Home > Conversations > A Conversation with Oksana Zabuzhko
Published: Tue Jan 30 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Bañando en Tiron / Bathing on Holy Saturday (detail), 2017, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
A Conversation with Oksana Zabuzhko

Oksana Zabuzhko has published four volumes of poetry, two short novels, and the Ukrainian national bestseller Field Research in Ukrainian Sex (1996, 1998, 2000), as well as numerous literary and scholarly essays. Works available in English include a collection of poems and essays, A Kingdom of Fallen Statues (Wellspring Ltd., 1996), essays in Partisan Review and The Slavic and East European Journal, and numerous translations of her poetry in American literary journals. Since 1987 she has been an associate scholar at the Institute of Philosophy of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. She has also taught in the United States.

Halyna Hryn: Oksana, I was most struck by the broad philosophical sweep of your novel, the extent to which the personal is subsumed under the weight of history. After all, the title suggests something quite different: was this not supposed to be a story about love, or rather sex, a man and a woman?

Oksana Zabuzhko: Sexual life belongs almost entirely to that “invisible part” of our existence—I’d say it constitutes our “third life,” along with the daily, conscious one, and with the one we conduct in our dreams. So, what particularly tantalized me while working on the book was to examine precisely how that massive, dark, and powerful mainstream of history affects, quite surreptitiously, people’s most unconscious behavior, words and gestures produced in bed…(I think the first writer to have ever approached this problem with due attention was Milan Kundera, but his standpoint remains thoroughly “male,” in the most patriarchal sense of the word.) And, since such was my initial “drive,” there naturally came this deceptive and comic title, Field Work in Ukrainian Sex (in the book it is also the title of a paper the heroine imagines herself delivering at some international conference), the title which has misled so many critics, to the point that I was dubbed by some “a pornographic writer” (there were even cases reported where the parents of college kids demanded that the dean “exclude” the “dirty” book from the contemporary literature course, but the students revolted, and won). And then others meticulously counted up the “sexual scenes” in the text and discovered that there were, in fact, two of them, each no longer than a page and a half.

One reviewer observed that these “studies in sex” are nothing but a “pathogenesis of our solitude,” meaning solitude not just in personal terms, but also in historical, cultural, and even linguistic terms. Quite a perceptive résumé of the entire twentieth-century Ukrainian history: a lost, “forgotten” country, with a historical memory that’s been deliberately erased, subjected for so long to all kinds of humiliation—and every social humiliation affects men much more strongly than it does women (women can, at least, “retreat” into a kitchen and/or nursery, while men have virtually no place to retreat to). As a result, in the end it is always women upon whom men take revenge for their defeats “out in the world.” But this, I’m afraid, is rather universal, nothing particularly Ukrainian about it (alas!). The “Ukrainianness” of the story just helps make it all the more striking and visible—far more visible, I guess, than if it were, say, “American.” For extremes are always easier to register than the latent, smoldering, seemingly innocuous manifestations of the disease.

HH: This may be the moment to mention that you, in fact, wrote this novel in the United States, in Pittsburgh, when you were here teaching on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1994, and that this is the setting in which the narrative unfolds. Historical trauma, the sense of what is involved in the struggle to stop feeling your parents’ or grandparents’ humiliation and pain is certainly not foreign to many quarters of American society. One example that comes to mind is the experience of children of Holocaust survivors. There are others. American slavery and Russian serfdom were both abolished in the early 1860s and shared many features: corporal punishment, the rape of young women, the control of marriage by one’s owner, the winning or losing of people in card games. And 1861 is not as long ago as we like to think, and certainly not when it comes to one’s most intimate sense of self, one’s family history.
Do you suppose this tapping into historical memory is one of the reasons your book has struck such a nerve in Ukraine today? And has the reaction primarily come from women?

OZ: My greatest, I would say, “cultural shock” came from my hundreds of female readers, ranging in age from early twenties to early sixties, who responded with the same exclamations—in letters, at meetings—“This is my story!”, “It reads as though you were sitting in my kitchen, and I was pouring my heart out to you!”, “I feel as though I wrote it!” etc. I didn’t expect that, honestly. It stunned me. Never before did I realize to what extent half of the nation had been deprived of a direct voice of their own when it came to the most intimate, everyday life experiences. Somehow the most “personal” turned out to be the most universal, immediately recognizable by so many women with biographies completely different from my heroine’s: women having no dissident background, never teaching (nor even being!) in America, even belonging to different generations….I still don’t know how this happened. I have always been interested in how history reveals itself “in flesh and blood,” i.e., through personal lives and destinies—in Eastern Europe it is, fortunately for the writer (I hope this won’t sound too heartless!) far more visible than in America: stop anyone in the street, ask them to tell you their family story for, say, the past three generations—and, after half a dozen such interviews, you won’t need any textbooks in twentieth-century history. But there is also an invisible, subliminal part which can’t be reported so easily and, more often than not, is unnoticed by people themselves, and that’s precisely the field, and the most exciting one, for a writer’s “field work.” . . . For example, in Ukraine we still can’t throw a molded piece of bread into the garbage (you’re supposed to crumble it for the birds, or whatever)—I believe this is due to an almost genetic memory of the 1933 famine. Your parallel with the Holocaust is apt—I’ve recently been reading how psychologists now find traces of subconscious trauma in fourth-generation Holocaust survivors. And keep in mind that the Holocaust has been the subject of open public discussion for generations, while the Soviet genocide could not even be mentioned until the collapse of the Soviet Union, so God only knows how long we’ll be recovering.

HH: Much has been made of whether your novel is autobiographical (I believe you were once even given an award for “autobiography” as opposed to literature). Do you believe this to be a valid question?

OZ: You know, all these “hot rumors” about the book being “autobiographical” never in fact went beyond a narrow circle of literary people eager to play the role of, shall we say, “well-informed persons”—you know, the ones with that meaningful look in their eye and similarly meaningful hints in reviews. I wouldn’t have cared much, had I not sensed behind such attitudes an eagerness to “cushion the blow,” to depreciate the social impact of my book by ascribing its scandalous success to its being “autobiographical” (which was rather ridiculous, for prior to this scandal I had no national recognition, and my heroine was neither a gas-monopoly princess nor a president’s secret girlfriend). I suppose all these rumors (largely subsided by now) were just another way for the culture which I attacked in my book to protect itself, a way certainly more subtle than overt scorn and/or damnation (which was not lacking, either), but, in the final outcome, not much more effective.

I guess Field Work can be called confessional literature. Of course, it is, in many ways, an autobiographical novel (and which novel is not—starting with Madame Bovary?), but it can hardly be regarded as a pure documentary, a non-fiction (no one but myself knows how many things in there are in fact “the products of the author’s imagination,” whatever this formula may stand for!). The reason for giving the narrator my first name, as well as much of my own biography (literary career, teaching at American universities, growing up under the Soviet regime in a Ukrainian dissident’s family) was at first merely intuitional—nearly all my friends who had read the manuscript suggested that I “change the names,” but I stubbornly rejected that advice. It wasn’t until the simultaneous outbursts of ecstasy and indignation came, and the reading public split into two opposing camps, that I said to myself: Hey, woman, weren’t you right! For you see, if the novel was to articulate certain things which Ukrainian literature has never articulated before, and be heard, all these dark and dirty secrets HAD to be pronounced “in the first person,” as a part of the author’s most personal existential experience. Or, to put it briefly: to win the reader’s trust, you sometimes need to pay with your own blood. In the end, that’s what literature is all about, isn’t it?

HH: You’ve had to deal with a lot of negative publicity, haven’t you? Some of the things I read were shocking in their viciousness. Part of the reason, I suppose, was that Soviet society was both sexist and puritan, and once the word “sex” went into the title it became a free-for-all.

OZ: The scandal itself was outrageous—for over a year I was the focus of media attention, as well as running the gauntlet of nasty personal criticism. I was accused of violating public morality and even, believe it or not, betraying the interests of the nation(!). It has been a difficult time—“waking up famous” is in fact a very precarious state, if not outright dangerous. Your whole psychological system of self-defense, developed for years, suddenly breaks into pieces: crowds of people appear merely eager “to see the woman who wrote That Book,” you become the object of the most unbelievable stories, rumors, and gossip (not to mention scornful reviews), and, if you don’t know how to separate that part of yourself which had become, so to speak, “public property” from your true self, this pressure is very likely to crush you. Field Work, I’m afraid, has imposed upon me a role in Ukrainian literature that I will play for a long time to come: that of a witch to be either castigated or feared (or, more often than not, both)—regardless of what else I may write. At any rate, each of my subsequent books, however “innocent” (such as my collection of essays, or a scholarly study on Shevchenko), has continued to provoke, quite irrationally, a more or less similar scenario, i.e., an outburst of critical venom and indignation: that “Woman-Who-Wrote-That-Book,” how dare she speak again? By now, I’ve learned to simply live with it. After all, in Field Work I did attack, quite intentionally and with full awareness, the hidden traumas and the most intimate (apparently self-defensive!) delusions of a considerable part of a nation, so why wonder that feedback turned out to be so violent?

This does not concern the “Ukrainian reception” only, as I discovered upon my arrival for the book launch of the Hungarian translation of the novel at the Budapest Book Fair. The day before, the publishing house had held a press conference, and they told me that one of the journalists who had received a complimentary copy kept angrily elbowing his male colleagues every time my name was mentioned, hissing: “Have you read what that fucking bitch wrote about us?” I think it’s charming—a synopsis of the all-too-many “typically male” reader responses. On the other hand, I have had many supporters among men as well. I don’t think the novel is essentially “anti-male,” as it was interpreted by our most radical feminists, and their turning Field Work into “a Bible of Ukrainian feminism of the nineties” has, in my view, been rather a forced political step (which, in turn, couldn’t but add to the book’s notoriety!). For you see, prior to the appearance of Field Work the voices heard in our literature were predominantly male, and misogyny, either overt or latent, became part of a fashionable writer’s make-up—all those guys playing the role of “eternally young” macho boys, to the cheers of the same “eternally young” macho critics.”…The male protagonist of the novel, “the genius painter” (a fact, by the way, that the heroine honestly believes—her own poetic “genius” doesn’t matter that much!), belongs, undoubtedly and recognizably, to the same type. That the book uncovered behind this “invincible” make-up a deeply hidden insecurity and social helplessness was, of course, taken as a feminist “cultural answer.” But that was not my principal message. What I attacked was, basically, a system of social lies extending to the point of mental rape, and affecting both men and women. That is why I don’t divide my readers along male/female lines. I don’t believe that intelligence is gender-specific—women, too, know quite well how to protect patriarchal standards with the utmost bile against their “dissident” sisters.

See what's inside AGNI 53

Halyna Hryn has been Lecturer of Ukrainian Language and Culture at Yale University since 1996 and has held teaching positions at Harvard University and, in Canada, at the University of Manitoba and York University. While concentrating her research on Ukrainian literature of the 1920s, she is also a recognized translator of Ukrainian literature into English, including Volodymyr Dibrova’s novels Peltse and Pentameron (Northwestern University Press, 1996). Her translation of Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex is forthcoming. (updated 2001)

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