“Literature supports us, in a way”: An Interview with Andriy Lyubka
Andriy Lyubka is a Ukrainian novelist, poet, translator and essayist whose work has already been translated into several languages. We met for our interview during the Meridian Czernowitz literature festival, which took place from 7-9 September. He arrived in Chernivtsi on the second night of the festival for the parade of poets, which featured writers not only from Ukraine but from Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Israel. It was an unusually cold summer night to sit in the open-air theater of Shevchenko Park, but as Andriy walked onstage the crowd enthusiastically cheered him on. During the festival, the city of Chernivtsi somehow becomes even more alive, as people from all over Ukraine and the world come together to celebrate achievements in literature. I met with Andriy before the presentation of his latest book, “Your Gaze, Chu-Chu San”. A translation of his first novel, “Carbide” will be released by Jantar Publishing next year.
You are not only a writer, but a translator. How did you come to begin translating novels into Ukrainian? How does translation influence your writing, if at all?
Well, I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first short story when I was six years-old. It was about a magical quill, and everything written with it became a reality. You know, it was a really hard time for people in Ukraine during the nineteen-nineties. My family was very poor. It was impossible for me to travel or to have a nice childhood. My way of escaping from these circumstances was to read. I would read Fenimore Cooper or Jules Verne, and I traveled with them. When I finished reading these books, I always felt compelled to try and continue the story.
I learned other languages when I was already an adult. In a way, I learn languages in order to read more. Then I discovered that it would also be nice to translate some of these novels. Translation, for me, is a form of fitness. You spend a lot of time with a dictionary. You try to find the best word as you think about some idiom that is basically impossible to translate. For me, it helps my writing. When you write, you usually don’t have a dictionary at your side. Your language is your own. When you translate, you’re more careful with language. I think that translation has made my vocabulary more rich.
How do you choose to translate one book over another?
I choose to translate a book if I like it, and I think that it will also be interesting for Ukrainian readers. I don’t always succeed. For example, I translated this masterpiece from Svetislav Basara called The Cyclist Conspiracy. It is a classic work of postmodernism. Usually, when we think about the Balkans and postmodernity we think about Milorad Pavić, but I think that Basara is better. He has a brilliant sense of humor.
It was quite hard for me to translate. The book is long, and it plays with different styles. What I saw after we published it was that people didn’t understand it. They focused too much on the plot, but it is a masterpiece in regards to the architecture of the text.
Your novel Carbide (published in 2015) is a satirical novel about Tys, a man from Transcarpathia who wants to build a tunnel that will smuggle all forty million plus Ukrainians into Europe. Could you elaborate on this notion of the border between Ukraine and the rest of Europe?
Before the Enlightenment, there was a different perception of the East. It was more positive. They regarded the East as very powerful—and dangerous, yes—but powerful. Since the Enlightenment—and Voltaire’s Candide is one of the best examples of this—the stereotype became extremely negative. The East is “violent”, “barbaric”. I think that the border between Ukraine and the European Union is based on this stereotype. We just received the visa-free regime, but before that, some dealmakers in Brussels probably thought “We don’t want to open our borders to Ukrainians because they are violent. It is dangerous for us to invite them into our cities.” So, if you understand that the border between Ukraine and the European Union was built on this stereotype, you can say that Carbide digs the tunnel under Candide’s wall!
That is also why it’s important on the level of vocabulary. When you read it in Ukrainian, I put a lot of effort into selecting words from that epoch. In Ukrainian, it sounds almost a little bit absurdist. I use a lot of words from the Ukrainian classic Eneïda—it is the beginning of Ukrainian literature, and it is very funny. The Ukrainian reader can easily recognize these words.
I thought about Voltaire’s Candide when I first saw the title, and of course you reference him directly later on in the book. Probably you’ve also read the Bulgarian scholar Maria Todorova’s book Imagining the Balkans, in which she constructs this notion of “balkanism” around Edward Said’s “orientalism”.
So, you noticed this! My second education is in Balkan studies. Maria Todorova’s book is one of the first I read during my studies, and Carbide is really the product of my education. In Ukraine, I think we have three regions connected with the Balkans—Bukovina, Transcarpathia, and Bessarabia. You can find some similarities even in our cuisine, and in Transcarpathian dialects we have a lot of words that are similar to Croatian or Serbian. We also drink slivovitz, our traditional alcohol in Transcarpathia, and prepare it at home... Transcarpathia is, in a way, “Balkanic”.
As an American living in Ukraine, it seems to me that what’s happening here in terms of literature hasn’t happened in a country like France or the United States in quite a long time. This is a historic moment for Ukrainian literature, unlike in many other countries, where literature has become so commercialized.
Yes, but we also have this shadow of commercialization in Ukraine. The biggest bookstore here is Книгарня "Є", and every week they publish their list of the top-twenty books. I read it, and on this list will be books about how to build a business as successful as Starbucks, how to master public speaking, and so on. As for me, these kinds of books are meaningless.
The governments of other countries—Sweden, for example—invest huge sums of money to promote reading. If people read more, it is a form of fitness for their intellect. If you read a lot beginning from childhood, you might grow up to be a scientist, an inventor. In order to create something, you have to step out from the ordinary. When you’re only reading these books on how to create a successful business—really, are you kidding me? If you want to succeed in business, you also have to read the classic, long novels. It helps you to understand the psychology of people, and their hidden motivations.
Unfortunately, the Western news media rarely focuses on Ukraine these days. Do you think that Ukrainian literature can somehow play an important role in diplomacy, as it becomes more and more translated to English and to other languages?
Yes and no. A lot of conferences have already been organized all over the world about Ukraine, and they invite Ukrainians to help them understand what is happening in the country. The same thing happened after the Orange Revolution, by the way. A lot of literature anthologies were published, and people realized, “Oh, such a country exists! Where is it? What is it? Who are the people living there?” When the war started, everyone was interested in Ukraine, but now it is not on the front page of newspapers. Of course, literature is still very important. When you read Ukrainian literature in translation, probably you can understand our mentality better, our circumstances, and so on.
A lot of people say “I’m not interested in politics” but I think that culture, and literature included, is also very political…and sometimes, it can be dangerous. Genocides in the last century were committed on the basis of culture, and the perception of one country being more civilized than the other. I think that is why we Ukrainians—and the government—have to promote our country and our culture all over the world because, you know, after people discover that Ukraine exists, that the Ukrainian language exists, that we are not Russians—this is the first step. Russia tries to promote the misconception that our language is some kind of dialect, and that we are not people. So, it is very important on the geopolitical level to promote Ukrainian culture—people will understand that we are not violent fascists.
It is more in our interest, and not in the interest of foreign readers, that people will discover Ukrainian literature. Ukrainian writers are being published in some very important but marginal publishing houses in the English-speaking world. It is very unfortunate. These books are read mostly by university students, but it is not a huge audience. If you are not familiar with writers like Yuri Andrukhovych or Serhiy Zhadan, it is impossible to just walk into a bookstore and randomly discover their work.
You travel quite often to participate in literature festivals and writers residencies. How would you describe the modern Ukrainian reader, as opposed to readers from other countries?
Just yesterday, I returned from a festival in Slovenia. What is really different between Ukraine and Slovenia—or any other European country—is that Ukrainian people have a huge interest in literature. I was at the biggest literature festival in Slovenia, and world-famous writers participated—but in the audience there was usually no more than twenty or so people. You have the impression that readers in Slovenia are not interested in such events, and the same, for example, in a country like Germany. In Ukraine you have this feeling that something very important is happening. A lot of young people come. The Swiss writer Pedro Lenz once told me that when he saw Ukrainian audiences, this fresh energy, he thought: “In the next life, I would like to be born as a Ukrainian poet”.
I think that if we succeed in reforming the country, in ten years life will become quite normal, salaries will be higher, and people will be happier—but we will lose readers. In a way, poverty is very existential. When your circumstances in life are not good, you think a lot about the meaning of things. Now, in this time of war, we are living on the edge. That is why I think people are interested in literature, because it supports us, in a way. Literature helps you understand yourself better. You have to hurry—you have to hurry, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I will probably miss this feeling someday.
As a writer, it is also a time of very important changes. I think that Ukraine’s Hemingway is fighting, right now, in the trenches. In ten years, we will see some masterpieces. I am waiting to read them.
Interviewed by Caitlyn Garcia (in English)
Photographed by Volodymyr Gutsul