Writing about War, Writing in Wartime

Ukraine in Focus

The sorts of stories that feel most pressing to be told may well evolve. In the journal East/West, Uilleam Blacker points to one throughline in the rich Ukrainian literature about the war in the Donbas in the years after 2014: its parapolemic approach, concentrating on stories adjacent to but still outside the ongoing armed conflict itself. “[F]ocusing on the ‘backstage’ of war and eschewing direct representation of violence allows writers to explore otherwise marginalized, and highly complex, dimensions of wartime experience” and “provides a way of reflecting both on the ethics of representing war and the of self-other relationships that arise in wartime.” With the full-scale war directly impacting and involving more people in Ukraine, including writers themselves, to what degree will this exploration of war’s outskirts persist?

Natalka Vorozhbyt wrote the play Take the Rubbish out, Sasha in 2014, as the war in the Donbas was just beginning; when an English translation of the play was published this summer, Vorozhbyt reflected on the caesura wrought by Russia’s full-scale invasion: “Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you. For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’”

Language is changing in several ways. As Zhadan observed in the IWMpost, “War truly changes the intonation and stylistics of speech. It brackets many phrases that were used completely naturally and reasonably before the war.”

Stanislav Aseyev told interviewer Kate Tsurkan in 2021 in the Los Angeles Review of Books that his experience of captivity and torture by Russian forces in the Donbas fundamentally transformed his writing style: “If you take the novel The Melchior Elephant and the memoir The Torture Camp on Paradise Street about my time in captivity, you wouldn’t believe that they were written by the same person. The style is radically different: after my captivity and torture, I began writing very succinctly and precisely, in small sentences with maximum meaning, without any abstractions, as if writing a military report. What I produced before my captivity was the exact opposite. Perhaps the interrogations I was subjected to taught me this: in that type of situation, you don’t often find yourself straying from the point.”

Just as style might be affected by the experience of war, so can words take on new meanings. Ostap Slyvynsky has been working on a Dictionary of War, which captures the experiences of Ukrainians displaced to Lviv through vignettes presented as definitions. Excerpts can be read in Document (in English) – from the abstract (beauty, freedom, silence) to the metaphorical (star, Tetris) to the piercingly concrete (cocoa, trash). Slyvynsky was also profiled in FAZ (in German).

For Volodymyr Rafeyenko, as he writes for Lithub, the Russian attack on Ukraine has led not only to a shift in vocabulary, but has pushed him to completely change the language of his writing, and indeed thinking, from Russian to Ukrainian. After 2014, Rafeyenko, a Donetsk native who had previously written in Russian, decided to become a bilingual writer, believing that he could counteract Russian propaganda by proving that the Ukrainian language is no threat to a Russian-language writer in Ukraine. But since the full-scale invasion, Rafeyenko has sworn off the Russian language: “It hurts me to even imagine that someone might now mistake me for a Russian writer based on my command of the Russian language. I’m done having anything to do with the discourse of Russian-language literature in the world. Enough of all that, effective from February of 2022 until the end of my days…”

As for form, what we have seen so far is shaped by our temporal proximity and the pace of the past months. Many authors have turned to short-form diaries and impressionistic memoirs: Andrii Krasniashchykh describes his experience of displacement from Kharkiv to his native Poltava for OpenDemocracy/Eurozine. Olena Styazhkina reflects on what it means to be displaced from the Donbas to Kyiv after 2014, only to come under Russian attack yet again, in Eurozine, Guernica, the London Review of Books, and CNN. Excerpts from Andrei Kurkov’s diary, soon to be published as Diary of an Invasion, can be read in The Guardian.

Styazhkina writes for PEN Ukraine (in Ukrainian) that it will take time before something more comprehensive and distanced can be written about the war: “The first normal book – by the time you gather good sources, make sense of them, let witnesses have their say, see processes from a distance…The first normal book about our war will appear around seven to ten years after Victory. Until then there will be piles of memoirs, oral history collections, photo albums, interviews. Until then the history of the war will be stretched between pain and political interests, the impossibility of speaking and the desire to make money off of a movie…Stretched like a mine. Or like a mine on a tripwire.”

Stiazhkina’s experience as a historian of the Ukrainian experience of the Second World War gives her great insight into the complexity and challenge of writing a human history of a large-scale war. While this sort of history, which seeks to make sense of the human experience of the war, will really only take shape years down the line, other historians are taking on the task of putting it in historical context. Serhii Plokhii’s forthcoming book The Russo-Ukrainian War examines the deeper causes of the invasion and analyzes the course of the war, while in Foreign Affairs Timothy Snyder places the war in a longer battle between democracy and nihilism.

Wherever Ukrainian literature goes from here, writers are playing a central role in recording the experience of war. The IWM is proud to be supporting many of these writers through Documenting Ukraine, as their work helps us all to grasp all that this war means.

For more reflections from Ukrainian writers and public intellectuals, including on the role of writing, check out PEN Ukraine’s Dialogues on War project, a series of discussions between Ukrainian PEN members and colleagues from around the world. Discussions between members of the IWM community include:

Kurkov and Philippe Sands, here

Oksana Forostyna and Marci Shore, here

Plokhii and Myroslav Marynovych, here

Slyvynsky and Olga Tokarczuk, here

Peter Pomerantsev and Volodymyr Yermolenko, here