Unfortunately, the writer-in-residence of Tartu City of Literature residency programme, Olena Huseinova will not be performing at Prima Vista

At author’s request, we are publishing her essay explaining her decision to withdraw from the festival.

Literary festival Prima Vista firmly supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian victory in the war. We want to make Ukrainian voices heard and believe that the best way of getting heard is to attend, to perform, to speak up. We welcome and encourage Ukrainian authors and readers to take this chance, tell their stories, ask critical questions in the space where they can’t be silenced, face to face with those who need to answer. If you feel you have been silenced by someone, no one can reclaim your voice for you.

Why I’m Not Attending Prima Vista

The invitation to a writer’s residency in Tartu (along with an invitation to the Prima Vista festival) came in March when my colleagues from the Ukrainian PEN and I were driving into Nikopol. It was one of our regular PEN trips that we call “supporting trips,” an initiative to help colleagues who are close to the front line, those who are under fire or have just come out of occupation. I got access to the Internet and checked my email, but I thought about Tartu later because the app on my phone warned of the threat of artillery shelling in Nikopol. Nikopol is a city in southern Ukraine, less than 50 km from Zaporizhzhia and a little over 60 km from Kryvyi Rih. The city is located on the banks of the Kakhovka reservoir. The locals name it sea. Beyond the sea, six kilometres away, is the occupied city of Energodar. On July 12, the Russians opened artillery fire on Nikopol, and they have not stopped since. I work on Ukrainian radio, and my job is to report on air about the threat of aerial attacks and the threat of artillery shelling. Since July, my vocal apparatus has grown together with the phrase: “Friends in Nikopol and the Nikopol territorial community, you are under the threat of artillery shelling, stay in safe places.” I feel it with my nose, mouth, throat, lungs, and stomach. I say it for the people in this city, for Olena, the director of the local library system, for her husband, their friends, and neighbours. Olena takes us to the most dangerous street in the city – Mykitska, just behind it is the embankment, and therefore a firing point from which the Russians conduct endless artillery shelling. Olena shows us the children’s library where two Russian shells hit in August. Now it is March, and the dents are filled with bricks. It’s a white 19th-century building, built in the Southern Ukrainian brick style. A children’s library with neither books nor children. The windows have no glass panes but are instead covered with wooden boards. Against the backdrop of these wooden boards, the paper cuttings look very vivid. I’m gazing at the paper-cut images of Peter Pan and his fairies. They are attacking Captain Hook’s ship. And in the neighbouring window is Alice. She is standing beneath a tree,  Cheshire Cat perched on a branch telling her about March Hare and the Mad Hatter. “We had such a good life,” Olena remarks. The Ukrainian word for “such” is “такa”, and Olena pronounces this word by pressing the “t” against the roof of her mouth more strongly than Ukrainian phonetics require as if she’s trying to convey a sense of irrevocable loss, mixed with anger and a strong sense of responsibility.

I have returned to Kyiv and have responded to the letter from Tartu. I thanked for the residency invitation and requested permission to come 10 days later. I shared a childhood story about my favourite red shoes, brought to me by my father from Tartu in 1986. And I began to search for the right words to decline participation in the Prima Vista literary festival. I have to do this because among the festival participants will be a Russian poet and editor of a website where other Russian poets share their experiences of the war that was initiated by their country against mine. The poet and editor does not have a Russian passport but has books published by Russian publishers. I search for words and think about Nikopol and the phrase “we had such a good life” pressed against the roof of her mouth by the director of the Central Library System in Nikopol.

For a year now, receiving an invitation to an international literary festival I have to ask whether there will be any Russian participants. I always feel apologetic asking this question, as if I am offending the organizers with the suspicion that in 2022 or 2023 they decided to decorate their program with Russian poetry or prose. And indeed, the festivals that invited me were free from Russian artistic expression. So when I saw Russian names in the Prima Vista program, I realized that I didn’t have a simple and transparent language for declination. Simple, and therefore understandable. Transparent, and therefore not making anyone want to pat me on the back sympathetically or bring me a glass of water like for an emotionally unstable person. It took me a few days and a few conversations with friends to write a cold, formal, and detached letter in which I explained nothing but merely pointed out that while Russian aggression continues, I cannot be in the same program as Russian writers, and that the decision was made in March 2022 and has not changed since then. 

I didn’t write anything about the windows of the children’s library in Nikopol. And they would be intact, along with Peter Pan, Alice, and the Cheshire Cat, if Russian poetry had done its job well. Thirty years is a good time to cope with one’s own subjectivity. As well as with the construction of civil society. That very same civil society that asks questions and exercises control. That prevents civilization catastrophes. And also protects the paper cuttings in the windows of children’s libraries. Education is not the purpose of poetry. The thesis is simple and transparent and does not require explanation. However, it apparently requires sympathy. And maybe even a glass of water. Because it’s not about didactics, it’s about love. Love that is incompatible with superiority, towards those who live with you in the same country and culture. I didn’t write anything about all of this. 

After arriving in Tartu, I learned that another Ukrainian poet had to decline. Anna Gruver wrote a post on Facebook. In April 2022, Anna escaped from the East of Ukraine to Lviv by evacuation train. She has already lost her home due to the Russian occupation of Donetsk. “I was lucky,” says Anna. “My house in Kharkiv avoided a direct hit, but it was still affected by the shockwave. But in any case, we no longer had a home, so what does a person lose from a rented apartment?” Anna was stunned by the haunting “safety” in Lviv and decided to volunteer at an orphanage that had also been evacuated from the Kyiv region. On the way to the orphanage, Anna scrolled through her Facebook and came across a post by a Russian poet who proudly announced the creation of a new “opposition” magazine. Anna wrote a comment, and she wasn’t the only Ukrainian writer to do so. They asked the Russian poet if it didn’t seem to her that this online platform, where Russian writers freely demonstrated their feelings about the Russian-Ukrainian war, was now unacceptable. They also pointed out that the only thing this platform achieved was to dilute Ukrainian voices, making them vague and incomprehensible. “I survived that shelling, which the Russians watched on their screens, in other words, they were ‘watching as others suffered,’ let’s be honest, how we all suffered” – says Anna, reflecting on her right to evaluate the contemplation of Russian writers on the Russian-Ukrainian war. The Russian poet then closed the ability to comment on her posts. Today, this Russian magazine is being translated into English, French, and other languages. Furthermore, the presentation of this magazine is planned for Prima Vista, a literary festival that Anna will not be able to attend. And where I will not be reading my poetry.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a Russian poet. For example, when I see the blind windows of Nikopol. Or when Oksana, who survived the occupation in Irpin while listening to Ukrainian radio, writes to me about how she is searching for her husband, who was kidnapped by the Russian military, for over a year now. Or when I think about my school teacher of French, who escaped on foot through the forest from occupied Bucha. Even now, when I peek into the windows of the wooden houses in Supilinn and see cosy kitchens and living rooms, and my memory instantly flashes to the bare kitchens of a bombed-out building in the Peremoha housing estate in the city of Dnipro, I imagine myself as a Russian poet. I imagine what my life would be like this year, but I can’t imagine anything except silence. I would probably feel powerless, probably wouldn’t feel the ground under my feet, and probably would feel pain and shame. But the main thing in my existence would be the choice of silence. I find myself compelled to confess that were I to embody a Russian poet, my tongue and my language would sink into a weighty stillness, as if lifeless and bereft of motion deep within me. Probably, nowhere else would I belong, except within this silence and void. And if I were to receive a letter in 2023 inviting me to Tartu with my poems, I wouldn’t even be able to reply to that letter. This letter would remain unanswered among my emails. The mail would return it to me, the red text reminding me that it’s already been 5 days, 10 days, 15 days since I haven’t responded to this letter. I would feel that it is impolite to ignore people who are just doing their job, but I wouldn’t be able to reply.

It is clear to me that imagination is a very intimate way to understand reality. However, even when I don’t imagine anything and just reread “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, I think about silence as the only choice that a person, who creates texts within the culture, through the language of culture, by means of the semiotics of culture, that launches artillery shells at a children’s library, can make. However, this choice does not happen. This choice did not happen in the spring of 2022, when I announced green corridors for Mariupol and Berdyansk on the radio and wrote hundreds of messages that were not delivered to the producer of the “Lullaby” program from my editorial office, Lilia, remained trapped with her children in occupied Dymerka. Meanwhile, Russian poets and writers, in a bid to amplify their voices of artistic powerlessness, launched several websites. In the spring of 2023, the choice did not happen once more. On the Martian field in Lviv, an important person from my youth, who was killed by Russian hands near Bakhmut, was laid to rest. Yet, Russian poets accepted an invitation to a literary festival in Tartu, offering their voices and feelings on the Russian-Ukrainian war. It was a choice laden with implications, for it meant that Ukrainian writers would be effectively silenced, and their stories left untold. The question that Spivak posed decades ago still resonates today: Can the subaltern speak? And yet, I hear my Russian colleagues answer with a resounding “no.” 

However, we already speak. We speak, pressing the phrase “we had such a good life” against the roof of our mouths. We lived as good as we could. We made paper cuttings for our windows. We threw parties, complained about communal services, battled depression, indulged in wine and weed, yearned for better wages, gained weight, raised our voices in protest, grieved our own losses, wrote letters to political prisoners in Crimea, volunteered for ATO and Joint Forces Operation, gossiped, and matured. The life we once knew is gone forever. It can never be reclaimed. Not even the cessation of Russian artillery shelling over Nikopol on a daily basis from the other side of the Kakhovka Sea, from a firing point in occupied Enerhodar,  can restore the such a good life of Olena and her paper-cutout Peter Pan and Alice. Their world, like so many others, has been shattered beyond repair. It is impossible to express any of this, drowning out the voices of Russian writers. There is no sense in seeking resonance with them, and even less sense in engaging them in argument.

When I inquire of Anna Gruver why she declined the festival invitation, she cites the unacceptability of sharing a program with someone who has disregarded the views of the Ukrainian literary community. She maintains that the so-called Russian “support for Ukraine” is, in fact, a silencing of all our voices – as poets, as citizens of Ukraine, and as human beings. She asserts that any appearances of this nature alongside Russian cultural figures are presently inconceivable. 

“And as long as this continues, we will keep declining again and again,” Anna tells me. And I think that this “we” is worth pressing with our tongues to the roof of our mouths.

As I stroll through the streets of Supilinn, I come across a woman and her grandson near a playground. And in a sudden realization, I recognized people from my country.

“Where are you from?” I inquire.

“Kupyansk,” the woman responds.

Hearing my Ukrainian, the boy begins to speak rapidly:

“Did you know that the Russians attacked us at night? Do you know why?”

“I know,” I reply.

Olena Huseinova