Katrina was born in Donbas, she visited a school in Damascus, and got her PhD degree in philology in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. We met Katrina at the Europe Island Literary Festival in Vinnytsia and talked about women’s war, Ukrainian writer Kotsiubynsky, symbolism, night and strangers.
What is your attitude toward such events? What literary events do you feel lack of?
I don’t often attend festivals so I can’t say what literary events I feel lack of: there are many festivals I have just heard or read about. However, now I can see that there should be online streaming of events for those who can’t be present there. Such streaming sessions should be widely promoted, of course. For instance, I would love to watch videos from some discussions which took place at the major literary fair Arsenal in Kyiv, because I wasn’t able to attend everything I am keen on.
In general, I love this format of chamber festivals in different cities and towns – when organisers fit festival activities into the space of the town, like at the Europe Island festival in Vinnytsia. I am very fond of this vivid interaction with space, and through it with the town as such – its spirit and people. Such comfortable (because it is gentle) interpenetration of spaces provides me with an engaging experience and a boost which I take and keep in my heart.
You took part in the festival discussion Woman and Her War. Your war, what is it like?
My war has many faces. First, it is everywhere: in both my motherlands (in Damascus and Donbas). Second, it is remote: it didn’t hurt personally me because I haven’t been to Damascus for many years, and as for Donbas, the town where my mon lived and my father and brother still live didn’t get any attacks. Third, war is also about your mind not only physical state: both in Damascus and Donbas, we have different views on what is happening with my relatives, I mean we have the opposite views (fortunately, it concerns only our beliefs, nobody is involved into action). Finally, fourth, (and it stems from the first two points), my war is often invisible and thus dangerous. This invisibility makes me anxious. Actually, I got scared when I realised how war is presented in my texts. It also pushed me to write Strangers in the Night. I noticed that war, like a “thief”, has got itself to my poems; that some characters of “military” and “civil” texts are repeated but they sound different because they gain new senses. And this was this unnoticed switch which became a touchstone of the book: I created it like a Mobius strip where one surface was presented by peace and the other by war, but when the war started, these surfaces became one Mobius strip where the splice is invisible.
Your book’s title is Strangers in the Night. Why have you named it like this?
It is the book’s central text gave the title for the collection. The text has first part gradually pouring into the other. It was written more than 10 years ago when I was living in Kharkiv after I had had some experience in the bus of “wrong interpretation” of a passenger’s actions. I really noticed (as it is described in the poem) one person actively gesturing. At first, I thought that he was crossing himself, then I thought he was dancing to some rap and on then I realized that it was the sign language. It took me less than a second to think all of it but I remember it was this sequence of actions. I was impressed, and this situation made a story I am talking about in the text happen. It is a story about how difficult it is to understand another person when you are in a different context. Basically, the text tells about the plurality of contexts which have never met and then just – bang! – they have. The story is about that all these strangers (because they are beyond the context) have their shared context of love.
It is about strangers. What about the night, there is an explanation in the text – it is about uncertainty and openness at once, when a picture we see at daylight doesn’t stop us from seeing and realizing something which is inside, which is deep, hidden, thus uncertain.
As for the phrase “Strangers in the Night”, it is the title of poetess Ghada Al-Samman – it is about the Lebanon war as far as I remember – I was looking some information about her and saw this book in the list of her works. I haven’t read the novel but these two words ran in my head, got wrapped with my own senses, images, contexts, and then emerged at the right moment.
Strangers in the Night is your second book of poems. Please tell about your first collection 7:7. Why did it fail to be published with due time?
The first book I compiled for a 2006 Smoloskyp literary contest was called 7:7 (seven-seven). It got the third prize then so it wasn’t published (because only the first and second places were). And I didn’t know what I should do with the manuscript so it is still kept only in my computer. Then I compiled another one which I don’t consider a separate book because I did it rather by inertia (I applied for the same contest where I was awarded the fourth (complimentary) prize, I got upset and didn’t apply anything for any contests for a long time), that’s why I don’t mention it anywhere.
I was working on 7:7 for quite a long time; I cared about its structure: I built it like a “drama piece” where different texts come on the stage in different acts. Basically, the reciprocity of Strangers in the Night structure is kind of a bridge to 7:7, I took some Kharkiv period texts from there. There was this reciprocity, and “tie game”, and magical words from the oriental fairy tale which sound like Ukrainian words “seven-seven” and let you get out of the cave.
The conceptuality and symbolism in your texts are impressive. What formed your approach?
A long time ago, when I was doing my year 5 at the university, I went to Lviv to a conference. I gave a speech on a short story “On the Island” by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (his last work dated 1912, written just some months before he died). One of the moments which astonished me was the last words of the story, “To be continued…” (By the way, I’ve recently googled it, and it turned out that online resources don’t contain this remark, unlike the academic edition I had used). As nothing could be continued anymore, I took these words as a kind of a compositional device which makes the text succinct and gives an additional sound. And later, when I was writing my thesis on Kotsiubynsky and studied all his works from the existentialism point of view, at some moment, I managed to see his works as integrity, as a metaphor of human life in progress. Then this idea ran in my head that metatextual layer can enrich your works, and it is worth using. Perhaps, this is banal, but it’s important for me that I realised it by myself, so it is not an idea which I liked and decided to follow it to achieve some goal; it is partially deliberate desire to say more, to add tones and contexts, to get more understood. I’d say even not “to get more understood” but to convey this part of reality in a more integrative way, with roots, muscles, ligament threads.
Was it your first time visiting Vinnytsia where the author who influenced your art was born?
Not exactly, I once was here but I don’t remember much, just some places and general impression – slow, moderate lifestyle, fullness, something Mediterranean, for a wonder. But then I was literally tired of everything connected with Kotsiubynsky (coursework, theses – five years of work in general) that I just threw it out of my head and didn’t take the town as one connected with Kotsiubynsky. It is strange to me now, but then it was so.
What other classical authors have influenced your writing?
As a philologist, I read much at the beginning. Now, I must confess, I read a way less and choose books more thoroughly. But for a while, I read many books because I had to, I didn’t enjoy it. So I guess that everything I have read influenced me this way or another but I mostly don’t remember and realise it. But I remember things which have impressed me for different reasons. I remember well Kotsiubynsly’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Dovzhenkos’s The Enchanted Desna which we read at school. I also remember Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (I read it, understood nothing and had to read it one more time, making notes, then read my notes – and only then I got it). I also had a shabby copy of Berdnyk’s The Veil of Isis – this was one of a few books I could read several times (it wasn’t a school program). From my late student years, I remember Khvyliovy and Domontovych as well as Hesse, and unexpectedly I opened for myself Zhadan and modern Ukrainian literature in general. It was strange because the university program ended with Stus (the 1980s), and in some months when I was passing my post-graduate entrance exams, I saw new names I had never heard. However, I am not that kind of a person who possesses encyclopaedic knowledge – it takes me little time to forget titles, plots, characters, even authors. But I remember my emotions and ideas I got while reading.
In your opinion, are students taught the Ukrainian literature school program well? Is there anything you’d like to change?
I am not aware of how high school students are taught because I am concerned only about the elementary school where my son studies. But I can see a certain enhancement: for example, there are more modern authors appearing in the program. This way, their works become closer, more understandable to modern children. Reading books for elementary school which have been recently published is good. We read them with my son. On the other hand, textbooks are not very good. There are some literature issues in there, sometimes I just get shocked by what they write there. But I suppose it will change one day as well. I like this integration of new skills into the literature classes: media literacy, critical thinking, some basic skills of mental health, EQ development etc.
And the last question I guess. Who is Katrina Khaddad?
I once wrote a joke about myself when was introduced at some event, “a girl with shady past and rosy future”. This is a person whose voice is made of contradictions, and who is now trying to find the balance between them, discover the golden mean and ground to let this voice sound loud.
Interview by Andriy Khaietsky