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Victoria Amelina: No words are needed after a tragedy, all words slide into a whirlpool14.05.2023
What should a writer do when a shell hits her language? How can writers talk about the war without glorifying tragedy? Why is it important for Ukrainians not only to win, but also to restore justice and fairness? What should be conveyed to foreigners now, and when will the de-occupation of the future become possible? All this was discussed with Victoria Amelina, a writer and founder of the New York Literary Festival in Donetsk region. The conversation was part of a special project by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, Words and Bullets.
– Before the full-scale invasion, you wrote only prose. Now poetry has appeared. Is it easier for you to express yourself now?
– After February 24, struggled with communication; I forgot simple words, names of objects, and for the first time in my life I confused languages, although I had never spoken surzhyk before (a blend of Ukrainian and Russian languages). It was as if one language was attacking another in my head. I was even afraid to give my first interview after the full-scale invasion began.
Poetry started to appear when I wanted to say something but was unable to write a prose text or a trivial Facebook post. I’ve long had a theory that writing fiction is not so much about a special skill as it is about a special inability, the inability to express oneself directly like other people. That’s how poetry showed up when I forgot how to express myself even in prose. After all, I have a poem that explains all this: that it’s not really poetry, it’s just a shell that hit my language. The fragments of language are like poetry.
Writing fiction feels pointless now. There’s no need to invent anything when reality surpasses literature in intensity. Words have taken on new meanings. That’s why the few poems I’ve written since the beginning of the invasion don’t contain any metaphors, pretentiousness, or attempts to impress. There is straightforwardness, plain meanings, snippets of information. I call it “Obvious things that were written down in a column during the war”. By no means do I plan to publish the collection, but if I did, I would honestly name it that. So far, I’m only planning to publish an art book based on my poem “A Story to Return”. Through illustrations, I hope this poem will be read and understood by the children it’s about. I won’t disclose the publisher or the illustrator yet, as it’s still underway.
Basically, I tried to jot down and post these poems with dates, thinking that later on these notes might come in handy, help me remember something. Now I’m working on a kind of English-language diary, and these notes are really like beacons for me, because it’s not always possible to record everything in a diary, sometimes Facebook is more convenient for that.
Although, to be honest, I try not to read Facebook now, and I don’t really post there. Facebook was created not as a space for conversation, but as a platform for self-presentation. When people there try to talk to each other, there are always conflicts and misunderstandings, not to mention the spread of disinformation or harassment. For example, yesterday’s situation with not quite appropriate memes about watermelons and posts about how we have almost taken Kherson. When you have, for example, a sister in Kherson, you don’t know how to react to it properly. It seems the best thing to do is not to react at all.
Any advocacy of Ukraine’s interests is more likely to be possible on Twitter. Actually, I’ve recently started an English-language page there. But again, I’m not trying to communicate with anyone specific, I’m just sharing some thoughts, very simple ones. It’s terrible to cite yourself, of course, but I once said: “The real world is as complex as a long novel, not as simple as a tweet.” Social media is always about simplification. Sharing slogans is not about communication. It’s like posting your thoughts on billboards along the highway and believing that this is how you communicate with those who are driving by in their cars. On Twitter, there are fewer misunderstandings because the tweets are short enough that people don’t read them all the way through before they start arguing. Yet another thing is that it’s a war, and there is no time for quality communication.
– So now you mostly have “slogans” on Twitter, and sometimes poems on Facebook. However, the diary is your full-fledged prose. Tell us more about it.
– It’s a sort of documentary detective story about the seeking of justice by Ukrainian civil society, a diary about documenting Russian war crimes, advocating for international justice, and working with survivors and witnesses. From one side, it’s just a war diary, but from the other side, it contains not only my story but also the stories of people who have done or are doing important work in this area (documenting Russian crimes and advocating for justice).
I am trying to create a diary that through people’s stories and through my own, too, would reflect the situation on the front of proving Russian international crimes. There is a word “justice” in English. The working title of my diary is “The War and Justice Diary.” In Ukrainian there are two words: ‘справедливість’ (justice as fairness) and ‘правосуддя’ (justice as a state activity carried out by the court), and this is a difference that gives food for thought. We have often had cases where justice and fairness did not coincide. Yet, in order to build the country we’re dreaming of after the victory, we need to reach the point where these two concepts would be the closest to each other, in terms of their meaning. On the other hand, now, of course, everything is decided far from the courts. Back in August, in Kharkiv, I spoke with lawyer and human rights activist Yevhenia Zakrevska, who is now continuing her fight for justice not in court but on the battlefield.
If we win, but are not able to prove the war crimes and punish the guilty ones, this story won’t be over. There are people working towards this far-off justice. On the other hand, for this justice to be reached in the future, other people are fighting at the frontline right now. And if these people lose, there won’t be any justice.
But they will win, they are already winning. The price of the future victory is so high that we have to somehow cope with the courts and public opinion about the essence of the Russian empire. By the way, I don’t want to call it a federation. What federation? It is a fiction that, for example, Buryatia or Tatarstan really have any voice as republics within the federation.
– Why have you decided to write this text in English? Are you consciously focusing on a foreign audience?
– To be honest, it’s just hard for me to write in Ukrainian now. I only manage to do it in English, because English has always been the language I use to write in difficult times. When you write in a foreign language, you get a certain distance away. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just started writing this story in a notebook in English at some point.
Literature, on the other hand, is always about communication. With yourself, the universe, humanity, God, or other people. Of course, when I write in English, I automatically explain more about Ukraine, its history, and its culture than I would explain in Ukrainian. Although my mother now teaches history to children who moved to Lviv from Kharkiv, and they discover many new and interesting facts. Perhaps some Ukrainians were just unlucky enough to know who they are, and they also need to be explained everything like foreigners. In this case, the hope is more in teachers like my mother, not in books. That’s why I’ve long dreamed of becoming an advisor to some competent minister of education.
– It’s still ahead. What about the book: do you think you will finish and publish it before the war is over? Or should it still be a kind of complete story?
– On the one hand, it is important to understand how it all is going to end. But I have no idea when the war will end. Because our war with Russia has been dragging on for centuries, with occasional breaks. Yet, my motivation is to keep documenting this fight for justice. The story of the fight on the battlefield will be better told by the veterans. And I wanted to record the less visible and less popular side of this fight — to talk about those who, since 2014, have been gathering the proofs of Russian involvement and Russian war crimes (now we can surely say that those were even crimes against humanity) and those working, sometimes hopelessly, for the idea of justice.
Because it is also a war of values. It is a fight of democracy against an authoritarian regime. It is a war for the rule of law. Putin is trying to prove that all international institutions and international law do not matter and what matters is power. So, we have not only to defeat Russia, but to restore faith in international law.
If Europe becomes a territory where people don’t believe in the rule of law, why would we join it? If we don’t restore justice now, the Western world will change, too. If Europe swallows the fact that the crimes against humanity might go unpunished, this will irrevocably change Europe itself. And no matter how bold it sounds, we have to protect Europe, not only on the battlefield but also in terms of its values: if European institutions don’t work and cannot break the cycle of an aggressor’s impunity, then Ukraine has to help change these institutions and redefine international law. The lawyers that got their degree in Lviv, such as Raphael Lemkin (Polish and American legal scholar of Jewish origin, founder of genocide studies, who carried out scientific research and first introduced the word “genocide” as a legal concept) and Hersch Lauterpacht (Austrian and English lawyer of Jewish origin, specialist in international law) once did it.
– In your column about the Holodomor and the Holocaust for The Irish Times, you wrote that Eastern Europe is one big haunted house, and your hometown, Lviv, is located right in the middle of this “bloody land”. It seems that after this war, the center of this bloody land has every chance of shifting to the east and south. What should we do with these new ghosts?
– I would not try to determine the center of the “bloody lands.” The Holodomor took place where the current fighting is, but the Holocaust had a different geography. But everything is connected. I was born in Lviv, but my whole family is from the lands that survived the Holodomor. And it is better to look for the center of the future than the center of the suffering of the past. You know, on the main square of Kharkiv, Independence Square, there is an ad that apparently dates back to the days before February 24: “Live in the center of the future.” I noticed this poster in June and thought that this slogan now reads totally differently. It used to be just about selling some real estate, but now it really means the center of the future.
To deal with ghosts, you need to turn on the light. The truth needs to be understood, the criminals punished or at least named out loud, the victims honored, and their memory immortalized. This is crucial work that we haven’t had the opportunity to do for a long time in relation to our previous tragedies.
– Last year at this time at the Lviv Book Forum you were talking about the concept of home. What is home for you now?
Currently, I live in Kyiv, this is my home. But I spent almost a week in Kharkiv, at the Kharkiv Literary Residency, at the Slovo House. I also had a sense of home there, thanks in particular to Tetiana Pylypchuk, the director of the Kharkiv Literary Museum, and other volunteers from the Kharkiv Volunteer Association “Dobrochynets”. I really didn’t want to leave there, it seemed like it was my home too. Now I am appealed by this visual image when a map of Ukraine is drawn in place of the letter “o” in the word “home”. Because in fact, all of Ukraine is home. It seems to me that this is a very important symbol.
On the other hand, Europe is also home. When people ask me what Europe means to me, I don’t hesitate to define it as home. When the war started, I was vacationing in Egypt. Our flight was scheduled for the morning of February 24. Of course, we were not going anymore. Then I was able to buy tickets to Prague. And when we landed there, I burst into tears and told my son: “We are home.” He said: “But this is not Ukraine.” I replied: “This is Europe.” Then I left my ten-year-old son in Poland and continued my journey to Ukraine. Because without Ukraine there will be no Europe. There is no home without our victory, nowhere.
– You once said that after winning you would give up writing and go back to IT. Was it a spontaneous thought or did you really consider it?
– That “I’ll go to IT” probably meant “I don’t know what to say after everything that happened to us.” And it’s really still hard for me to write in Ukrainian, I don’t know what I can say to a Ukrainian reader. What can a writer say to a woman whose husband was tortured and shot? For example, the verdict of the court against the Russian war criminal Vadim Shyshymarin, I think, brought relief to Kateryna Shelipova, whose husband was killed by Shyshymarin. In such situations, I usually sit silently next to people. No words are needed after a tragedy, all words slide into a whirlpool. Perhaps it is justice that is needed in such moments. But this is not definite either. The answer to this question – whether we need justice and what it means – is what I am currently trying to figure out in my diary.
Novels are about comprehension. And I still think that it is possible to wake up and realize that we have only dreamed about all this horror.
Here I sit and talk for hours with a man who survived in Mariupol. Day after day, we analyze everything that happened to him. It’s easy to take all this – and someone will, I’m sure – and turn it into a novel. But I don’t feel that I have the right to do that yet. The point is not that this man has to write himself. He won’t write, and I could. The point is that the story is not over. It’s like painting flowers on burnt-out cars – it’s not acceptable. What is acceptable is to comprehend the stories of the people who died in those cars, the real stories, and try to capture them. But I don’t believe it’s right to paint over someone else’s death with your own images. However, perhaps I take all of this too seriously, which is why I still don’t have a “novel about the war,” like many others.
Therefore, now I have suddenly started writing a feature report. It seems that I have no right to do anything else but help and record.
– Actually, I was just going to talk to you about this: what should writers and journalists who write about this war do? How do they balance their attempts to document and not hype: on emotions, sensitive topics, human traumas, and tragedies?
– I have no answer to this question. I need a pause so that I can write or speak consciously later. On the other hand, journalists have a completely different task. It is very important to show everything to the world in real time. Otherwise, we will not be provided with weapons, sanctions will not be toughened. That’s why I travel around Europe to give speeches or join international online events.
Times are tough for Ukrainian journalists. There are Serhiy Horbatenko and Anastasia Volkova, journalists from Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who did not leave their jobs in February. And there are many others like them. I write about some journalists in my diary.
Before the full-scale invasion began, I was writing a novel, by the way: about a writer who comes to a town on the demarcation line, ostensibly to take away a person she cares about. But the reader can’t really understand whether she really came to evacuate this person or just wants to write about this town. I mean, even before the great war, I was very concerned about this question: where is this line?
In this novel, I have a dialog about the famous photograph by Kevin Carter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for artistic photography in 1994 and then committed suicide. And this writer of mine cannot admit to herself whether she is really just helping people or whether she needs all this as material. For me, on the one hand, it’s a terrible story. On the other hand, this is a profession that probably requires more cynicism than, for example, the profession of a doctor.
I recently spoke with a journalist who, for example, did not take pictures of people under the bridge in Irpin, but simply used her car to evacuate and took several families out. So, this is also a choice. On the other hand, what Chernov and Maloletka did – their photos from the Mariupol maternity hospital – changed the course of the war. Because in fact, now a photographer doesn’t have to choose between taking pictures or intervening. In today’s digital world, by taking pictures, he also intervenes. That’s why this is a very complicated topic.
– In addition to writing and volunteering, you are also fighting on the information front, telling about what is happening in Ukraine abroad. In October, you will take part in the Arts and Human Rights Festival in Dublin. What is important for you to deliver to Europeans now, in the seventh month of the full-scale war? And are they even willing and ready to continue listening to us?
– The Irish want to hear us. I think they understand us very well. What I will talk about in October will depend on the situation at the front, in Ukraine. If we need weapons, I will talk about them. Most likely, this will be the case. It is also important to talk about punishing the criminals, about an international tribunal, about this story of justice. And, of course, we will talk about Ukrainian culture. I think that the Irish are interested in hearing not only about the war in Ukraine, but also about Ukrainians as a community: with their own history, language, and culture. Therefore, I will also talk about what is happening to Ukrainian culture during the war, about the events that are taking place here, despite all the danger.
I always like to say to foreigners: “Stay with us long-term.” Because at the beginning of the full-scale war, there was a lot of support, but it was scary that it would end soon. To be honest, we really have disappeared from TV screens in many places. That’s why we need to keep talking about Ukraine. And sometimes we need to substitute ourselves for the news that is becoming less and less in prime time. We want the world to stay with us until we win, no matter how long this war lasts.
– At the New York Festival, you planned to talk about the De-occupation of the Future. When will it be possible now?
– We wanted to talk to adults about long-term strategies and to children about big dreams. The village of New York lived under the threat of invasion for many years, and children grew up listening to the sounds of shelling. It was a situation of uncertainty that lasted for years. We wanted to learn to see the future, despite the constant threat from Russia.
We were very focused on the local community and organized an essay contest for children. This year’s essay topic was also, of course, about the future. That is why we are not organizing the festival elsewhere this year because the community is scattered around the world. Some of the winners of last year’s contest are in Germany, some are in Great Britain, and some are staying in Ukraine, in safer areas. In New York, there are fallen defenders, including the families of our team. This is no time for a festival in such a situation.
Now the de-occupation of the future is possible when my son can finally come to the cemetery in New York where his great-grandparents are buried without risking getting hit by a mine or coming under fire. When we can put flowers at the memorial to New Yorkers and all those who defended New York from Russian invaders. And then we will start dreaming and planning a great future.
Words and Bullets is the special project by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined the army or started volunteering when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapon used by the heroes and heroines of the project before Feb. 24, which they were forced to take up after the outbreak of a full-scale war with Russia. The special project is being implemented with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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