in joutsa:

 an interview         with Lisa (YB)

Before she arrived to TUO TUO in May 2022, Lisa and I had never met. The first time I saw her was when we picked her up at the Joutsa bus stop – which looks like a small dollhouse, sitting pretty and precarious on the highway’s edge – she was with her cat, whose yellow globes for eyes seemed to glow from behind the caged door of the travel carrier Lisa held in one hand. During the three-month stretch of Lisa’s residency, I was starstruck. My infatuation was marbled with uncanny reveries, a continual deja vu. It felt that our entanglement reached beyond the here and now, beyond the horrific circumstances behind our present collision, it’s not something I can pinpoint or boil down to similarity or coincidence. The affinity I feel for Lisa dates back, long before we ever met and this feeling echos every time I read her work. I wish I could give you specific examples, but when a stranger spits your own secrets and memories back at you in the form of confession, you don’t go around repeating things. What I’m trying to say is that Lisa never felt like a stranger, rather some mystified mixture of long-lost childhood friend, buried former self, a most cherished author, an enviable peer, a muse, a guide. It has less to do with some cosmic connection between the two of us, and more with what an impeccably brilliant and discerning writer she is. It will forever be a dream come true that she agreed to contribute to this platform: tragedy in joutsa – is a haunted and breathing rabbit warren of poetry and prose, and now this, a thoughtful expansion on the piece below in the form of an interview. 

KAITLYN: I’d love for you to share a bit about your relationship and experience with Ulyana Kravchenko – how she entered your writing process and her appearance throughout the text. I’m interested to know: who is she? But even more, what level of posession was at play during your writing process.

And when in my autobiography I wanted to write about the storm-shower, about the appearance of Mr. de Pechka, and about the destruction of my white flowerbed, at the beginning of a new section, on a new card, I wrote: “Incipit tragoedia”. (“Tragedy begins”).

Does it really? And what is it that whispered these words to me?

Ulyana Kravchenko, Chrysanthemums

YB: A few months before the war,* I decided I wanted to “feminize my Ukrainian canon,” by which I mean I researched and compiled a list of female Ukrainian writers (I was particularly interested in the 18th and 19th centuries and writers who were less known, which is a general condition for most female writers of course) and decided to read down that list. When full-scale war began on February 24th, I had only managed to make my way into reading the poetry and some memoirs of Ulyana Kravchenko.

After the 24th, it became impossible to read for pleasure in general and particularly hard for me to read my “feminine Ukrainian canon.” After four months of living inside my screen endlessly refreshing the news, I arrived in Joutsa and felt very disembodied and dissonant in my environment. Ilya (ID) suggested grounding my experience in the local plants. I had used this technique before, and it was easy for me to slip into it. It was then, on my walks in the pine-and-birch forests and bogs around TUO TUO, that Ulyana began entering my thoughts, luring me back into what I was doing before the war. Ulyana used to orient herself around plants as well, so it makes sense to me that this would be her point of entry.

When I say I was possessed by Ulyana Kravchenko, I mean that she was entering my cycles of rumination and intrusive thoughts. She was there, in between other things, and kept returning. It felt painful to let her in—she felt very extra, very romantic—and that made me feel better about exhuming her. I thought, if she won’t leave me alone, I won’t leave her alone either. tragedy in joutsa is essentially a continuation of the kind of short-form diary-style writing I began sending out via my Tinyletter in February as personal war updates. These are diary entries, or diary entries with some meditation, chronologically arranged; I haven’t really revised or taken anything out. Ulyana appears in them because I was thinking about her and starting to read her again.

On Ulyana/Uliana Kravchenko:

Taking into account Ukraine’s many periods of subjugation by various neighboring empires as well as the historically multiethnic constitution of its people, it isn’t surprising that for many authors across history, being Ukrainian was a choice—political, linguistic, dangerous—that had to be fought for in the face of various suppressive mechanisms (ranging from access to resources to community ostracism to imprisonment or even death, depending on the time period). Julia Schneider, born in 1860 to a German father and a Ukrainian mother in Mykolayiv (L’viv region), chose to become Ulyana Kravchenko (the German tailor became the son of the tailor with a characteristic Ukrainian suffix). She also chose to write in Ukrainian, as opposed to German (which she knew better) and Polish (which was the dominant language in her region under Habsburg rule).

Several things worked in her favor: that she was raised in the home of Ukrainian poet Mykola Ustianovich, a member of the Shashkevych circle; that her father was a German colonist who, like Ustianovich, was part of the narodovtsi—a 19th century socio-political romantic-nationalist (“ukrainiophile”) movement in Western Ukraine; that this kind of movement was possible under the Habsburgs, lenient as compared to Ukraine’s eastern overlords, the Russian Empire, which banned the use of the Ukrainian language in 1876; that her hometown, Mykolayiv, was particularly “free.” And yet, even under these “lenient” conditions, Ulyana lost her job as a village teacher multiple times, suspected for being a “ukrainiophile” because she published Ukrainian poetry and had ties to contemporary narodovtsi like Ivan Franko.

I’d like to bring to light some more choices made by Ulyana Kravchenko.

As already mentioned, she chose Ukrainian, which she found preserved in her maternal grandfather’s mystical Cyrillic library (he was a Greco-Catholic priest), over the German/“Gothic” script of her father’s library: In the books collected by grandfather, I saw our old culture. We have long been cultured. We gave the treasure of language to Moscow. We do not need a foreign culture...

She chose the plant proletariat—shepherd’s purse, wild mint, veronica, daisies—over roses and carnations: The edges of the leaves in the buds are already bloodied in the fight for survival, victoriously live on, cover wide swathes of the wayside… These flowers, dear to my heart, are now in the little vase at the corner of my desk. (This is my favorite choice of hers.)

She never thought to seek in a man an object of love. No doubt influenced by her aunt: You must…remain solitary. Do not forget the words of the poet: as soon as the girl became known as the wife / they buried her in her grave alive… Nobody’s! I will be nobody’s! This I can promise! (After an impressive record of rejected marriage proposals, she does eventually end up marrying another teacher and having two children. Apparently he never accepted her writing nor her choice of nationality.)

And she chose to publish her memoirs (which I much prefer over her poetry) despite her “supporter and mentor” Ivan Franko writing, in his very first letter to her, to give up on prose, for which one needs a strong and clear imagination…visualization, expression, which you do not have. He urges her to focus on poetry instead, encouragingly ending his letter: Attaching your little poetry, which I changed a bit with regard to form. And yet, when she submits to the first Ukrainian feminist almanac Pershyi Vinok (First Wreath), compiled in 1887 by Natalia Kobrynska and Olena Pchilka, she submits her diary prose. Unfortunately, having somehow made his way into making editorial decisions at this women’s magazine, her supporter-and-mentor Ivan Franko rejects it.

I guess I have given you this serious synopsis of her as an attempt to pay my dues, because I am not seriously engaged with Ulyana Kravchenko. I am playfully engaged. I am not working with her straight story or responsibly honoring her oeuvre. As I (we all?) do with the things I read, I abduct my favorite pieces of language or affects or preoccupations and they end up inside my writing. The things I take, I tend to emphasize in italics. Some things I find myself taking from Kravchenko right now are plants, ghosts, textures, colors, outfits, blood/tears, weather, children, anything to do with pens/writing/books/scrolls, anything gothic, anything elaborate. I am interested in the formal qualities of her language. A new technique I am working on is something I am calling “goblin translation” or “mistranslation”—using translation to purposefully introduce and pursue slippages in meaning. Maybe someday I will have a more focused and dedicated text with Ulyana.

At the end of her memoir Chrysanthemums, which chronicles her youth, she chooses, as literary critic Vira Aheeva put it, the “bitter bread” of a village teacher over the career of a pianist “in white muslin” (one of the only acceptable careers for a woman of her class at the time). She also chooses to dedicate her poetry-writing to political projects: nation-building, feminism, the plight of the poor. She chooses, in short, a life of service, and Chrysanthemums (the last of the last flowers of the year…flowers of death…sad chrysanthemums, like tears, like heartache, for that which is joyful and most valuable, for life) is in some sense a tribute and swan song dedicated to an airier and more fanciful Ulyana, to an Ulyana that could have been had there been less fight in her life. I suppose I am interested in the possibilities of this other story, which she left behind, to which her soul will always return, with a wordless sadness, her first unexpressed love, which, like the flowers, like the shadow, will always be with me.

*The February invasion that marked a new phase of the Russian war against Ukraine, which began in 2014.

K: Can you tell us what it was like translating ID’s work and how did that process influence (if at all) your own writing or editing process? How did your proximity to each other, physically and spiritually, during your time in residence impact the work, the experience, outcome, or anything at all which stands out to you?

YB: My relationship with Ilya started out epistolary—we wrote to each other for over a year before meeting. This was a very charged exchange for me; a kind of kindling and fostering of a special form of life that exists under very particular conditions. It involves a large and mysterious shadowy gap, which, as you can see on the diagram on the homepage, I suggest is a place of promise and potential. Translation is another such process with a gap, which is why I am interested in it, both in its more functional and its creative/improvisational applications. Our time in Joutsa certainly allowed for another period of fostering the gap: we wrote, read each other’s writing, wrote more. I will leave it to the readers to discover any interplays that exist between our texts.

K: As someone who has read the piece dozens of times over, I have developed a particular affection for one recurring character in tragedy in joutsa: what should we, the readers know about Katya?

Katya is someone I love in Ukraine. Katya is powerful and irreverent. She has quicksilver blood like a centaur, or the opera singer from Fifth Element.

She is a bit like this ^.

I can also share that she is the co-founder of atelienormalno; designed operas like “Limb” and “Bread. Salt. Sand.” for the music agency ukho; and works across mediums—drawing/painting, documentary film, video, performance art.

[End of official press release.]

K: In the spirit of translation, I would love it if you could provide some illumination around “NOISE” and also “hot noise” and “cold noise.”

YB: Noise appears in two ways in tragedy in joutsa that I know of:

1) In reference to the hot/cold noise cybernetic framework proposed by Amy Ireland in her “Noise: An Ontology of the Avantgarde,” which Ilya sketched out and shared with me while at TUO TUO. The loss of experiential complexity during war (the streamlining of experience, the collapse of multiplicity into binary categories, the obliteration/impossibility of elaboration in the clearcut demarcations and definitions that suddenly arise) -- this to me is reminiscent of the funneling of (very) hot noise into (very) cold noise. Maybe where there was once a satellite dish, there is now a wartime transistor radio, converting all incoming messages to cruder frequencies (will he or won't he (use nuclear weapons)? friend or enemy?) and filtering out the inconvertible, the outliers, the off-topic. I observed this happening to myself and to my friends. I allow myself to be heartbroken over this in a luxuriating, self-indulgent, and privileged way. I'm also interested in gothic narratives and so also curious about the resistant/subversive/redemptive remainder that is inadvertently created during this kind of filtration (as during any willing or unwilling act of enacting order and control, "getting your shit together,” producing copies or translations, etc.) Proliferating werewolves are an example of a gothic insurrection some guy gave on youtube, quoting another guy. The other example he gives is a barbarian invasion. I like the idea of our (Ukrainians') (un)suppressed remainders barging in on us (when we're done fighting evil and are ready to be haunted) like our very own (and figurative) barbarians; it fits nicely with our historical clout as “unruly dwellers of the borderlands" and, of course, most importantly, returns us to the qualities that are currently being defended: pluralism, irreducibility, contradiction, factuality. This is not to draw too strong a correspondence between hot/cold noise and the rest of these musings.

2) I was also reading Hrushevsky while in Joutsa, specifically his history of Ukrainian language arts, which he begins by looking at written records of Ukraine's oral tradition, and thus the earliest (spoken/sung) texts. Some of these are songs sung in a hai – a grove – grovesongs, and all of the songs are girlsongs, as he calls them, sung by women during celebrations and rituals, which leads him to the conclusion that the earliest Ukrainian-language “texts” were produced and performed by women. Some of these made their way into tragedy in joutsa. At one point of his research, he talks about how languages evolve. At the beginning, languages have many synonyms, parallel forms, and expressions. The difficult, fine, weak, and artificial is with time discarded, as memory becomes tired of nuance and mass, leaving the general, the conventional. (The difficult, fine, weak, and artificial reminds me of Ulyana’s “story left behind” and what I am trying to exhume and grow.) An example of this kind of filtration from the dispersed and diverse towards the compacted and conventional (hot to cold noise again) is that of шум (shum, “noise”), which is one of the many early words that were used for “forest” (others were the noisy, noising, noise-maker, green fur). One such usage is given by the folklorist Stepan Kylymnyk in his collection of Ukrainian spring and grovesongs:

girls went to weave NOISE
oh girls, boys, to weave NOISE
and our Noise has got a green fur
oh girls, boys, went to weave NOISE

YB is an artist whose residency at TUO TUO was facilitated by the Artists at Risk (AR) Ukraine Solidarity Team.

Learn more about the artist and her work here.

Kaitlyn D. Hamilton is the co-founder and co-director of TUO TUO.

Many thanks to AR & Arts Promotion Center Finland (Taiteen edistämiskeskus) for supporting this project.