Reading with the Children of War: A Conversation with Khrystia Vengryniuk
By Kate TsurkanOctober 6, 2023
Khrystia spoke with Kate Tsurkan about the importance of Ukrainian children having access to books during wartime, the reasons that writing about war is important but won’t help win it, the necessity to combat Russian propaganda in Ukraine from a young age, and more.
KATE TSURKAN: How has your relationship to reading and writing changed since the start of the full-scale invasion? Do you find some solace in literature, or are you disappointed in how little it truly and accurately conveys about war?
KHRYSTIA VENGRYNIUK: I couldn’t read a single line of fiction in the first month of the war—only news, analysis, and forecasts. I probably wouldn’t have for an even longer time, but, exactly one month into the war, I gave birth to a daughter, and I always dreamed of reading her fairy tales from birth. So, I returned to reading, but at first it was only children’s literature. I read to her about elves, and little animals going on adventures, and then gradually started to get back into reading myself.
Every book I’ve chosen to read during the past year and a half is about war, even if it’s not explicitly stated in the summaries. Recently, I decided to read fantasy to distract myself. But even there, I encountered the same aggressive type of war that the Russians wage on our land … It seems like I’m going through a phase in life where books find me, not the other way around. I am certain that this is not just a coincidence; there must be a reason for it.
I was at one of your poetry readings in Chernivtsi a few weeks ago, and even though a lot of your work is about Russia’s war against Ukraine, a woman cried out: “I don’t want to hear about the war! Just read poems!” How do you feel about such people?
Recently, I tried to continue working on a novel I had started beforehand, but something unexpected happened—I found myself redirecting the plot to focus on this very war. We must speak about this dreadful truth in every language of the world and shout so that even those who choose to close their ears and eyes will hear us. Each of us must do it in our own way. As writers, our weapon is our words … The only exception is literature for children. Our children, who have suffered the most from the war, deserve to read cheerful, carefree stories.
You have a publishing house for children’s literature. How important has it been for you to continue publishing books for Ukrainian children in the past year, despite the increased economic hardship and overall uncertainty brought on by war? How much are Ukrainian children reading these days? What are they reading?
Our children are the children of war. It’s extremely painful to realize that. They have suffered and continue to suffer the most because they are not only unprotected from Russian missile strikes and scared; they are also killed, violated, maimed, orphaned, kidnapped, or forced to flee with their parents to foreign lands and homes. Those who have been forcibly transported to Russia have no access to anything Ukrainian. That’s why, along with my publishing partner, we decided in the early days of the war that we would continue releasing books for children despite everything going on around us. We send books abroad for free, where our children are, and many books go to both Ukrainian libraries and bookstores, so that if parents can’t afford to buy a book, they can always borrow it from the library.
We continue to publish books for children as before—cheerful fairy tales, nonfiction, encyclopedias, books on complex topics. Now we are preparing to publish our first book about the war. Overall, it will have an inspiring message.
You also took part in an anthology for children on the heroes of Ukraine, including the 19th-century national poet Taras Shevchenko, who spent part of his life under Russian serfdom, and the 20th-century poet Vasyl Stus, who died during a hunger strike in a Russian penal colony in 1985. How important is it for Ukrainian children to know about these figures?
It was difficult to write about Stus, about Shevchenko, even about [Ivan] Franko, because their biographies are intertwined with them [Editor’s note: Russians]. The hardest part is explaining to children why such evil exists at all and why we haven’t been able to eradicate it for centuries. The great Taras Shevchenko foresaw all this horror for us Ukrainians. Vasyl Stus died for this struggle. It is important for us to speak the truth to children in such a way that they understand not just that Stus died in prison, but that the Soviet regime killed Stus in prison. Because if we avoid truthful moments, citing the need to protect children, they will believe things like [the fantasy that] the Red Army were only heroes.
In the history of literature, our home city of Chernivtsi is an extremely important place. Most notably, it is the birthplace of Paul Celan. Yet it also witnessed unspeakable violence during the Holocaust. How has it been for you to see so many Ukrainians from elsewhere seek refuge in the city, while also knowing that it is not entirely safe from Russian missiles and Iranian Shahed drones?
Whenever I stroll through St. Mary’s Square in the historic part of Chernivtsi, I think about how this place was once filled with pain and suffering: the Jewish ghetto. But now, life thrives there—children rollerblade, adults frequent nearby cafés, and fairs are held on holidays. It was in these very places that the young and brilliant Paul Celan used to wander, whose parents were killed in concentration camps. In Chernivtsi, there are still no rocket craters as in other cities. But, even [in other cities], they quickly patch up the holes to keep on living, determined for life to triumph.
And what endures through it all? Literature! That’s why what Celan wrote then was so important, and why what we write now is equally crucial.
Many foreigners do not understand why street names are being changed and statues associated with Russia are being taken down in Ukraine. For example, the Red Army Statue was taken down in Chernivtsi recently. Many foreigners say, “What does Tolstoy have to do with Putin?” In your opinion, why are these changes so important?
Russian influence is like a cancerous tumor on the body of Ukraine. We must rid ourselves of it in all spheres, starting with the language and ending with anything that is Russian. Why do we need a street named after Tolstoy? What does he mean to us? How could streets named after members of the Soviet secret police ever continue to exist in our country, considering the atrocities they committed against Ukrainians? Historically, we have some affiliation with Russia. But it’s a source of shame at this point, not pride. Russia has been destroying us, demeaning us, and killing us for centuries, but I believe that this war can erase the last traces of Russian influence in us.
I was wondering if you could speak about your work as a wartime volunteer and that of other writers, like Serhiy Zhadan and Andriy Lyubka. Is it fair to say that Ukrainian writers’ involvement in the war effort is an active phenomenon?
When the full-scale invasion started, I asked myself what I could do to take even a small step towards hastening victory. If I hadn’t been nine months pregnant, I probably could have gone to the front line as a nurse. I have some knowledge of medicine and I’m not afraid of blood … Although I understand how challenging it is. Since 2014, I had been volunteering and collecting necessary items for our soldiers, so I had an idea of how to continue doing it on an even larger scale. I started a charitable foundation to formalize everything.
Writers became both warriors and volunteers because writing and speaking the truth to the world are crucially important but won’t save our soldiers’ lives. However, another thermal imager or drone might.
There are lots of Ukrainian books about the war being translated into English. While it’s important, do you worry that foreigners will only associate Ukraine with pain and suffering?
Unfortunately, we historically associate ourselves with pain and struggle, but that’s who we are. I used to teach Ukrainian literature, and my students would talk about how it is only about serfdom, wars, and fighting. But how could it be any different when it reflects the truth? Just look at the past—who has been killing us for 300 years? The Russians in various guises and forms. I really want our literature to become different, but I don’t see the prospect of us writing about anything other than war in the near future. It has been going on for far too long, and it will continue to do so …
One of your books is a study of Natalena Koroleva, the Spanish Czech writer who “chose” Ukrainian identity and is even celebrated for her contributions to Ukrainian literature. You were born and raised in Ukraine, but tell me, what does your Ukrainian choice mean to you?
I often ask myself whether it’s a great fortune or a great sorrow that I was born in Ukraine. It’s challenging—really challenging—to love Ukraine like one’s own mother and witness firsthand how she is constantly being mistreated. Natalena Koroleva was an outsider and an exile. I think she loved Ukraine so intensely and felt her identity intertwined with it because she sensed that she was just like Ukraine. She thought in Ukrainian, wrote more eloquently than many Ukrainians, suffered for Ukraine, and fought for it.
To understand Ukraine and feel an identity with it, one must possess a heart that is both afflicted and pure, just like hers.
Khrystia Vengryniuk is a poet, author, literary historian, and painter who lives in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Chorni Vivtsi, the country’s top publisher of children’s books. She is the author of essay collections and volumes of poetry, as well as the co-author of several anthologies. She is currently volunteering in local efforts to aid the Ukrainian army and refugees.
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