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Five of the Best Works of Belarusian Literature

recommended by Hanna Komar

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Writers have been subject to persecution and repression in Belarus, and increasingly so in the aftermath of the protests that swept the nation in 2020 and 2021. Owning or distributing books deemed 'extremist' by the Lukashenko government can be enough to land you in jail. Here, the poet and activist Hanna Komar selects five of the best works of Belarusian literature that offer a glimpse of the culture and mindset of this post-Soviet nation, and the bravery of those who continue to fight for political freedom.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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Thank you for agreeing to recommend five of the best works of Belarusian literature. To open, I wonder if you might give us a sense of how the contemporary literary scene currently functions; is it multilingual—in Belarusian and Russian? Does the Belarusian government impose a great deal of control over what books are published? I note that PEN Belarus was shut down by the authorities last year.

To be honest, I don’t even know what to start with. The last two years have felt like twenty, so much has changed—for the worse. When I became part of Belarusian literary scene in 2014 or 2015, it was a vibrant and exciting one: there were frequent book launches, discussions, readings, smaller events and bigger festivals. In 2020 our focus shifted to protest, and then the wave of repression gradually submerged almost the entire scene in Belarus.

Not only PEN Belarus was shut down by the authorities last year, it was one of the 240 non-profit organisations and associations liquidated in 2020-2021. 138 writers and people of the word have had their rights violated on political grounds, that is: detention, arrest, dismissal and other forms of persecution. Some of these writers are political prisoners. Independent publishers have been facing pressure: from their bank accounts being arrested and their directors interrogated, to closing down of their offices. Some books have been upheld as ‘extremist’ and for having them at home or distributing one can be jailed. Entire print runs or some mail packages with books have been confiscated. Publishers abstain from publishing work of political content for fear of even more repressions against them. Thus I haven’t been able to publish my poetry collection with several poems about the protests in 2020—and it doesn’t look that I will any time soon.

“The last two years have felt like twenty, so much has changed—for the worse”

To speak about Belarusian literature more generally, it is bilingual: in Belarusian and Russian. The last couple of years before 2020 there had been quite a lot of freedom to write, present and publish all kinds of work, and contemporary writing in the Belarusian language had been developing, with new names appearing. However, this literature was alternative to what the government promoted and supported—often work that was old-fashioned or not up-to-date, often reflective of the state ideology, often in Russian. That literature has been funded and promoted by the state, while we have always had to find our own ways. So our access to the audience was rather limited; mostly our books were published in small runs and didn’t sell well. But I’m sure that with proper support, we would bring Belarusian literature to a new level and Belarusian people would know they can be proud of it.

Yes, that’s so important. You’ve selected five brilliant books by Belarusian writers to celebrate. I think you want to discuss Chernobyl Prayer: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich first.

I start with this book not just because it was written by the Nobel Prize Laureate—no prize creates a prominent writer, rather such writers’ work is honoured by prizes. Although the book which helped me personally through some of the toughest times was The Unwomanly Face of War, it—as most books written by Svetlana Alexievich—presents the Soviet people in general, while Chernobyl Prayer must have the most of Belarusian voices. Sadly, in some collections it’s marked as ‘Russian literature.’ In articles about the book, reviewers discuss the ‘Russian state,’ although the Soviet Union consisted of 15 republics, once independent lands and independent again after the dissolution of the USSR. Belarus, that took the biggest toll from the nuclear explosion, is one of them; it wasn’t Russia then and it isn’t now.

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From my personal experience, it seems like most of the people on the planet hadn’t heard of Belarus before the huge post-election protest in 2020, but those who had heard of us, knew about Chernobyl. I’m afraid, in a global picture, Belarus is defined by two things: Chernobyl and dictatorship. However, the Chernobyl disaster was a major event that changed millions of lives.

Yes. As we have a very international audience, I think I should note briefly at this point that although the Chernobyl exclusion zone lies across the border in Ukraine, upwards of 60% of the contamination fell on Belarusian territory.

Books like Voices from Chernobyl are written to get people to reflect on such life-changing events, to look at a story of a single person, a simple person, a ‘small’ person under a microscope—to see ourselves in them, and become more compassionate and conscious. That’s what I believe.

It takes the form of monologues, and they feel very intimate. People that we hear are brave, wise, and loving. Voices from Chernobyl should be taught in schools, but politicians are not interested in having more compassionate and conscious citizens. They cultivate ignorance. And so these books are read by few, and history repeats itself. On February 24 2022, Russian forces took control over the Chernobyl power plant.

I first tried reading this book maybe ten or twelve years ago, and I didn’t move past the prologue. Reading it felt like a torture. The first narrator was telling about her husband Vasya, who worked at a fire station and went to extinguish the fire at the plant on the night of explosion:

…at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers—as white film… the colour of his face… his body … blue … red… grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine! It’s impossible to describe! It’s impossible to write down! And even to get over. The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry.

After these lines I couldn’t keep on reading. I was too young and fragile, and I think you need someone to hug and cry when reading this.

“No one talked about the radiation,” Lucya repeats again and again. Silence kills. Our silence kills. The governments, politicians, rich people with power don’t tell us about things they do that affect our lives, but the worst things are done by the hands of simple people in the end, people who were ‘just doing their job,’ as many say when we ask them why, why?

The Soviet mentality, which passed on to Russians and Belarusians too, has been that people in power must know best. We hear this argument from common people interviewed on their opinion about the current war in Ukraine, in the streets of Russian cities, and they appear ignorant, as having no critical thinking, blindly trusting Putin. Svetlana Alexievich shows what tragedies such mentality leads to, hoping that people will see it and will work to change so that no more tragedy like that would happen. I believe it’s important to understand the mentality of post-Soviet people, to know what to expect from them and to not be naive about how gladly they will accept democratic values.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet General Secretary, has written that the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station was “perhaps the main cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse five years later.”

Let’s move onto your second Belarusian book recommendation, which is Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacharevič. The translation itself, published by Scotland Street Press, acts as an interesting literary experiment, I think. Tell us about it.

This novel by one of the most established and renowned contemporary Belarusian writers Alhierd Bacharevič will be especially interesting for those who are bilingual or who come from a country that used to be colonised and whose native language has been at the brink of extinction. Irish and Scots are the first who come to my mind.

Years ago in Minsk I watched a play Translations (the original by Brian Friel), that brings up a question of language as a political one.

I really love that play.

In it the characters speak in English and Irish, and in the Belarusian version the English speech was translated into Russian, while Irish speech was translated into Belarusian. In Alindarka’s Children, Jim Dingley and Petra Reid employed a similar technique, translating the Russian speech into English and the Belarusian parts into Scots.

The New York Review of Books has described it as “ingenious…both a translation and a collage.”

Alindarka’s Children, first published in 2014, is a contemporary novel about a brother and a sister interned in a camp. In the camp children are made to speak the language of the coloniser and forget their own language, for which they use drugs and surgery on the larynx. Speaking Belarusian is considered an “illness” that needs to be cured. The siblings escape and are chased, surviving through adventures, like Hansel and Gretel.

Bacharevič said:

I well remember what gave me the necessary push to start work. I had read that somewhere in some little town a woman in the local education authority had advised the parents of a little child to “urgently seek the help of a speech therapist. Because your kid has a strong Belarusian accent. Get it cured, before it’s too late. Know what I mean? Normal kids speak proper, they speak Russian, got it?”

Language is a code, a key to the collective subconscious. It should not be used as a political tool, it should be a tool for communication. But Belarusians find themselves torn between the muted voice of genetic memory which is craving for Belarusian language, the scream going back to the urbanisation in the Soviet Union when people from Belarusian villages fled to cities where there were jobs, and where it was proper to speak Russian and one would be frowned at otherwise, it was a mark of status, and the nowadays cacophony of the voices shaming you for not speaking Belarusian mixed with those not understanding why you speak it.

Would you tell us a little about your own relationship with the Belarusian and Russian languages? What do you write in?

I come from a Russian speaking family and my whole surrounding used to be Russian speaking, so my writing for a long time was in that language, but I made a conscious decision to switch to Belarusian in my early twenties. When I started writing in Belarusian, I suddenly felt this impulse to write about all kinds of things I hadn’t written about before, I hadn’t even been aware of. Like my relationship with my parents, childhood traumas, womanhood. My poetry had become feminist before I myself did, and it’s gradually and naturally developed into a form of activism, but all this wouldn’t have happened if I kept writing in Russian, because the Belarusian language gave me a key to the genetic memory, to the collective subconscious and, consequently, to my deeper and truer self.

Let’s talk about your third Belarusian book recommendation: Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort.

I left my copy at home and can’t even see the poems from it. But I remember reading them. For me these are not the kind of poems you read through in one go—these take two, three readings for me to dive under the layers and layers of experience that encompasses several generations.

My memories of my grandmothers are scarce—I never knew my grandfathers—and as I was small I can’t remember talking to them a lot and being interested in their stories. Now their stories are what I would be writing down, every word, but they aren’t here to tell them. And many families are like that. There’s an unspoken tradition of being secretive in Belarus—I suppose it’s the influence of the Soviet Union: decades of repression, when speaking your real thoughts and ideas could cost you a life.

“Language is a code, a key to the collective subconscious”

Valzhyna Mort does more than just telling the stories—she delivers all the emotional load that our ancestors would often not talk about, not show, and often not be aware of. And the events that generations have been through are so important for us not for the mere fact of them, but for their impact on our countries, our families and us, inevitably.

In the language of intellectual poetry Valzhyna Mort is telling about Belarus and Belarusians, making connections and making sense of who we are and why we are who we are. This poetry calls to your deepest subconscious by creating pictures so vivid you can see, feel, touch, walk among all the things and places you read about.

The poet now lives in the United States. This book was named one of the best poetry books of 2020 by the New York Times.

A British edition of Music for the Dead and Resurrected is upcoming this spring from Bloomsbury Poetry.

Next, we have King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uładzimir Karatkievič.

Uładzimir Karatkievič must be by far the most loved writer of Belarusians of all ages and status. He worked in the genre of historical novel and basically revived Belarus for many through his writing, which is so saturated with love for Belarus, such care for its people, nature, language, tradition, historical and cultural heritage, that you catch it when reading his books. Unfortunately, only one of his novels has been translated into English.

What a shame.

Karatkievič is considered to have started the genre of historical detective novel in Belarusian literature. King Stakh’s Wild Hunt is kind of a romantic gothic thriller, charged with local folklore, landscapes and twists. Set in the castle of Marsh Firs in the Belarusian countryside, it’s led by a young folklorist who investigates a legend of a group of hunters riding black horses, with a pack of wild black dogs, causing mayhem in the area.

There are some elements of the supernatural, there’s mystery, but also tension, suspense, twists of the plot and a lot of Belarus — from names to landscapes to characters. If you want to imagine what Belarus was like in the 1860s, this is a good read. Its particular importance lies in the fact that Belarusian literature has been considered, unjustly, provincial—not as great as Russian, not a member of the European literature family worthy of interest. Even Belarusians themselves, unfortunately, because of the school education, find it boring and too sad, but Karatkievič and King Stakh’s Wild Hunt definitely bust this myth.

Great choice. I think that brings us to your final Belarusian literature recommendation: The Colours of the Parallel World by Mikola Dziadok. It’s been published in English by a tiny anarchist press, or it’s also available to download in Belarusian or Russian for free.

This choice of a book is likely to surprise a lot of people. It was written by a journalist, blogger and activist of the anarchist movement, and multiple-time political prisoner Mikola Dziadok. As I’m writing this, Mikola is serving another unjust prison sentence—five years in a general-security penal colony under Part 3 of Article 361 (calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus) and Part 1 of Article 295-3 (Illegal actions in relation to combustible items) of the Criminal Code of Belarus.

In 2017 The Colours of the Parallel World received the Francišak Aliachnovič Award which is given by PEN Belarus for the best work in any genre in Belarusian or Russian that has been written in prison. In 2010 Mikola and several other anarchists were arrested for an attack on the Russian Embassy in Minsk. Ihar Alinevich, another activist of the movement, also arrested back in 2010, in his book On the Way to Magadan tells in a lot of detail what actually happened there and their motivation behind it. Ihar was the first to have received the Francišak Aliachnovič Award in 2013. At the moment, he is again imprisoned by the illegitimate government in Belarus.

In the introduction to The Colours of the Parallel World Mikola wrote:

…the authorities have been and are afraid of publicity around anything that is going on in prison dungeons, intentionally making them as secretive as possible. This means that publicity can do them reputational and moral harm. And if we have an opportunity to inflict such harm, we must use it… To tell the truth and expose misdoings is an imperative, a moral duty of every person. Second of all, it’s important to speak about what we’ve seen and felt for documentation, too.

Mikola is talking about the prison system from inside, about its brutality and violations of human rights. Tens of thousands of Belarusians have experienced it first-hand since August 2020, and I wonder, if we had read this book earlier, would it have changed us? Would we have stopped all this horror earlier? Or would we, conversely, have been too afraid of being grind by the system to even try? In either way, things haven’t improved by becoming much worse and Mikola’s book must be for now the most detailed description of the experience of a political prisoner in Belarus that we have access to in the English language.

Thank you for your considered recommendations. I think you wanted to recommend a few other works of Belarusian literature while we are here?

Yes, there are a couple other books worth mentioning, which aren’t among these five for various reasons. Out of the Fire by Ales Adamovich, Yanka Bryl, and Vladimir Kolesnik could have been number one on my list, but one can hardly find its hard copy to read. It was at its time a bestseller. Ales Adamovich started the tradition of documentary writing that Svetlana Alexievich followed. This book is an account of how the punitive Nazi operation during World War II destroyed hundreds of Belarusian villages, sometimes burning alive and killing all their villagers.

Like Water, Like Fire: An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day is a collection of Belarusian poetry classics translated by the brilliant Vera Rich (1936-2009). Down Among The Fishes by Natalka Babina was translated by Jim Dingley and published by Glagoslav, but I hadn’t heard about it until I did a research on Belarusian books published in English. Its translator told me that, “it’s taking a bit of a chance, but maybe, just maybe, it will help someone understand a little about Belarus.” And A Large Czesław Miłosz with a dash of Elvis Presley by Tania Skarynkina is worth mentioning too, as one of few contemporary books published in English. Her texts stand out as very original in the Belarusian literature.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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Hanna Komar

Hanna Komar

Hanna Komar is an award-winning poet, translator and activist from Belarus, member of PEN Belarus and Belarusian Writers Union, and an honourary member of English PEN. She has published three poetry collections, Страх вышыні [Fear of Heights] in Belarusian, a bilingual collection Recycled and a collection of docu-poetry Мы вернемся [We’ll Return]. Hanna’s poetic work lays bare the experience of being a girl, then a young woman, growing up in a strongly patriarchal country. Hanna has been participating in the Belarusian protest movement since 2020 and has written about it extensively.

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Hanna Komar

Hanna Komar

Hanna Komar is an award-winning poet, translator and activist from Belarus, member of PEN Belarus and Belarusian Writers Union, and an honourary member of English PEN. She has published three poetry collections, Страх вышыні [Fear of Heights] in Belarusian, a bilingual collection Recycled and a collection of docu-poetry Мы вернемся [We’ll Return]. Hanna’s poetic work lays bare the experience of being a girl, then a young woman, growing up in a strongly patriarchal country. Hanna has been participating in the Belarusian protest movement since 2020 and has written about it extensively.