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European Literature Night 2021

Exchange of letters

extra reading material
In the run-up to the European Literature Night 2021 a number of authors have exchanged letters on the central theme of this year: “The courage of the writer”. As a starting point, Nelleke Noordervliet provided a quote from her State of European Literature, that she will deliver on 19 June.

How should writers relate to the burning issues of their own time? Should they choose sides? Should they keep their distance? Have you ever shut your mouth whereas you wanted to speak out? Have you ever kept silent in order not to give offence? Did you do so out of friendship or out of fear? Did you have to defend your position in public debate – insofar as you want to take part in this? Have you become more cautious when speaking out in public or in your work? Do you feel vulnerable, or strengthened?

State of European Literature 2021, Nelleke Noordervliet
Maarja Kangro (Estonia) x Boštjan Videmšek (Slovenia)
Dear Boštjan,

I’m obviously a lousy conversation starter, but here I am, finally. Nice to meet you on that blind date discussing writer’s courage! Maybe that of our own. It’s a good topic, because it’s also a problematic one.

(I’ll start this correspondence under surveillance of others 😉 I guess that’s how we were supposed to do it. If not, please let me know!)

To be honest, I’m not sure if it takes much courage from a writer to appear courageous these days.

First of all, courage has been highly valued in our field at least since the concept of a romantic genius appeared. It’s all about novelty, breaking new grounds, shattering conventions, saying things that the others haven’t dared to say. “Courageous, bold, brave, dauntless, unflinching, transgressing borders”: it usually makes a writer smirk confidently if a critic describes them with an adjective from this cluster of concepts.

I guess you agree that literature, like any creative field, is a (also) game of prestige. Not only, of course, but the “economy of prestige” is an undeniable aspect of it. And to stand out, to be spoken of, you’d better do something bold, you’d better take a risk to annoy someone. While for a human being the greatest fear might very well be losing one’s life, the greatest fear for a writer is to go unnoticed.

Maybe I’m seeing things from an overly cynical perspective, but when I look at myself or at certain colleagues, it seems that vanity is beating fear by far in so many situations. So I think writers (or at least I) should be careful before going chest-beating, like, “oh, aren’t we, writers, courageous”. Certainly several of us are, but it’s also part of our job!

Should writers be courageous as citizens? Quite romantically, I think they should. Not necessarily by participating in direct warfare like Byron, but there are methods today’s writers are more familiar with. In a series of questions we got from Nelleke Noordervliet, there was one about how writers should relate to burning issues. It may depend on whether we want to be sure that we don’t react on a mere emotional impulse, but I find it shameful if a writer doesn’t take a stance about outrageous social or political injustice. It’s like in Brecht’s famous poem “An die Nachgeborenen”: in certain circumstances, it really feels like a talk about trees is a crime, “weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” Furthermore, it’s relatively safe and riskless to be courageous and politically outspoken in a contemporary democratic society.

For a while, from April 2019 till January this year, we had a far-right populist party (EKRE) in our government, including some downright Nazis. I criticized them fiercely in the media and held speeches on several large political demonstrations. While mounting the stage to speak, I didn’t really feel anything but a slight excitement that one gets before performing a piece of music or a poem in front of a big audience. I worried a bit about the technical aspects (how do I sound? shall I remember my speech by heart?), but I didn’t care at all about the furious reactions of the adversaries.I guess we all are familiar with situations where negative feedback from those who are “on the other side” anyway is actually positive feedback. When an internet troll once threatened I should be killed (after speaking up on TV for LGBT rights), this guy sounded so ridiculous and miserable that it rather made me laugh. 

There were a few more writers who criticized the previous government repeatedly in the media, and several more who did so in the social media. The general cultural climate was indeed much against the populist government, however, I would have expected many more writers to speak up in public, and to take part in protests. Why didn’t they do so? Were they afraid? But who’s afraid of some Trump clones and home-baked Nazis? They don’t use Novichok here, after all. I guess the problem is, to a great extent, that our writers were just too comfortable, hoping (and feeling) that their lives would remain unchanged by the incompetent government. Could one say those people lacked courage? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a different axis of values that matters, especially in the face of a global ecological disaster: not that of courage–cowardice, but that of, for example, convenience–commitment. In fact, now that EKRE isn’t anymore in the government, my levels of citizen activism have dropped dramatically. Have I lost courage? Wouldn’t like to think so. Have I got more comfortable, energy-sparing? No doubt. 

How’s the situation in Slovenia, now that you have Janez Janša in power again? I know there have been protests: is writers’ presence conspicuous?

There’s so much more to write about, but my letter is already far too long. Something off-topic: as Slovenia is a small country as well, I guess we must have some friends / acquaintances in common. I think you know Gregor Podlogar? Andrej Blatnik? Maybe also Julija Potrč?

I hope this letter didn’t scare you with its length; after all, I had to make up for keeping silent for such a long time. Next one will be shorter.

Looking forward to your reply,

all my best,
Maarja  

Dear Maarja,

Thank you for your letter from another world.

Timing for our correspondence could not be worse. My best friend and a twin brother David Beriain, a brilliant journalist from Navarra, was killed by poachers related to Al Qaeda in Burkina Faso two weeks ago. I am still in a state of deep shock –a rather dark, sad place, which is being expanded by aggressive emptiness every single hour.

Talking (writing) about courage of a writer. David – he was making hard core documentaries all around the World, and we have spent many years reporting from all (im)possible war zones – was also a great writer. A natural. For him – as for me – writing was a way to penetrate the story, the realities of the World and the dark side(s) of humanity, as deeply as possible.

In journalism, that I will always believe in, this means taking risk(s). Sometimes against the odds. Ultimately, against all the odds. It is non-fiction. It is a diehard – literally – search for the truth. It is freedom fighting, fighting for freedom. This is the courage of a writer: not stopping, while your life is under threat, not stopping when you are facing the (recognizable) consequences.

This is courage as such. Writing is, in this case, just »a format«.

It simply means going out there and living the life of people on all possible frontlines. It means permanent – trampoline – jumping out of the comfort zone, mother of all evils, especially its banality. It means going as close as possible, if I (mis)quote Robert Capa’s famous definition of a good photo: It is good only if you are close enough. Physically. Metaphysically. Emotionally. Intellectually. Ethically.

As a non-fiction writer, and mostly as a journalist, I must follow (and I want to follow, it’s not an obligation or a burden) pretty strict, even draconian rules. There is no space or place for imagination. And – that’s my personal opinion – there should never be any space or place for the compromise. Especially not with the – public. Yes, we all want to be widely read, heard, noticed, recognized; also understood. But having »a measure of your dream« outside of your own ethical credo could destroy the DNA of your writing, of your narrative, of your storytelling. It is not courageous to risk your public persona – it is a necessity! For me, it is an imperative (and a therapy) to be painfully honest – first to yourself. People, readers, will always recognize that.

David, mi mejor amigo, has paid an ultimate price in his personal war for truth. It was the war fought for all of us. I cannot even imagine a braver man. Or a more courageous writer. But – I have no imagination myself. I have seen too much to be able to imagine more.

And the same goes for David.

No, I cannot write about the present political situation in Slovenia. It is too pathetic and sickening. There would be nothing courageous to throw insults in punches all-around because that is easy.

Too easy. And too easy = comfort zone.

Good night,
Boštjan  

—    
Dear Boštjan,

I’m sorry to hear about your friend and “twin brother”. It is absolutely infuriating, and I can imagine this state of shock. There cannot be any comfort in such situations, so I won’t even try.

Where are you at the moment? In some conflict zone or at home?

Certainly the timing of our correspondence must be terrible for you. Still, at least two letters from each of us were required, so that’s another one from another world. A world that might not even interest you, civilian, safe, bourgeois, and decadent as it may seem. A world where it is riskless to speak up for minorities or to ridicule your political opponent and where they courageously fight over the amount of literary grants. Somebody has to live this life as well. 

The work of a war zone reporter definitely has its allure for me. Looks like a vocation where you don’t have doubts about the necessity of what you’re doing (which is rather different for a civilian fiction writer). It certainly seems so “real”. When I was in Odessa at the time of riots in 2014 (four were killed on the street next to my hotel, and another 40 in a fire later on), I was appalled at my own reaction: I kind of enjoyed being present, the adrenaline was so high. But there was no noble touch to my feelings. Courage at its best should include doing something for the others, with no desire or calculation to appear heroic. (Ah, that’s too much to demand, after all I’m an ethical consequentialist, so even bravery spurred by vanity is quite OK.)

Different societies have different structural conditions for courage: at turbulent times, there are more people who are able to or forced to show their courage (or cowardice, or instinct to save themselves). There might be some latently brave people, ready to risk their lives, even among the bourgeois writers exposing their love life or musing over tiny nuances of style in peaceful times. Somebody has to live this life as well – someone has to imagine and practise the way we would live in paradise if there was one. 

Maybe I don’t quite get what you mean by the “measure of your dream” that would destroy the DNA of your writing. Do you mean literary ambition? Or just fictionality, a wish to build an imaginary world of your own? 

Honesty, yes. It’s essential to me as well, both in fiction and non-fiction. Cannot write what I don’t believe. Btw, for a while, “painfully honest” was one of the most beloved laudatory expressions of our critics. But then, I guess very few writers would say: I’m a rather dishonest author. Ryszard Kapuściński was a cool guy, for all his controversially fictional writing. But we can enjoy a guy like that on the condition that there are others whose credo is to remain true to the facts. 

I hope you will soon find a way to come out of this deep shock, even though it is a loss that can never be compensated.  

Good night,
Maarja  

Dear Maarja,

I am climbing out of the dark place and would like to apologize for my much too emotional first letter. I consider self-restraint as a fundament of ethics and character. This ability (or maybe skill?) for which one must train hard on daily bases has partially left me for a while. Please, accept my apologies.

Odessa: »There was no noble touch to my feelings. Courage at its best should include doing something for the others, with no desire or calculation to appear heroic.«

I couldn’t agree more. And courage, as other virtues, should never be over-estimated.  It is, as many other (re)actions in our lives, based on the pre-conditions.

I am currently at home. Trying to restrain my urge to immediately travel to Israel and Palestine to report on the huge, so bloody predictable tragedy; a direct consequence of one man’s radical machiavellism. Officially, I have retired as a (anti) war reporter. And I never consider myself as one. Just a – reporter. If you cannot write a good reportage from your own farmer’s market, you do not deserve to write about historic, tectonic events.

But these neuralgic events just keep calling me back. Partly, yes, it is an addiction. To be a witness of a history is – for a writer and social scientist – an absolute privilege. But that is not remotely a good enough excuse to win my internal ethical argument with the nearly unstoppable urge “to be there”. It should never be an ego safari. Never! One’s work – here I am mostly talking about journalists and merely about (other) non-fiction writers – could only be measured in the impact of their (our) work.

Most of the wars I have covered are still ongoing – we live in the times of forever, eternal wars. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, DR Congo, Darfur, Syria, Libya, Gaza … – to name just a few. The refugee tragedy is only getting worse. The impact of my work (work of our profession!) has been 0,0. My personal contribution to a “better World” – via your definition of courage, which I absolutely share – has only been visible on a level of several individual destinies. Is it enough? Was it worth it? I am still not sure.

This was one of the main reasons why I have changed my professional course and started to research and write about the best possible solutions of the fight against climate change, which I consider the crucial frontline of (not only) humanity. It is much easier to describe the consequences of human evil than to confront it with real, workable solutions. I have decided to do the opposite – to use all the skills, experience, knowledge, and contacts to write a manual for the future “as it could be” – I really hope that my book Plan B: How Not to Lose Hope in the Times of Climate Crisis shows that.

Another – particularly important – reason to change the course and, more and more, the format (from magazines to books) of my work is the sad fact that I simply do not believe as much in journalism as I used to. We are painfully naked in front of (anti)social media, and the rule of fake news, lairs, bots, trolls, and implosion of opinions based on the reptile part of our brains. What we do – with all the risks and hard work involved – can not compete with the need for instant gratification and (=) oversimplification of extremely complex issues. Majority of media outlets have made a compromise with this new reality, ruled by a pathologically shortened attention span.

That is why I can only find my intellectual refuge in the books. In writing and in reading. Anytime and everywhere. And most definitely not only the non-fiction books, which are part of my basic, always ongoing study. It is the fiction that gives me the deepest satisfaction and inner peace (together with obsessive running, of course). Yes, another World. A pit-stop from the reality (mega) bites.  

And this is just another reason to apologize again.

Good night,
Boštjan  

P.S. Maarja, where do you get your information? What do you read? What is your take at media and social networks? How do you mix music and writing? 



Dear Boštjan,

There’s no need to apologize, I understand very well how you must have felt (and still must feel) after your friend’s death.

I was indeed suspecting that you might be somewhere in Israel / Palestine, covering that huge disgrace. Good to know you’re at home. But I can imagine that the burning (literally: burning) issues may not give you peace. Unfortunately, journalism and reporting from war zones hardly have a direct impact on those who make the disgraceful decisions, but such impact cannot be considered journalism’s raison d’être either. You do change people’s reaction; or rather, by showing, you give them the material to react to, tearing them out of their blissful ignorance. Well, at least some of them.

Do you still sometimes work for Delo?

I agree that courage shouldn’t be overestimated, and it’s not always easy to extract “pure” courage from other motives of an act. And scumbags can be courageous, too, risking their lives for what they believe to be a good cause.

Sure, climate change / ecological crisis is the crucial frontline for all of us. Pretty soon it will have an impact on every field of culture as well; no one can or should avoid dealing with it. At their minuscule and barely perceptible level, not even writers who fly to the other end of the world for three days, to read seven poems during a festival. Energetics is the crucial thing. Your “Plan B” book sounds definitely engaging, would like to read it. Plain lamentations are sickening.

Where do I get my information? A good question; it’s an aspect that is always interesting about a person (even about a dull one). In a quite old-fashioned way, I still have a radio in the kitchen area of my living room, so I switch it on while having breakfast. It’s usually tuned to either Klassikaraadio (a nationally owned station) or, more often, to the privately-owned Kuku Raadio where most of the hosts are right-wing liberals. So it’s not a station that I would fancy politically, but a good opportunity to get an overview of the sociopolitical moods, issues and attitudes in my country. My media bubble on the web contains mostly predictable stuff: The Guardian, Vox, for longer insightful articles also London Review of Books. Occasionally I read Die Zeit, La Repubblica. I used to read the Italian media more frequently when I was studying and living in Italy (buying Il Manifesto from kiosks), but now these readings have become more sporadic. If I don’t have time, I just have a look at the briefing the NY Times sends me weekday mornings, in addition to scrolling the ERR (Estonian National Broadcasting) news pages. And then, if I do have time, I check the articles my good friends refer to in the social media – be these from Quanta Magazine or some of our far-right buffoons’ sites. I think social media are useful for gauging the moods, beliefs and attitudes in a society – of course, at the same time, they are pretty much shaping that society and ways to behave,  let alone boosting idiocies in comfortable like-minded communities. I only have an account on Facebook and Twitter, but there have been periods when I’ve spent far too many precious hours (and days, yes) on political arguments on social media: of course, to no avail. But I’m not sure if such arguments are completely useless. After all, people who 50 years ago would have written only birthday cards and condolences are now sharpening their verbal skills 😉

Sometimes I browse our daily papers’ websites as well, but as I don’t often subscribe to them, I don’t see the articles behind the paywall (usually not a big loss – in a small country, you will know when you really have to read something).

Then, of course, there are many sources of information outside the media that seem to influence me more. E.g., I get an obsessive joy from listening to Robert Sapolsky’s lectures 😉

You asked about music, but this is just a hobby. I used to play the piano and studied at a music high school until I was 16, but now I only play as an uncouth amateur, having probably lost 70% of my abilities. My father was a composer and I have written librettos for several contemporary composers (also for one from Hong Kong), but that’s basically my contribution to the field.

I also enjoy running, but my distances must be much shorter, never a marathon.

Now I will enjoy myself, completing my tax declaration; usually, the deadline is in March, but it was postponed for the pandemic.

I wish you an inspiring day,
Maarja



Dear Maarja,

Your last letter made me happy. It’s full of empathy and understanding in a wider sense.

Thank you.

Sitting at home and talking – skyping, zooming, whatsapping, … – with my friends, colleagues and sources inside the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank is deeply frustrating. I feel the urge to help. To (re)act. But I can’t. Not with my writing – no matter how strong are your sources and how experienced you are, you cannot give a reader a truly honest dispatch, if you’re not there.

My colleague Marie Colvin (Sunday Times), who was killed by the Syrian regime in Homs (2012), put it best:

»Someone has to go here and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed pages, the webpage or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference

She was killed. Years later – the war in Syria is still ongoing – I’m struggling to keep the remains, crumbs of her faith.
How to keep the faith in – humanity? Isn’t it truly over-rated?

Jumping back to the media. What really worries me is the painful absence of context – even in the most prestigious newspapers and magazines. The content is, more and more, being side-lined by the images; by the strong visual material (in best case digital quotes), which has a hypnotic effect on the click-byte addicted public.

Throw a sad emoticon, throw an angry face and your »ethical« duty is done. Be it a war in Gaza, Syria or Yemen, be it suffering of the refugees in the Mediterranean and Sahel, be it – climate crisis. A single emoticon can save your mind.   

And this is not a one-way process at all. It’s badly affecting the world of journalism. Badly!

As you mentioned Ryszard Kapuściński in our first exchange. This is one of his quotes I couldn’t agree more with. A journalist has asked him about the consequences of information technology’s fast development on journalism. And in general. »The consequences are terrible. There is no future: the past is non-existing. Everything begins today, every single event is hanged in emptiness. In today’s world the media is like a school-board: wiping it over and over again and writing on it over and over; everything gets deleted and is being forced to start from ground zero; all over again,« was his answer.

Kapuściński, one of my role models (surprise, surprise), said that the lack of continuity is responsible for the past not being transformed into history, but rather in archaeology.  Instantly.

»Yes, the story is the beginning. It is half of the achievement. But it is not complete until you, as the writer, become part of it. As a writer, you have experienced this event on your own skin, and it is your experience, this feeling along the surface of your skin, that gives your story its coherence: it is what is at the centre of the forest of things,« wrote Kapuściński for Granta literary magazine.
But: Do people really care? What does the public – and what is the public, anyway – want? Isn’t this just a matrix, a sideshow?

Time for a good run.

Have a nice day,
Boštjan


Dear Boštjan,

Thanks, I was happy to learn that my last letter made you happy.

I must admit that I was glad already to receive your first letter: if it’s OK to say so, because it began with tragic news. But it was a valuable reminder of the world “out there” where the problems and conflicts are much more caustic than some blockheads protesting against wearing masks or probable austerity measures the government is going to impose on the public sector.

I completely agree with you that being there, physically, is crucial. Yesterday we also got the news of a first journalist killed in the Gaza conflict, so maybe it’s still good you were not there. Now there’s the ceasefire, with the ridiculous words of Netanyahu. I read about Marie Colvin now. It’s depressing. But I understand that urge very much. 

(Again, in Odessa I had a strange and irritating experience: while I was there, in the middle of events, I heard what people in the crowd told me, I saw some things with my own eyes. But I was also constantly texting with a friend in Estonia, and he was, in real time, better informed about the number of dead than me. Sitting comfortably at home with his computer, in a small drowsy town of Elva, he kept several channels open and received the information I couldn’t get from the militia or people on the spot. This discrepancy was almost getting on my nerves.)

But then, the problems and conflicts in the “civilian” world may grow huge and take up so much of one’s time. Like in December when we were discussing for weeks in the Writers’ Union’s Board whether to throw out a writer who got a criminal sentence for pedophilia. Beside such “hugely important” disputes, you just browse the news, see some smoking ruins and dead bodies and shake your head. Oh, such shitheads, aren’t they! And yes, then the emoticons come. Probably for many people an angry or crying round face is a genuine emotional reaction. And for many it is indeed a way to alleviate one’s conscience (support a good cause with one click!). Of course, it’s ridiculous, but at least we get the information of what is going on – or that something is going on. It’s possible to be less ignorant than in the old days. In the Soviet Union, people learnt about soldiers and civilians killed in Afghanistan only via personal tragedies, word of mouth information. I’m trying to be optimistic, you see. The other side to that affluence and accessibility of information is of course that it’s so comfortably packaged. The world is apparently smaller, but the alienation is still there. Yes, bombs kill children, but for us it’s still (and probably will always be) just pixels. I agree that the “strong visual images” have a hypnotic effect; if the context (or content) isn’t there, we learn to see these images without being much affected. But journalism should, beside other aims, evoke our rational compassion, shouldn’t it. Idealistically put: to evoke awareness and to move public opinion, so that our callous leaders would take (desired) action, out of fear to lose support otherwise.

I don’t know if the belief in humanity is justified or overrated. It’s complicated anyway. I think we should rather believe in the possibility of generating the proper conditions for humans to behave “humanely”. Most people are able to behave nicely under certain circumstances, and under other circumstances, I guess most people are able to kill. Figuring out and realizing these conditions, and finding consensus about them, is difficult.

Great that Kapuściński is your role model!

I think I’ll go for a run, too. “A good run” would mean about 10-13 km for me. But first I’ll have to visit a clinic to get my first dose of vaccine.

Best,
Maarja


Moni Stanila (Romania) x Ramūnas Bogdanas (Lithuania)

Dear Ramunas,
 
I am glad to have the possibility to speak with you via email. First of all, please be patient with my English, like all the people born in this area before 1980, I did not study English in school, and I learned it by myself.
 
It is nice to have again a discussion with a Lithuanian writer. In Moldova, at a literary festival, I met the great writer Antanas Jonynas , and in Bucharest the very bold and young poet Aušra Kaziliūnaitė. And I enjoyed their poems.
 
In this moment, I ask myself, if we were put together in these email exchanges because we were both columnists on socio-political opinions, or because we both are so close to Russia, or for the common past of Lithuania and Moldova? Anyway, it is a pleasure to start this dialogue. About the voice of social (?) poetry. I saw on internet that your recent novel is about the major problems in Ukraine (I confess that my husband, who is also a writer, has that topic in a poetry book published last year). We feel, of course, very different the issues of our neighbors. From Moldova in a special way because we are not (but hope to be) part of the European Union, and we (Moldavians) have here the Trojan Horse called Transnistria, which is a gate for the Russian army into Ukraine.
 
Of course, I should tell you something about myself, to make our dialogue easier. I was born in Romania, and I moved here after I married the writer Alexandru Vakulovski. I have already ten years here, so – following the ancient people of Athens – I am part of the city. And I understand, better than before, the problems of ex-Soviet states. I also was a columnist for Timpul.md (2011-2019). As a writer, I have published books of poetry, but also 3 novels (and one for teenagers).
 
I wrote on different occasions about the problems of Ukraine, of Moldova, about the Orthodox Church of Moldova submitted to Moscow (I saw you addressed that topic too). And I strongly believe that a poet must be a voice of his own time. Not necessarily  being part of politics, but loud enough to make his opinion clear. And, of course, not only about the geopolitical issues, like I did before (just to get to know each other better), but for all issues of the moment. We all understand what courage means, but we do not all know what freedom is. Is it freedom to let people create panic around – out of political correctness? Till where?
 
I strongly believe that the courage of speaking about freedom is important. Because the real issue of the time (times!) is intolerance. Everything is starting from there. Even being intolerant with tolerance or tolerant with intolerance.
 
What can poetry do?
 
I’d also be happy if you send me some of your poems translated into English.
 
Thank you,
Best wishes,
Moni Stănilă



Dear Moni,

Your letter confirmed to me that the world is much smaller than people usually imagine. Antanas Jonynas, whom you have met in Moldova, is one of my old good friends. We used to work together as editors in the Vaga publishing house: he was in the poetry section, and I was in the literary heritage section. I consider him to be one of the best Lithuanian poets ever. We keep our friendship till today. When I mentioned you to him, he remembered you with warm feelings and asked to send you his best regards.
 
My life story was so turbulent that I had no time to devote myself to writing. For me writing a novel is a heavy and all-time-consuming intellectual effort. The writer needs to have a lot of life experience if he wants to dig deep. Of course, there is also a feeling, the emotional part but these two must work together. Writing poetry might be different but I am not a poet (it seems that you thought that I write poems – the answer is no).
 
Only in my fifties I realized that I got a basis solid enough to build a house of words – which is a what a novel is. So, I would say, first of all the writer needs to have courage to sustain from writing before he has a deep feeling that he has something valuable to share with other people. I was slowly working on a few other novels simultaneously when Maidan happened. These events in Ukraine echoed with my memories of Lithuania in 1988-1994: the struggle for independence, organised criminality, corruption. At first I planned to write just one novel but in the process it turned into a trilogy, Ukrainian Trident. The first novel describes the country living at the abyss – it must change or turn into a failed state. Part of the action takes place in Transnistria which is like an example for me where the regime of Yanukovich was pushing Ukraine. I vividly described the web of gangsters, businessmen, police and power structures which prevails in pre-Maidan Ukraine. This picture was rejected by Ukrainian publishers as they did not like looking in? the mirror. Though I am still not published in Ukraine the reaction makes me happy: I hit the bull’s eye as I had the courage to touch the painful inconvenient truth. Courage is not about worshipping though many believe that if you are a friend you must paint a heroic canvas of – like in this case – freedom loving Ukrainians.
 
I preferred truth to a comfortable picture, and my choice allows me to feel myself a real friend of Ukraine. It also allows me to sleep well at night because I expressed my opinion but not the expected opinion. The writer must speak his own voice – otherwise, writing loses its main goal (showing the world through my eyes) which is substituted by secondary goals (popularity, commercial success). These secondary goals are ok as long as they don’t come first. My novels sell quite well in Lithuania but that is not the reason to continue writing. Another form of courage is to stop writing if you have nothing to share. I feel I still have, so I continue:)
 
Please, find attached the synopsis and the extracts in English and Russian of the first novel At the Abyss. (the action of the second extract in Russian takes place in Transnistria)
 
Could you send me some of your poems in English and Russian translations?
 
best regards,
Ramunas



Dear Ramunas,
 
Your answer made me really glad. How do you say, the world is small (sometimes it seems even too small, but not in this beautiful case). Send my greetings to Antanas, also from my husband. I will attach one poem translated into Lithuanian by Antanas. So, I am happy to have this poem. It is always for a poet to be translated by a great poet.
 
I am also sending you some of my poems in English. I only picked the poems with a  historical  approach, for being in the same boat with you. I have to say that I don`t speak or read Russian. As I told you, I am Romanian, from the western part of Romania, just hanging in here in Moldova.
 
But the story of Nick I could recognize. It could be happening in Moldova as well, just not with grain, but with wine. The topic of my novels is quite different. If I would tell you that I wrote a novel about the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. A biographical one.
 
The problems of propaganda, bands of thieves, illegal Kalashnikov, we all have here, unfortunately. I like the way you choose to present the facts, in a very cinematographic way, not using a lot of lyrism, acting like a camera which could get all in recording. The rest is for the reader to see. Your style reminds me of American prose. But the conflict can be only Eastern European. Problems which must be known. A story to tell. Maybe someday the entire novel will be translated. Of course, with prose it is more difficult to understand, on the basis of a few pages. If poetry has the advantage to stand by itself, in one single page, prose needs ever more pages, but at the end of the book, prose remains better in the mind of readers. That’s why I suppose it is important to write, how do you say, the important things. To take all the courage and the risk for telling the truth how it is for you, not for the media.
 
I wish you good writing with the 3rd part.
 
In the attachment you will find fragments from my poetry book The Colony Factory, which I feel as the closest to my heart, and somehow with the same topic like your Abyss. It is a book that consists of three poems, named after the men in my family, where I included their lives, I even put an old document from my family, transposed into poetic form, but without changing a word. It is epic poetry about how the 20th century influenced the lives of ordinary people. And there I have the Romanian version of the grain story, the communist struggle, the World Wars and the small and personal dramas. Both, Alexandru (my grandgrandfather) and Ion (my grandfather) fought in those wars. And the book ends with the poem Dan – my father`s story and the transitions years.
 
Did you visit Ukraine already a long time before you wrote the novel, or did you do research in the library? You told me not every Ukrainian was happy with the truth in your book. What did Lithuanian readers think about it? Did the rejections of Ukrainian publishers made you to be more ‘kind’ with their history?
 
Best wishes,
Moni



Dear Moni,
 
This morning I learned that our President is going for an official visit to Moldova, and that reminded me that I did not answer your last letter. I really enjoyed reading your poems. Poetry is the world of condensed words, each of them has a certain weight. It takes pages for the novelist to describe the same idea which the poet marks with one line. That would mean that a single word is not that important for the novelist (though it is for me personally) as for the poet but both of them are responsible for paving the way for the readers towards the world of feelings and ideas.
 
Is it courage if the author exposes hate which is overwhelming his inner world, or do we call courage only those creations from a mainstream background? Would it be courage for a cannibal to describe openly his culinary preferences trying to prove that they are within his understanding of the world, though already the most archaic cultures are describing  cannibalism as existing beyond the boundaries of human society, in the area of nature? Is Mein Kampf ‘ an act of courage or an insane book? (I tried to read it but never finished – so flat and stupid).
 
You ask about my visits to Ukraine. Yes, I have been there many times. But when it comes to writing it is not important. The geography of the novel serves t the idea of the novel unless it is just a documentary description which is not the purpose of fiction.
 
Best regards,
Ramunas



Dear Ramunas,
 
I  look at the Moldova political scene and I have the feeling that I understand less and less. 
I am not sure that in Moldova (or Romania!) things are going as well as is seen from the outside.
 
Somehow we have now a president, and everyone hopes for the best, but we are still too far away from normality.
 
This is the hard job for a prose writer, to make a very clear context for the next readers. And for this he needs a very deep understanding of his society. 
 
I did not read Mein Kampf either. I didn’t even try to to. I am a very subjective reader. If I despise the writer I can not read his books. So, no chance in the future for that kind of – you told it very well – insanity. 
 
Going back to our first talk, regarding the courage and freedom, I asked myself many times if fiction will be more and more restrictive with its topics. Freedom of speech has two directions: the freedom of telling the truth or the freedom to tell anything. My question is: in literature (not in philosophy or society!) may we include both directions of freedom? Does art need absolute freedom? And than, reading your email, I answer you with another question: has a writer the right to create a cannibal character in his novel? Or, maybe, is his intention in making this character very important? 
 
But most importantly, I am in total agreement with you, a writer cannot use literature for spreading dangerous and hateful ideas for society. We share the same feeling about that.
 
And now, some sunny things. I also visited Ukraine many times and I discovered in Ukraine the best, the most perfect wild beaches along the Black Sea. And I hold that land in my heart! But I still hope that the authorities will repair the public roads so that I can travel more easily to birds, water and dolphins. I hope this year I will go there again, to have in the sea the same feeling as the character in your novel when he enjoyed the river. Black Sea is  carrying inside her the small river from my hometown. I always think about it when I am there. My very small mountain river is heading through the Danube into the Black Sea. And somehow that is Europe for me: finding myself, my roots, in the Sea with so many roots and cultures. We survive together, each with his own river, in one big beautiful Sea. 
 
 
I wish you all the best,
 
Moni Stănilă

—-

Dear Ramūnas,
 
I  look at the Moldova political scene and I have the feeling that I understand less and less. 
I am not sure that in Moldova (or Romania!) things are going as well as is seen from the outside.
 
Somehow we have now a president, and everyone hopes for the best, but we are still too far away from normality.
 
This is the hard job for a prose writer, to make a very clear context for the next readers. And for this he needs a very deep understanding of his society. 
 
I did not read Mein Kampf either. I didn’t even try to to. I am a very subjective reader. If I despise the writer I can not read his books. So, no chance in the future for that kind of – you told it very well – insanity. 
 
Going back to our first talk, regarding the courage and freedom, I asked myself many times if fiction will be more and more restrictive with its topics. Freedom of speech has two directions: the freedom of telling the truth or the freedom to tell anything. My question is: in literature (not in philosophy or society!) may we include both directions of freedom? Does art need absolute freedom? And than, reading your email, I answer you with another question: has a writer the right to create a cannibal character in his novel? Or, maybe, is his intention in making this character very important? 
 
But most importantly, I am in total agreement with you, a writer cannot use literature for spreading dangerous and hateful ideas for society. We share the same feeling about that.
 
And now, some sunny things. I also visited Ukraine many times and I discovered in Ukraine the best, the most perfect wild beaches along the Black Sea. And I hold that land in my heart! But I still hope that the authorities will repair the public roads so that I can travel more easily to birds, water and dolphins. I hope this year I will go there again, to have in the sea the same feeling as the character in your novel when he enjoyed the river. Black Sea is  carrying inside her the small river from my hometown. I always think about it when I am there. My very small mountain river is heading through the Danube into the Black Sea. And somehow that is Europe for me: finding myself, my roots, in the Sea with so many roots and cultures. We survive together, each with his own river, in one big beautiful Sea. 
 
I wish you all the best,

Moni Stănilă
 


Jan Skrob (Czech Republic) x Guido Snel (The Netherlands)


Dear Guido,

I have been thinking about the quote and the questions posed by Nelleke Noordervliet. When it comes to courage in poetry, though, it is a strange thing. At least here and now. I have been attacked and harassed for what I write on Twitter. I have never been attacked or harassed for the content of my poems. It doesn‘t mean my poems are less radical or even less straightforward. They are simply seen as something harmless. And that is the strange paradox of being a poet in this world. What a privilege to be allowed to say whatever you want, to have the absolute freedom real poetry requires. Yet, what a curse not to be taken really seriously. These are two sides of the same coin.

I am a left-wing extremist. That‘s what they call people like me for envisioning more freedom, more equality, more joy in this world. I don‘t know if a writer should choose sides. I just know that I do. Not really as a writer. I do it as a human being with certain sensibilities. And I believe the very same sensibilities that make me a poet also make me a left-wing extremist (to use the scary label). I don‘t think I write left-wing poetry or political poetry in a narrow sense. The sensibilities are simply there. My poetry would be incomplete and not fully honest if there were no politics in it. But at the same time, I write poetry. I don‘t write propaganda. (Also, my understanding of what constitutes actual politics may differ from what’s on the news.)

Poetry is a different language. Maybe one of the reasons why I have the freedom to express myself the way I need in my poems and why I have never been challenged for the poems themselves is that as a culture, we are used to see symbolic language as something that doesn‘t really count. “Symbolic” is often seen as a synonym for “unreal”, isn‘t it?

Once, at a reading in Germany, a woman in the audience asked me this: “Do you believe poetry can change people‘s hearts?” I answered that I do and that if I didn‘t, I wouldn‘t really write. I can‘t say I mean it in a strictly political sense. It‘s much deeper and much wider. The political element is a part of it, though. Something else happens there, I imagine. An unconscious speaking to an unconscious, sensibilities speaking to sensibilities.

I‘m sorry for writing about myself so much. I simply believe the personal experience and personal mindset is all I can offer. I‘m very interested in your insights and your perspective. Specifically, I imagine there must be a difference between poetry and prose in how people react to what they read or hear. Do you consider yourself a political writer in any sense of the term? Do you feel the need to think about it? Have you got any ambitions regarding changing the hearts of people with your work? Feel free to ignore my questions and answer those I haven‘t asked instead! One way or another, I‘m intrigued.

Warm regards,
Jan
 
 

 
Dear Jan,
 
Thank you for your wise letter.
 
In attempt to understand what courage means, I looked up the etymological root: it comes of course from Latin cor, the heart: so to write courageously is to write from the heart, to speak with spirit, temperament and passion. To write with courage is therefore also to write with love, love for the world, for the human animal and all other creatures, for the natural environment which we’ve trampled for centuries, and which is now moribund.
 
But here I am sounding morose while I wanted to start on a different note, as your letter struck at the heart of what writing poetry or prose is about: to use a different kind of language, or rather: to use language in a different way. For prose specifically – I write novels and non-fiction – this is about a certain mode or tone, a pact also with the reader. Every story or novel renews this pact between me and the reader: it is an invitation to enter a world that is real in a different sense from the everyday reality of our jobs, our table conversations, the anecdotes we share on social media.
 
What exactly this reality is, is hard to express outside that mode. It certainly is no attempt to escape, or a farewell. I love our reality as much as it worries and saddens me.
 
Perhaps a key to understanding how writing literature is different from plain writing or speaking, lies in the way writers and poets try to grasp reality. Storytelling is a re-arrangement of reality, and so an indirect mode to talk about that same reality. The price a writer pays is the loss of impetus, the direct blow that one can deal with a well-expressed opinion. The gain is in the invisible web that stories create, and that sometimes prove very resilient.
 
So to answer one of your questions: while a writer is not a politician, to write is certainly a political act, because you reach out to the world, to your fellow human beings, you offer your fictional or non-fictional stories for the wellbeing of your community, pointing out gaps in its shared memory, or blind spots in its visions of the future. In a new book, for instance, I travel from Vienna to Istanbul, a journey encompassing nine cities in the Balkans, and one of the points that I insist on, is that the experience of those cities in the last 30 years is as much part of Europe as the limited vision we sometimes have from the vantage point of Western-Europe.
 
Here, in Western-Europe, there is for instance a very stubborn belief that there can be a literature that is social and one that is not; that one can actually choose not to be social, that is, political. While I always knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with this belief, I had a hard time finding the right words to refute it. Recently, an essay by John Berger, gave me the words I was looking for:  ‘I judge a work according to whether or not it helped men in the modern world claim their social rights. I hold to that. Art’s other, transcendental face raises the question of man’s ontological right.’
 
And let’s be honest: there is also comfort in what you’re describing: that nowadays people
don’t take poetry (or prose for that matter) that seriously. There were times – and the past of your country has many more examples than mine – when poets and writers were imprisoned or hanged for what they wrote.
 
Who would want to go back to that?
 
Warm regards,
 
Guido
 —
 
Dear Guido,
 
thank you very much for your letter. I really like the notion of love and courage being manifestations of the same thing or, perhaps, courage possibly being a manifestation of love. I completely agree with you in this regard. I would add what a great friend of mine and an extraordinary Slovak poet Michal Tallo usually claims: that all writing is ultimately about love.
 
I also like the course of your thoughts regarding the character of reality and specifically the reality we offer to our readers. For me, it has been a very important topic. The name of my second book is Reál, vaguely translatable as Reality, Real Life or The Real. It’s to some extent about different dichotomies we live in, with reality often being understood as a contradiction of the virtual, the mythological, etc. However, I also like the idea of the spectacle as understood by Guy Debord and others: that the system we live in offers us superficial sensations and distractions that form something we perceive as the reality but it is, actually, more fake than we usually sense. In this regard, a powerful work of art (be it a novel, a poem, a painting or a song) can be, in my opinion, paradoxically more real than what we are forced to accept as such.
 
As for literature than is social and one that is not, it is a very interesting topic from the point of view of Czech poetry, actually. Some ten years ago, there was a very vivid and widespread debate among Czech poets about socalled “engaged” poetry. “Engaged” poetry is a term meaning (loosely) social/political poetry which, however, has its roots in socialist realist culture from before 1989. Needless to say, in those times, there was a very narrow and rigid idea of how specifically is the poet supposed to be engaged. During the 1990’s, Czech poets have rejected this idea and chiefly pursued a perceived freedom not to be political at all. In my opinion, they forgot that between 1948 and 1989 a lot of poets who were forbidden and persecuted were also openly political — just not in the manner encouraged by the government or directly in opposition to it. Also, some claimed that with the oppressive regime gone, there was nothing left to criticise. Why be political when we have democracy now? Eventually, however, it did lead to the big debate, with a new generation of left-wing poets claiming authors should be social and embrace a responsibility for naming what’s wrong with the system and the world. Two branches of poetry emerged: the lyricists who focused on the beauty of language and richness of poetic imagery, avoiding a direct connection with the social reality, and political poets who were perhaps a little bit too straightforward in a political message they feeled the need to convey, neglecting the imagery and beauty of language. And it was my generation — perhaps partly by chance — that completely rejected the dichotomy. For me, this debate is still alive in the back of my head as a warning that both of these extremes are unhealthy and that they both in one way or another betray what poetry (or prose, for that matter) should be about. I’m sorry for this long paragraph but you have touched a topic that is still important for me and I feeled the urge to explain the whole context.
 
We certainly have a responsibility. While we, luckily, can’t be persecuted for what we write (at least in our respective countries, that is), we can still offend and provoke animosity. I’m not saying a writer should seek to provoke animosity — that could easily lead to cheap works based on shock value — but not to avoid the possibility. Perhaps it is courage of allowing oneself to be disliked by some people. In Czech, we have an idiom “neurazí, nepotěší” (“it doesn’t offend, it doesn’t please”) that can be used for a mediocre work of art but also for a mediocre meal or, basically, anything. I think there’s wisdom there in that when you want to write something that leads people to a passionate reaction, the passionate reaction can also consist of rejection, anger, offense. When you aim at creating something that doesn’t offend or anger anyone, it probably won’t please anyone either.
 
It brings us to the topic of offense and freedom of speech. I think it’s a very sensitive topic because for certain right-wingers, freedom of speech means the freedom to avoid any negative reaction to what they have to say. That is, they are supposed to say or write what’s on their minds but when you disagree or protest, it’s already an infringement of their freedom. Which is a very childish understanding of freedom, isn’t it? Ironically, the real threats of censorship (at least in Europe and specifically Eastern and Central-Eastern Europe) come also from right-wingers and often the same ones who otherwise yell about their freedom of speech. I think we have to maintain that freedom of speech is a vital principle but it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean a freedom not to be criticised. 
 
I’m very interested in the book about your journey from Vienna to Istanbul through Balkans. It sounds very intriguing.
I’m sorry for the long email. There are simply too many things that come to mind.
Looking forward to hear from you.
 
Warmly,
Jan
 
 
Dear Jan,
 
I was going through the Dutch translations of your poems that were done by Kees Mercks. Kees and I used to be colleagues at university until he retired. But more so he was, and still is, an example because of his marvelous translations. Through him I know Hrabal, Vaculík, and several other Czech writers. Kees once told me something that I will never forget. To be a translator of Czech literature in the Netherlands in the late 1970s and 1980s – the late phase of the Cold War – meant being scrutinized by the Dutch secret service. Unbelievable as this may sound today, it only shows me how flimsy ideological convictions are, and the divides that are based on them.
 
In those same 1980s, I was a teenager, and one of the most daring and courageous moves in our family circle (so I thought at the time) was my announcement to my parents: I am not a believer and I will no longer join you to church. This was a little preposterous. None of my friends from high school came from a religious background, so it merely meant me joining the majority of non-believers, and of course challenging parental authority. There you have the 1980s in the Netherlands: the final death pangs of religion in its organized, social form, and a geopolitical framework that only few people were aware of, but that did play out in our daily lives. There were invisible connections between the two. For my parents also joined marches against nucleair arms, in the name of their belief.
 
These thoughts occurred to me when I encountered references to your faith in your poems. I admit: there was a shock. Both of surprise, and of recognition. The image of Christ crucified. I turned away from religion and embraced scepticism at a relatively early age (while the whole idea of devoting one’s life to literature, even when this turns out to be a literature of doubt and scepticism, can only be an act of faith).
 
The Christian images in your poems come across fully naturally. And this made me think. Leaving aside organized religion as a conservative force, it really seems impossible to neglect the fundamental gestures and images of religion as a meaning-making force.
 
Still, your poems confused me. I always failed to relate to, for instance, the figure of Jesus. I had and still have a hard time understanding what is meant by his sacrifice, and how it actually works. Forgive me if this sounds like banalizing a mystery that has for ages perplexed people much smarter and more sensitive than me.
 
While living in Istanbul almost ten years ago, there was a mosque in my street. The muezzin was a very gifted singer. And since this was a well-off neighbourhood, most celebrities and socialites of the great city of Istanbul who had met their final hour, were put to rest right here. This, no doubt, inspired the muezzin even more than he would have been otherwise.
 
No I arrived in Istanbul mourning for my mother, who had passed away in the previous year. I found myself drawn to religious music in those days. For instance to a motet by Johannes Brahms, Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? or: Why has light been given to the weary of soul? The text offered too much protestant despair for my mother’s Catholic soul, but the music swept me off my feet.
 
This somehow started to merge with the almost mundane business of the regular funerals in my street, and the wonderful singing of the muezzin, who, I thought I could hear, begged the gates of heaven to be opened, to have the deceased enter. In a sense, I buried and re-buried my mother over and over, in those months.
 
This I find one of the most astonishing realizations that life has served me, now that I am approaching fifty: facing the fact that, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, I have never really been modern. Steeped in imagery, words, phrases, incantations that have outlived us in every possible respect.
 
It took me years, and considerable courage, to admit this to myself.
 
So I want to thank you, from the heart, for your poetry. Right now I can’t think of poems that are more of our time than yours.
 
 
Guido.