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'Forgottenness' explores upheavals in Ukraine and what it means to be Ukrainian

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk says when she set out to write a linear, classical historical fiction about her home country, she got about 60 pages in and realized it couldn't be done.

TANJA MALJARTSCHUK: Because there are no straight story of Ukrainian 20th century. It's so many gaps, so many black holes - so much was killed.

FADEL: In her book "Forgottenness," Maljartschuk explores the upheaval and uncertainty in Ukraine's history and how it's shaped what it means to be Ukrainian. She does this through two characters, a real figure in history, Viacheslav Lypynskyi - he's an ethnic Pole born in Ukraine, and he played a key role in Ukraine's independence movement, even though he didn't live to see its freedom - and an unnamed Ukrainian woman writer who discovers his death notice in a newspaper and becomes obsessed with learning about the life he lived. The two are separated by time, but as the writer researches his story, their lives become intertwined as Ukrainians. That writer character in many ways is Maljartschuk. She says reading Lypynskyi's letters taught her about herself.

MALJARTSCHUK: The famine in the '30s - it's also a part of the book. My grandmother was - is a survivor, but she lost the whole family and grown up as an orphan. And that was also my history. So she got on, then my father, and my father, me. And so she gave her trauma...

FADEL: I just wanted to make clear for our listeners that you're referring to the great Ukrainian famine in the '30s that killed millions of Ukrainians.

MALJARTSCHUK: Almost 4 million.

FADEL: And your grandmother's entire family was among them?

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes.

FADEL: And you were saying it created this transgenerational trauma that was passed down to your generation?

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes.

FADEL: These common aspirations and traumas, including the banning of the Ukrainian language that started with the Russian Empire before the Soviet Union starved Ukrainians, are what create the bonds of a nation - a belief Lypynskyi, the main character, shared. He wrote, your own people are those who live alongside you. Common land creates common goals, not language or religion.

MALJARTSCHUK: I think that was the most important thing for me because he saw in the future, in the Second World War, what happened to Polish community in Ukraine, what happened with Jewish communities or...

FADEL: The killing of people based on their religion or their ethnicity.

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes, and I think that was the right way to go. But nobody was hearing of him. That was wrong time for his ideas.

FADEL: The other thing is, is the very human story. It's not just Lypynskyi's thirst for a future independence, but for happiness and love. He's a father. He's a husband who ultimately gets divorced.

MALJARTSCHUK: And he failed everywhere.

FADEL: He failed in all of it. No independent Ukraine, gets divorced, not a great dad - yes.

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes.

FADEL: You know, he ultimately dies. You describe how he dies. And he tells his daughter, it, meaning Ukraine, is an anarchic nation. What is he saying there? And how does that apply to Ukraine and Ukrainians today?

MALJARTSCHUK: This book is about being a victim. And it's about to understand that you were a victim because, you know, it's not automatically so that you understand that. That was not normal. It's not normal to live like that. It's a big work before you understand that. It's a start to give up your victim role. And I thought it's enough to find out the story, the history, to reconstruct some gaps. And then you are healed. Now you can start the new - a new life.

FADEL: Now that you've written the story, shared the story, you can begin to heal with the history here.

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes. And then came full-scale war. And I understand that it's not enough.

FADEL: So there is no time for most people, for most Ukrainians, to take stock, to reflect, to heal, because they're still in a fight for their nation.

MALJARTSCHUK: It's a luxury. You can do it only if you have this time. And when you have this tranquility, peace and quiet, yes.

FADEL: Yeah.

MALJARTSCHUK: And the Ukrainians - they never had this time. They have always had to survive first. And now my good friends are Ukrainian military, and many of them are already dead. And they were good writers. They were very young. You know, this is the war of my generation, of my friends. And, I saw a recently interview with James Baldwin, who is very important in this moment for me.

FADEL: One of the most profound...

MALJARTSCHUK: Yes.

FADEL: ...Writers in American history on the Black experience in this country.

MALJARTSCHUK: And the journalist was always asking him about the book and about his writing, and he was very angry. And he said, I'm a writer, but I don't want to talk about this. I am a citizen, and I have to say something else. My friends are being killed. And this is the reality in which I am living now.

FADEL: Wow.

MALJARTSCHUK: I have to talk about my books, but actually I try to say poetically that my friends are being killed.

FADEL: Wow. You just made me want to cry. I'm just thinking about how many places in the world right now, Ukraine and several others, are going through that violence that will not stop, that will not rest so that you can write, and you can think.

MALJARTSCHUK: I don't believe anymore in the literature. You know, sometimes I think it's not enough to be a writer.

FADEL: Why?

MALJARTSCHUK: Because, you know, all writers, I think, somewhere they believe that they can change this world a little bit with their texts to make it better. But, now it's - I don't believe it anymore. Literature is something that you are writing afterwards all the time, afterwards about the tragedies.

FADEL: Already perpetrated, when they've already happened, when nobody stopped them.

MALJARTSCHUK: And then, this vicious circle is going on.

FADEL: Yeah. When did you feel like, I don't believe in literature anymore?

MALJARTSCHUK: It was an illusion for me. So I don't believe in this illusion anymore. But I can think only when I write. So it's only one thing for me to be alive.

FADEL: Author Tanja Maljartschuk - her novel, translated from Ukrainian, is called "Forgottenness." Tanja, thank you.

MALJARTSCHUK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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