Writings on Oppression & Violence
The worldwide response to the war waged on Ukraine speaks to the human impulse to empathize with people who struggle just to survive. In the West, our outrage and horror at what is happening in Ukraine is a response reflecting that the struggle to survive war and violence is a long-ago worry for us, although we should remember that for many people in the West, surviving (violence) is an ongoing daily experience; I'm thinking here of domestic violence, race violence perpetrated by the criminal justice system, sexual violence, etc. Is it any wonder that writers living in such spaces create work that fictionalizes their experience? For novelists and poets, writing about violence and war is a way to transform or understand it, to shine a white-hot light on your oppressor(s) and what it’s like to live daily with total fear that you and your children (and other people you love) might not make it through the day, or because you have no other story to tell.
Many Ukrainian authors write about the history of their country (especially the perennial threats and realities of annexation from Russia, totalitarianism, and countless wars), and the unique human qualities that evolve from such a narrative. There are some masterpieces to read. But don’t take my word for it; check them out, talk about their work, share these books (with friends and family). We all feel so angry and helpless but immersing ourselves in the stories of everyday life in Ukraine (falling in love, family sagas, friendships, laughing and crying, and death) is one (small) way to support the Ukrainian people.
Heralded as a leading Ukrainian author and war diarist, Maria Matios is one such author who has mastered the art of the novel. Her book, Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages (2003, transl. 2019), is a rural-village based family saga told in reverse order, starting in the 1960’s and ending in the 1940’s. Darusya, who doesn’t speak and suffers with blinding headaches, is considered a “simpleton” (albeit a dearly loved one) in the village where her family have lived for generations. The villagers ponder why Darusya has “lost her wits,” wondering whether it is “the hand of God” or childhood trauma. As the novel traces the family back through the 1950’s, then to Darusya’s childhood in the 1940’s, her silence is unpacked. Situated against the backdrop of the partisan fight (i.e., Romania, Germany, Russia) for control of Ukraine, we learn that Darusya's silence and head pain begin on the day the enemy burst into the family home demanding supplies. At its heart, this novel is a story about the impact of war on Ukraine and what the Ukrainian people are fighting for at this very moment.