In anticipation of next week’s 83rd PEN International Congress, hosted in Lviv, Ukraine, PEN America’s Manager of Free Expression Programs – Eurasia Polina Kovaleva spoke to Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov about the Ukrainian literary scene and the activities of the Ukrainian PEN Center. 

English Transcript

POLINA KOVALEVA: Andrey, thank you very much for agreeing to talk. We spoke with Mykola [Mykola Ryabchuk—the president of PEN Ukraine] about Ukraine’s PEN projects last year for our PEN World series. I wanted to ask you, what is your favorite project?

ANDREY KURKOV: I think my favorite project is not yet implemented. But it will be implemented because I want to tie PEN into a project about motions of the culture of public discussion in different regions of Ukraine, because without public discussion, one cannot have objective public opinion on different topics, and people stay passive during elections. So, they don’t even want to pose questions to the candidates for deputies of parliament during meetings, but just listen and decide. And this passive tradition is detrimental to the development of Ukraine, to its future.

KOVALEVA: Especially now.

KURKOV: Especially now, and I think it would be important for PEN to play its positive role here as well. Even though this project is more oriented toward readers and active people of all kinds, but at the same time it helps create a network of young writers who participate in this project—not only to create connections among them but also to teach them the important art of provoking public discussion, provoking a reaction to a certain judgment.

KOVALEVA: Critical thinking.

KURKOV: Critical thinking and the maintenance of subjectivity.

KOVALEVA: How do you see this? What steps have to be taken?

KURKOV: I have already done such projects, so far without PEN, with the budget coming from the Ministry of Culture, and before that with my own money, with my friends in publishing. The important thing here is to understand the difference in mentality of people from different regions of Ukraine, and to prove, first of all, to the representatives of different national minorities—of which we have more than 26—that they have the same right to vote, and their voice has to be heard, if not louder, because they have to play the same role in forming public opinion in Ukrainian society as everyone else.

KOVALEVA: You mentioned the Ministry of Culture. Could you please speak more about your partnership with them?

KURKOV: Our cooperation has a funny beginning. I always scolded them, and with good reason, and criticized them for a long while. And the former Minister of Culture who is now the Vice Prime Minister, Kyrylenko, he has his own television show. And once when I was giving another one of my talks against the Ministry of Culture, he invited me to his show, and I told him all my grievances during the live broadcast, including that the Ministry of Culture does not do anything toward social education. Because for me culture is not only the culture of dance, but everything from the culture of the mind to the culture of poetic art. All of this is still culture, so the Ministry of Culture is responsible for that as well. And I told him that just in a little while Bessarabia in Odessa Oblast [region] will be in the same situation as the Donbas because, for 25, the people there have not heard or seen the presence of the Ukrainian cultural context, Ukrainian informational space, have not felt the attention of the Ukrainian government. And in two weeks he called me, and said, “Well you said this, now do something about it. We are ready, we found money in our budget, the money is minimal, so those who are involved will not receive a salary, it is all volunteer work. But transportation will be arranged, food will be arranged, cheap hotels will be paid for.”

KOVALEVA: Great, so one has to give him credit.

KURKOV: Yes, he did a good job. So, I instantly saw how it should be done. I started taking five people on trips to the district center, to big villages, and we started with Bessarabia, which I was telling you about. Five young writers from different regions of Ukraine and five young writers from this region, from Bessarabia, and we had three trips with five people in each lasting three to four days with performances, discussions practically everywhere in Odessa Oblast (excluding the northern part), performances in Gagauz villages, in Bulgarian villages—the village populations are around 5,000 people—in Belgorod-Dnistrovsky, in Shabo, Reni, Izmail, so we covered almost everything. And it was a good experience; it was the first experience of public discussion for the young writers, so they finally understood how it should be done, and by the third or fourth day they were pros, and it was the first such experience [of public discussion] for the inhabitants of Bessarabia whom, it turned out that for 25 years, no one had visited or talked to. There had been no writers or anyone else. So, we arrived in the Bulgarian village of Shikirli-Kitay which is now officially called Suvorovo, though everyone calls it Shikirli-Kitay anyway, and they said we were the first non-locals who came to make a speech for them. There were interesting situations because it was like a boot camp for the young writers. In some cities, we were attacked by former communist poets who tried to monopolize the local literary scene and who accused us of being sent by the presidential administration to campaign for Poroshenko. Well, I did not find it hard to argue the opposite because it is just as easy for us to blame the presidential administration as anything else. But for the people who came to the meeting, it was their first time seeing an almost too aggressive dialogue, but the main thing is that it did not lead to a fight because any verbal argument is better than shooting with a rifle at the person with whom you disagree.

KOVALEVA: This is for sure!

KURKOV: We had similar accidents and experiences in Transcarpathia, in a region where most of the population are Ukrainian Hungarians, in two districts: Vinogradsky and Beregovo. And in Beregovo, almost at the Hungarian border, during a discussion, two women started shouting over us, accusing us from the back of the room. But they had different complaints, mostly toward the Ukrainian government. But the reason for the complaints was that they started receiving refugees, and they protested against these refugees, even though the women speaking were themselves not local Ukrainian Hungarians, but refugees who came before or immigrants from the south of Ukraine. And those refugees from Donetsk, as it turned out, were sitting in the room at the time and got scared of asking questions, but they approached us after the meeting, and we talked for a long time on the square in front of the local Palace of Culture and learned a lot of interesting things.

KOVALEVA: And these events, when did they take place?

KURKOV: Bessarabia took place in November–December 2015, in winter.

KOVALEVA: So, it was quite recent.

KURKOV: Yes. And Transcarpathia, April–May 2016. At the same time, we organized regional competitions for young writers and just for those who write essays and short prose. In every region, we chose finalists, organized master classes for them, and took some of the winners on our next trips. Right now, I am preparing a book, an anthology of finalists and other inhabitants of the two regions, a dialogue between Bessarabia and Transcarpathia, in several languages including Hungarian. By the way, the winner of our contest in Transcarpathia was a young woman by the name of […], a Hungarian who writes excellent novellas in Hungarian, and who works as a psychologist in a school for Roma children. And her book was translated at Uzhgorod University; there are good professors who helped with translating. This book will, of course, be in the anthology, and right now I want to do another small project of publishing a book of her novellas in Ukrainian translation. And in 25 years, it will have been the first book by a Ukrainian Hungarian to be translated into Ukrainian, because in Soviet times there were translations. Actually, the literary scene of Hungarian speakers is very rich. They publish their own journal in Ukraine. They constantly organize meetings in all the villages in two districts, which is a large territory. And they have more than 30 young writers and poets actively writing in Hungarian. This is unheard of even in Uzhgorod, because I took two writers from Uzhgorod on my trip, and they were shocked when they saw what was going on nearby, and that there lives, autonomously, a culture which is part of Ukrainian national culture, but which is not ethnically Ukrainian, so no one pays attention to it.

KOVALEVA: It is a very important dialogue in the context of minority voices.

KURKOV: Minorities and minority languages. Basically, that is my main topic. That does not mean that I ignore texts written in Ukrainian or Russian, but I want to continue, and my next region is Bukovyna, which is on the border with Romania, and there are many Romanian villages there. These are places where, not too long ago, people spoke Yiddish. Recently, the last representatives of that part of the Jewish population died. I am curious because there probably exists the same separation from reality there, as in Bessarabia … In Transcarpathia, one cannot say that there is a separation but there is a sense that no one pays attention to them. It is most offensive for people who live inside a country and carry a passport of the country in their pockets, but do not feel the country next to them, around them.

KOVALEVA: On the topic of the difficulties you face in your work with the Ukrainian PEN Center, I talked with Mykola about it in the last interview, and I know there are many [such difficulties], but what is most important to talk about in the current moment?

KURKOV: Well, I think we talked about this issue today at the session, and that is expansion of membership. The issue is that, in Ukrainian tradition, the age hierarchy of writers has always played too big of a role. Those who currently lead PEN Ukraine are over 50, some over 60. I would like to engage more young people to be not only members of PEN, but also its leaders. I think that will happen. But many young and not so young Ukrainian writers have this feeling that youth is bohemian, while the older generation is elitist and does not want to let young people by its side. This hierarchy has to be broken. I think we will break it sooner or later. We don’t have it during our discussions, or meetings, or leaders’ councils. But many young writers have the suspicion that the club is too elitist, that it won’t let them in anyway. So, we have to create a good smart marketing campaign to show that we are open, and the important thing for us is that the writer should possess the requisite moral qualities of PEN International, that they do not put us into a bad situation—sometimes there are collaborators among writers, there are always those who do not care about their own reputation. For us, the reputation of the PEN club always comes first. But we trust young writers, and by the way, young writers have almost totally taken upon themselves all the social and public work that young writers have always done in other countries. For us, Serhiy Zhadan is now the major cult-like face of Ukrainian literature, an example of how one should be socially and not politically engaged, and show that literature is not only books and reading, but a great influence through the writer on all other social processes.

KOVALEVA: He, Serhiy Zhadan, is called poet number one in Ukraine, and he is really very popular and famous. Do you think it is true that it is precisely in such difficult times for a country that new, young talents blossom?

KURKOV: I think we have not lived through the peak of our hardships. I think that those who have reached the horizon of social fame were young, but they were already famous, they were people with a reputation. Irena Karpa, Pavlo Korobchuk, Serhiy Zhadan, first and foremost … Tetyana Davydenko. Currently, a new Ukrainian literature is appearing out of these events, and in it there are a lot of new names. I do not know how much these people are involved in social processes, but I assume they are engaged at their own levels. There appeared, at times an excessively patriotic literature. For the first time in post-Soviet history there appeared a politically engaged literature because, considering Ukraine’s anarchical tradition, writers had always lived separately from the government after independence. The government did not react to them, and they did not react to social processes, to political callings, and wrote a kind of layman’s literature, a recreational literature rather than one that can provoke discussion. After the annexation of Crimea, after the Maidan, everything reversed. Nowadays, 80 percent of young authors write politically engaged literature, trying to touch upon very painful topics, the topics of refugees, immigrants, the topic of responsibility for the future, and it is here that new names appear. It will be interesting to see in two or three years, to what extent they establish themselves, in this employ, in Ukrainian literature.

KOVALEVA: How were you engaged in PEN?

KURKOV: How was I engaged? First of all, by publications, interviews, essays, commentaries, political and non-political, and taking part in decisions, one of which was the discussion with John Ralston Saul at a festival in Odessa because I was the initiator of the international festival in Odessa with two of my colleagues from Berlin and from Berne. And there, we set a good example of a high-quality literary festival, and the discussion generated great interest in Odessa, not only among the press, but also among 200 people who came to listen. For Odessa this is unprecedented because usually a maximum of 20 people came to literary events there. Traditionally, the Ukrainian PEN is connected with the Lviv forum—not only do members attend, but PEN is also present as a co-organizer.

KOVALEVA: To conclude our discussion, please tell us the great story of how you discovered that Mr. Hennessy is your great fan?

KURKOV: In 2005, I was invited to a book salon in Paris, where I had been to previously, to present my novel, The Last Lvov of the President. The main character is obviously the president of Ukraine, and then it was the president of the future, because I was talking about the person to be elected in 2011. And in the novel, he drinks a lot of Hennessy cognac, and when I was in Paris, I was given an invitation from Morris Hennessy to visit the city of Cognac, and they would show me the factory. I came, I met Morris Hennessy, and since then, I continue drinking his cognac, he continues reading my books. We last saw each other in 2015, again in the city of Cognac. One of the biggest literary festivals takes place in Cognac, the Festival of European Literatures, where one country member of the EU is always elected as an honorary member. In 2012, Ukraine, a non-EU member, was for the first time elected as an honorary member, and as a result, more than 30 libraries and media libraries of that region, Poitou-Charentes advertised Ukrainian authors, translated into French, and of course there were meetings across the region, and Ukrainian writers, critics, and publishers enjoyed the beauty and hospitality of France.

KOVALEVA: That is great. A wonderful story. Thank you very much Andrey. I think we will speak with you again and more than once about everything going on in Ukraine, but for now, thank you very much for participating.