An interview with Belarus PEN President Andrei Khadanovich
“It’s impossible to be at the center of Europe and remain a country which is governed by a semi-literate agrarian.”
Andrei Khadanovich is the current president of PEN Belarus. He is also a musician, translator, professor, and a successful poet. Indeed, the Office for a Democratic Belarus advises, “If you want to come to the poetry reading by Andrei Khadanovich, it’s not a very good idea to arrive on time,” because the crowds his poetry brings demand an early arrival. He has published eight collections of poetry and has been translated into fourteen different languages. Khadonovich teaches translation at the Belarusian Collegium and literature at Belarusian State University and the Belarusian National Jakub Kolas Lyceum of Liberal Arts. In 2008 he released Currency Exchange Office a smooth marriage of jazz and poetry improvisations with musician Siarhey Pukst.
In this interview, conducted via email and translated by Louisa King and Joschua Beres, Khadanovich discusses the work of PEN Belarus, his literary career, his experience in the Iowa International Writing Program, and the state of freedom of speech in his country where, he explains, “the regime is becoming increasingly totalitarian.”
How long have you been working with PEN Belarus? What got you interested in it?
I was accepted as a member of PEN Belarus in 2002, and in 2008 I was elected president by my colleagues. At that time, my predecessor, the well-known Belarusian writer, Vladimir Neklyaev stated, “Khadanovich has so much energy, he will be like the beating hoofs of a young horse.”
Belarus is a country where censorship still exists, and where writers have to fight for the basic right to express their thoughts freely, so neither I nor my colleagues in PEN will be short of work in the near future.
Are there any projects or programs Belarus PEN is currently working on?
My colleagues from PEN and I are working on several projects at the moment. Our first project concerns new Belarusian literature. The young Belarusian writer, who is just writing his first book, needs support. If he’s a good writer, he’s unlikely to take his work to a state publishing house or literary journal, where work is censored and controlled by the regime. Small, independent publishing houses probably won’t publish his works either—or if they do, they’ll propose that the author pays for the cost of publication himself—because they don’t want to take the risk of publishing work by an unknown author.
Every year Belarus PEN tries to organize a young writers competition and publishes the winner’s work. Also, we try as much as possible to arrange the launch of the work and bring it to the attention of the public and publishers. In addition, PEN organizes the Debut competition for young poets, prose writers, and translators who have already published their first book. Winners of this competition have the opportunity to publish their second book.
Secondly, in recent years we have begun holding two international poetry festivals in Minsk. Attendees include both Belarusian poets and authors from various European countries. The festivals include academic readings and poetry slams. All these things have revived cultural life in Minsk, and in Belarus as a whole.
Thirdly, we are doing a lot of work with literary translators on two fronts: We are trying to assist Belarusian translators who translate foreign literature into our language, and we are also trying to help get foreign translators and publishers interested in the possibility of translating and publishing Belarusian literature in their own countries.
In November of 2005 there was a cloning of the Union of Belarusian Writers into the Union of Writers of Belarus. It has been said that this was the first time a shadow union was created. Does PEN support either of these groups?
The Union of Belarusian Writers has been in existence for eighty years and these days strives to be independent. However, the Union of Writers of Belarus has been established as a ‘puppet’ union loyal to the authorities. Whereas the first union lacks the support of the Belarusian government—indeed, the regime interferes in its activities at every opportunity—the second union enjoys the full support of the authorities. Naturally, Belarus PEN supports the independent writers’ union, which has fallen out of favor and we are trying to work on a number of projects with them.
You have had success publishing your books with private publishers but have had problems with their dissemination in Belarus. In February of 2008 public authorities prohibited you from doing a reading at the House of Writers in Minsk. How common is this kind of censorship in Belarus? How does Belarus deal with it?
This type of censorship is quite widespread in Belarus. There are blacklists of writers and musicians, whose names must never be mentioned in the media, on television, or on the radio. Their concerts and readings can be cancelled with a single telephone call from a senior official. In 2006, I also ended up on the blacklist after I protested against the repeated rigging of the Belarus presidential elections. However, I believe that these bans only increase the unofficial popularity of the artists on whom they’re imposed, because, as we all know, forbidden fruit is the sweetest. For example, the 2008 attempt to prohibit the launch of my book only served to generate more publicity. At the launch, which we ultimately managed to hold semi-legally in a different location, even more people came than were expected. The hall, which seated four hundred, wasn’t big enough to hold all the people who wanted to get in.
In an earlier article you said, “coming to events such as a literature readings or artistic performances becomes some kind of protest. People use it to demonstrate their critical position, to interact with the like-minded.” Are viewers protesting when they watch a performance?
That was commonplace five years ago, and this created additional challenges for the artists—not so much political, but rather artistic in nature. If the audience confuses politics and aesthetics and, for example, comes to a poetry reading because of some kind of political motivation, the poet himself is tempted to simplify his work, to flirt with the audience, who are looking to the poet for some simple answers to their questions. When that happens, the artist will become a commonplace publicist, a journalist, a politician and so on—he’ll become whatever he likes, but he won’t be an artist. It’s important not to confuse politics and ideology with literature. Not to just tell your readers and listeners what they want to hear, but to convey what you, yourself want to say to them. That way, you’ll have the chance of creating something deeper and more universal than a slogan based on today’s news, which won’t survive beyond tomorrow.
To be fair, I should say that the situation has changed a little in the last few years. The level of public interest in literature is decreasing, but the quality of that interest is improving. Artistic meetings are taking place on a smaller scale, but the audiences are more tuned in, they’re prepared to listen to poets, prose writers, and translators, but not to ideologues disguised as writers.
This quote from a January 2008 Belarus Headlines article reads , “The sphere of freedom is shrinking in Belarus, but it also fuels optimism. Take a look at a brook. The stronger you wind it up, the more power it will release… Here the laws of physics and psychology come together, and I hope it will work in Belarus someday.” What is the source of this shrinkage of freedoms?
Today Belarus is definitely a country that has little to do with democracy and basic human freedoms, freedom of speech included. The regime in Belarus is becoming increasingly totalitarian. What’s worse is that for many citizens of my country, freedom is still an abstract concept that has nothing to do with them on a personal level. So, few people show their support for political prisoners, the number of which has increased significantly since December 2010. Many people understand very well that the authorities deceive them and rob them of their votes at election time, but they aren’t ready to overcome their fear of risking their jobs, health, and well-being, or the well-being of their loved ones.
It’s as if today’s Belarus is divided into two: The Belarus of the television, and the Belarus of the internet. The first part is brainwashed by state propaganda. The other half craves objective, undistorted information. No matter how hard the state tries to make ideology serve its purposes, with each day the second group increases in size. This gives me some cause for optimism. To put it metaphorically, I believe in geography. I believe that these days it’s impossible to be at the center of Europe and, at the same time, remain a country which is governed by a semi-literate agrarian, who hankers after the Soviet era and the policeman’s baton.
Is there a piece of literature that you have read that has influenced the way you see your country? If so, how and why?
When I was fourteen, I started reading the poetry and historical novels of Vladimir Korotkevich, the best Belarusian writer of the late twentieth century, and the best-loved author in Belarus. His work changed my view of Belarus and its people enormously. As a writer Korotkevich invented an ideal Belarus, which probably never really existed, but when you read his works, you want to strive for. Korotkevich replaced the eternally oppressed, backward Belarusian peasants from the works of his predecessors with noble Belarusians, who were intelligent, romantic and selfless, and devoted to high ideals. They were the kind of Belarusians that you wanted to emulate.
As a result of Korotkevich’s influence, there must have been tens of thousands of Russified and Sovietized Belarusians who suddenly started speaking Belarusian and developing a deeper interest in the country’s history. And I was one of them. I read his books for the first time as a teenager, which is probably the ideal age to do so: At that age, a person is still untouched by skepticism and cynicism, and still has childlike wonder and the ability to believe in miracles. Korotkevich, and the Belarusian world that he described in his books, became that kind of miracle for me.
You are the first Belarusian poet to have issued his own CD, Currency Exchange Office. What inspired you to start this project?
On Currency Exchange Office, my first CD, I read my works to music chosen by our exciting audio producer, Dmitri Dmitriev. I didn’t actually exchange any currency, of course. The name of the CD is a metaphor, and it came into being because the audio book contains both my own poetry and my translations of works from five other languages – English, French, Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian. It starts with the English baroque poet, John Donne, and ends with modern-day poets who are still alive. When I translate foreign poetry, it’s as if I am exchanging the currency of that poetry into the currency of Belarusian poetry. The rate of exchange depends on the ability of the translator. It’s up to my readers and listeners to judge the results.
How has your experience been thus far in America while participating in the Iowa Writing Program?
I’ve traveled around the world a great deal in recent years, but this is my first visit to the U.S. It makes me happy to see Americans’ openness and goodwill and their constant willingness to help. Here, people smile at you so often that you yourself start smiling much more. In the end, you genuinely start to feel better. In post-Soviet countries a ridiculous prejudice exists that Americans are narrow-minded and stupid, but this idea is as absurd as any other stereotypical view of another nation. It was enough for me to visit American universities in Iowa, California, and Texas, to meet students and their teachers, to attend several poetry readings in different book shops and see the people who come to them, to realize how idiotic this idea is.
The Writing Program itself was very well-organized, insofar as it combined two contrasting opportunities: The opportunity to sit at a desk (or lie on the grass with a notebook) in Iowa City and concentrate on my work; and the opportunity to travel—to Chicago, San Francisco, Chicago again, Texas Tech University and so on—and take in a great many new impressions.