so lucky you write about Ukraine! It’s much easier to get published.” Anyone working in the field of translation is facing an uphill battle, although some of us definitely have it better than others. I started Apofenie because I wanted to publish writing I didn’t see anywhere else. We launched the magazine in 2017, and although we’ve gained a lot of recognition, we still have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, some of that recognition came thanks to the help of Ukrainian editors in more prominent publications or editors who have some familiarity with Ukrainian literature, so I had the opportunity to reach larger audiences. My first publication outside of Apofenie was for The Los Angeles Review of Books – it was a review of Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide and Oleg Sentsov’s Life Went On Anyway. I find it very fitting because Lyubka was the first author I ever interviewed, and now, along with Daisy Gibbons, Sentsov will be the first author whose book I’ll have translated.


Before the start of the war, Ukrainian literature was interesting for foreign readers because of topics like Chornobyl or the overly-used “post-Soviet experience.” In other cases, it was just “exotic.” Today, the range of topics has significantly expanded for foreign readers. What is Ukrainian literature for you? What is it speaking about?


I would say that the field of Ukrainian literature in translation has yet to truly expand. It’s only now beginning. Foreign readers are more interested in Ukrainian literature these days, and that is true. But for many of them, this interest is still limited to the war or the other topics you referenced. They don’t yet look at Ukrainian literature in the same way they do as, say, American or French literature. And to a certain extent, that’s to be expected because American and French readers exist in different cultural contexts. Everything comes with time. Since the start of the invasion, I’ve been working with other translators to get more Ukrainian writers published in western magazines. We’ve done a pretty good job: Artem Chapeye was published in The New Yorker, Lyuba Yakimchuk in The New Statesman, Irena Karpa in Vanity Fair, Oleh Sentsov in Harpers, and several others in smaller yet nonetheless respectable publications.


A lot of these texts were war dispatches. But seven months have passed since the start of the invasion, and we need to capitalize on this moment by trying to get other texts published, too. While that joy I felt when I learned that Artem Chapeye would be the first Ukrainian author whose work would appear in the print edition of The New Yorker was momentous and something I’ll keep for the rest of my days, I want it to happen with such frequency that such news becomes normal for us. That has been a little more challenging, but my colleagues and I remain determined. Some high-profile editors (and writers!) support us in these efforts and are eagerly waiting to get their hands on the right short stories or poems. It just takes time and patience.


As for what Ukrainian literature speaks to overall…well, I don’t like to generalize. But as I said in a previous interview, I believe that the best word to describe the contemporary Ukrainian literature scene today is “healthy.”


There is no shortage of taboos in Ukrainian society, but that doesn’t stop writers from exploring them in their work. Lots of writers who formerly wrote in Russian are reconnecting with the Ukrainian language on an artistic level, which is no easy task. New books are constantly being written, even now, during all-out war. And, of course, writers get into plenty of disagreements. Even if there is some scandal surrounding an author or their work, though, it happens very organically. I believe such things are important because this is how the contemporary Ukrainian literary scene will continue to develop and flourish. 


Apofenie Magazine publishes Ukrainian authors alongside those from all over the world. How can Ukrainian literature help western readers better understand the literature of Central and Eastern Europe as a whole?


Due to the Russian invasion, Ukrainians are engaged in the fight for their lives. War is a thing of the distant past for the Czech Republic, Poland, and other Central European countries. For most of the world, actually. Yet Ukraine’s neighbors understand war – and Russian aggression – better than most. Their authors explore the reverberations of the horrors of the past two centuries. Ukrainians are bringing that vicious cycle to a close now. In terms of what Ukrainian authors can teach anyone, I suppose the best example would be bravery – just look at how many writers have enlisted in the Armed Forces or put their careers on hold to contribute to volunteer efforts. This applies to Ukrainians in general, though.

It will be even more exciting in the coming years to build upon this literary solidarity and establish Ukrainian writers alongside their counterparts in countries in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia… there are definitely connections to be found there. 


How do you choose books for reviews? 


There’s no magic formula. I just choose to write about what’s interesting to me. I often get sent books by publishers but I can’t possibly read and review them all on my own. It’s not possible! So my process of reading is the same whether I’m going to review a book or not: if I can’t make it past the first few pages without picking up my phone, then it’s not worth reading. Life is too short to suffer through mediocre books. I have written two negative book reviews, though. Sometimes you just have to do it.


Writing bad reviews is an artform. It’s not easy.


There are some writers in the US who became well-known for their negative book reviews and ended up getting book deals themselves. But the culture of public criticism in the US is very much purposefully contrarian and detached from empathy. I see it as an easy way out. It’s better to challenge yourself and try to acknowledge what the writer did well, even if you don’t like the book overall. 


Your review of Iuliia Mendel’s memoir was recently published in The Washington Post.  You took some issue with the book, but do you think it can help the visibility of Ukrainian voices in the west? 


Iuliia Mendel’s memoir capitalizes on President Zelensky’s surge in popularity and, unfortunately, distorts some moments from recent Ukrainian political history. In my review for The Washington Post, I mentioned how she criticized Poroshenko, who was no longer the president, for giving the New Year’s Eve speech on his formerly-owned television station. However, she doesn’t mention that Zelensky did the same thing on 1+1 when he announced his presidential candidacy. I’m an American and therefore have no say in Ukrainian politics, so I don’t play favorites here – I just think it’s important to state the facts as they are. From a purely literary standpoint, I believe that books written with an excess of superlatives and moral absolutes risk being lost to time. 


If the book does well, then it is entirely possible US publishers will be interested in more books from Ukrainian writers. I know of many discussions behind the scenes in smaller but respectable publishing houses. 


What are you reading right now?


I’ve nearly finished reading Korean author Bora Chung’s short story collection Cursed Bunny. It was translated into English by the indomitable Anton Hur and made the shortlist for the International Booker this year. The stories are written in the styles of magical realism and speculative fiction. They’re very thought-provoking and, at times, outright shocking. For example, the first story is called “The Head.” The protagonist is a girl who discovers a head made from her own waste in the toilet. It calls her “Mother” and follows her everywhere.


Of course, this story is about an unwanted pregnancy, it all makes sense, but while you’re reading, you want to throw up, and you’re getting anxious wondering how it will end. And the ending is absolutely wild – I loved it. The titular story “Cursed Bunny” is also unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I hope Korean literature will be translated more into Ukrainian because their contemporary scene, like Ukraine’s, is filled with many talented, diverse, and boundary-pushing writers. 


Your question makes me a little sad because I’ve just realized how few books I’ve picked up since February 24, though. I suspect I’m not the only one in such a predicament. I would love to spend an afternoon in a bookstore-cafe looking through and lovingly selecting several books to purchase. Unfortunately, people in Chernivtsi do not have a need for such places, so I guess I’ll have to plan a trip to Lviv or Kyiv instead.


Which books can you recommend as a “Ukrainian literature starter pack”?


For western readers, you mean? I made such a list for Literary Hub and am happy that many more books have been released since then. If I had the chance to expand upon it, I would definitely add Volodymyr Rafeyenko’s Mondegreen. It’s the first book I managed to read following the start of the Russian invasion; I did so in one sitting. There’s something to be said about how engaging a book is when a writer is well-read. It shows in their work. His personal experience with the war also adds a layer of poignancy to the progression of events. 


One of the main barriers for Ukrainian literature is translation is that we do not have enough English native-speakers to translate from Ukrainian. However, learning Ukrainian was not a problem for you. What would you advise to people willing to translate from Ukrainian? What is the way and how long does it take?


It sounds so obvious and straightforward, but immersion is the best path to mastering a language. My teacher doesn’t speak a word of English. At first, it was difficult, but now we have great conversations. Lately, we’ve been reading the poems of Mykhail Semenko together and talking about the Executed Renaissance. 


I wouldn’t say that Ukrainian wasn’t a problem for me, though. Languages have always perplexed me as much as they entice me. I studied Russian beforehand, and it’s still a challenge to keep the two languages separate in my brain when I speak. They say that when you learn more than one foreign language, you rely on the previous one as a point of reference. I also speak French and am in the process of completing my Ph.D. dissertation in French Literature at New York University. When I speak French, it seems that Ukrainian has no problem sneaking into my sentences. 


Despite living in Ukraine for several years now, I have little opportunity to actually speak Ukrainian. It must be said that Ukrainians are very kind to foreigners, unlike the French. I have an accent, so many people always try to switch to a language they think will be “easier” for me. For example, I once went to a pharmacy in Chernivtsi, and the pharmacist said, “You can speak Moldovan if it’s easier for you! I understand!” even though I had no problem getting my point across. When people discover I’m American, they get excited and want to practice their English with me. I understand them because it’s a rare opportunity to communicate with a native speaker. But I need to speak Ukrainian more! Thankfully, I have my teacher and my in-laws… Some of my friends in the literary sphere are starting to speak less with me in English, too. During this year’s Meridian Czernowitz, I spoke more Ukrainian than English with Bohdana Neborak, which was simply delightful. 


Many Ukrainian-to-English translators these days are not Ukrainians themselves, which speaks to the strength of Ukraine’s soft power. In such circumstances, I find collaborations with actual Ukrainians to be the most interesting: for me, that includes people like Yulia Lyubka, Dmytro Kyyan, and Ostap Kin.


Has Ukrainian literature brought any changes to your personal life? Can you name some, if it’s not too personal?


Many foreigners instantly assume I am Ukrainian based on my body of work. I take it as a great compliment. I’ve never wanted to be one of those expats who act like they know better because they’re from the west and eventually move home to regale their fellow westerners with tales of their so-called “adventures.” I’m an emigrant. It has always been vital for me to understand and promote Ukrainian perspectives because this is my home. My husband is Ukrainian, and our future children (God willing) will be little Ukrainians first – and Americans a very distant second – so it’s on me to embrace the language, history, culture, mentality, and so on. I believe that reading Ukrainian literature has helped a great deal in achieving this. 


Recently you attended Meridian Czernowitz and Book Forum. There was also a literary festival in Kharkiv. What was it like to be there and listen to book presentations in wartime, when air raid sirens could have gone off?


Thankfully, no air raid siren went off during Meridian Czernowitz or Book Forum. However, I was worried that it would happen during the latter when I woke up to the delightful news of the Crimean Bridge getting bombed. 

Roman Malinovski, Kate Tsurkan, Irena Karpa, Victoria Amelina, and Lyuba Yakymchuk at the literary symposium in Poland


This year’s Meridian Czernowitz was the best I’ve ever attended, and I say that not only as someone proud to call Chernivtsi her home. This year’s festival was also my most productive: I made fascinating interviews with Andriy Lyubka, Irena Karpa, and Igor Pomerantsev that are set to be published in Project Syndicate, TANK Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books in the coming weeks.​ The mood of Meridian can be best described as “cathartic”: we were all continuously embracing each other, crying tears of joy, and taking in the great literary discussions. I am very thankful to Evgenia Lopata, Slava Pomerantsev, and their team for pulling it off. It sends a clear message to the Russians and the entire world that Ukrainian culture will endure.


Book Forum was also an achievement, albeit with different sentiments. At least for me… but perhaps I am biased.


I understand that having a lot of western journalists there was a point of pride for Ukrainians. However, I would have appreciated seeing more discussions like the one between Yurko Prokhaso and Margaret Atwood; contextualizing Ukrainian writers in the greater context of world literature is essential.


Readers all over the world have different tastes, but can you match Ukrainian authors with their western counterparts?


I don’t like to compare authors. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I don’t see its point. These comparisons are always tied into marketing stunts and diminish the talents of the author you’re trying to get people interested in. I’ll give you an example: I’ve been trying to promote the work of Khrystia Vengryniuk to western editors. She’s an incredible writer, and there’s nobody like her in the English-speaking world; that I can say with absolute certainty. But because her work is quite different, it is difficult for them to embrace it.


I told one editor recently, “Reading her work is like if Paul Celan and Clarice Lispector had a baby.” These comparisons evoke a striking image of her as a writer. Still, I’ll be much happier when editors and publishers in the west don’t need them, western editors are willing to take chances, and the talents of Ukrainian writers can stand on their own.