World Book Day: Writing despite war, exile and fear of death

World Book Day 2022: Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych describes himself as an Ulysses type since, like the legendary character of Greek mythology, he is often on the road. Like the ancient warrior, he also yearns for his homeland. (Also read: World Book Day 2022: Boosting memory for mental health, many benefits of reading books for children)

“I’m always up for taking a trip, especially if it’s reading related,” he told DW. “I pack quickly and travel light, but I always come home. Right now I’m deliberately staying here,” he added. Here, in this case, is his home in Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine. Andrukhovych has not left Ukraine since the start of the war on February 24 because he believes he has “no other choice”.

His novels, from “Recreations” to “Perverzion” and “The Moscoviad”, have been translated into several languages. Andrukhovych’s multiple awards include the Goethe Medal, the Hannah Arendt Prize, and the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding.

The writer tirelessly stresses that Ukraine is pro-European and has called on the EU to support his country in many speeches.

“Well unwittingly, we have become your remorse,” Andrukhovych said at the 2014 Vienna Book Fair after Russia annexed Crimea in violation of international law. It tried hard to get Western attention, but some countries didn’t seem to realize the consequences.

“I don’t want to generalise. We see, for example, that the UK has a very different relationship with Ukraine than Germany does,” he said. Countries that themselves suffered from Russian aggression and occupation, such as the Baltic states or the Czech Republic, understand Ukraine well, he added.

In Germany, by contrast, pro-Russian attitudes became an inseparable part of German identity after the events of World War II, Andrukhovych said. Germans sometimes have great respect and sympathy for Russia, he added.

Nevertheless, Andrukhovych is looking forward to a planned book tour in Germany to promote the German translation of his most recent novel, “Radio Night.”

writing in exile

Volha Hapeyeva is currently unable to return home. After leaving his native Belarus for Germany in 2019, in August 2020 Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko won a landslide victory in a disputed presidential election, sparking nationwide protests. The regime responded with mass arrests, torture and intimidation. Hapeyeva has decided to stay in Germany, where she is a PEN German Fellow under the organisation’s “writers in exile” programme.

Hapeyeva recalls sitting on the steps of the Palace of the Republic in Minsk, reading a book, when a policeman approached her and told her she could not sit there .

“It’s those little things that show you that the city no longer belongs to ordinary people,” she told DW. “The city belongs to the government.”

The more she thinks about what home really is, the more she understands the concept of home as something holistic.

“Often I think of going to the mountains or the forests, where I don’t have to explain who I am and what kind of passport I have or why I don’t have a visa,” she said. . “Words like exile, refugee, emigrant are only relevant to communities, countries, states,” she said, reflecting on the limits of the search for identity beyond the borders of her homeland.

Hapeyeva’s collection of poetry, “In My Garden of Mutants”, was published in English in 2021. For the past five years, she has worked as a translator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) , which unsuccessfully tried to wind up ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

His work gave him access to private letters, which inspired some of his poetry, such as “Black Apple Tree”, published in “In My Garden of Mutants”:

And here I am in a jail cell and I’m writing a letter

and here I am in a trench trying to read the handwriting

send hot socks and a game of chess

your son


“Being a refugee”

“Half bird, am I, half tree: one half wants to take root, the other half wants to fly,” runs a line in Umar Abdul Nasser’s Arabic-language poem “Bird and Tree.”

The Iraqi writer and singer hid from the so-called Islamic State for two years until he managed to escape. Today he lives in Germany and, like Hapeyeva, is a German PEN Scholar.

Memories of his native Iraq and the events leading up to his flight remain vivid. He describes his youth as permeated by “the feeling of being terrified… You are scared all the time. But you have to keep going. This is the situation I remember from my childhood”.

“Since Saddam [Hussein’s] time, it was always that feeling of, don’t talk, don’t talk, he said. “The prize may not be me child, but maybe [it will be] my parents or my father can be arrested or picked up by Saddam. And later we started seeing the horrific scenes on the streets, the killing of people.”

“That was before ISIS,” he added, referring to the rise of Islamist militants following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. “And then ISIS was just the culmination of it all; we were living inside death. to die.”

While still in Iraq, Nasser took refuge in the world of thought, finding refuge in literature and writing poetry to come to terms with what was happening around him. He later fled, first to Poland, then to Germany.

“I love the Iraqi people,” he told DW. “I love my country. But at the same time, I see the problems even more clearly [from outside].”

In “Being a Refugee”, a prose poem, Nasser writes in Arabic:

“Imagine you’re in my place. Born with my skin color, as old as me now, with the same address. Imagine you were born in a country you did not choose, that you grew up in the middle of wars for which you are not responsible. Your passport opens the doors of prisons to you more than it gives you access to other countries. Prisoner of the time, you pass from a war that you did not choose to another that you didn’t choose either. I don’t know how this all started and how you’re supposed to get out of it.”

For Nasser, writing while war rages at home is a spiritual salvation, a way to escape freedom.

This article has been translated from German.

Angela C. Hale