“My literature has many sacred layers that even I cannot always decipher”: An Interview with Khrystia Vengryniuk

Khrystia Vengryniuk is a poet, novelist and painter from Chernivtsi. Her literature career first began at seventeen with the publication of the prose collection “Catharsis” (2005) and has continued since then, including the poetry collection “The Long Eyes” (2013) and the novel “The Farm America” (2013) which was featured on the long list of BBC Ukraine’s “Best Books of the Year”. Her most recent publications are the children’s book “The Legends of Chernivtsi” (2018) and the short story collection “To Live and Die in Shoes” (2018). In addition to her own artistic pursuits, Khrystia is the chief editor of the “Black Sheep” publishing house ("Чорні-вівці") which has published many original and innovative children’s books by Ukrainian and international authors in translation.

Over the course of several months we met to discuss the role that religion plays in both her literature and personal life. The backdrop of our first meeting was extraordinary, as Ukrainians received the historic news that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been granted autocephaly by Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This newfound independence from the Russian Orthodox Church was a much-needed victory in a war that continues into its fifth year, a war that extends beyond the battlefields of Donbas for the very soul of Ukraine.

What brought you to convert to Catholicism? 
In 2010-2011, I studied on a scholarship in Krakow. My dormitory was located near a Roman Catholic Church where I didn’t go even once because I would go to the Orthodox Church where Russian priests ruled. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the difference back then. I wouldn’t go to a Roman Catholic Church because I thought it was not mine, I didn’t have relation to it, it was alien, although in fact, it was so dear. I was searching...  in search of the Creator, the Truth, the one who created such a great grace for me to be Human, who gave me this life. Who filled me with joy and love, who gave me the path and purpose that I have. I didn’t want to be told, "Behold, God, Jesus, He created you." I needed a real acquaintance with the explanations and leading.

Later, after my return to Ukraine, my search was very different, including spiritual practices that were close to even Buddhism. But of course, I searched for Jesus because only He is God for me. He was leading me by the hand through my frustrations and defeats. The only spiritual shelter for me was the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate but I couldn’t find a spiritual mentor there for many years. And when there were too many words in my Heart and too much pain in my soul, I was standing in front of that same Roman Catholic Church in the very center of Krakow and just went to confession. Those were the best moments of my life. I sincerely felt His presence. The next day, I went to the Sanctuary of the Saint Sister Faustina and received extraordinary peace there. I never left the Catholic Church. For now, this is the best choice I've made in my life. 

What does it mean for you to be a Catholic in Ukraine? Would you say that Ukraine is a country of many religions, as it is  - because of its history - a country of many languages? 
Unfortunately, there are very few Catholics in Ukraine, a little more than Muslims, but Christianity is so similar that I can’t even describe much difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church. Of course, the same Bible, the Gospel, the Trinity, of course Jesus Christ is the Savior. The most important thing for me is that I have found spiritual mentors here. Now I have two days of St. Nicholas, two Christmas, two Resurrections and two religious holidays. I also observe all the Orthodox holidays with my family who respect my choice. Therefore, the hardest thing for me to do only is to explain people who send their work letters on December 24th that it is exactly the time when I don’t have anything to do with working issues because God is being born now.

What does the recent split with the Russian Orthodox Church mean for Ukraine? Do you think it's something that would have happened even if there was no war with Russia? 
This historical turn is extremely important and we can’t even imagine the full extent of it. We completely separated from the Russian regime. We know that the Russian Church is an extraordinary political and financial colossus and the fact that it is falling now is a miracle and I am happy that the world supports us in this. For me, the former Moscow Patriarchate is a horrible political sect. It generates hostility towards other denominations and religions and dictates whom to vote and pray for. I feel very sad that Russians have no choice for it is the utmost thing that shapes their opinions and views. The same happened in Ukraine. Parishioners of the Moscow Patriarchate didn’t support Maidan, they don’t think that Russia is an aggressor and that we have a war. Everything is simple – it's politics and money. But these days, an extraordinary historical turn has taken place. I never want us to return to past mistakes. And whoever remains pro-Russian in the head and heart, that one can be a parishioner of the Russian church, it is just that everything should be named clearly and honestly.

Is religion a public or private thing for you? Isn't being too public about your religion a bad thing? I think of the Orthodox priests in Russia who drive a Mercedes Benz, or the televangelists in America who live in mega mansions... 
For a long time, my practicing spirituality was my very private, intimate thing but the more I learned the Word of God and communicated with the Fathers, the more often I would come across the thought and confirmation that all of us who read the Gospel should be like the apostles and convey this spirituality to others. You should do it not obsessively, just tell what you know to help others. You should just be a friend.

Unfortunately, to be honest, such cases, although to a lesser extent, occurred even in the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. I am extremely frustrated with such things, so I’ve been searching for a long time to find my own place where there will be no such priest luxury and tithing. Yes, I know that the Bible talks about tithing but I'm sure that the Lord meant that you could give this to good deeds, to the poor, the needy, the wretched ones. And when it comes to paying a priest, in his pocket, for a rite of burial or prayer for a sick person, it seems to me that the Holy Scriptures don’t talk about it at all.

How do you reconcile the role of the writer with the role of God? Doesn't a writer also create life? How are they similar? How are they different?
To some extent, of course, yes, but it makes no real difference at all. The thing is that the author can influence the reader. Under the influence of one of my novellas, one reader didn’t have an abortion that she had planned,  as she wrote me later. So then, yes, we have some divine or, on the contrary, influence.

Yes, the question of influence has been an ongoing debate for decades with writers like Sartre and Bataille, specifically about the moral obligations of a text. Bataille believed in a “hyper-morality” of the text, where the writer must understand the depths of evil to communicate with the reader...
To be honest, I can't really comment on what the author should do because it varies a lot depending on where and when the writer lived. But I know what a writer definitely shouldn't do. The author has no right to impose, convince or teach. The author can express his opinion and lead his teammates and associates. Let’s recall the 60s-90s of the twentieth century in Ukraine, if the writers didn’t express themselves or call to follow, then the true Independence of Ukraine would have been built with even greater difficulties. Which in fact is still happening as we are still waging this fight, otherwise we might just be in the claws of the invader. In other words, it is not yet possible for Ukrainian literature to move the Author to Roland Barthes’s sphere of the "death of the Author," no matter how sympathetic I might be with his theory.

So, what influence does religion have over your writing? 
This had already begun with my very first writings. I created serious works from the age of 14 and it was back then when I had many spiritual messages but couldn’t yet define them because I knew very little. Spirituality helps me to create. It is great happiness and, at times, even a great challenge to have this gift but I know that I get a lot of information and ideas from the universe, especially when writing poetry. I still cannot understand how I was able to write my poetry collection “The Long Eyes,” for  these are entirely the Lord’s messages. My literature has many sacred layers that even I cannot always decipher. I don’t consider myself chosen in this. I just listened to the sky and heard it and it speaks to everyone.

It is in the texts that God for me is the arbiter in everything, even if He is not spoken about. Like in life, He is present everywhere. 

Do you believe that all literature comes from the Bible? 
Of course. Even our life. The life of each person is described in the Bible. 

How is each person’s life described in the Bible? 
The constant reading of the Bible opens up more and more to you; sometimes, you just fall into a stupor for how can it be that you haven’t seen that before. This Book is endless and the only one that you can and should read all your life. Thus, our existence has long been described in the Bible. It is even from the difficult relationship between the closest relatives to the animosity that the Lord shows in many stories. Take for example the story of Cain and Abel that also demonstrates the horrible principle of war when countries attack one another, multiplying hatred and sufferings and a brother kills his brother. Isn't Ukraine living through the same now?

Do we not at times betray the Lord and renounce him? Remember how Peter denied Jesus before the execution and how hard he suffered after what he did. Of course, Jesus forgave him because he forgives all who repent.

And let's remember “The Song of Songs.” Wasn't that love the most sincere, most passionate for us? Are we not seeking that kind of love once and for all of our lives? God knows us better than any psychologist, He speaks to us and wants the best for us but sometimes, we don't know how to accept it or we just don't want to accept it...

Have you always been religious?  
Yes, probably, all my life. In my childhood, I would write letters to God and I asked my grandmother to take me to the Night Christmas services. My parents say that hardly had I learned to speak when the questions of life, death and God were of interest to me as if I were an adult. When a classmate died in an elementary school, that was an extraordinary shock for me and I was even deeper trying to understand why the Lord acted that way.

And it never made you question your faith? I was very religious as a child, growing up in a typical Irish-Catholic family, and remember when my father died that it brought a crisis of faith which lasted for a long, long time...
Becoming enraged with God, doubting, getting angry, frustrated is probably one of my biggest fears. I am genuinely afraid of this because I will lose support, strength and the most precious things I have. If I lost our connection, being among my loved ones, I would feel very lonely. Sometimes, the questions arise, “Why? Why did that happen? Why did you let that happen?” and then, I try to understand and later notice that yes, in fact, it is better, just as the Lord commanded. It is just that sometimes, we are not capable of understanding this immediately because we are driven by despair and our selfishness regarding what we know how it should be like.

Is it the same for you, to believe in God as to have faith in God? 
No, it is not the same. We can say, “I love my parents but I never visit them, never call them.” Are they happy to have such a child who seems to accept them but doesn’t do anything to show any relation to them? A child who can receive gifts by mail for holidays but will never thank and will not say anything in return. We can all be called believers but God is waiting for our conversation with Him, whichever it would be, funny or sad. Our parents are our earthly parents and each of us has the Father and the Mother of Heaven.


Interviewed by Caitlyn Garcia
Translated from the Ukrainian by Dmytro Kyyan
Photographed by Volodymyr Hustsul

Caitlyn Garcia