The Riveting Interview with OKSANA ZABUZHKO, Part 2
Interviewed by Rosie Goldsmith, Director of the European Literature Network at an online event hosted by the Ukrainian Institute London on the occasion of the English-language publication of her story collection Your Ad Could Go Here, published by Amazon Crossing (May 2020), translated from the Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn, Askold Melnyczuk, Nina Murray, Marko Carynnyk and Marta Horban
RG: The story ‘Album for Gustav’ in this new collection is a brilliant illustration of how you integrate the ideas of Ukraine’s long collective memory and history with the perception of Westerners, people like me coming to Ukraine, for example during the Orange Revolution, and seeing things ‘our way’. In this story the Ukrainians help us to see things from their point of view. So my question is, how do we see Ukraine incorrectly in the West? How should we see Ukraine?
OZ: I don’t think I am authorized to give advice.
RG: But from your stories, it is quite clear you do feel this passionately. You are trying to show us your long history, not in a dogmatic way, but pointing out that Ukraine is not a new country that has just been born.
OZ: In this sense, yes, absolutely. You don’t need to be a writer to do this – it’s kind of commonplace now for every Ukrainian going west to explain these things: “we are an old culture, a nation with a thousand-year-old history” – and so on and so forth. But it is a pain in the neck. It might seem exotic to the British that every time we introduce ourselves to you we need to educate you and serve up a concise history of Ukraine and explain where Ukraine is – although much less now thank God after nearly 30 years of independence. But there are other things, on a more profound level, where you would hope for better intercultural dialogue, especially today when we are all in the same boat in this crazy world of ours, where we are all shaking and facing challenges together. What really pisses me off, if I may use this expression in public, is how much of Ukraine’s dramatic experience of the past 30 years remains unexamined and ignored both by the Ukrainians themselves and by the rest of the world – even though I believe our experience and how we’ve dealt with the challenges could help and serve all of humanity. I hope I don’t sound too bombastic, but even if you think about the current lockdown, for all of my Western friends it’s a big shock, a challenge you haven’t faced since World War 2, and so on and so forth. While for me, it is something I and we experienced already in 1986 after the Chernobyl catastrophe. In May 1986, Kyiv was on kind of an improvised lockdown. We were not going out onto the streets for obvious reasons. We were incarcerated, so to speak, with closed windows in our houses, with images of this empty city. It was an apocalyptic vision, this sense of the world rapidly and dramatically changing and never the same again. This experience should have been shared with other cultures.
RG: I do want to talk to you about the actual writing process, because we should never forget that in addition to all the ideas you describe, you are the most magical writer. There is another writer I want to compare you with too, another of my favourite writers, Kate Atkinson. Her very first novel also had ‘museum’ in the title, Behind The Scenes At The Museum. The words tumbled out of her with these long wonderful winding sentences full of humour, love and lyricism – like yours. I think you must just love the process of writing?
OZ: Absolutely! I am notorious for my long sentences!
RG: I’d say there’s definitely an ‘Oksana Zabuzhko sentence’!
OZ: Absolutely, how did you know that? (both laugh) It is the term now. In Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian media – a ‘Zabuzhko sentence’ can be a two-page-long sentence with digressions, brackets, and all kinds of things … but that it is the way I talk and write and what I appreciate in other people’s writing: I love digression!
RG: And you write in Ukrainian, not in Russian, and I know that’s really important …
OZ: I don’t write in Russian. Ukrainian is my native language and the tradition in which I grew up. Actually Russian was my third language, second is Polish.
Please do not forget that I grew up in the Soviet Union, and our entire education system was heavily russified in the ‘80s when I was studying so I still can write in Russian and Polish, but not fiction. I‘ve even occasionally written some essays in English, but I always have to look things up!
RG: Oksana, tonight, virtually we are visiting you in your home in Kyiv. How you are coping with this situation at the moment, the pandemic, the lockdown? You spoke earlier about having experienced lockdown before, during Chernobyl in 1986, but this is different. Is this a creative time for you as it is for some writers? How would you describe your life at the moment?
OZ: I can’t say it has changed much. Writers work from home. I am very comfortable working from home, so it is more or less like it used to be. Minus social life, of course, minus some important things in my schedule, like touring with this new book Your Ad Could Go Here. I was booked for a three-week tour of the United States from Boston to California. All that vanished in a moment. I feel really sorry about it, because it was so meticulously planned by the publisher and organizers and everyone. It’s like a big enterprise, you know when authors go on tour. I love having those real living connections with people, but now here we are talking to each other through a screen, to each other’s images on the screen, not in person. It’s kind of gory, if you think about it.
RG: I’m sure that you’ll write a short story about it!
OZ: One day I might!
End of Part 2 of the Riveting Interview with Oksana Zabuzhko.
You can read Part 1 here.
You can watch the whole interview here.