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How Ukrainian writers have experienced the war in Ukraine

Kate Tsurkan, a Ukraine-based writer and translator, recommends Ukrainian-language authors who are influenced by their first-hand experience with conflict and war in Ukraine

Telling the story of Russia’s eight-year-long armed aggression in Ukraine by writers in Ukraine has gained renewed urgency. After war started in Ukraine, Ukrainian authors enlisted in the territorial defense forces or began volunteering to help refugees. But translators and literary agents also mobilized to amplify Ukrainian writing.

TAULT, a non-profit literary agency and translation house, works with dozens of prominent Ukrainian authors and translators to spread Ukrainian contemporary literature in the English-speaking world. When Russia invaded last month, TAULT launched a project to publish essays and dispatches translated from Ukrainian.

I asked Kate Tsurkan, a translator, editor and the associate director at TAULT, for her recommendations of first-person accounts written by Ukrainian writers to better understand the war. Here are the five books available as English translations that she recommended.

1. “Absolute Zero” by Artem Chekh. Translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyn.

Kate Tsurkan: “He is a writer but he joined the army in 2015 and this book is based off of a post that he started writing on Facebook during the war, and he transformed it into a book afterwards.

There’s a very funny episode where in his military barracks, they adopt a kitten who has cerebral palsy and they fight over who will cuddle with the cat until he starts pissing in all of their sleeping bags and causing havoc for them. But he also has horrible stories like one when a husband tells his wife the things that they see on the front lines and she dies from a heart attack. It’s filled with very interesting standalone anecdotes that portray the banality and the grotesque horror of war and how it affects not only soldiers, but people who are trying to get updates from back home. Chekh actually went back. He enlisted. He is on the frontlines again right now, unfortunately.”

Glagoslav Publications B.V, July 2020.

2. “Mondegreen” by Volodymyr Rafeenko. Translated by Mark Andryczyk.

“When we are talking about first-person perspectives or memoir, I think we have to expand our perception and understanding of that because a lot of writers use their personal experiences to explore the world through fiction, for example. Volodymyr Rafeenko is from Donetsk. He was an internally displaced person when the war started.

It’s very autobiographical, or an autofiction, we could say, because this is a book about a man from Donetsk who gets displaced because of the war and ends up in Kyiv, much like Rafeenko himself. The text is very visceral. It’s interwoven with not only his memories of Donetsk before the war, but of his ancestors who had to deal with Russian aggression. And it deals on a large level with language, because this is the first novel that Volodymyr Rafeenko wrote in Ukrainian. Prior to that, he wrote several novels in Russian. He starts to explore not only the isolation that one feels when you are forced to flee your home, but also the isolation one feels when you start to switch from one language to another. And along with that from one culture, one mentality, to another.” 

Harvard University Press, April 2022.

3. “Apricots of Donbas” by Lyuba Yakimchuk. Translated by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky & Svetlana Lavochkina.

“I think poetry can also be very autobiographical, in a sense. Yakimchuk is from Luhansk, and she became very famous for this poetry collection. It was released by Lost Horse Press to great acclaim. Yakimchuk’s poetry is very interesting because it deals with a very heavy topic about military combat, about death, war, violence, but she uses very feminine language, sometimes even rather childlike language, to offer this visceral look into war. She’s absolutely one of the greatest poets, I think, in Ukraine today.”

Lost Horse Press, September 2021.

4. “The Country Where Everyone’s Name is Fear” by Boris and Ludmila Khersonsky.

“This is a poetry selection that Ilya Kaminsky, the famous poet, edited and the Khersonsky couple really explore the ideas of propaganda, of relations between Ukraine and Russia, of this historical roots of the conflict and how the trauma from decades, even centuries ago still influences relations between Ukraine and Russia today. This is also an example where the autobiographical makes its way into poetry.” 

Lost Horse Press, April 2022.

5. “A New Orthography: Poems” by Serhiy Zhadan. Translated by John Hennessy & Ostap Kin.

“It’s from several of Zhadan’s recent collections, from several of his recent collections from Ukrainian. He’s exploring not just soldiers’ perspectives of the war, but that of grave diggers, priests. He has a really empathetic way of looking at the situation because he is from Luhansk himself.”

Lost Horse Press, March 2020.

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