"These days, I feel like America has given me a second breath": An Interview with Vasyl Makhno

Vasyl Makhno (born 1964) is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist, playwright and translator. He is the author of several poetry collections, including ‘38 віршів про Нью-Йорк’ (2004), ‘Cornelia Street Café’ (2007), ‘Я хочу бути джазом і рок-н-ролом’ (2013) and most recently Поет, океан і риба (2019). His 2015 book Дім у Бейтінґ Голлов (Eng. ‘The House in Baiting Hollow’) received the prestigious BBC Ukraine ‘Book of the Year’ Award and is currently being translated into English. He is also the recipient of Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry (2013). Makhno’s writing been translated from the Ukrainian into numerous languages, including English, Polish, Serbian and Romanian.

Artists from all over the world dream of living in New York City, if only for a short time - and Ukrainians are no exception. Makhno is one of many Ukrainian artists who have called this great metropolis home throughout the years. We met at the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the East Village to discuss life in America, his current literary projects, and the personal and cultural ties he maintains to his home country.

You’ve lived in New York for almost two decades now. So, what were your first impressions of America?

Every Ukrainian artist of my generation is interested in discovering the world, because we lived and grew up in the Soviet Union, where we didn’t have many opportunities to travel. It was a very closed society. 

I don’t really understand American life. America is a beautiful country, New York is a beautiful city... but I don’t know how to describe “simple life” here. I first arrived to New York on September 11th, 2000. My first apartment was in Brooklyn - in Sunset Park, to be precise. I remember looking around, and noticing so many people from all over the world. I thought to myself: “Where is America?” I didn’t know what America was.

In the past two decades, my point of view has changed in regards to literature, to Ukraine, to America, to myself... it’s natural, because during our lives, we have new challenges, new experiences. We create a new identity for ourselves. It’s a very interesting situation when you move to a new country. You must be stronger. You learn how to do everything again, like a child. You must retake your first steps. If you don’t have any artistic ambition and want to move abroad–why not? But, if you are a writer, it is different. You struggle with language, with space - especially urban space - and with yourself. You think, ok, what can I do? The acclimation process took me probably two or three years. These days, I feel like America has given me a second breath.

When you say “I don’t know what America is”, though, isn’t that the perfect definition of this country? Here, anyone can be anything - that void is precisely the American dream. Whether or not it’s a good thing... 

America is a large and diverse enough country that I see nothing strange in the fact that it’s impossible to comprehend. I’ve traveled a fair amount in this country. I’ve been to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Savannah, Chicago, Austin, I’ve traveled through the states of New York, Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. Yet I’ve always caught myself thinking that I was encountering some other America in the novels of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, a different one in the books of Jack Kerouac, and an entirely different one in the works of immigrant writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer or Reinaldo Arenas. And it’s this incredible plurality and variety, in my opinion, that is alluring and not immediately graspable. One time, on our way back from a literary reading, the Romanian author Norman Manea and I were chatting. In response to Norman’s “So what are we doing in this mad country?” I found myself at a loss. When I say that I don’t know what America is, it’s rather a metaphor and a reference to the sense of otherness of this country and its culture. 

How do you get any writing done in New York City? Isn’t there a sensory overload, with all of the people, the traffic, everything?

New York is great for writing, because it is a very unique and specific urban space. Why? I don’t know - is it the location? The history? It’s the capitol of the world. A couple of decades ago, Paris or Berlin played this role. Today, only New York plays this role. I was born in Chortkiv, a very small city in Western Ukraine. I grew up in Kryvyi Rih, Ternopil, and now... I live in New York. Sometimes I ask myself, how is it possible? And why me? 

Actually, I lucked out with where I settled down in America. Sometimes I think to myself, what if I had chosen Chicago, Philadelphia, or some other provincial New Jersey town—what then? Would I have written 38 Poems about New York, or stories and essays that feature New York? Though lately New York as a theme has gradually become secondary in my writings. Maybe I’ve become oversaturated? Maybe that sensory acuteness is no longer there, those visual and intellectual irritants? I don’t know. I’m coming back more to Ukrainian themes and topoi in my poems and prose now, but in my essay writing I continue to be drawn to the cultural heterogeneity of the world, an example of which is my last essay about Mongolia, published in the journal Krytyka.

What about the literary culture of New York City? Do you think Americans are as in love with literature as Ukrainians?

Literature doesn’t play the role it did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Internet, mass media have stolen readers from quality literature. Many people prefer to take their smart phone and read some article instead. I recall the anecdote about a German publisher who said that today, if they received the manuscript for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude they would ask themselves “How can I publish this?” because most readers prefer pop literature. It’s a worldwide situation, not only in America or in Ukraine. It’s especially a problem for poetry. If thirty to forty people show up to a poetry event in New York City, it’s considered a success. Anything more, in our present time, is a kind of surrealism. 

To say that Americans like literature wouldn’t be the entire truth. Because some of them aren’t interested in literature. It’s the same in Ukraine. An interest in literature or art is observable first and foremost in the intellectual circles of each society. In America, that’s the academic community, whereas in Ukraine, it’s the youth and artistic spheres. Naturally, in the New York subway you’ll find people reading The New Yorker or the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Arundhati Roy, but they primarily read the pop novels of Nora Roberts, who wrote 225 books. Has simplification touched literature? That’s how it’s always been. At least a reader has options. 

You travel often back to Ukraine, but how has your relationship to your home country changed in the past twenty years? 

Every day I read news articles online, keep in touch with what’s happening back in the country. My perspective on current events is different, of course, because I no longer live in Ukraine. I see the positive side of Ukrainian contemporary life, but I also see its asymmetry. Many Ukrainians now have the opportunity to travel more freely, and to see a better standard of living firsthand. They come back to Ukraine and they, too, take note of this asymmetry. It’s very important for understanding the political and cultural process inside of Ukraine. Our Soviet background is breaking our society today, if we consider problems like corruption. In these circumstances, you might think sometimes: “How is there an explosion of art? of youth movements?” After the Revolution of Dignity, we thought that the country would improve more quickly. Of course, it is not so simple. We understand that there is a war. The political situation is not clear. But without that, if you speak with people in younger generations or go out onto the street and see everyday life, you see that Ukraine is step by step moving toward a more stable economy and a normal future.

One of your translators is American. Serhiy Zhadan and Andriy Lyubka are also translated by Americans. What does it say about Ukrainian literature that so many foreigners are interested in learning such a difficult language?

Only 3% of the American book market includes all translated literature, so that’s even less for Ukrainian literature. It’s not an easy prospect for us. I think that after the Revolution of Dignity, it’s not that western readers began asking themselves “What is the latest book in Ukrainian literature?” No, it’s that they know about Ukraine, and they want to learn more about the culture. They discovered a very specific world in Central Europe, a country with a very hard history, especially the history of the twentieth century. Granted, every national literature has its own specificities - but literature is a good way to connect people from very different backgrounds. It helps us to understand the psychology, the history, the national character of another nation. Everything has the potential to become universal. 

We have to acknowledge however that Ukrainian literature is not a top priority for the western reader. For Americans, it’s not necessarily any different from Albanian or Czech literature. For them it’s the same. But I think, really, after the Revolution of Dignity and the war with Russia that it can change. They see our battle, our struggle, which is uniquely our own. 

What about the Ukrainian diaspora here in New York? Don’t they have an obligation to promote Ukrainian culture, not just for themselves in closed circles? 

If we think back to when Vasyl Stus was in prison, members of the Ukrainian diaspora in America translated his poetry to English and published it. It wasn’t published in Farrar, Straus and Giroux of course, but still - it was published! It’s a long process. Bohdan Boychuk, a member of the New York school here in New York had a close relationship with Stanley Kunitz, and it was he who told Stanley about Ivan Drach. He organized the translation and published it in a very good publishing house. Every year, every decade the Ukrainian diaspora makes another small step toward promoting our culture abroad. They support Ukrainian writers, musicians, painters who come to America - truly, they play an important role in making possibility a reality. America, New York especially, is the perfect place for this. I think that together, Americans who love Ukraine, and people from the Ukrainian diaspora - together, we can take Ukrainian culture and put it on a higher level of recognition in the world.

You keep using this word ‘explosion’ in reference to contemporary Ukrainian literature. So, do you have many favorite writers today?

Not many, no. A lot of our authors are writing only from the perspective of inside Ukraine, and it’s too localized. I don’t read many Ukrainian authors right now. It’s not that I reject them, no - but if you have an experience like mine, and are my age, you see everything in a more critical way. You must consider other literature scenes, other people, other writers. In Ukrainian literature right now, pop literature dominates. We have many criminal novels, feminist texts, historical dramas, etc. It’s a huge market. If I were to ask you “What was the best novel published this year?” There would be only one or two possible responses. What is the problem? The quality of literature, for the future of the Ukrainian literary process, is very important. Good prose must have very specific components, and the language used by the author must be sophisticated. There must be a certain flexibility to it, which I don’t see a lot of in our contemporary literature. The use of this word ‘explosion’, which I mentioned, is in reference to the number of books which are published each year. Readers and critics will later consider the worth of these books in the context of three circles: in the context of Ukrainian literature, European literature, and world literature. These three circles must ultimately go together. 

What can you tell me about the New York Group of Ukrainian writers? Who else is there?

The New York Group of Poets is a peculiar and unique phenomenon in the history of Ukrainian literature. Recently Bohdan Rubchak passed away, more than a year ago—Bohdan Boychuk… The group now belongs to history, and their works have been subjected to the test of time. History “ensured” that during World War II Rubchak, Boychuk, Tarnawsky, Andriievska, Vovk, Vasylkivska, Koverko, and Kolomyiets were teenagers. After arriving in America, they became part of the American intellectual world as a result of their American education, but they never cast aside Ukrainian as the language of their writings. But could they have? Yes, of course. It was some sort of strange persistence. I completely understand Singer, who wrote in Yiddish, or Manea, who writes in Romanian—both immigrated well into adulthood. Their relationship with the language was already well-established. It would have been difficult to change something. But the poets of the New York Group could have easily switched to English or German. They made some attempts, but in history they will remain known as Ukrainian authors. They printed their books, published journals, and organized debates from the 1950s through the 1980s, all while in virtual isolation because Soviet Ukraine didn’t recognize them and the diaspora didn’t always accept their modernist radicalism. Things have changed somewhat since independence, though post-Soviet Ukrainian society isn’t always open to the acceptance of achievements attainted outside the boundaries of Ukraine. The greatest value of the New York Group, in my opinion, lies in the broadening of the possibilities of artistic language and themes. Naturally, the contribution of each of this group’s participants differed, but in its entirety this group will have a marked influence on the future aesthetic experimentation of Ukrainian literature.

If life in New York is less and less the focus of your writing, could you tell me a little bit about your current literary project? 

My current literary project is a non-fiction work titled  Along the Ocean by Bike. This book is a combination of autobiographical elements; memories of my family, my travels, and observations on Ukrainian, European, and American cultures. Growing up in both the Western and Eastern parts of Ukraine granted me a panoramic view of Ukraine itself.  My father was born on historical Ukrainian grounds that now remain Polish territories. The family was deported after the Yalta Conference decisions, when my father was only five. Migrating was a ‘family tradition.’ In my writing, I portray history, family myths, and my experience as a writer in America. Secondly, the main character in my writing is my bike. This metaphor is eternally moving. In addition to the present, epochs and echoes of many voices appear in my story. I travel along my memory where I meet writers, cultural figures, and ordinary people. This book will include one hundred chapters of my point of view on history, my family cases, literature, culture, and places I've visited. 


Interviewed by Caitlyn Garcia
Photographed by Yaroslav Masliuk

Caitlyn Garcia