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Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex Paperback – June 6, 2011
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First published in the Ukraine in 1996, Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex unleashed a storm of controversy and propelled the author to international fame. It topped the bestseller list in Ukraine for more than ten years, making it the most successful Ukrainian-language book of the nineties in every regard. Today Zabuzhko is one of the few authors in Ukraine (and the only Ukrainian-language writer) to make a living exclusively from her writing.
Intrigued by her success and her book, which PEN American Center has called “a brilliant, suggestive portrait of the heretofore suppressed private lives of Eastern European women,” our editors sat down with Oksana Zabuzhko for an exclusive Q&A.
Question: Your book was considered controversial for its provocative and “taboo” topics when it was first released in 1996—in many ways it provoked in the Ukraine a similar response as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique did in the United States in the 1960s. What drove you to write this book?
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.
From the Back Cover
“Oksana Zabuzkho’s poetry effervesces with the joys of inwardness--irony, sorrow, compassion and that aching sense of love that ‘turns bones into flutes.’” – L.A. Times
“Oksana Zabuzhko is a well-known Ukrainian poet of the younger generation as well as a literary critic and translator. Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, her debut in the genre of the novel, marks the emergence of a powerful new voice in Ukrainian belle-lettres. This work immediately strikes the reader with its novelty of form and with the original way it presents eternal issues like love, life, and creativity, intertwining them with uniquely Ukrainian themes.” – Slavic and East European Journal
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex was first published in the Ukraine in 1996, unleashing a storm of controversy and propelling the author to national fame. It topped the bestseller list in Ukraine for more than ten years, making it the most successful Ukrainian-language book of the nineties in every regard. Today Oksana Zabuzhko is one of the few authors in Ukraine (and the only Ukrainian-language writer) to make a living exclusively from her writing.
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Read an excerpt from "Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex." [pdf]
Top Customer Reviews
As much as anything, this book is a long letting loose of emotion following a sexually intense but ultimately abusive relationship with a painter named Mykhola. She knew Mykhola was trouble the first time she met him. As he talked to her, setting up his later seduction of her, he casually twisted her fingers back almost to the breaking point, establishing his dominance of her while inflicting gratuitous pain. Later he progressed to verbal abuse and threats and he burned her with cigarettes. Hyper-charged fragments of Zabuzhko's poetry are interspersed throughout the book, providing counterpoint to the story of sexual enthrallment and abuse she is telling:
Something has shifted in the world:
someone was crying
Out my name at night as though
from a torture chamber
And someone rustled leaves on the porch,
Tossed and turned, and could not fall asleep:
I was learning the lessons of parting....
Zabuzhko flings out one metaphor after another, writing prose like a poet writes poetry. Some of them work, some don't, but the effect builds up, creating a dense, allusive, emotionally intent portrait of a woman and what has befallen her in a doomed relationship.Read more ›
A seriously flawed woman in a seriously flawed love affair with a seriously flawed man is the foreground story. That they come from a seriously flawed society, Ukraine formed by Soviet rule, is the background story.
The (single chapter) narrative is primarily the stream of consciousness eruptions by the author's alter ego (the seriously flawed woman). They form vignettes, and need to be accumulated and reassembled for the temporal progression of the story. There are periodic interruptions by the author who provides a third person, retrospective, commentary on the alter ego. The conceit of commentary is that it is a lecture to assembled academics; the author repeatedly acknowledges to them that they are probably not interested in the topic.
Early in the book I was reminded of Kundera, but that proved ultimately to be a poor analogy.* Kundera wrote of the central emptiness of the Czech experience under communism. He wrote of the ennui of an educated Czech, and his characters responded with hedonism. There is an element of fantasy in his work.
Zabuzhko, on the other hand, views Ukraine as a place of once great culture rendered banal by Soviet rule. The response of her alter ego is self-destructive behavior and incoherent rage. Such incoherent rage may have been novel in Ukraine fifteen years ago. (And it may have expressed a rage many of its readers also felt.) I think it has been long overdone in English, and that alone takes away from experience of this book.Read more ›
the telling of a love story on the skids. she's a poet and professor and he's a painter. they knew each other in kyiv, ukraine. she arrived in cambridge, mass first, a year later he followed. the relationship did not work out. there's life in the usa to blame, there's ukraine, there's her childhood, there's her father's past of a slave's existence under soviet rule.
clotted words, a slow onrush of run on sentences. paragraphs open to close pages later. the narrator, switches voice when speaking about herself from first person to third person, scarcely signaling, running her novella length monologue without chapter break willy nilly present to past, scenes spoken as remembered, as they make sense, as they fit her depression, cambridge, kyiv, jerusalem. picking up speed, her tone keens and screams like lina wertmueller films, like jazz novels by black writers in the 60s and 70s, hushed from literary memory (find clarence major's All-Night Visitors and carlene hatcher polite's The Flagellants, for examples).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Oksana Zabuzhko is a wonderful writer and a true Ukrainian patriot. So please, whoever moderates this account, correct "the Ukraine" to "Ukraine" in the description... Read morePublished 1 month ago by victor neroda
I wanted to read this unique book because my now wife is from Eastern Europe & I thought it might give me a better understanding of where she was from. Read morePublished 21 months ago by Mike Singleton
I disliked this book intensely. I thought the whole novel was rambling and whiny, and contained no coherence at all. Read morePublished 23 months ago by Amazon Customer
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 on November 4, 2013 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 on August 24, 2012 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 on May 29, 2012 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 on May 17, 2012 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