Zoë Beck hat in Kiew auf der Buchmesse im Mai die Verlegerin Liliia Omelianenko kennengelernt und war sofort begeistert: von ihr, von ihrem Verlag, von den Büchern. Bei Vydavnytstvo erscheinen qualitativ hochwertig gestaltete Bücher, und vor allem ist der Verlag Vorreiter bei feministischer Literatur in der Ukraine und veröffentlicht auch Bücher zu queeren Themen. Grund genug, im Anschluss an die Messe ein paar Fragen zu mailen, um mehr zu erfahren über die Lage in der Ukraine. Wir haben uns vorerst entschieden, die Antworten auf Englisch zu belassen, wie Liliia sie uns geschickt hat.
Liliia Omelianenko, co-founder of the publishing house Vydavnytstvo (Ukraine)
Hi Liliia, thanks for your time! I noticed that the term „feminism” caused very mixed reactions when talking to women at the Kyiv bookfair. When I asked her if she’d describe one of her writers as a feminist, one publisher even told me “not to worry, she’s not”. What’s the current situation regarding women’s rights/equality/feminist ideas?
When I and my business partner Eliash Strongowski (Ukrainian book designer) started a publishing house three years ago, I was absolutely sure that Ukrainians are very tolerant people, and that at least 80% of them share the ideas of European equality and freedom. But I was mistaken, and the situation appeared to be not that bright as I had hoped.
Starting from 2014 there is a real progress on the way to women’s equality in Ukraine thanks to several organizations such as Povaha, NDI, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Western NIS Enterprise Fund, programs of the Embassy of Sweden to Ukraine. However, there is still a lot to be done.
Women are still underrepresented in the Parliament, in the government bodies. There is still inequality of salary level on the same positions for women and men, and the discrepancy is 24% (data as of December 2018). However, the problem is even worse, as many women still think that they should receive less, and apply for lower salaries.
Even a year ago Ukrainian women were forbidden to work on 450+ professions, including lot of military professions – at a time of war!, a diver, a tractor or subway driver etc. And only recently this stupid decree was annulled. And this actually happened also with my and Eliash’s assistance. We have attracted attention to it by the illustration competition three years ago where we asked illustrators to show their vision on this decree. In parallel with competition the group of active women-deputies also worked on cancellation of decree. And the synergy worked. Now women are not restricted to choose any profession they want. To celebrate this, and to motivate young girls in their endeavours to find profession of their lives as well, we have published two volumes of “She Did It” book about Ukrainian women through the whole history of Ukraine. The work on it was tremendous not only by scope of work (there were 200+ authors and illustrators investing their time and skills to the book, biggest project in Ukrainian children literature to date), but also by its effect on the Ukrainian children literature (it became the first one who gathered 100+ Ukrainian successful women under one umbrella).
I understand what you mean by saying that even Ukrainian women are often shy to show their belonging to feminists. And unfortunately this is truth. When we published our first translation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions”, we had quite high expectations on its perception by the readers. But months came, and we didn’t see any positive dynamics in sales. We constantly asked ourselves “Why the international bestseller on feminism, which we see on each cash desk all over the world, is so poorly sold here, in Ukraine?” And we asked our potential readers. We were shocked to hear that Ukrainians are afraid of the word “feminism” itself. Among the reasons I think are Soviet past and Russian propaganda. In Soviet times they declared that Soviet woman is unbounded and emancipated – no more need to fight for your rights. And now all rights women haven’t got are called “Western propaganda” and every feminism is assimilated to them as radical one. So the common knowledge states that feminists look repellent, hate men, are against families, do not have boyfriends and sex and all other strange stuff. Nothing about equality in their agenda. Ukraine needs time to change this perception. After we started making books about feminism, other publishers also followed our example, and now we have several books, Ukrainian authors included. All these foster to change the society, but it’s a long road ahead.
For the last years Ukrainian women are actively showing that they are important, and are fighting their places in the men’s world. But where we really trail far behind progressive countries is position and rights of women in families. In the majority of Ukrainian families women are those who carry the whole burden of homework, and do all babysitting together with their mothers. You would rarely see men with prams on the streets, men rarely cook at home. It is almost non debatable women’s job. Hard, long, additional and unpaid one.
Please tell us a bit about your publishing concept. I noticed your books were very high quality, and you’ve published many feminist books.
We have consciously went in focus which is far from traditional in Ukrainian literature, and book market in whole. So we have decided to reveal the pain points of our conservative, and sometimes religious, society in our books. Scandinavian literature was the great progressive example for us to follow. We really love how their authors talk with readers on any possible topic, including death of a close person, adulthood, depression, sex, feminism etc.
So in 2016 we started with a teenage feminist book „To be me“ by Swedish author and illustrator Anna Höglund, and we made it loud to potential readers. The book itself is a revolutionary one – an honest text about process of adulthood, unfair second-role of women in society and everyday questions by a teen-girl, is supported by explicit author illustrations. Nothing similar existed on the market before. Important to stress here, that we had almost zero marketing budget to promote it. However, uniqueness of the book made the deal it made its way to all top book lists of the year. And in May 2017, we had an unprecedented opportunity for such debut publishers (having only one-year history by that time), to invite Anna Höglund to Ukraine for a series of presentations in three cities – Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv. What Anna repeated all the time to the journalists and our guests is that we are very very brave publishers who take responsibility for the topics that other publishers cannot do.
Our second book was not easy as well and it had a significant influence on us as publishers. Written by the Ukrainian writer, advocate and social activist Larysa Denysenko, the book „Maya and her moms“ is about different types of families, the only one in Ukraine and one of the few in the world on this topic. Yet one more revolutionary book. It touches upon families of military servants, emigrants, migrant workers, LGBT and other diverse types of families, 17 of them. When we published the book, we couldn’t even predict how it would change not only us, but also a Ukrainian society. The first half year after the publication was very quiet, we got good reviews about the book, made several presentations in Kyiv, and everything went nice and smoothly. The situation changed dramatically before the Book Forum in Lviv (BFL) in 2017. We announced the presentation about the book on the fair. And two weeks before the event the first dangerous bell ringed. Organisers informed us that they received a letter signed by 25 different organizations, mostly far-right nationalists and religious bodies, who in very ominous form demanded to cancel the presentation in Lviv. At the beginning we thought that it was some strange kind of a joke. But almost immediately after that our author and we started to get serious threats for life via SMS, e-mail, facebook etc. Assaulters insisted on cancellation of presentation, as the book, on their opinion, goes against “traditional values” of the families in our country. Otherwise they promised to come to presentation with acid, explosive devices etc. Organises of the BFL reacted quickly and professional, they approached National Police for defence. Unfortunately we had to cancel one of the presentation (in Lviv Regional Children’s Library, intended for kids), but still left the general discussion on the topic, which was guarded by police. And the author got the security for the whole duration of the BFL. But what we did not expect in this situation is how Ukrainian society raised for our support, including Ministry of Culture, famous politicians, writers and others. The whole Internet was buzzing about “Maya and her moms”, and we got an inspiration and motivation for our work for many years to come. This was the life-changing momentum for us, when we understood that everyone on his place can do a lot for the society and for the country. Also it was a huge sign for us that we are moving in the right direction.
So after this story we continued to search for tabooed topics, and bring the best books to the Ukrainian market. Only in 2019 we presented two translations that shaked Ukraine again: “A Sour Apple” graphic novella written by Jerzy Szyłak and illustrated by Joanna Karpowicz (tells a story of domestic abuse, a story of a victim and persecutor), and “Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva Vs. the Patriarchy” by Liv Strömquist (a book about women’s sexuality and sex organs).
We have also published “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by the American-Nigerian feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and are currently working on translations of her other three books: “We should all be feminists”, “Half of the Yellow Sun”, and “Americanah”.
In autumn 2018 we started a new series – comic books and graphic novels, where we also focus on social comics, which include such world bestsellers as “MAUS” by Art Spiegelman, “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, “The Wall” by Peter Sís, “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso and others.
Our readers say that we go far ahead of what Ukrainian society can understand. Yes, this is truth. But who else if not we? 🙂
Could you tell us something about the situation of queer/homosexual people in the Ukraine? The European Conference of Lesbians took place in Kyiv this year, and I was told that not everyone was happy about this …
The Maidan Revolution in 2013-2014 revealed the voice of freedom, including for discriminated groups, such as LGBT. And only starting from 2017 annual Prides became possible, however still with extensive involvement of police, social activists and international organisations.
But any large gatherings of LGBT activists in most cases are under threats of far-right nationalistsб often unofficially or directly supported by local authorities. It also depends on the region where the event is held. Especial difficulties are at the Western part of Ukraine, traditionally more religious than others. That is the reason why we could easily have presentations of “Maya and her moms” in Kyiv, but it became very burdensome in Lviv.
There is, unfortunately, not much we can do about such attitude except for continuing to raise visibility of LGBT, and wait for smooth transition to tolerant society.
Nationalists are financed by many different groups, starting from pro-Russian and ending with even governmental bodies. So these groups use nationalists in their interests depending on situation and pushing on the fact that nationalists are usually very aggressive, and can easily reach the desired aim of groups. Active period for them is often connected with either presidential or parliamentary elections.
Language seemed an important topic. More and more books are translated into Ukrainian. I was told Russian wasn’t an official language any longer. What does it mean for the book market? What are your thoughts and feelings, is it necessary to avoid the oppressor’s language, or does it lead to discrimination of people who have spoken Russian all their lives and still feel that they belong to the Ukraine as a country?
It’s very common Russian thesis which they use all over the world, and in the post-Soviet countries especially, that the Russian is oppressed and Russians are oppressed. But this is not true on so many levels. Given Soviet past of Ukraine, many people in Ukraine still use Russian as their first language. Nobody forbids to speak Russian in their daily life. But you should use Ukrainian if you are at work, and this is normal practice everywhere. Can you imagine that somebody, working in, let’s say, The Bundestag, would refuse speaking German? No. The same in Ukraine.
As to the books, we are extremely happy that the book market has finally started to grow, and that we do not have expansion of Russian-language literature as it was even 6-7 years ago. This is a huge benefit for the country and for the Ukrainian language. Now we have a unique opportunity to read world classics in Ukrainian. These are also thousands of new working places for Ukrainians – translators, editors, illustrators etc. But we need much more Ukrainian books to minimize that gap which we have in comparison to other European countries, and which we had gained for the last decades. We are talking about billions we need to invest and years to work onto.
As to me, I was born in the Russian-speaking family, but this year I have decided to completely switch to Ukrainian. My family has switched with me as well. The reason is that for me Russian is the language of aggressor, who started the war with my country, and who is responsible for the deaths of thousands Ukrainians in the last five years. Now I speak Russian only with those who speaks only Russian, and does not understand any other language.
As we – HERLAND – are all writers of political crime fiction, what’s the situation in the Ukraine? Is crime fiction considered an interesting genre people like to read? Is it considered political? Or “entertainment only”?
Focus of our publishing house is far from mass literature, but evidently with the growth of the book market, such genre is also developing. For the last 20 years we see the appearance of Ukrainian-focused crime fiction, mostly concerned or setted during period of Ukrainian revolutions 1917-1922, much more rarely with involvement of known politicians. However as crime fiction is not that popular genre, so the interest to it is also moderate.
Each such rare scenario becomes quite an event on the cultural map of the country but due to absence of reputation institute, it still does not have any influence on the politician life. Even more, freedom of voice in Ukraine is so extensive that even documentaries showing dark sides of the politician dot not influence either. That is why you can easily write about anything with minimum chances on pursuit.
Thank you so much Liliia!