Kateryna Kalytko was training to become a political analyst and journalist. However, she felt that she had to become a prose writer and a translator. In 2013, she came back into a literary process with her even brighter poetry, while her prose impressed and excited readers. She introduced a modern literature of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Ukrainian language. She was called after her great-grandmother, who had made a hideout at night to hide there a cow. That way, she saved all her children from starving. Kateryna inherited her “rebel and freedom spirit which follows its own ideas, not those ones which are imposed.” It is this spirit which lets the writer sound so loudly that others could hear and understand her well and clearly, and she can be heard at the right time.
You started to read early in the childhood. Who influenced that and what kind of literature shaped you?
All my family love books. My granny didn’t manage to graduate from the university and fulfil her ambitions. Though she always loved books, she worked as a shop assistant at a bookshop. She lived in the USSR, and sometimes she managed to get an access to quality books, however, she as an average shop assistant couldn’t, again, afford all the books. Anyway, she could bump into an interesting book which she wanted to give later to her children, a granddaughter, to me – and she had a chance to buy it the first. Actually, it is her who began filling my library.
Of course, my parents also influenced my love for reading. They are engineers, but they are very keen on literature. I started to read very early and I couldn’t imagine my childhood without books. Because I was and still am – as you can’t do anything with your nature – an introvert, self-sufficient person who could easily distance myself from everything. But books were the only thing from the outer world which was essential for me, I couldn’t do without books.
Did you always agree with books’ analyses introduced by literature teachers and offered by school critics? Did you stand for your own perspective?
I had good literature teachers. I had some issues with others, but as for literature teachers, as they say, God helped me. They interpreted school program books quite freely and bravely. I always was interested in books which weren’t included in a school program, and my teachers always indulged me in that.
Problems at school were usually evoked by other reasons: when I was standing for my life choice, I had to prove that a “poet” could stand against an “engineer”, that he or she wasn’t less important for the world. As for human subjects, it was easier, I was good at compositions. I was reading much, it was interesting for me, I never had problems with that. I didn’t like summer reading lists – when teachers gave us that list, it always turned out that I had already read two-thirds of it. I read other interesting books as I felt I needed to read them. But we never crossed the line in our discussions with my literature teachers.
They are discussing now whether it is too early to introduce some classic books to teenagers, who, taking into account their age, just can’t properly analyse them. What is your opinion: whether we should introduce “adult” literature to pupils or it is better for them to read it when they are grown-ups?
Personally, I read everything I could find, in my home library at first, then at a city children’s and youth library. I can’t imagine as if someone could make me read tailored books. Where is the borderline: what teenagers can read and what not. As for me, I read Kafka relatively too early, and he is still one of the most important and favourite writers for me, who shaped me, helped not to feel lonely.
How old were you then?
I was 13. Since 13, I have read him as well as other serious books. I didn’t have a dilemma between teenager and adult literature at all. Because books for teenagers were baby books for me as if people were afraid to say serious things, which I was ready to hear, sprightly to me. And they simplify them.
But there is a danger that a teenager won’t ever want to read a book they failed to understand at school. People gain disgust because they haven’t understood it. What should we do with that?
It depends on a person. If a person isn’t interested in literature as in something important, then yes, a person will get afraid of a certain text and won’t read it again. And that will be the reason to minimize reading notionally. And if a person thinks that literature is important for them, a person will return to a book and give it a second chance. They might return not to all the books, but to many of them.
I had such an experience with Ukrainian classics, with Panas Myrny, for example. I don’t say that the school program gives it too early; it is just that it is given without a certain context so children could understand why they read it. Usually, there is a scheme: in November, we read Myrny for the sake of appearance, in May, Kotziubynsky, between them, we read someone else. Virtually nobody introduces a literary process as one whole thing, tells about Panas Myrny or Mark Vovchok as about bright people of their bright time. Consequently, children are not interested in abstract stories which are not connected with their lives, if they don’t have a whole understanding of deep tendencies of Ukrainian literature. However, a person who wants to read and understand what has remained in the past will definitely catch up with it. I know many people who are connected with literature, who caught up with classics or are doing it now because they missed it for some reason when they were teenagers. They do it because they want it because they are lack of something, they recall what books they haven’t finished and returned to them.
In “The Land of the Lost” you define a genre of the book. You wrote that these were little scary tales. Were there any young readers who fell for this definition thinking the text would be easy to comprehend?
I tried to highlight it at each presentation that the title was ironic to bolt out people who wanted to read super postmodern carnival from the very beginning. Or an easy little tale full of aphorisms. Or vice versa – people who wait for hyper-serious philosophical work on any theme which they pick up. There is some game, taking into account that the book seems to be scary and serious. But it contains much irony, in fact, however, not everybody sees it. As for young readers, I have had different situations. For example, once Halia Tkachuk and I appeared to be in the town of Pokrovsk at the Shidny Oberih festival. A teacher brought two groups of students to listen to us: younger and older pupils. Halia and I had our presentations one after the other. However, somehow she appeared to read her book for children to older pupils. And I was asked to read to little children about the sexual and private life of an invalid of war. But it was OK, children listened to me and then even asked some questions. It proves my theory that a person of any age will read anyway if he or she wants – and vice versa.
Actually, a little tale is a territory of an original fear where some things happen. They seem to be around every day but they are taken to an irrational, dark area, which is seen by people with their side vision, but they don’t think much about them. My book isn’t a magic realism in any regard. It is one more problem for people who took the title superficially. Many people of a different age told me that these texts helped them not to feel lonely, but I don’t separate teenagers like those who reacted in a strange way.
You decided to become a writer when you were a teenager, didn’t you?
I guess I didn’t even decide it. I think you can’t decide that you want to become a writer at a certain moment if you haven’t felt like that before. Approximately at the age of 13, when I was reading serious books, when I realised what they did mean to me, when I was writing my early poems and was ready to make a serious choice, to sacrifice something, to go on doing what I had chosen to do – it was then when I understood that it was important for me, I wanted to go on doing it independently whether some obstacles appear or not. And they appeared these were not simple problems for a teenager: the school administration was against my trips to first literature competitions, a teenager environment, traditionally cruel, which likes to act like the majority and doesn’t like when somebody begins standing out somehow. Anyway, I was determined to overcome all the obstacles and develop myself. No, I didn’t see a certain way in front of me. I didn’t make it for myself like: I will bring out a book when I am 18, become a famous writer when I am 25. I just knew what I was writing, what it meant for me that’s why I went on writing.
How did you realise it was important for you? Was it some landmark event?
It must have been a whole inner feeling: when you cross the borderline of your family, start to perform, visit a literary studio, get some feedback, you realise that you are not the only one. You appear to be within a certain context and realise that other people are into the same thing you are. Yes, there are people who do it not just for fun; it can be a part of some serious activity. At some moment, you have not just to choose a profession but listen to your inner need. It is when you can’t fail to write and realise that you are good at it.
When the difference between inner and outer pressure became bigger, when it turned out that to make your writing sound, a certain struggle must appear, I realised that it was not just a toy which was easier to get rid of, put away and say, “It takes too many resources, I give it up.” You just realise that you are ready to follow your own way and resist an outer pressure. I realise that it sounds like I live in the XIX century, this personality vs. society thing. OK, in a modern language: I felt that I was ready to invest my life resource into what I am doing. I didn’t know for sure whether I would be a writer, I was training as a journalist. Once again, I didn’t formulate any life goals for years ahead with a chronology of my future books. But life appeared to prove my steps were right when I was only in the beginning.
There are no educative programs for writers in Ukraine. There was one institution in Moscow, and Ukrainians had to go there to study. Did you choose journalism because you wanted to have an “applicable” profession?
It is easy, frankly speaking. Since I was a teenager, I was doing part-time job writing some notes on cultural topics for local media. These were the first money I earned. That’s why it was natural for me to try myself as a journalist. I made my bachelor’s degree in politology, and my master’s degree in journalism, because the Kyiv Mohyla Academy had just opened this program. It was great, and there were professors I wanted to listen to.
Frankly speaking, I didn’t choose philology because I was too obviously expected to do that. And I don’t like to do what I am expected to do. It would have been very common: you write something so you choose philology. On the other hand, a philology diploma is a preparation of the material, analysis, synthesis, but based on what already exists. I always knew I would create something that will be analysed. I didn’t know what it could be but I always knew that my inner need was to create content which could be analysed by others. Speaking shortly. By the way, not only Moscow has such programs. There is a Literature Department in the Kyiv Shevchenko University. Some of my colleagues who are the same age used to study there. But I wouldn’t have entered it. I don’t believe in such education. You can gain some skills, be impressed by the charisma of a writer who came to give a lecture, share his or her secrets of work and productivity, you can be motivated. But no one can teach a person to write from the scratch. Well, a degreed writer sounds quite strange.
Even if you have some potential and hope that you will be helped to develop and shape it – let’s put it lightly, it’s quite silly. It is my opinion. I can’t say for everybody because there are people who desperately need some support from others. I also appreciated it when I was visiting a literal studio in the town of Vinnytsia as I was a teenager. It was headed by a poet Tetiana Yakovenko. She warmly supported children who wrote. She motivated them to continue it, at least, not to give up at once. Naturally, many of my soulmates gave up writing after a while. However, some of them went on doing it. That’s why support is essential at some step. However, I guess it should be rather just human support than the academic one I don’t even believe that writing master-classes are effective. Though they are very popular now. It is a normal marketing tool, a normal way to earn money for those who have these skills. But I also don’t think that it can make a writer form a person. Of course, you can find something useful for you there but only when you know for sure what exactly you are doing and what you are going to do next.
After the success of your two poetry books “Torture Chamber. Vineyard. Home” and one prose book “The Land of the Lost”, it was very strange to read that “a new interesting author appeared in Ukraine” because she didn’t appear but rather showed herself as a new and another writer.
It happened very easily. I am not a new person in this literature at all. I used to win some literature awards. I also published several books, the community knows me well. I didn’t appear out of nowhere. The other thing is a short memory, which is distinctive for this community. They have a demonstrative short memory and tend to do it even shorter. Let’s say, a certain author with a good voice – I’m not speaking about myself – who hasn’t been in public for certain time for some reason or just limits his or her publicity, often just stops to exist for the community
That’s why this effect of a sudden explosion sometimes appears – everybody pretends that they have forgotten about a certain person. A new posh generation has grown up. They might have heard something about this person, but don’t know him or her in person. They don’t know what this person is like. I made a long-term pause from 2008 to 2013, when I was feeling I needed a distance when I needed to bring a context meaning into focus. The context I was living in and my place in it. I was working on a voice I would like to speak with in future. Because I had been feeling that the voice I had then was too tight for me. That’s why it was a conscious pause. I was observing with a great interest in how this mechanism was working: a short memory and a long way back to your place. In 2013, I published a book “The Storms Season”, which was the first after my “coming back”. In 2014, I brought out a book “Torture Chamber. Vineyard. Home” at the Old Lion Publishing House – like a final check-in.
It was very brave of you because sometimes 5 years of silence don’t let an artist find strengths and resources to come back. A modern art world doesn’t always forgive pauses. Was it important for you that after the pause, your voice became so powerful that people could hear you or it is just that a situation around which had to alter?
I was just believing in my inner moral imperative and in a starry sky above me : ) Frankly speaking, we should always mind marketing tools. It is wrong to say that the market eats subtle soul moves. Everything should be balanced. But if there is an option between a market’s demand and an inner truth, I will always choose the truth, because I appreciate my relationship with the language, myself and with things which will stay with me in the near future. It is tempting to foresee the development of a market, but it is hard to foresee very far.
And what I want to say and how I want to say it, and the inner need to say it – it stays with me. What is important for me is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to make sure my voice is not getting strained until I am ready for that.
By the way, when a new book is published, I can never imagine a feedback. I was surprised with a feedback to my recent books. Frankly speaking, I was waiting for an opposite reaction. I thought I would hear something like, “This is very doom, nobody needs it, give us something easier, more motivate, some warm stories to be read with warm drinks.” But we have what we have.
You seem to have found the place in the literature where you are influenced neither by politics nor by economics. You just follow your way and no exogenous factors, which other authors say are a problem, don’t concern you. How do you manage not to surrender a negative influence of our reality?
I can’t say I am not dependant on economics. I have to earn for living somehow. Consequently, I have to realise how a publishing market works, what consequences of my work are to be expected. I have to just know where my publisher gets a translation grant from as I get by on it. Since about 2012-2013 I have got by only on my literature activity: translation and writing, everything which is connected with literature.
I make neither politics nor economics the centre of my universe because I am sure that the literature has its own rules and directions. If you have something to say. You have to know how exactly you are going to say it. And if you already know it, you can’t sell at a very cheap price. Of course, sometimes you just have to keep your dynamics, train your muscles to keep your writing skills, and along with that, to get by on something. That’s why people, obviously, can work on some conjectural projects. I can’t judge them, it is their choice.
I paid much for my inner independence. I don’t want it to sound like I was just meditating and thinking for five years and then created something in a while. It is an enormous path. There were many painful moments, disappointments in myself. I am a big perfectionist, I am very demanding to myself. I always doubt a lot when I make a big step for myself. It took many nerves, blood and strength to upgrade myself, But it all is just knots of my memories, it is my inner struggle, it stays with me. And this is how I stand for my independence for anything, it has been so since my childhood when it was hard to persuade me in something, it is still so. The more pressure you use, the more I will resist it even if people try to make me do hypothetically useful things for me. I deny anything which is beyond the will and mutual agreement. That’s why such a way of life is very energy- and resources – consuming. It takes nerves; you need to have a great support from your family and friends. I couldn’t have done it without them. The half of their success is in mine. This is how it works.
Except for a writer, you are also a translator. You have revealed a literature in Ukrainian, which was closed for us. Moreover, a foreign language became very close to you as you live now virtually in two countries. What does this possibility to feel free on a foreign land give to you? What is a translation for you?
Translation is one more ending, one more moving appliance-manipulator, one more way of feeling which I use to research the world. Why can I feel on “lands of my translation” like at home? In the first place, due to empathy. I could never treat this work just like a work – it is, again, an expensive and consuming way. It is easier to treat anything mechanically, I mean – to take an order, make it and give away. But when you like something very much and want to make it perfectly – it also costs high in a time and money regard, but in the first place, in an energy and resources regard.
Well, I do like countries which literature I work with. I believe that these are themes, these pains, and nerves that we should constantly feel. Besides, it is also a good vaccination against egoism, against thinking that we are the first with our misfortunes. We are not the only and last ones – everything has already taken place. I mean the last Balkan wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia. When you see that people have already covered that path before you and managed to stay people despite all the horrors of the situation, you can’t let yourself stop being a human. People can survive very terrible things: every new war, the Second World War, the 90s wars, all the genocides, which took place and still do all over the world, show, unfortunately, that humanity doesn’t learn from its mistakes, it still doesn’t control its animal essence. But people can still be people. It is possible to put humanity against all the terrible things, people have done it and still do. I try to remind people about that while translating. I care that’s why I do it.
You said in an interview that there would be a war against Russia. Tell us please about this presentiment thing. And what was it based on, because it was unexpected for the majority of Ukrainians? As well as for many political European leaders. Please tell about that.
It was also unexpected for me when the war started exactly then, I imagined it hypothetically. I was realising that our conflict with Russia, frozen a hundred years ago, with the first liberating competitions – because I insist that they didn’t lose but, let’s say, chose a “stand-by” regime. It was clear that they would start it again someday, so they have started it now. Approximately on the same platform, but just taking into account modern realia. Everything is repeated, again and again, it is just another repetition. Of course, like any person, I was hoping that I wouldn’t witness a war, wouldn’t taste that bitter, dark grief which it brings, but it is normal for people. It was also unexpected for me how it happened, and that it happened after the EuroMaidan.
Actually, for me, the death of the Heavenly Hundred was the biggest trauma because the war is awful; however, it is clear what it is for. And sniper shooting on the Institutska Street was a breach of all the moral conventions of co-existing within a city. A city with its walls has always stood against a dense forest and a wild field; people could hide here and feel secure. And suddenly they die on the streets, at their home. It was hard to believe it, it was a breakup of the XXI century civilized world order outlook. The world which has already experienced two world wars, where some borders have already been established, where world leaders have already agreed that they were to save a civilized world order and wouldn’t repeat what used to happen to cities. And when it started to be destroyed, on the Institutska Street, and continued to be destroyed in Donbas – it was a great shock.
Along with that, I say it again, I was sure that there would be the war with Russia that our war for independence was just delayed. Actually, we got it easily, in fact, we continued the history of Ukrainian independence in 1991, and took it from the Ukrainian People’s Republic of the 1920s which was later expulsed. It was suspiciously easy, even taking into account the student’s Revolution on Granite and other protests. Knowing the history of Yugoslavia, made me think that it wouldn’t be that easy. Unfortunately, it was true, and I think I’m not the only one who had such a feeling. At different literature forums, my colleagues-writers and I always say that in 2014 or even at the end of 2013, there was a feeling that the war was going to happen. Many people were writing about the war for some reason, everybody was thinking through the previous wars or just writing about an abstract war as about an anthropological category. It must have been somewhere, it was revealed from somewhere, we weren’t expecting that but it was waiting for us.
The war is still on, and we already have about a dozen books of different forms, even novels are written, published and discussed. What is your idea of the process, whether the literature will change when it is over?
The literature will be different even in just some years. God, even since the beginning of 2014, a lot has changed: dynamics and tonality, though it is hard now to explain it in some literary categories. It is very subtle, but you can feel it: you can take two poetic texts and suggest that this one was written at the beginning of the war, and this one – now.
There is more and more fatigue, despair, some lessons have been learnt, there is also bitterness and horror, revenge for our traumas and losses, for first pockets, for Ilovaisk. Writing resembles now an open heart when you are scared but you realise that you have to do it because it is a matter of life and death, surviving and life supporting.
The point is that today, data can be transmitted very quickly, that’s why there is more data. There were times when a book had to be handwritten and then typed it, and then an editor worked also manually. Today, due to a technological breakthrough, the number of books grow at an exponential rate, and it is good that there is a way to canalize a trauma. Writers are also at their places, they think through what is going on, offer some interpretations and intermediate conclusions. In some regard, they join – I want to say it optimistically – those who want to end the war, to understand where we are moving to.
The other thing is that we are used to expecting the literature to give us final answers, thinking that the literature offers us some recipes – normal patterns how to act here or there. And now, we don’t have such answers. Every war is new, every human experience is new, the world, again, is very rushing, and people sometimes just fail to get some data on time, But people may need this data to cope with some challenge which is absolutely different from the one they have just had. That’s why it is useful – kind of a bookish training of your muscles.
I guess we will speak about the war for very long in our literature. Let’s imagine a happy ending of the war in the near future. Well, of course, it won’t be happy, because a war is a misfortune in its definition. But let’s imagine everything is over and we go on speaking about that. New facts will be revealed, we will cover new levels of sincerity and analysis of what we already know and so on. It is a hard experience but it is essential for developing, it is a nation formation, it is a very interesting and terrifying time we have to live in, but in fact, it is interesting and productive time. I see how a normal Ukrainian nation is being shaped as I have always wanted to see it. Finally, we are beginning to change an ethnic approach to a political one. I hope we won’t ever let anybody measure our noses and ears with a ruler to determine who is a Ukrainian.
Frankly speaking, until the Revolution of Dignity, I didn’t think our people were decent enough. I thought: God if something horrible happened, everybody would escape as rats. And we wouldn’t be able to stand against Russia. And that unity when people gave their last money and savings to supply the army with clothes, shoes and arms – frankly speaking, I was moved to tears. Everybody was helping as they could. A poor old man gave his only jacket to our soldiers. I was so impressed that I shamed myself that I hadn’t trusted people. And now, when I get disappointed again, I remind myself about my previous accusations and don’t let myself get fully disappointed in people, however, sometimes I am very close to it.
Today, every concerned Ukrainian citizen is working for the victory. If we ask the president what he lacks for victory, he will name certain things. If we ask a soldier, he is likely to name absolutely different things. What are you lack of, as a writer who is also this result-oriented, to make this victory happen as soon as possible?
I think people lack trust and responsibility for everything, from saying words in public. Because this “everything is bad”, complaints, hope for a better leader thing is provoked by the absence of comprehension and responsibility for where these words can lead us. In 2014, we already saw what consequences our acts can have, unconsidered choices, not careful words and attitude to subtle meanings. I am very sensitive to such things, and in an abstract regard, I like this Ukrainian anarchism, a consistent disrespect to authorities. We don’t let others fly too high. We always remember that we have to pour shit on the head of a candidate for Hetmanate so he could never forget where he came from, but sometimes we have to stop ourselves. Because sometimes we have to stop sorting things out, and sometimes we just have to trust and give a chance to act. I now speak without names and political agitation, but sometimes we have to use critical thinking to realise that someone has done it better, of course not perfectly, than anybody before, despite times are tough now. Though I don’t like this wording, we have to get together on our way to the victory and then return to our traditional Cossack methods and remind a person where he or she is from, what shit he or she came from.
Ivan Franko wrote “Moses” about the problem of a leader and people 100 years ago, but it is very relevant today…
Franko is a person who, using the literature, was bringing Ukraine together. He persuaded people of the Galicia that they were Ukrainians, speaking in modern terms.
He was brave enough to bring it together. What would Kateryna Kalytko do, if she wasn’t afraid?
I am not afraid! I realise now that I am only scared of what is connected with my close people. I am scared they will be ill, have some problems, will be threatened, that I can hurt them etc. As for myself, I am not afraid of anything, that’s why I risk doing things I am ready for. I hope to keep this ability for a long time.
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo: Dmytro Zhuravel