Five Questions With … Vitaly Chernetsky

Note:  2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions For …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students. In this third installment, Stephen Norris asks five questions for Vitaly Chernetsky, former Center faculty associate and now associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Kansas.

  1. You have been a leading force in (and for) Ukrainian studies in America, with one particular passion being the translation of contemporary Ukrainian authors.  What works from Ukrainian authors should we be reading and why? What translation projects are you currently working on? What works should be translated that have not yet been? Yes, that’s 3 questions rolled into 1 …

Ukrainian literature has seen a veritable explosion of excellent new writing in recent years. The leading authors of the 1980s generation, Yuri Andrukhovych and Oksana Zabuzhko, both of whom turned 60 this year, are still in top literary form. They became the defining voices of the generation that experienced both the crushing force of the late years of the Stagnation Era and the turmoil and promise associated with perestroika and the collapse of the USSR. Zabuzhko’s recent writing is more in the vein of autobiographic essayism. Andrukhovych still continues exploring the legacies of postmodernism and of multicultural Central Europe. His most recent book, Darlings of Justice, is a novel in “eight and a half” self-contained stories that play with the conventions of crime fiction and historical mysteries. I have already translated and published in journals two of the chapters from it, and plan to translate the rest. I really look forward to his new novel, Radio Night, which is due out in December.

Yuri Andrukhovych’s novel, The Moscoviad, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.

Serhiy Zhadan, the leader of the generation that came of age in the 1990s and the best-known voice from Ukraine’s east, has had a major breakthrough in the English-language market with his fiction and poetry in recent years; now he is the Ukrainian author you would most likely find on the shelves of a major bookstore in the U.S., with three novels and two poetry collections in print. His excellent novel The Orphanage, set during the battle of Debaltseve in the Donbas in the early 2015, will be out from Yale University Press soon.

Among the authors of the younger generation, Sophia Andrukhovych, Yuri’s daughter and a writer whose themes and style are quite unlike her father’s, has been gaining prominence. I am now translating her 2014 novel Felix Austria, which became the highest-acclaimed and also the most commercially successful work of Ukrainian literature during that challenging year. I would describe it as a subversive postcolonial take on the conventions of Gothic writing and simultaneously a carefully researched historical novel set in the year 1900. Her most recent novel, Amadoca, is a massive (830 pp.!) epic that interweaves three different stories that focus respectively on the Holocaust, the Stalinist terror, and the war in Donbas.

Sophia Andrukhovych’s Felix Austria, soon to be translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.

Another younger writer gaining increasing recognition is Andriy Lyubka, now the leading literary voice from the region of Transcarpathia. His satirical novel Carbide, focused on the smuggling operations on the border between Ukraine and the EU, will be out in English shortly. Among the novels that should be translated I would name Oksana Lutsyshyna’s Ivan i Feba (Ivan and Phoebe), set among the student protests in Kyiv in the final years of the Soviet Union, Ivan Kozlenko’s Tangier, a bold rethinking of Odessa and its mythology that presents the city from an angle largely unknown in the West, and Serhiy Synhaivsky’s The Road to Asmara, which is a fascinating work of magic realism that is mostly set during the Soviet Union’s involvement in Ethiopia’s civil war in the mid-1980s and is among the most profound works exploring the theme of anti-colonial solidarity I have encountered in any language.

Finally, on the poetry side, I invite everyone to explore the excellent contemporary Ukrainian poetry book series published by the University of Washington affiliated Lost Horse Press. It now has more than half a dozen titles out, all of them in the bilingual format. I was glad to collaborate with another translator, Ostap Kin, on a volume of Yuri Andrukhovych’s selected poetry that came out in this series in 2018. Now I am working with the poet and translator Iryna Shuvalova on another book for this series, showcasing the poetry of Ostap Slyvynsky.

Andrukhovych’s collection of poems translated by Vitaly Chernetsky.

2. Your work studies contemporary Ukraine from multiple scholarly perspectives, including postcolonialism and the cultural aspects of globalization.  How do these perspectives help us understand postcommunist Ukraine in ways we might not otherwise grasp?

Traditionally Ukraine was considered either within the contexts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, specifically as one of the three East Slavic nations, or within Eastern Europe. Those approaches played down the aspects of colonial experience Ukraine shared with non-Slavic nations within the Russian Empire and the USSR, or with colonized and formerly stateless nations outside Eastern Europe, as well as Ukraine’s complex involvement in global flows of trade, migration, intellectual exchange, cultural production, and democratic solidarity. Tracing those neglected aspects of Ukraine’s history and present enables us to develop a richer, more nuanced perspective on both the traumas and the accomplishments of its past and the challenges and opportunities it is facing now.

3. You’re working on several projects, including a book in Ukrainian on “glocalization” and its effects on Ukrainian literature and culture.  Tell us a little more about this project, its basic arguments, and what interventions you hope to make.

My new book, which has been slightly delayed by the pandemic but should be out in a few months, explores Ukrainian literature and cinema through the prism of the concept of the glocal, that is, the complex interaction of globalizing and localizing tendencies in culture and society, in which global tendencies become adapted, rooted, and transformed in local contexts, builds on a decade and a half of my research and writing, revisiting and revising some of my articles published in English. Its focus spans from the reception of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in Ukraine, Russia, and the West during the writer’s lifetime to reflections on contemporary writing, like the novels Felix Austria and Tangier mentioned above. It is part of my lifelong efforts at “de-ghettoizing” Ukrainian Studies, and Slavic Studies more broadly, within the context of international Humanities and Social Sciences, as those Cold War-era barriers that often impeded our field’s meaningful dialogue and engagement with colleagues studying other parts of the world have proven peculiarly persistent.

            Glocalization entails transcendence, unthinking, and reconfiguration of the conventional post-1989 understanding of globalization. Glocalization is globalization refracted through the local. The local is not annihilated, absorbed, or destroyed by globalization, but rather affects the final outcome; it operates symbiotically with globalization and affects the end state or result. The ambivalent role of social media, fostering democratic protest mobilization on the one hand, but also aiding in the spread of misinformation, the creation of echo chambers, and the increasing difficulty of meaningful dialogue across political divides, is an example of a complex glocal factor at play.

4. What do you think is absent from studies or popular understandings about contemporary Ukraine?  Or stated differently: what misconceptions about Ukraine should we continue to correct?

Ukraine continues to surprise us with the twists and turns in its social development. The recent years have been quite a roller coaster for even the best-informed international analysts. I would especially urge folks to abandon the simplistic view of Ukraine’s regional divisions. Ukraine is a diverse country, and its diversity should be seen as a strength, not a liability. After all, we welcome and treasure diversity here in the US. Also, the divisions in Ukraine are often far from clear-cut, and the shades of gray in transitioning between extremes are many. In the last six years, Ukraine has overcome incredible adversity to rebuild its defense capabilities, reorient its international trade, and build impressive cultural diplomacy institutions. It has also seen many setbacks in its quest for social and political reform and better global integration. Most importantly, we should approach Ukraine as an entity with its own agency, not only as an object for application of competing geopolitical interests.

5. You and I were colleagues at Miami and at the Havighurst Center, which was led by Karen Dawisha from 2000 to 2016. Now that you’ve moved on to Kansas and just concluded a term as director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies there, how might you look from afar at the Center, at Karen, and their impact?

What Karen Dawisha did in her years directing the Havighurst Center is truly remarkable. She increased immeasurably Miami’s international prestige as a hub for innovative research on the post-Soviet region. She was also a fierce advocate of depth in international research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences as essential for the university’s intellectual profile, and she was an outspoken champion of diversity, inclusion, and open-minded dialogue. Karen was never afraid of speaking truth to power, and my admiration of her for that has only been growing. I am proud and honored of having been able to bring Karen as a distinguished guest speaker to the University of Kansas in November 2015—a major highlight of my five-year term as KU CREES director. KU CREES has been around for more than 55 years, and successfully overcame some tough challenges along the way. I now have a much deeper appreciation of the challenges of building and sustaining a major interdisciplinary research center of the Havighurst’s caliber and of the transformative legacy that Karen, whom I miss deeply, has left us.

This entry was posted in Interviews. Bookmark the permalink.