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Oksana Zabuzhko: My having been born and grown up as a woman in the Soviet Ukraine. When you turn 30, you inevitably start reconsidering what you have been taught in your formative years--that is, if you really seek your own voice as a writer. In my case, my personal identity crisis had coincided with the one experienced by my country after the advent of independence. The result turned explosive: Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, the story of one woman’s "personal revolt," provoked the top literary scandal of the decade. Now, 14 years after its first publication, the novel is regarded as a "contemporary classic," the milestone in new Ukrainian writings etc., but when I was writing it, it felt simply like a case of "write or die.”
Question: Is the book auto-biographical?
Oksana Zabuzhko: The narrator bears my first name, and was given a lot out of my own life experience. I guess Fieldwork can be called confessional literature. Of course, it is, in many ways, an autobiographical novel (and which novel is not—starting with Madame Bovary?), but it can hardly be regarded as a pure documentary, a non-fiction (no one but myself knows how many things in there are in fact “the products of the author’s imagination,” whatever this formula may stand for!). The reason for giving the narrator my first name, as well as much of my own biography (literary career, teaching at American universities, growing up under the Soviet regime in a Ukrainian dissident’s family) was at first merely intuitional—nearly all my friends who had read the manuscript suggested that I “change the names,” but I stubbornly rejected that advice. It wasn’t until the simultaneous outbursts of ecstasy and indignation came, and the reading public split into two opposing camps, that I said to myself: Hey, woman, weren’t you right! For you see, if the novel was to articulate certain things which Ukrainian literature has never articulated before, and be heard, all these dark and dirty secrets HAD to be pronounced “in the first person,” as a part of the author’s most personal existential experience. Or, to put it briefly: to win the reader’s trust, you sometimes need to pay with your own blood. In the end, that’s what literature is all about, isn’t it?
Question: How does Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex compare to your previous works?
Oksana Zabuzhko: It is generally regarded as my first "commercial book," even though I had previously published three collections of poetry, stories, and a literary study. For me, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex has become an act of my personal liberation, not the least of the linguistic kind--since with this novel I knew for sure I was a "language writer." For Ukrainian literature, it turned out to be a book which has dramatically changed the literary landscape, and brought to life a whole new generation of women authors (dubbed by critics as "Zabuzhko’s daughters").
Question: You’ve clearly had an impact on other female writers in your home country. What authors or books have influenced your writing?
Oksana Zabuzhko: I am afraid I might now confuse my own memories with the influences ascribed to me by critics (this book has been translated in some 12 countries, and from country to country the set of "the names of influence" varies). The most immediate challenge was Milan Kundera: I used to admire his skill to use sex as a tool to both portray the characters and construct the plot, yet I have always found his macho attitudes annoying. My ambition was to try a similar "sex game" on a woman’s part. This is why, of all the praise this novel has received, the one comparison which made me the happiest was a Czech review in which I was named "Lady Kundera." So, I made it work after all!
Question: Have you always wanted to write? What other careers have you pursued?
Oksana Zabuzhko: I have wanted to be an author since I was five. Only my parents' blacklisting by the KGB helped keep me from publishing in my teens. It is the only thing for which I am truly grateful to the late USSR, for there are few things as certain to destroy "a career writer" as the premature start.
In my school years, music and theater were two other strong temptations. Later I studied philosophy, and obtained a degree in the philosophy of arts. I have also taught at several universities in Ukraine and abroad (including Harvard, Penn State, and the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S.), and worked as a newspaper columnist. Since 1996, when Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex was published, I have been living as a freelance writer.Question: What's next for you?
Oksana Zabuzhko: I have in my mind quite a list of things which I want yet to write about, yet, despite the fact that over the past 15 years I did manage to cross several lines off as "done," the list keeps growing. For example, while I was doing research on my recently published novel, The Museum of the Abandoned Secrets, I came upon some documents which pressed the button for long-silenced memories to surface. But I’d rather not discuss my next work until the title is set—this is one of my writing superstitions.
Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Translator Halyna Hryn
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is an unusual work—it is not light fiction intended to entertain (although it can certainly do that); rather it is an urgent, inspired exposition of one woman’s fight to catch her bearings, land on her feet, after life had thrown her a particularly nasty curveball. At the heart of the story is a failed relationship, and here the author’s unflinching courage in dissecting the how-and-why is most gripping. What makes us love so that we overlook the abuse (and is it really abuse?) that ultimately makes our love unsustainable? What do we do with the shame? At the time and place of its initial publication (post-Soviet Ukraine, 1996), this book indeed had the effect of a bombshell, but it continues to make us uncomfortable even now. Praise and opprobrium have tended to fall along gender lines in Ukraine. It will be interesting to see the response to the English language version.
The larger story that envelops the love affair is, of course, the story of Ukraine itself, so unexpectedly liberated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, coming to grips with its suppressed history, martyrology, searching for its identity together with the heroine. The conceit is a series of lectures in which the heroine explains herself and her country to a North American audience. The task is not easy: Zabuzhko’s sentences go on for a page or more at a time; she demands both trust and sustained effort, and it is up to each reader how far they are willing to travel along this road. Translation is not merely a matter of words: it opens windows into an entirely unfamiliar way of contemplating the world. (When you see a sports match where you don’t know the players: is your instinct to cheer for the winners or the losers? Does supporting the losers strike you as absurd?)
I have read with great interest the reader reviews that have been posted on the Amazon site. They show the full range of an intelligent reading audience and allow me to see what was successful and what was not in my own translation. The “stream of consciousness” long, pulsating sentences have frustrated some. I had decided not to destroy this basic architecture of the work in the translation, although it does do pose a challenge for both translator and reader. Word order is somewhat different in Ukrainian: in these long sentences the last word of each phrase is the crucial link to the subsequent phrase and so it must go at the end whether it’s the natural place for it in English or not, otherwise the link is broken and the edifice collapses. Hence the somewhat foreign cadence that some have noticed. Likewise with pronouns: in many European languages the verb endings make the use of personal pronouns redundant. In English, however, they need to be reinstated so that we know whether I, you, he, she, it or they “are speaking”—add the politically correct “he or she,” “him or her,” and several rounds of editors, and the final effect can be less than optimal. I appreciate all your comments and will be happy to respond to any questions.
For me, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is a thoughtful, exhilarating and ultimately brilliant literary text, and I am proud to help bring it to the English-speaking reader. I hope you will feel the same.
I have read the reviews posted so far and I really didn't expect much and was mainly interested in today's cultural trends in the Ukraine, rather than in the book itself. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Witold
When I chose this book, I wish I'd paid more attention to the word "sex" and less to "Ukrainian," which I focused on because my ethnic German ancestors lived for several... Read morePublished 18 months ago by Julee Rudolf
I have to admit that I had high hopes and maybe this is partly why I am quite disappointed by "Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex". Read morePublished 21 months ago by Aleksandra Nita-Lazar
I was somewhat baffled when I started to read this book, as the author's style (perhaps it is the translation? Read morePublished 22 months ago by L. Allen
The translation by Halyna Hryn (and for the effort it must have cost) deserves five stars.
Otherwise, this is an appalling novel by a self-absorbed, drama-seeking,... Read more
The modern classic of the Ukraine! A fresh voice from a fresh corner of world literature! Boy did I want to appreciate this book. Read morePublished on September 15, 2011 by Lydia K.
I have kept wanting to like this book. It was first published in the Ukraine in 1996 & was a best seller there for ten years. Read morePublished on September 4, 2011 by R. A. Frauenglas
Full disclosure: I have not yet finished this novel.
But so far, it is amazing. Brilliant writing, relate-able and sympathetic characters and compelling story make this novel... Read more
Maybe it's because I'm a student of Russian & Eastern European literature (and Russian language), but I found Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex to be an incredibly captivating read. Read morePublished on July 21, 2011 by Stephan Nance