The Work of Serhiy Zhadan and the War in Ukraine

Serhiy Zhadan has emerged as a leading literary figure in contemporary war-torn Ukraine. His writing reflects struggles with identity including ethnicity, language, and political allegiance that are faced by the citizens of a nation under attack. Serhiy Zhadan’s books feature characters affected by the war in Donbas, the region of Ukraine where he grew up. These books include the poetry collections Book of Quotations and Why I’m Not on Social Media and the novels Voroshilovgrad and Orphanage. They contain profiles of people who, among other characteristics, navigate territory, both physical landscape and linguistic.

Readers can identify with the struggles of his characters and find reflections of themselves in his poetry. So many of his poems tell stories. His emotional poem “Search,” about a woman who has lost her brother to the war, from the collection Why I’m Not on Social Media is an example.

“She wrote, they were all caught in one round of fire.

Then some of them returned –

to recover the dead. Or rather what was left

of them. The legs were the biggest problem. Everybody

needs two legs. That’s how they assembled them –

so each had two legs. It was best – if they were both

about the same size.”

In the same poem when the woman comes away with hurt fingers after trying to play her deceased brother’s guitar, readers can relate to her sadness in the loss of a loved one.

The decision of an individual to stay or leave the country is dealt with in his work. In his new book of criticism Serhiy Zhadan Black Romantic Ivan Dzyuba begins with Zhadan’s first collection of poetry Book of Quotations. He speaks of “escape as an act of conscious, fateful choice.” In Zhadan’s later work, the characters make the choice to escape the war rather than to stay and face violence and an uncertain future.

The decision of an individual to stay or leave the country is dealt with in his work.

In a SoHo event that featured an interview between Keith Gessen of N + 1 and Serhiy Zhadan, Gessen asked Zhadan how he decides whether to write a novel or write a poem. Zhadan said that if the character’s story is revealed to him, he will write a novel, but if it is only a glimpse at the character’s life, he finds it more appropriate for a poem.

In the interview, Zhadan read from his book Why I’m Not on Social Media, translated into English by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps in What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems (forthcoming from Yale University Press 2018.) He read a profile of Anton, who someone said “was shot at a roadblock, / one morning weapon in hand, somehow accidentally.” He also read “Death is frightening, it scares you,” from the poem “Rhinoceros.” He is a dynamic reader and attracts crowds of over a thousand in Ukraine, a number that is almost unheard of for poetry readings in the United States. Mesopotamia, a book of translations of Zhadan’s prose by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, will also be released in 2018 by Yale University Press.

The Landscape Influences the Characters’ Identities

Landscape is equally prominent in Zhadan’s poetry. The poems in Why I’m Not on Social Media often take place in cities, where the landscape influences the characters’ identities. There is the tattoo artist, the Adventist, and the blogger. Landscape and politics play an important role in Zhadan’s novel Voroshilovgrad (Deep Vellum Publishing 2016). The novel achieved popularity and was translated into English by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. Gessen called it one of the best novels of the post-Soviet landscape. In the novel, the protagonist Herman goes on a quest to find his brother who has disappeared and in doing so journeys through Ukraine’s landscape and his memories, piecing together an identity for himself.

Landscape is equally prominent in Zhadan’s poetry. The poems in Why I’m Not on Social Media often take place in cities, where the landscape influences the characters’ identities

Zhadan explained that he knew the character of Herman could fill a novel. Herman’s character and quest create a plot so strong that when Zhadan was working with the translators he was able to draw a map of the route that Herman took through Ukraine in search of his brother.

Isaac Wheeler spoke to me about the creation of Herman’s character in Voroshilovgrad during the process of translation. He said: “The genius of Voroshilovgrad lies in how the reader experiences this evolution not through Herman’s internal monologue, which is mostly used to define his starting point, but through the landscape itself […] Herman’s evolution has something in common with Zhadan’s political thought, his emphasis on the responsibilities that come with being a citizen. Zhadan once said, ‘Many people who had never taken their citizenship, their status as citizens seriously before they suddenly realized that they have a Ukrainian passport and are citizens of this country. They have their country and its independence.’” (Deutsche Welle interview, Oct 2, 2014)

A Subject of Debate and Conflict in Contemporary Ukraine

Language has been an issue in Ukraine for centuries and continues to be a subject of debate and conflict in contemporary Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian are independent languages, but they share similar grammatical structure. If you understand either Ukrainian or Russian, it is not a given that you understand the other. Rather than navigate separate linguistic territories, in some regions of Ukraine a mixture of both is spoken. Zhadan himself lives in Kharkiv, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine, but writes in Ukrainian.

The novel Orphanage that was released this year can be described as a Ukrainian version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as Pasha goes on a journey to a boarding school to pick up his nephew. Afterwards, they move through the war-torn region, encountering people pushed together in basement hideaways. In Orphanage, characters navigate linguistic territory. There are Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots.

Zhadan’s work can be read as literature that stands separate from the political situation because of its masterful writing, but it can also be read with the society that inspired it in mind.

Yara Arts Group has a long history of working with Zhadan. In 2017, they staged 1917/2017: Tychyna, Zhadan, and the Dogs at La MaMa in New York. In the performance, Zhadan’s poetry was compared to Pavlo Tychyna’s poetry written during the war in Ukraine after the communist revolution and Zhadan and his band the Dogs performed poetry about the current war. The poetry was meant to incite audience members into action. “Know your rights!” Zhadan raised his fist.

Zhadan’s work can be read as literature that stands separate from the political situation because of its masterful writing, but it can also be read with the society that inspired it in mind. His characters struggle in a hostile and violent landscape to search for, understand, and define their Ukrainian identities.

Olena Jennings

Olena Jennings’s collection of poetry Songs from an Apartment was released in January by Underground Books. Her translations of poetry from Ukrainian can be found in Chelsea, Poetry International, and Wolf. She has published fiction in Joyland, Pioneertown, and Projectti-le. She completed her MFA in writing at Columbia and her MA focusing in Ukrainian literature at the University of Alberta.

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