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Alexander Motyl

This interview is one of a series conducted by Alexander J. Motyl
with Ukrainian Literary Night writers at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York.

Reprinted with permission of The Ukrainian Weekly

Alexander J. Motyl is a writer, painter, and professor.

Askold Melnyczuk at santa-maddalena

Askold Melnyczuk, one of the leading fiction writers in the United States, is author of What Is Told, Ambassador of the Dead, and the just published novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press). According to Jhumpa Lahiri, "Brisk, lyrical writing and a winning narrator make The House of Widows irresistible. A son's quest to understand his father's suicide, and so to excavate a family history extinguished by the exigencies of the new world, make it exceptional." Melnyczuk is interviewed by Alexander J. Motyl, professor at Rutgers University and author of several academic books and two novels.

Motyl: Your latest novel, The House of Widows, has just appeared and received terrific reviews. Tell us how you came to write it.

Melnyczuk: The House of Widows has twin roots. The kernel of the novel came to me while reading the (Ukrainian) literary critic Yuri Luckyj's memoir, At the Crossroads. In one paragraph he speaks about serving as a translator for the British military as they interrogated Soviet prisoners-of-war, as well as deserters from the Soviet army, in Braunschweig, Germany. The soldiers largely cooperated with the British because they thought they'd be allowed to repatriate to the west. Instead, after getting what information they could from them, the British returned the soldiers to the Soviet army. Many of them were subsequently executed or exiled. And Luckyj, who had by chance wound up in England at the start of the war, found himself in the morally intolerable position of participating in this duplicitous project. He knew he was sending many of his countrymen back to certain death and he tried explaining this to his superiors, to no avail. One of the chapters of The House of Widows uses a sentence from his book as an epigraph: "Was I completely unable to stop this terrible traffic in human lives? At first it seemed so…."

Luckyj's passage occupies no more than a paragraph or two in his memoir, but it stayed with me. I tried imagining how this must have felt for a kid of no more than nineteen or twenty, whose own father had already been arrested by the Soviets, how helpless he must have felt.

Anyway, years after reading this I began working on a book about a man who has a similar experience and who eventually commits suicide as a result of all that's set in motion by his early betrayal. The chapter, written from the Ukrainian-British soldier's point of view, came to me in one afternoon's work-unusually for me as I tend to rewrite endlessly and fall into the category of the writer as word-squeezer. But then I console myself that that phrase was coined by my literary hero, Gustave Flaubert.

That part of the novel which considers the sex trade is, and not just by the way, intended as a reflection on the implications of an unfettered free market in which humans have long been treated as commodities.

The other moral thread of the story appeared years later, while I was traveling through Germany and Austria on a book tour for the translation of my first novel. In Stuttgart, after a (rather poorly attended) reading, several of us went out for dinner. Present was a young Caribbean woman who said she was working with American soldiers stationed in Stuttgart who were either deserters or trying to get Conscientious Objector status to keep from being sent to fight in Iraq. She said there were some eight thousand young American men and women around the world trying this gambit. I hadn't heard about the phenomenon. Back in the States I asked the great American historian Howard Zinn about it and he said he'd heard such stories but didn't have any reliable headcount. Body counts aren't the only thing our military avoids. This was a little while after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke; after some of the atrocities committed by our soldiers in Fallujah had come to light.

Again I began wondering about the implications of this-not about committing the atrocities themselves, or about deserting, which raise rather different moral questions-but about what it meant to know, to be given definitive information, about war crimes. What responsibility did the average, only moderately engaged citizen have? Where did his first allegiance and responsibility lie? Should a citizen conspire with his government in covering up the truth of wartime atrocities? What good would it do to let the world at large know about them? Whom might it help? Whom might it harm?

Motyl: What answers did you come up with?

Melnyczuk: I was, as I said, interested in the position of the more-or-less average citizen and not of the active perpetrator of the atrocity because that was the position I feel many of ourselves find ourselves in. We've read and heard stories about actions we'd never be able to sanction under normal circumstances. Don't we have a moral imperative to do what we can to let others know about them? Here I imagined what it might have been like to know about the Holodomor or the Holocaust while they were underway. Didn't any honest woman or man possessing privileged information about these crimes against humanity have an absolute obligation to act on them? If you see someone being murdered on the street in your neighborhood, aren't you obliged to do something? What, in our global village, are the boundaries of our neighborhood?

Motyl: Those are exceptionally demanding moral claims.

Melnyczuk: I know. Of course we are all steeped in "mitigating circumstances." We have our own lives to attend to, our own daily battles to struggle through. How much risk should a whistle-blower assume? What kind of risk were we talking about anyway?

In this context I remembered the phrase "the good Germans," which has enough currency to serve as the title of a popular film and which is an ironic reference to the average citizen's quiet complicity in his government's criminal behavior. Are we, American citizens, suddenly in that position ourselves?

So many other questions follow from this. For example, isn't "criminality" a relative concept defined by social institutions, courts, and governments? Or was there a deeper, more reliable moral ground for asking this question? Here we skirt dangerously close to metaphysics….

Motyl: How does a novelist answer these moral questions?

Melnyczuk: A novelist's way of examining such questions is by observing the behavior of his characters, by learning from them how they act in the particular circumstances in which they find themselves trapped. Fiction, the novelist John Gardner observed, is an ancient mode of thought. Story-telling isn't simply a way of passing the time-it's another way of trying to understand the human meaning of time itself.

Motyl: In addition to morality, all your novels explore history and identity-and especially Ukrainian history and identity. It's hard to avoid concluding that these issues are of deep emotional and spiritual importance to you.

Melnyczuk: History and identity are endlessly interesting. Another way to think about them is as cause and effect. A child is born into circumstances it did not create. It is given a name by a mother and a father who both have their own past bearing down on them. They live in a country that's at peace or at war. They grow up amid great wealth, or poverty, or somewhere in between. At the same time they have something in them that doesn't seem to depend on external matters, on causes and conditions. What is that? The clash or meeting or dance between that inner self and external circumstances creates what we call character. History and identity define a part of the self-but all of us recognize we share a humanity that transcends any humanely created boundaries.

My own identity included the terms Ukraine, the Famine, the Holocaust, and all the abundance, beauty, and yes, ugliness, of New Jersey in the second half of the twentieth century bleeding into the twenty-first. Each term in the above sentence can be combined in a thousand different ways-writing fiction allows me to perform chemistry experiments using them as ingredients.

Motyl: What did you conclude from these experiments?

Melnyczuk: What I've found is in many ways obvious: that the elements interact differently in every individual; that there is enough overlap in some cases for people to accept certain group affiliations; and that there are enough differences so that no generalization about any group can be absolutely true and consistent. Where a sociologist or even a historian might be eager to identify and stress common tendencies and broad categories, the fiction writer, like the poet, chooses instead to stake his claim to truth on specificities. Creating my characters, I know they don't stand for or represent anyone but themselves.

You know, I grew up in the States at a time when certain generalizations about Ukrainians were commonplaces both in the media and the classroom. They left me as furious as generalizations about African Americans or Hispanics-more, maybe, because I naturally felt implicated in the often ugly broad stereotypes. On the other hand, if readers are to find them interesting or believable as characters, they will need to see something of themselves in these fictive beings. Characters earn our sympathy when we can see something of ourselves in them, no matter where we come from.

These days I confess I love reading history at least as much as, or maybe more than, fiction. Well-written history so often reminds me that there are more things between heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies and that our imaginations have to work overtime to begin to approach the complexity of "reality."

Motyl: How do you write your novels-with a clear outline in mind when you begin, or with a general sense of plot and direction and character?

Melnyczuk: An image, an idea, and/or a character plant themselves spring up, usually without invitation. Most wither after a scribbled page or two. Occasionally a seed finds fertile ground and gradually grows into a story; the gestation process can take years. Did you know that an amaryllis seed is the size of a dime and that it takes seven years for it to become that fat bulb sold in supermarkets across the country, ready at last, to bloom?

Scenes gather slowly; I revise and revise. I once spent three years writing 20,000 pages of drafts for a novel that never came together. But that is part of the job description. Then, every so often, a story or a chapter (or a poem) comes quickly and I grab them with a prayer of thanks.

My wife Alexandra Johnson, a far finer writer than I (fortunately she writes non-fiction), reads everything I write. I shudder to imagine what horrors I'd send out into the world if it weren't for her generously critical gaze. I shudder anyway.

Motyl: You began writing as a poet, didn't you?

Melnyczuk: Yes, like so many fiction writers, I began as a poet. I still read a lot of poetry, and some of my best friends are poets. But I found that in my poetry I wasn't able to find a way to get at certain questions and certain material that kept gnawing at me-fiction offered a release into a larger realm of imaginative possibility. Yet I value poetry immensely for its ability to get at essentials, for the way it probes the implications and possibilities of language itself. As a rule we use language loosely; we take it for granted. In many ways, of course we should and we must. E. M. Forster describes how surprised a friend of his was to discover that she had been speaking "prose" her whole life. In fact, all of us speak prose; very few of us speak poetry-anymore.

Motyl: How did growing up Ukrainian influence your writing?

Melnyczuk: Both my mother and father are great readers. While my father prefers to immerse himself in history, politics, or economics, my mother still, at eighty-seven, reads deeply and widely in what was once called belle-lettres. From childhood she fed me a diet that included among its staples not only all the Ukrainian classics-Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainska, Olha Kobylianska, etc.-but also the great Europeans: Rilke, Lagerloff, Hamsun, Mann, Hesse, Gide, Rolland, Zweig. I was ten when she gave me Rilke's Stories of God, a book inspired by his travels across Ukraine (which he of course called Russia).

I loved reading (and memorizing poetry) from childhood on. When I was six I recited Shevchenko's Poslaniye before two hundred patient auditors at the Ukrainian National Home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Never mind that I didn't understand a word-not a word-of what I was saying. The roar of the crowd made it seem worthwhile. The habit stuck. And in high school literature became a lifeline, offering a secret company of kindred spirits when none were to be found in one's immediate neighborhood.

I still remember the morning-it was four a.m., July, 1972-when I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude. I put the book down on my desk, went out into the quivering predawn stillness, looked up at the stars, and saw them as if for the first time. Literature re-enchanted the world for me. It reminded me of what most children know, and adolescents too often forget-that we live in a world steeped in mystery, and that anyone who claims to understand it is posing, deceiving both himself and the rest of us. Socrates' main claim to fame was the willingness to admit that he knew nothing. Gaugin's most famous painting is aptly titled: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Art is possible because there will never be a definitive answer to these questions.

Motyl: Which writers influenced you most?

Melnyczuk: So many writers enlarged both my sense of the world and my awareness of art's possibilities. A short list of predecessors might include: Saul Bellow, Gregor von Rezzori, Ernest Hemingway, Rilke, Hamsun, and Alain-Fournier.

At the same time, one's contemporaries and peers can become catalysts in one's development, and I was very fortunate to have come to Boston at a time when the city was enjoying something of a renaissance. I profited enormously from the company of friends like Sven Birkerts, Tom Sleigh, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Tom Bahr, Ha Jin, Jason Shinder, and others-in many cases they showed me just how high the bar stood; their example was an inspiration to keep pushing at the limits of what one could do. They were courage-teachers, too.

Motyl: What led you to found Agni-one of the most prominent literary journals in the United States?

Melnyczuk: Agni was founded as an underground newspaper in Cranford, New Jersey by a group of grumpy, pissed-off, and bewildered adolescents. My father loaned us $35 for a mimeograph machine and we began running off our little samizdat venture. It's funny, my father was both strict and conservative but he was a deep believer in freedom of speech, and so he supported the venture despite the trouble it got us into with school authorities. I will always be grateful to him for that, along with so many other things.

When I went to college I took the name of that newspaper and slapped it onto a literary journal I printed up myself. From 1972 on, I took the journal with me wherever I went. In 1979 I left the States to travel in Europe and the journal was kept alive by Sharon Dunn. Later I took it up again and stayed with it until 2001, when I left Boston University to teach at the University of Massachusetts. By then I had fully tasted the pleasures of editing. Along the way the journal acquired a reputation-and it provided an enormously useful lens for viewing the contemporary literary world both here and abroad.

Motyl: Agni was also remarkable for publishing so many Ukrainian writers.

Melnyczuk: That's right. My position as editor also gave me a ready venue for publishing Ukrainian literature in translation during a time when many American intellectuals claimed no such thing existed. But it's harder to argue with facts on the ground than with words in thin air. So Agni became a showcase not only for my own translations of Mykola Rudenko and Ivan Drach and Vasyl' Barka but also those of Michael Naydan and Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps and later Jim Brasfield's translation of Oleh Lysheha made its appearance in our pages, along with Halyna Hryn's translation of Oksana Zabuzhko.

It was working with Agni that brought Ed Hogan to the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard where he discovered a new literature that inspired him to publish the ground-breaking anthology From Three Worlds.

By the way, there's a nice irony in that the journal now occupies the offices of the defunct Partisan Review, once one of the America's leading literary-political magazines and which was founded to serve as a mouthpiece for Trotskyites. Who knows who'll one day occupy Agni's offices? The world turns….

Motyl: How did you get involved with the writing scene in Ukraine?

Melnyczuk: In 1990 I received, out of the blue as it were, an invitation to attend a poetry conference in Kyiv called Zolotyy Homin. That was an axial year in Ukraine's history-I happened to be there when the statue of Lenin was torn down from in front of the Opera House in Lviv. In fact, my first day in Lviv I went to look at the Opera House, where my mother used to go when she was a student at Ivan Franko University, before the war aborted so many lives, when suddenly I saw hordes of people pouring into the square. Before I knew it I was pressed flat against the door of the theatre, listening to, mirabile dictu, a speech by Father Andrij Chirovskyj, whom I had last scene at Plast Camp some twenty years before (the rest of my Plast adventures belong in the memoir I'm currently writing).

At that conference I met not only those Ukrainian writers whose work I'd translated, such as Drach and Rudenko (on whose behalf I'd written letters for Amnesty International-I bet Agni was the only underground newspaper in America to run an editorial about the Helsinki Human Rights group and Rudenko), but also important émigré writers like Bohdan Boychuk, Bohdan Rubchak, and Yuriy Tarnawsky. Moreover, I met the new generation of writers, and they were hugely exciting. You could tell at once they were onto something big. The twenty-something Oksana Zabuzhko was brash, illuminating, even intimidating; Yurko Andrukhovych was quieter, more inward, but you could tell that they, along with Petro Midyanka and Sashko Irvanets and Viktor Neborak and others, were breaking new ground in their culture. You sensed the borders of the motherland would not contain them, their spirits were already reaching out to places they'd never been. And now they're nurturing a new generation of writers and artists to continue the conversation, this time on the world stage.

Motyl: Who are your current favorites?

Melnyczuk: I've been moved and impressed by the poetry of Marjana Savka, Serhii Zhadan (through the Tkacz-Phipps translation), and Vasyl Makhno. Recently I was blown away by the emotional force of Marjana Sadowska's singing. It's clear the culture's on solid ground, and is now deeply embroiled in a vigorous conversation with the rest of Europe, and the world. Now if only these writers were to find the support both in Ukraine and among the Ukrainian émigré community enjoyed by, say, German or Irish writers, well, then we'd have more to talk about.

Motyl: Are you in touch with these writers?

Melnyczuk: I've stayed in close touch with Zabuzhko, have intermittent contact with Andrukhovych, recently came to know Marjana Savka-I've no doubt the conversations will continue-unless one of us becomes a Trappist….

More recently, in 2003, I attended a conference in Kyiv on American literature organized by Dr. Tamara Denisova. Walking into a classroom in Shevcheniko State University and listening to young (some remarkably so!) scholars delivering papers-in English!-on Jamaica Kincaid and William Styron and others, was deeply moving. They underscored something that's often overlooked when Ukrainian writers complain they're slighted in the West, and that is that culture is a conversation, not a monologue.

Motyl: What's your next project?

Melnyczuk: My current project is a memoir, which includes an account of my time living at the Studite Monastery outside Rome… and maybe a few words about Plast, too. But maybe not.


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