H-Ukraine "Spotlight" Interview with Kate Tsurkan

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H-Ukraine “Spotlight” Interview with Kate Tsurkan



H-Ukraine: What is your current role or title?


KT: I am always uncomfortable with people who are quick to declare a role or title beyond that of something important, like a parent. Let me tell you a story related to this: once in New York an acquaintance excitedly told his social circle, including myself, that he had just met the great-granddaughter of a certain famous American author on the subway, and it turned out that she was also a writer. This young woman possessed neither her great-grandfather’s talent nor his instant name recognition (the name having been ‘reclaimed’ after it was lost through marriage). And yet she found it necessary to introduce herself to people by first mentioning this. I had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting her once and found the crowd of sycophants to be quite amusing.


That is not to say that I don’t understand the desire to brand oneself. It seems almost uniquely American at times - just think about how obsessed some Americans are with the British aristocracy, for example. Or how many Americans openly proclaim that they are a member of such organizations as the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. We are so desperate to establish a legacy to rival that of countries with a much older history that it comes across more often than not as naive. 


So, I could tell you that my role or title is that of a PhD candidate or a magazine editor, but these things do not dominant my life, no single thing does at the moment (perhaps this is to my detriment).



H-Ukraine: You are currently finishing a PhD in French Studies at NYU where you are working on a dissertation about representations of the moon in French literature, correct? The 1902 film, “Le Voyage dans la Lune,” is a favorite of mine. As someone interested in French literature, how did you become interested in the world of Ukrainian studies? 


KT: After five years there’s no turning back from my current field research, but I do wish I had developed an interest in Ukraine sooner. We can look at how often its history intersects with countries like France and understand that it plays a notable role in shaping the history of the European continent, although the ties to France are not as rich as to, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I really could have explored this in some academic manner, if academia had remained my chosen path. Honoré de Balzac married Ewelina Hańska in Berdychiv and he spent quite a bit of time traveling through what is today Ukraine. Berdychiv is a city that I have yet to visit but would someday like to. The birthplace of Joseph Conrad, Vasily Grossman… and John Demjanjuk, no less. Of course, I must also mention my home, my beloved Chernivtsi. Paul Celan was born and raised here, although it was Czernowitz/Cernăuți/Chernovtsy in those times, and he settled in Paris after the war and socialized with some of France’s most talented writers. A happy life was not meant to be for poor Paul, unfortunately. There the ghosts of Bukovyna chased him into the Seine. 


French literature is rather a conservative field of study, especially if you’re trained by professors coming from France’s elite universities. There’s nothing wrong with that. It simply means that you will be encouraged to be conservative as well in developing your own field of research. There was one woman in my program who wrote a marvelous dissertation on French authors’ connections to Russia in the 19th century - the question of empire plays a big role there - but she was Russian herself. I wish I had been as independent five years ago, when I started my PhD studies, as I am today. While representations of the moon in nineteenth century French science-fiction is a fascinating topic, I believe that my dissertation could have easily been on something else. I originally applied to my program with the intention of writing about Emile Zola, can you believe it? I thought by writing about science fiction authors that I had accomplished some act of rebellion, but a lot of scholars have been devoting attention to this in recent years…


H-Ukraine: Currently, you live in western Ukraine. When did you decide to move to Ukraine and why?


KT: After completing the coursework for my PhD I felt that I not only wanted but needed a major change in my life. I understood, on some level, that my future was not in America. But this is very difficult for some Ukrainians to understand, because they still believe in the American Dream. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me “There are more opportunities in America”. At first I tried to justify my decision, but now I simply nod and thank them for sharing their opinion. That an American would want to live in Ukraine is in some ways the embodiment of an existential threat to such people, a challenge to everything they believe. I enjoy living here and no longer feel the need to justify that. 


Previously I was a GoCamp volunteer for the Ukrainian organization GoGlobal, a chance act that would have a major impact on my life. As a volunteer I taught English for two weeks in Chernivtsi. During that time, I made a few friends and came back to visit them in subsequent months. I entertained notions of moving to Kyiv but my friends, rightfully so, told me that it would be better to move to Chernivtsi where I had a base of support, and if I didn’t like it, then I could move to Kyiv later on. Chernivtsi has become such an important part of my life in the past two and a half years that I can’t imagine living anywhere else, not even in Paris (although I did enjoy the opportunity to visit prior to the pandemic). A more responsible person in my situation would have moved to Paris, but it felt like something was calling me here, and I had no choice but to answer it.


H-Ukraine: You currently run the literary journal Apofenie (founded 2017), which is a word that is derived from the Czech language. Can you tell us more about how this journal originated and why you chose this particular name?


KT: It had been my dream for many years to have a literary magazine of my own. I have always enjoyed purchasing and reading magazines, almost as much as books. They are often a great introduction to promising new authors. Considering my growing interest in Central and Eastern European literature, I chose the name Apofenie, the Czech spelling of the word apophenia (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as the former), which is the search for meanings in things that are seemingly unrelated. It felt appropriate for a magazine which relies on translation to thrive. The first issue mostly included my friends, only a few of them writers. What they all had in common was an interesting story to tell. It has evolved into something much bigger since then, and for that I am very thankful. I recall being so shocked at first when famous writers agreed to be published by a magazine that is nowhere near the level of, say, The New Yorker. But then I understood that any opportunity to be translated is a good opportunity for writers, no matter their level of success, and stopped holding such things so close to my heart.


H-Ukraine: Apofenie features the work of some really fantastic Ukrainian writers. Was it always your intent to feature the work of Ukrainian writers, or did this come about as a result of you working in Ukraine?


KT: The goal was to publish some country-themed issues and introduce readers to writers they weren’t likely to encounter elsewhere. So far we’ve only published two country-themed issues - one devoted to contemporary Ukrainian literature, and the other to Czech literature. We’re doing our research and preparing future ones, but it takes time if you want to do it right. I chose Ukraine as the first country simply because I already knew a lot of writers here and it seemed the easiest place to start. They were very helpful in recommending other authors I was not aware of at that time. Mark Andryczyk of the Harriman Institute was also of great help. I remember arriving to his office at Columbia University and there was a collection of literature anthologies spread out on his desk. During our conversation, he told me about writers like Oksana Lutsyshyna and Lyuba Yakimchuk. I even attended Andriy Lyubka’s event at the Harriman Institute in 2017, although I didn’t know a word of Ukrainian at that time. I went simply because I missed Ukraine. A year later I interviewed Andriy Lyubka during his visit to Chernivtsi for the Meridian Czernowitz festival. It was the first time I had ever interviewed an author - in academia, my only experience had been interacting with authors who are long dead - so needless to say I was quite nervous. But Andriy Lyubka has a great sense of humor and after a glass or two of whiskey it was very easy to speak with him. 


H-Ukraine: After you finish your PhD, are you planning to shift focus to Ukrainian literature full time? Do you have any new projects in the works? If so, what are they?


KT: I’ve come to terms with the fact that my future isn’t in academia, at least not in any way that I can currently think of, so I have the freedom to pursue whatever interests me. In the past two years I’ve made a lot of progress on my knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian. I do wish I had studied German, though. For years I was told not only in academic institutions but in language schools that it is not a popular language. French is more profitable in America, but in Ukraine I have only rarely had the chance to use French, whereas German is far more popular here. I believe that the popularity of French in America can be traced back to that American naivety which I previously spoke of, since there exists a very narrow idea of what is “high culture” and what is not. If the American school system was not so mediocre I could have even learned both French and German at the same time growing up. Instead, I feel like I am making up for lost time. Rather than succumb to anxiety, however, I am trying to enjoy every new book that I come across. 


Someday I will finish my dissertation, and who knows what my relationship to French literature will be beyond that of reading for pleasure? I have begun writing my own fiction, but I don’t want to reflect too much on that until I make significant progress with a manuscript. 



H-Ukraine: I imagine that your work requires you and your team to translate quite a bit of the literature you publish into English. Have you found it difficult to translate Ukrainian prose into the English language? What kinds of things get lost in the translation process? Have you noticed any similarities or differences between translating French and translating Ukrainian?


KT: While Ukrainian literature remains one of the best kept secrets in the world of translation, there are an ever-growing number of extremely talented translators who will change that in the coming years. They are the ones to be thankful for if we consider the amount of Ukrainian literature in translation available to readers on Apofenie’s website. I feel that I am the most fortunate to have worked with Zenia Tompkins from almost the beginning of Apofenie’s inception. Her translation of Tanja Maljartschuk’s A Biography of Chance Miracle had just been published when we first met. Since then, she has launched TAULT: The Tompkins Agency for Ukrainian Literature in Translation. There is no one working harder for the promotion of Ukrainian literature abroad than her, and thanks to her guidance the Ukrainian literature section on Apofenie has not only developed but thrived. 


In the past year I have begun translating from Ukrainian, although I have yet to finish any book. It is difficult for me to compare translating from French and translating from Ukrainian, for I worked with literature and historical texts while translating from French and have primarily worked with nonfiction thus far translating from Ukrainian. I believe that it depends less on the language itself and more on the authors you choose to translate. Currently I’m working with the independent media platform Zaborona translating a lot of their news articles into English. I rather enjoy translating the articles written by Katerina Sergatskova, the co-founder of Zaborona, because she pursues important stories that are often difficult for people to talk about.



H-Ukraine: What piece of Ukrainian writing would you recommend for those who are interested in delving into the rich world of Ukrainian literature? Where can readers access content that is published by Apofenie?


KT: It is impossible for me to choose only one, so I’ll make a compromise and offer you two. 


Yuri Andrukhovych’s Perverzion is one of my favorite novels. It is worth reading anything written by him, and it goes without saying that his writing is one of the driving forces of contemporary Ukrainian literature from the times of Independence to today. The novel is about a Ukrainian artist, Stas Perfetskyi, who travels to Venice for an art festival. But the novel is so much more than that. It is written in the post-modern style, so the reader is following events not only from Stas’ perspective, but also spy reports, interviews, transcripts and so on. It is an extraordinary confrontation between East and West in the chaotic 90s, filled with sex, drugs and a variety of perplexing and alluring characters.


There is also Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide which will soon be published in English. It is about a bumbling history teacher named Tys who schemes to build a tunnel underneath the border of Ukraine and Hungary to smuggle all 40+ million Ukrainians into Europe. While he is motivated by a deep love for his country, this plan brings him into contact with the notorious criminal underworld of local Carpathian smugglers. It is a hilarious yet tragic novel that reflects the spirit of post-Maidan Ukraine, which still endeavors to become part of Europe.


You can read a translated excerpt from one of Yuri Andrukhovych’s more recent novels Darlings of Justice on Apofenie’s website. Translations of Andriy Lyubka’s short story “A Room for Sorrow” and the beginning of the novel Your Gaze, Cio-Cio-San can also be found on our website. (You can access the website by clicking here)


H-Ukraine: As part of our “Spotlight” interviews, we always ask our guests where they like to visit and travel in Ukraine. Where is your favorite place to go in Ukraine and why? 


KT: The answer to this question largely depends on my mood. I must confess that there was a period of time where I found it difficult living in Chernivtsi and would count down the days until my monthly visit to Kyiv. I needed that loneliness of the big city, something that Chernvitsi cannot provide, because you run into at least three friends or acquaintances just walking to the supermarket. I enjoy traveling very much, and traveling by overnight train was, before the pandemic, one of my favorite things to do. There is no culture of traveling long distances by train in America and so it was something completely new to me. I’m very much looking forward to being able to do it again after the pandemic ends. 


I’ve been all over Ukraine, from Uzhhorod to Kharkiv; to big cities and small villages. But I’ve never been to Odesa. A lot of Ukrainians told me it’s too expensive and I’d be better off going to Turkey if I wanted to visit the seaside. However, a lot of people also told me not to bother traveling to Kharkiv, that it was too far, and I’d be better of going to Poland or Austria. It’s sad to hear, because after my time in Kharkiv, I can honestly tell you that I fell in love with this city. I’d like to think a memorable trip to Odesa is waiting for me someday in the near future, too.