Flesh and Blood: A Conversation with Oksana Zabuzhko


Oksana Zabuzhko burst on the international literary scene in 1996 with the publication of her novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, which was translated into sixteen languages and hailed as “the Bible of Ukrainian feminism.” She has published eighteen other books, including collections of stories and essays, and the prize-winning novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. She has become a prominent public figure in Ukraine, defending democracy.

Zabuzhko was Vice President of Ukrainian PEN from 1995–2010, and with her partner Rostyslav Luzhetsky runs a publishing house devoted to non-commercial literature. Her book of stories, Your Ad Could Go Here, was just published in English in April from Amazon Crossing. Kirkus Reviews writes that Zabuzhko’s protagonists, mostly women, “follow their tangents, express judgments, and indulge in fantasies,” and “Zabuzhko does not mince words.” Her stories bring together the intersection of the personal and national, political issues, the two deeply woven together throughout the collection. While three of the stories were written from 1997–99, the rest were written in the past decade.

Zabuzhko and I spoke about the theme of sisterhood in literature, how she has tried to make sense of her country’s history through writing, and difference between writing short stories and novels.


The Rumpus: Besides your three collections of essays, you’ve published three collections of stories and two novels, with a third novel due out next year. What can you achieve in a short story that you can’t do in a novel?

Oksana Zabuzhko: For me, a good story is a novel. Or, more precisely, a bud of a novel, with tiny petals hidden inside, inviting a reader to open them in their imagination. All the great stories we’ve inherited from the past, from Homer, Hesiod, the Evangelists, the anonymous authors of The Arabian Nights, are, in fact, underdeveloped novels. They cast a spell of winks and hints, they elbow us with provocative lacunas and figures of silence, and they leave major “whys” and “how comes” unanswered, a liberty unthinkable in a novel.

I remember how impressed I was as a child by the story of Bluebeard, when I realized that the tale avoided the most intriguing problem I was waiting to be solved—namely, why was Bluebeard killing his wives? Instead, I was lured into wondering whether the brothers of his last wife would arrive in time to rescue her. I sensed that the misleading was somehow intentional, and I was captivated, rather than disappointed, by the trick. This was my first experience with the art of short story. Incidentally, “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute” also comes from my childhood reading: it’s based on the Ukrainian fairy tale about two sisters, one of whom stabbed and buried the other in the forest, and was later publicly accused by the guelder rose flute singing with the voice of the victim. The tale was not about the murder, it was about the “mute evidence” coming to serve justice; like the Bluebeard tale, it offered no explanation of the crime. It took me thirty-five years to satisfy my curiosity by making up a new story out of the old one, or rather, filling in its initial lacunas with flesh and blood of the characters.

A short story for me is a kind of play, rather than a work. A novel is a work that takes all your life, becomes a substitute for life, whereas a short story remains a footnote to life; no matter how long and memorable, it’s still a footnote. You have all the freedom to rewrite it, and you have no fear that it might prove a failure. You’re free to drop and never finish it. Also, in a story you have less responsibility regarding your characters; you don’t have to perform as their all-knowing God Creator. In a short story you are your characters’ equal, a stranger, a passerby, a remote acquaintance with an observant eye. Whenever I’m asked about characters from my novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, I always try to answer, even when the question is where I see them ten years after the novel ends. But I have no idea whether Martha in “The Tennis Instructor” will struggle further to preserve her marriage, nor how her attempted adultery could develop. I just eavesdropped, that’s all.

Rumpus: I’m struck by a repeated pattern in these stories. Many of them involve an intense relationship between sisters, or between girls who think of themselves as sisters. “Oh Sister, My Sister” describes how the ghost of an aborted girl baby haunts her living sister, and in a sense, her parents. “Girls” explores an erotic and partly sadistic intimacy between two schoolgirls. “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute” transposes the plot into folklore. Can you say more about the theme of sisters?

Zabuzhko: Few readers notice the connection between the first three stories that make up part one of the book! The secret is, this triptych had initially been plotted as a novel-in-stories centered around the same protagonist, Darka, who appears both in “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “Girls.” The folk tale about sororicide which she reads as a little girl in “Oh Sister, My Sister,” and which is then remade into “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,” was supposed to serve as a key tune to her adult life, shaped with her longing for a sister figure who would substitute for the lost one.

The idea was, I have to admit, kind of gory. Every new “sister episode” of Darka’s life was designed to repeat the same pattern of rivalry for survival which she first exercised with Effie in “Girls.” On one hand, my projected novel was meant to present a drama of a “serial winner,” so to speak, of a person trying, in vain, to free herself from the once-committed crime in which she was involved in her infancy, without her knowledge, whereas on the other hand it was to be an anthology of women’s deaths. For in each story Darka’s imaginary sister ended up dying some kind of death, if only social or symbolic.

I was a coward and dropped it after something horrible happened in my own life. My best friend, a brilliant literary critic and a feminist theorist, a mother of a twelve-year-old and my beta-reader for years, died on an accident in her Kyiv home, more or less in the way described in one of my “sisters” drafts (a gas leak in the bathroom). I know this may sound crazy, but apart from being shocked and traumatized, I had an eerie feeling as if by my novel-in-process I had attempted a burglary into reality, in which literature and life got somehow incestuously mixed. As if I’d crossed some invisible red line which shouldn’t be crossed, by me or by any other author. So I decided to limit myself to the three “sisters’” stories already written (in fact, four, along with “I, Milena”). As for the subject of the haunting past and women’s deaths, I approached it in another work, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets.

A year or two after I’d published the sisters’ triptych, I happened on the diaries of Ingeborg Bachmann, one of my favorite writers, and saw that Bachmann was also plotting an “anthology of women’s deaths,” shortly before her own tragic one! It was one of these moments when you feel like an explorer moving through the desert who suddenly sees in the sand the bones of someone who’d been here before her. With shudders, you know at once that your route is correct, but after this point you’ll proceed at your own risk. Isn’t this, by the way, another pattern of sisterhood?

I think the theme of sisterhood is still under-explored in literature. Female friendships constitute an essential part of a woman’s emotional life, no less important than love relationships. Now, in my fifties, I think of all the broken relationships of my younger years with a nostalgic smile, but those breaks with my girlfriends still hurt, no matter how many years have passed, and my mother claimed the same in her eighties! In my teens, I was puzzled by the title of Hemingway’s collection Men Without Women: I tried to recall a book presenting “women without men,” and I failed. At best, I could think of a story, but not of a collection. Nowadays, two generations of women writers later, literature still has women among under-explored species.

Rumpus: All of these stories meditate, with startling frankness, on female experience. “No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell” inhabits the mind of a mother, a jazz singer, as she resents, cherishes, wounds, and misunderstands her seventeen-year-old daughter. Like the sister stories, it examines intimacy between women as a struggle for power. Can you speak more about this?

Zabuzhko: This story is actually my favorite in the collection, and—I hope—not only because the heroine’s age is closest to mine. It’s a story about aging, but under rather special conditions which we now have in Ukraine: when the major historical event, the war with Russia for which my heroine, like most her countrymen, was totally unprepared, coincides with a generational shift. And here lies the problem. No matter how full of energy Olha could be in her late forties, she can’t suppress the panicky feeling that the “new times” will not only bring her “naturally” unpleasant things, like early menopause or the death of an ex-lover, but that they will also push her off her actor’s podium (for she’s acting all the time, even in her inner monologues). Millennials have arrived on the stage of history, her daughter among them, and Olha’s own experience of survival appears worthless in their eyes. Such a communication gap between my generation and the next truly exists. The war has proved what I’ve suspected: that we’ve failed to provide our children with the proper immunity against evil, for we’ve never gathered enough courage to share with them the full truth about the systematic, institutionalized evil to which we were subjected in our Soviet years. It’s a moral trap that all dictatorial regimes use to keep their victims silent for generations. Stockholm syndrome, the conspiracy of shame. There are different ways to nail it; I’ve tried mine.

It’s only now, after 2014, that the first good books have started appearing about how we survived in the 1970s and 1980s in the purge-plagued Ukraine. Every generation has its own historical mission; ours has been that of Fortinbras in Hamlet—to clear the dead bodies off the stage and record the story. (One of my collections of essays is entitled The Fortinbras Chronicles.) Unfortunately, we’ve screwed up the mission, as we can easily see looking around at the world we’re passing to our now grown-up children. In a way, we’re all “Olhas,” with or without daughters.

Rumpus: What writers have most inspired your fiction?

Zabuzhko: Naming them all would make a long list! Of course, I owe a lot to the women classics of my own language, whose names, unfortunately, will hardly be familiar to Americans. To name but two, Lesya Ukrainka (1871–1913), a great playwright of the Belle Époque, was the one who most influenced my identity as a woman writer. In her dramas-in-verse she rewrote European cultural mythology from a woman’s perspective. From another literary mother, Iryna Wilde (1907–1982), the author of the tetralogy The Richynsky Sisters, a family saga, I first learned how “big history” can be recognized in small things and depicted from a seemingly marginal (woman’s) standpoint. Rereading them both, now and again, is always nurturing; the magic still works.

With the literary fathers it works differently. Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Julio Cortazar, Vassily Grossman, Milan Kundera, Robert Musil, Cees Nooteboom, J. M. Coetzee have over years changed places in the list of my favorites. Kundera, for example, had me under his spell through my twenties. I was both impressed with his way of writing about sex, and, at the same time, disgusted by his “macho” pose. He definitely should’ve read Ukrainka’s version of Don Juan! It was both inspiring and provoking, making me feel competitive. (“Can I ever learn to do the same, but from a woman’s perspective?”) Now, imagine my reaction years later, when, after my Field Work In Ukrainian Sex appeared in Czech, the major Czech newspaper Lidove noviny headlined me as “Lady Kundera”! A true moment of triumph, hélas, with no one to share, for even closest friends didn’t know what it meant for me. (“Yes! I did it!”) By the way, I still consider Kundera a great writer, to whom the contemporary novel, especially the Eastern European novel, owes more than the textbooks tell us; regardless of all the media scandals produced around his name, he deserves a more serious, and better balanced, recognition.

Rumpus: Along with psychological themes, this collection traces a political narrative. The two stories placed first, “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “Girls,” both have as protagonist a girl called Darka who is growing up in a time of Soviet repression. “An Album for Gustav” narrates, in the voices of a husband and wife, their experience of the Orange Revolution in 2004–2005 when Ukrainian democracy rose up and defended itself. How do you weave private and political life in your fiction?

Zabuzhko: Well, I’m European, too. Even worse, Eastern European, the child of “Bloodlands,” to use Timothy Snyder’s witty formula. I guess this explains a lot. Deep in my heart, I’m surprised every time I realize how matter-of-factly the private and the political are separated in American culture. I’m used to the opposite, to their permanently boiling, fiery mixture in which “too much history for a square meter,” sometimes literally, is a quotidian reality. Trying to make a sense of your country’s history, you inevitably end up deconstructing this or that political narrative, if you want to be able to build your own. That’s what I think separates literature from journalism: literature struggles to create a world of its own, even when it’s about the events everyone was watching on the news.

Then again, coming back to the “Fortinbras mission,” for some seventy years of Ukraine’s recent history (starting with Stalin’s man-made famine of 1933), the country was forced into silence. Independence gave my generation, for the first time in the nation’s living memory, the chance to speak for the dead, to put together the scattered pieces of unrecorded memories, to dig skeletons out of closets, to review old repressive narratives: to try to transform our mutilated recent history from the non-existent into the livable. Only after I published The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, its plot embracing three generations of our silenced history, did it occur to me that the same applies to all Eastern European literatures, for, along with mine, there appeared dozens of such novels, from the Finnish Purge by Sofi Oksanen, to the Croatian Srda Sings in the Twilight at Pentecost by Miljenko Jergovic. With Olga Tokarczuk we’ve been discussing, since 2017, how to help people realize that the Eastern European novel has developed into a phenomenon comparable, in many regards, to the Latin American novel of the Boom generation.

My own biography has also been woven into the texture of history since my early childhood. “Oh Sister, My Sister” is to a large extent autobiographical. My pregnant mother did lose the baby in 1965, when the life of our family was severely interrupted by the KGB. (The wave of purges started in Ukraine immediately after Khrushchev with his “thaw” had been removed from his office and replaced by Brezhnev.) When I read memoirs by American politicians of the time who remained convinced even as late as summer 1968 that the Kremlin would never risk military intervention into Czechoslovakia, I can’t but think of myself that same summer: a little girl, just about to start school, who was secretly writing “letters” to Brezhnev asking him to stop persecuting her mom and dad, “because they are the best people in the world, and the gentlemen from the KGB think they love America, while they don’t.” I find such voices still missing in the portrayal of the Cold War.

I feel overwhelmed, understanding that I’ve already experienced more “big history” than I would ever be able to “digest” in my writing. I grew up in a bugged apartment, with the early awareness that “Big Brother was watching me.” I witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire, starting with the Chernobyl catastrophe; I’ve been on the barricades of three popular revolutions (three Ukrainian “Maydans,” of 1990, 2004, and 2013-14), not to mention the postcolonial “nation-building” of the 1990s, when losing friends became a regular practice. And since 2014, with this whole “hybrid war” spreading up over the globe like cancer, I’m suffocating from the surplus of the political in my life. The hardest part of translating all this into fiction is getting enough time, not so much for writing, as for concentrating on my own, and my characters’, feelings. The acceleration of history in the information era first damages our emotional sphere. We’ve bitten more that we can swallow in culture.


Photograph of Oksana Zabuzhko by Pavlo Botanov.

Rosanna Warren teaches at the University of Chicago. She is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Departure (2003) and Ghost in a Red Hat (2011). Her new volume of poems, So Forth, has just appeared (May 2020), and her biography of Max Jacob will come out in the fall of 2020. She has published a book of literary criticism and edited a volume of essays about translation, and has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. More from this author →