A review of Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine
Edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva
8th and Atlas Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-7377181-6-1, Nov 22, Paperback, $19.99

As soon as I began reading Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine I knew this was an important book. For one thing, proceeds from the sale of the book are supporting two humanitarian charities, Razom for Ukraine and Hospitallers Medical Battalion. For another, the work it contains creates an important historical perspective, exploring issues which are both specific to the Ukrainian people, and universally powerful. The collection, which is beautifully curated, includes twenty seven living authors from the Ukrainian community, whose work explores a wide range of topics from the many invasions of the country, from the War in Donbas in 2014 which led to the annexing of Crimea through to the major escalation in February 2022, but also poems, essays and stories about the desire to maintain a cultural identity, oppression, love, the climate, forest, feminism, friendship, and pleasure. Seeing these things in conjunction, and in such a collaborative context feels like an opening – an opportunity to engage on a deep level.  

The twenty-seven authors included have work that spans a wide period from the 1980s through to modern day, and includes some of the best known names in Ukrainian literature, providing a terrific primer for English speaking readers.  The opening of each poet’s segment doesn’t only include the standard bio of what has been published but also an indication of key themes they explore in their work, particularly as it relates to the Ukraine and notions of independence, autonomy, and the way in which love and hope have become simultaneously subversive and healing acts. This is not a book to gobble up but rather one to savour slowly, maybe taking on an author for a few weeks and letting the rhythms of their work settle.  I like to do a quick graze over to get a sense of the whole and then pick out some of the work that really jumps out at me and focus in on it rather than trying to read it all consecutively.  Almost immediately I was drawn into the work of novelist, poet, and essayist Oksana Zabuzhko, a writer whose essay/story “Deportation” has long sentences of tight, poetic beauty:

The new, rejected blood cells are people, and their loitering in these places, among incomprehensible walls and neglected homesteads where other families’ ghosts howl in the chimneys leaves an outside observer with a disorienting impression that all these people are, mentally, not here but elsewhere, someplace where, they secretly believe, their real life, their own ancestral Golden Age is being kept, with no expiration date or long-term penalties, on ice, awaiting defrosting. 

I get the sense, reading this work that the translator, Nina Murray, has taken such care over the work because she too is a writer and poet and that this is a creative act equal to the writing. This is the case throughout the book, with both the experienced and capable translators and writers given significant bios. Kazimirova and Anastasieva have done a terrific job in ensuring that the work is placed carefully, with a good blend of chronology, a balance between poetry and prose, more structured work versus post-modern styles, and a broad sense of topics. 

Another authors whose work immediately grabbed me was poet, children’s book author, novelist, literary critic, and translator Ivan Andrusyak, whose poem “The Third World Silence” utilises anaphora to create a blend of beauty combined with muted irony perfectly conveyed by translator Boris Dralyuk: 

henceforth snow will no longer be white
henceforth it won’t even be snow
only a dream in which quivering silence
stays afloat on the water 
henceforth water will no longer flow
but will simply flee from wasteland to wasteland
and no one knows whom to flee
perhaps from water 

There is a political slant in all of the work as you would expect, but it’s often subtly handled. Pavlo Korobchuk, a multitalented author, musician, actor, poet, novelist and journalist writes about war but in such embodied, melodious language that this loss and anger becomes an opening, drawing out a spectrum of human experience: 

I don’t long for my youth – because she is another. 
I don’t shun removed tatters – because he was dressed in every one of them.
In place of youthful sweat comes tactile chemistry.
The blood takes on the flavor of blackberries. (“Letter from a Sailor to His Daughter”)

There are many pieces about the annexation of Crimea, about exile and displacement, the mother tongue, culture and art in wartime, colonisation, revolution and activism. Much of the work reads like a prayer, alliteration and rhythms working in sync, like the stanzas of poet, fiction writer, translator, and professor of Ukrainian medieval literature Halyna Kruk:

o woman, if you lack the strength to strike in return,
beat at the source
beat and beat 

Or Iya Kiva’s up-to-the-minute poem that engages with Russia’s current aggression viscerally while managing a post-modern metapoetics: 

what have you got there, brothers—ask our mirrors— 
copper coins of breath in our ripped pockets 
the disquiet of air in the broken frames of our mouths 
the pulsing streaks of time in our red eyes

I have been astonished by this collection—not just because it’s an important political collection that shines a much needed light on the long-standing nature of the aggressions that Ukraine has withstood over the past decade, but also because Voices of Freedom contains so much excellent, deeply moving and powerful work, so well known in Ukraine and so limited in visibility in the West. This is a diverse and engaging collection is well-worth acquiring for anyone who wants to know more about Ukraine, both in terms of the repression they have been enduring and how that is part of a worldwide trajectory of colonialism and repression of which the West is not exempt, but also a rich, cultural history full of as much joy and love as pain.