How often do you want to go back to childhood or adolescence, to recall what seemed to be forever hidden in your memory? And what if the main characters of this story are not people, but the place and the time? We talked with the writer Artem Chekh about his new novel “District D”, bridges from the past, literary circles, prose veterans, and the situations when the quantity is more needed than the quality.
We meet with Mr. Chekh after the presentation of District D. Poltava is trying to surprise with unexpected heat and strange serenity as for the city where an international literary festival is happening at the moment. It doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Artem always holds on to who he is and he is wearing his New Balance sneakers even now. He says he still didn’t manage to find anything comfier. Those who have already read Point Zero will understand: it is not just about your favorite brand. I’m turning the recorder on my phone.
Point Zero and District D – these books are very different. In one of them you literally fall into your past, your childhood, in the other one – everything happens in the immediate reality. Thus, the books were written simultaneously, at the same time, in the war. Which of those dominated, and how did you manage to switch from one to another?
These two books are indeed completely different. I could write drafts from Point Zero anytime, and some of them took literally 15-20 minutes to finish. And there were a lot of such texts. And the book itself would be about three times thicker, but for certain personal reasons, I decided not to publish everything. It was very easy: when I did not want to write something big or needed a break between the stories for the District, I wrote something for Point Zero. And then I dived into some story from District D, which required more perseverance, more attention. Here I had to literally live with my heroes. And I lived with them day after day. It was more cumbersome, more complex work – I was like a designer. And the mere process of writing was actually a little different.
Living with these heroes, creating them, did you feel any special responsibility? After all, in fact, these are the people of your childhood, the people who formed you. Even if some of the characters are fictional or collective images.
I treat the past very easily or even frivolously. Therefore, I did not feel any responsibility to the characters. I don’t owe them anything. They’re don’t owe me. We are on different shores, and it is unlikely that we will ever meet again. There was a responsibility to myself, for the text to be good and for the characters to be elaborated. And again, it’s fiction, and I didn’t limit myself in any way by weaving a certain image of a certain hero together. Fortunately, these are not biographies of real people, but rather the biography of the era – of the place and the time.
Let’s talk about the place. “D” is a district in Cherkasy. I’ve never been there, but I can imagine the city thanks to your book. How real and true is this description? And how important to you was to save the whole reality as a link to the city itself? Because “District D” could exist anywhere, you could easily call describe the “City N” and leave the question open to readers.
It was important to preserve the reality of the city. I wanted the readers, first of, those who know Cherkasy, to recognize these streets, the events that I described, to recognize the general entourage and the spirit of the city. It is important for the reader to recognize a part of himself in every text. For the people from Cherkasy, for example, to recognize a part of themselves through the city. And the name “District D” is rather conditional. But real. It creates the illusion of locality and specialty, it is an attribute, a binding which the whole book holds on to. City N is able to accommodate absolutely everything. District D only has what belongs to district D.
Sometimes texts about the distant past, childhood, are created also in order to somehow deal with this time, to dot the “I”, to let go of this period or even escape from it. Did you have something like that? Did District D become a bridge to the past or a plane out of it?
In fact, I’ve dealt with the past a long time ago, I’ve forgiven everything I had to forgive, I’ve let go of everything I had to let go of. Memories, history, a certain experience remained. So, out of all of this, I just allowed myself to do literature. But anyway, it’s a bridge to the other banks. While writing this book, quite a lot of my memories rose to the surface, that I still comprehend it.
It seems to me that the audience consciously or subconsciously expects another book about the war from the writer who has already presented the book about it. And, quite logically, a novel. As for me, District D is a novel, just not in the classical form, but it’s about something else. Did you feel that the expectations of the audience were somewhat different? What part of the readers was waiting for one more book about the war?
It was this way even before Point zero because then I actually had two ready-made books – Point Zero and District D. But for certain reasons, I understood that I people expect texts about the war from me. But the book is ready, here it is. Why not start with it? And when Point zero came out and had relative success, I thought that maybe District wouldn’t have been worth publishing at all. And the text lay for two years until I just recently decided to publish it. I dared to because I think the book is quite good and worth seeing the world.
Probably the work on the District allowed to distance yourself more from the war than while writing the Point?
It was some kind of parallel dimension. You just dive into it and start living a very different life. It is as if you are reading a very fascinating book or as if you are immersed in a film and completely dissolve in it. It was the same with writing. You get so distracted that you forget about everything: what is around you, what is happening around you. And there were not too pleasant things around, as a rule. Mainly due to the fact that it was very boring. It was boring, scary… And, in fact, that’s it. It was not a hot phase, there was no active fighting. What happened from time to time was rather an exception. And writing saved me from that state. And then, when I finished something, I came back from the story to the dugout, started reading it to the guys. By the way, they loved to listen.
And yet during the presentation of District D in Poltava, you mentioned that there will be a book about the war, however, not about ours.
Perhaps it will not even be a book about the war in the literal sense. It will be a book about a veteran of the Afghan war. Actually, this is another return to my District D, to some extent, this is my childhood in the same area. A usual walk-up house, where very strange people lived – like me and a veteran of the Afghan war, which was there for eight years instead of two. He was drinking terribly, and all of his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), all of his pain, was just coming out, hurting me and my family. I didn’t understand it then. It all seemed comical to me. Even just a drunk man in the apartment – it was something strange, none of my entourage drank then.
It was my grandmother’s husband. She accepted him when he was discharged shell-shocked in 1989. He lived with us. It was a traumatic experience. For him – to survive the first ten years after the war, which were extremely difficult. For us – to live together with him, to see everything with our own eyes, feel it all. No, he was never aggressive towards us. But he was like a volcano, and all that bile, all the pain, all the aggression, everything flowed out of him like lava. It was scary, it was difficult. But then I just did not understand. I realized only now, when I experienced it myself – the experience if not as hard as his one, but quite similar.
For some reason, literary circles try to somehow separate the works of veterans, that is, not writers who went to war, but people who began to write in it or after it. They say this is the book “for the closed circles”. Is the modern Ukrainian literature indeed such a closed system? After all, many of the veteran books have become bestsellers.
It seems to me that these bestsellers do enter the Ukrainian literature. This issue has been raised many times, and the attitude towards it is always different. For some the quality of literature is important, for others – the military experience of the authors, despite the quality of the texts. Some do not want to make concessions, frankly saying “I don’t care you were in the war if it is a bad book – it is a bad book if it is graphomania – it is graphomania”. And I can agree with both sides. After all, those who are aching need to shout their pain out. On the other hand, I understand the literary circles which only accept some more or less good works, including the veteran prose.
But it is veterans who can create what can be called documentary literature in the end. While let’s say, the conditional Zhadan, who often goes to the East, also writes a book but ends up with an artistic novel, only with the elements of documentary. Maybe veterans should be given more freedom and the right to speak? After all, they record what is happening there today.
As for me, those things that are worthy of attention are actually noticed. To be honest, I have not read almost any books about the war. Not because I don’t want to, but because it’s hard for me to do. Yes, I read Boarding school. I was wondering how exactly Zhadan wrote about this war while having a very different experience, not like the veterans. And he saw her in an interesting and very true way.
I started to read some things, but I knew that I would not see anything new for myself. It would be either just household sketches or some real battle scenes with blood and suffering. I know what this is all about. I know what eyes the veterans, the authors of this prose have seen it all with. And now, in fact, I do not want to talk, think, read about the war. I have to, but I’m trying to limit myself.
Artists, in particular writers, often become political experts who are asked to predict the future of the country or assess the political situation more often than they are asked about their writing itself. Why is this happening? Where does this demand come from for artists and not for professional experts?
I think, it is very difficult to make a visionary out of a politician, but it is very easy to make it out of an artist. People need visionaries. We need those who can talk about some specific and painful things in metaphors. Talk about what’s bothering everyone. And that’s what an artist can do, but political scientists or politicians can never do. They think in very different concepts and terms.
Okay. Now there is a completely new government in our country to which a part of the population still has a tangible distrust or even discouragement. Will you say in metaphor how can one endure that?
I won’t manage to say in metaphor, but I can express my opinion. I am an opponent of the new power and I do not hide it. I see what is happening, it’s all a bit depressing and frustrating. But I’m still looking closer, trying to figure out what limit stupidity and foolishness can reach, and when the time comes to do some decisive things. Now we should not talk about the new Maidan or any radical actions. No. But we have to watch, look, remember, not to forget anything that is happening now.
In the end, as Babkina wrote: “This is my country and all the shit in it is only mine”. What does the modern Ukrainian art need, which topics are not given enough attention to or avoided?
All topics are discussed, but not loudly enough. That is, there are not enough voices. After all, we have relatively few artists who can really say so that they are heard. It is necessary that their number became bigger. And this applies not only to literature but also to any other art. We need more of them.
Only quantity or quality as well?
Well, quantity tends to grow into quality. The writers of 2000s are the example – they started with big quantities, but their quality was not very good. However, some very interesting artists, writers and especially poets grew from this mass. It works this way in every sphere. There must be a lot of voices. There must be a considerable choir, which will voice all pressure points, all of these important topics.
Interview by Dmytro Zhuravel
The conversation took place within the framework of the international poetry festival Meridian Poltava
Photo in the text and on the cover: Yuliia Veber for Meridian Poltava