Olga Kryazhich’s destroyed apartment. Photograph courtesy of Kryazhich.
I was almost done with a draft of my novel when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Amid the destruction and devastation that followed, continuing with my novel felt impossible; I turned toward journalism, which had always been a part-time job for me. For seven months, I have been working as a war correspondent in Ukraine. I have found that I can only read war reports: I am constantly turning to On the Front Line by Marie Colvin. I have wondered about the role of literature, especially in wartime: Are we simply supposed to let documentaries and daily news take over? Or do we find—and provide—an escape from the unbearable?
I began to ask other writers these questions and was surprised by the variability of their answers. Five Ukrainian writers from the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions—the areas devastated by the war—spoke to me about the genres they have been reading and writing during the war. In Kharkiv, a literature professor told me about his rare books being burned in the stove by the Russian military. He also told me about a Ukrainian officer seeking reading recommendations the day before being killed at the front. “I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over,” writes Serhiy Zhadan. On the other hand, says Lyuba Yakimchuk, “The task of poets is to put the unspeakable feelings in words.” Olga Kryaziach, whose apartment and books were also burned by the Russians, reads and writes on her iPad, taking notes for a different future.
I have started to become spatially disoriented because of the war. Once, as I was getting back to a rented apartment, I couldn’t figure out where I was or how I got there for hours. I lived in a Soviet project-style block of flats called khrushchyovka surrounded by identical buildings, and I couldn’t understand which one of those khrushchyovkaswas my home these days; I was shaking and I couldn’t breathe. In another one of my rented apartments, I was always hitting my head while entering. At home, I needed to turn left after entering, but in this new space I had to turn right.
Can I write? Yes and no. On the one hand, I prefer that my story and the stories of my loved ones are not told by others, like the Russian authors who started writing poems during the first weeks of the invasion. But I have been forcing myself to write rather than feeling an inner need; even short diary notes are incredibly tiring. I have also noticed that all my poems are about the inability to speak. This is true both on the thematic and architectonic levels, including pauses and a rather restricted range of ideas. The way I write now feels like a score of silence.
During the first months of the full-scale invasion, reading was similar to learning a new language. Not Ukrainian, Polish, or English, but language as is—as the ability to understand the meaning of particular words, to combine them, make phrases and sentences, to correlate what you’ve just read with your experience. Sometime in March I realized, with surprise, that if merely one word from a page of text aroused associations in my mind, then that was good. It meant I hadn’t unlearned how to think yet.
The only book that I have managed to read from the beginning to the end since February 24 is I Blame Auschwitz by Mikołaj Grynberg. Importantly, I read it in the original Polish. I have noticed that reading comes more easily in foreign languages now. It’s like I am tuning the radio of war to other frequencies.
I think that an epic work of literature will not come until after the war is over. For now, there is only enough space and time for direct reflections. Everything else—novels and poems—everything that requires continuity in time—will emerge later. But humor is a completely different matter. It seems to me that even under the circumstances, Ukrainians have no problems with their sense of humor or irony. I think it is evidence of the power of faith, and I am saying this as an agnostic.
I am rereading Bruno Schulz, strange as it may seem. I am reading him despite the fact that he didn’t write about war—but maybe that’s exactly why. I want to continue translating Paul Celan, and I think I will get to it after our victory. But I am not reading him now. For me, Celan’s poems always had an “afterwar” feeling to them. It is unlikely that they could be written in the thirties. During war, there are no poets or non-poets; there are those who are ready to fight and those who are not.
On February 25, I threw my documents into my backpack, grabbed my cat, and went to the house of my close friends. For almost three weeks, we spent time with our soldiers at the front—we cooked food and baked bread for Ukrainian warriors. We defended our city to the best of our ability. I never got back home after that. I left behind old icons and photographs and things. I wish I could have taken them, but instead I took my cat.
I can’t live without books either. I had a lot of books, my own library. But the Russians burned it down, along with the apartment. So now I have e-books on my old iPad. And that’s where I also keep the notes for my own books, for the future.
During the war, the short forms are best because we live on the run and in fragments. There is no time for the reading of novels. There is no relief in literature; the relief is in news: the Russian arsenals are being destroyed, and weapons are supplied to Ukraine. But memes, songs, and poems—all of these still work. These texts form a collective narrative.
So many people have lost their words because of the war. They say exactly this: there are no words to speak about this grief we have experienced. So the task of poets is to put the unspeakable feelings into words. Besides the words, poets also find form and rhythm, which help to insert a complex, powerful emotion into the text. And in this way, perhaps people start to gain the capacity to speak about their trauma, adopting the words and texts of others as their own. This helps them to process trauma. At least I hope that is the way it goes.
Any genre is suitable during the war. I’ve written poetry, satire, and fairy tales. Poetry: whether rhymed or not, you can say more than in prose. Satire: oh, it’s the best weapon for the war. And fairy tales are very healing. In them, you can describe the enemy, the time of occupation and war, but in a way that doesn’t hurt. My collection of fairy tales, Kazki pani Mishі, is a study of my personal military traumas. I write them online, on Facebook, and will publish them after the war. Both children and adults like them. People need to believe that someone strong will come to protect them and that it will be “just as the witch said.” I have seen stuff during the war that would be considered fantasy if I wrote about it. So let there be aliens.
I am writing a fantasy telling the story of the key keeper Malusha—in the city of Roden, which once was the capital of Ukraine—about the keys to the world that open everything: hell, heaven, souls, worlds. I don’t want to write about the war. About war—there should be only documentaries.
Zarina Zabrisky is an American journalist and novelist currently reporting on the war in Ukraine. Zabrisky is the author of three short-story collections and a novel, We, Monsters. Testimonies translated from the Russian and Ukrainian by Zarina Zabrisky and Marina Slobodianik.
Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, literary translator and a rock musician, the author of seven novels, including Voroshilovgrad, The Orphanage, and Big Mac. Iya Kiva is a poet, translator and journalist. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Father from Heaven, and The First Page of Winter. Olga Kryazhich is a Ukrainian writer and a scholar. Olena Stepova is a Ukrainian writer, blogger and journalist. Lyuba Yakimchuk is a Ukrainian poet, playwright and screenwriter, author of a poetry book Apricots of Donbas.
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