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U.K.R.A.I.N.E: Lviv Impressions and the Poetry Between

I: A reason for flying

It is not all the time that a Nigerian author writing in English has the chance of reading his works to live audiences in a relatively unknown corner of Europe, as far as contemporary mainstream literary circuitry is concerned. It is as well not all the time that the literary community of Ukraine gets the opportunity to meet a foreign author, from homeland Africa. My invitation to the sixth congress of publishers and writers in Ukraine was cultivated six months earlier in the city of Barcelona where I had gone to give a lecture and a reading. The poet Catalina Girona walked up to me and asked if I could participate in the litfest taking place in the city of Lviv later in the year. It was an enthusiastic offer hard to resist. Here was I, in the middle of a foreign tour, practically being asked to visit an otherwise uncharted territory. I remembered quickly why I must accept the offer: Ukraine is the homeland of Hanna Yanovska, the poet who had translated one of my poems, “A New Promise”, about seven years ago, taken apparently from the website of Durban-based Poetry Afrika. Hanna and I had shared literary ideas about our countries, intermittently connecting through the years with more translations of poems which would soon be collected. (Even after my one-week visit to Ukraine, Hanna and I remained disembodied online friends, close netizens of sort, our friendship made possible by inter-web revolution).   

II: Beautiful encounters

At about 1.00 pm local time, I arrived in Boryspil airport, right into the cheerful welcome of Dmytro and friends. It was the beginning of a wonderful experience of chaperonage, the state of being waited upon, guided through the hour, places, and the alphabet of things. Dmytro, Yana, Anastasia and others were good and ready company in Kyiv. My train to Lviv was scheduled to depart at 10.00 pm, so we had ample time for easy walk around the city. I was at the open grounds of the Independence Square where the declaration of the Orange Revolution took place. I saw the imposing statue of Lenin, his head bruised by the angry stone of a protester which now caused the visible presence of armed soldiers guarding the Soviet monument. A large portion of Main street was cordoned off. It was another social campaign day, so we took a long detour through the “Arena” to the quiet street which harboured the PinchukArtCentre, a privately funded exhibition gallery for international arts. PAC contains some of the most futuristic and extraordinary art installations that I ever saw since Stockholm, a house of magical lights, minimalist but imaginative, fusing art and technology to aesthetic wonder. 

In Lviv, where the festival itself took place, both Grigoriy and Lyuba served as great hosts to over thirty authors drawn from within Ukraine and other parts of Europe including Russia, Denmark, Germany, Catalonia and Serbia. Other continental participants included Les Wicks of Australia, Selina Marsh Tusitala, the impressionable voice from New Zealand, Ferraz Paulo, the Brazilian poet, and Mujila Fiston Mwanza, the Austria-based Congolese writer whose only memorable recollection of Nigerian writing was his encounter with Chimamanda Adichie in a fellowship cottage.

At the Book Forum, there were many people to meet, many authors to encounter, many events to attend and many interviews to grant, in five and a half days of intense and lively dialogues on literature, translation, publishing and networking. The opening night on September 14 was colourful under the klieg lights of the theatre. Poet after poet was called upon to read or perform a poem within three to five minutes. The Ukrainian poet who performed the piece on “the flying head” was the most memorable for me. Being introduced in Ukrainian, I caught the sound of my name, and stepped up to the podium to read the fourth part of Gather my blood rivers of song – “I love you as...” During the reception thereafter, one of the participants said to me that the beginning of the poem looked very ordinary, but it swept her off the feet that she wondered how long it took me to compose it. Questions like these - some hypothetical, some rhetorical – amuse me a lot.

In the following days, it was each author to his or her own venue and crowd, with little room to catch up on other interesting readings spread across the city. I read in one of the courtyards of Lviv Banking University of the National Bank of Ukraine, and in a theatre called the Theatre of Resurrection. I also did a tandem reading in a bar called Cafe Shtuka, alongside Strongovskyi who misplaced his documents for the event and had to download some of the poems from his website, to save the night. Each reading ended with similar or related but challenging questions on how to write in a second or third language, on the reception of poetry in my country, about the function of writing in any developed or developing society, and the problem of publishing and finding the market for canonical literature. There were also niggling questions about religious crisis in my country, and the mutual worries of political corruption and energy crisis. Too many interviews by print and electronic media journalists to remember the names or number. I was the black light in the white shadow. 

There was good understanding by my moderators/interpreters who are professionals, sensitive enough to know that I spoke too fast and quick enough to know that my own brand of English is laced by the brocade of my native tongue. So I had to speak without much metaphor. Halyna, Iryna, and Lesya who also doubled as “official” photographer were attentive and wonderful in the job of transferring my thoughts and delivery from English into Ukrainian. In spite of other commitments, I attended other readings by Les Wicks, Tetyana Danilyanz, and Selena Tusitala, as well as the finely choreographed bilingual presentation – “Ukrainian Poetry in Translations: From the Page to the Stage” involving Oleh Lysheha, Victor Neborak, Andriy Bondar Svitlana Barnes and Virlana Tkacz, featuring slides and video clips from Yana Arts Group theatre pieces.  

Regrettably, I missed the Marathon. The last gathering of the last evening of the Book Forum had been planned to be a party for poets who would mix, dance, dine and read in turns till the morning light. So it was called the Marathon. Instead, I went with Lesya and friends to the other party underneath the Opera House. When the electric became robotic and the music bored itself, I told my friend I had to leave. She offered a ride either in a taxi or on her friend’s bike. I opted for the latter wanting to feel the breeze of Lviv’s quiet night on my face. That was the silliest option I ever took in my life. After a first fall - bike, riders, helmet and all - we got the vintage Russian machine running again, and survived the Rynok Square hills to my hotel room.

The organisers of the Book Forum must be proud indeed, a network of authors, publishers, professionals, volunteers and students all united in the single dream of sustaining the literary tradition in Ukraine. 

III: Trading spaces

I left Lviv for Kyiv and arrived in the exact early morning hour of Sept 20. Again, Dmytro was on hand, promptly too. I had to wait another day to catch the plane back to Lagos. Lyuba had tried without success to reserve a hotel room ahead of my arrival in Kyiv. So, with Dmytro, the job of finding resting space became real and daunting, because it seemed all the hotel rooms in Kyiv had been pre-booked, booked or occupied!

Like Sisyphus, I dragged my bag of tales and textiles on the baldhead hills of Kyiv. Still in search of the colour-blind hotel to accept my brown butt. Dmytro must really be an angel because he took the frustration kindly and was persistent and hopeful. The muse who kept me company through the journey, wondered why I was still in the streets of Kyiv three hours after arrival, after sending the links of a number of bed and breakfasts to me. I replied “…hope we get one from these. Otherwise, I will put my bag away and report at the next police station!” In the noon of a gutsy and hungry anger, we found one (Slavutich), a mammoth perched on the beautiful lip of the city, away from the madding centre. Young Dmytro disappeared the same way he had come, quietly and kindly. In the evening, it was the turn of the two siren friends - Anastasia and Yana, the shy artist who had a canvass full of paintings but who thought my comment on her work was too glowing to be believed... Ana and Yana were the finest pair of my intimacy with Kyiv.

On that last night in Ukraine, when sleep refused to overcome the eagerness of another departure, I promoted myself to the hotel bar, and met five middle-aged men and two vivacious women, apparently visiting Kiev like me. The leader, or the most talkative one, wanted to know where I hailed from in Africa (it must be Africa). When I answered, drawling for effect – Nigerrria – his face became a glowing hourglass, enthusiasm brimming all over. He turned swiftly to one of the women and said, “Natasha, meet my friend; do you want beer? He is rich, he is a millionaire!” I felt some foulness in the air. I must be in the wrong place. Perhaps one of our money-bags had been here before, but this hotel is too inexpensive to harbour a Nigerian billionaire. I was sure the gang-leader jested in good faith but he had, unwittingly, opened the rump of my country’s pastime – the familiar narrative of serving leaders, fugitives and dealers arriving in European capitals in the dead of the night with the sole mission of stashing our collective blood and crude money in bank vaults…

IV: Snippets

The guided tour on the Wonder Train around the city’s historic points was a very informative one. Lviv used to be a converging place of Ukranians, Russians, Poles, Jews, and Armenians, until the promulgation of the Deportation Treason Act No. 25 of 1924 which saw the banishment of the minority of minorities. It had the reputation of being a great trading outpost, and it harboured theatres, opera houses, taverns, monasteries and churches, home also to the invention of the first kerosene lamp. Over time, Lviv became one of Europe’s centres of culture with an enduring legend of over 3000 white lions raised as monuments, scattered all over the city. There’s always a quiver of stories and memories around the next Romanesque building.

But apart from the territorial claim to a defined nationality, and a language beatified in the creative works of Taras Tschevchenko, apart from the pride in the Klitschko brothers, and the unifying memory of the Chernobyl, two unseemly cultural symbols which should not miss the passer-by here are the church and the pair of sophisticated shoes. In fact, a good and defensible exaggeration would be to say that the wearing of high-heeled shoes seemed like a national culture, proof of the arrival of upward mobility (no pun intended) among Ukrainian women, young and old. It could be chic, indeed fashionable. I learnt that after the collapse of the USSR, where flamboyant articles including shoes and lipsticks were outlawed, one of the first symbolic articles of capitalist flamboyance of the Ukrainian lady was the pair of high-heeled shoes of many shapes and colours. Some like the Titanic in sail; some like fish doped out of water; some like igunnuko nails tottering on 6-inch stilts; some like bullish tractors threatening the ancient cobblestones of Lviv. I saw the towering heights beneath their feet.

When I observed that most of the ladies at the Forum – poets, escorts and translators and admirers - around me did not wear high-heeled shoes, my friend explained that the Forum women belonged to a different generation and ideology, and that it was anti-intellectual and phony capitalism to wear flashy, twin-tower shoes in broad daylight! Perhaps the wearing of shoes is a symbolic way of knowing or abbreviating the social status of the female. Different folks, different steps, I thought. In Nigeria, the legend has been sung into popular imagination, that only the successful and educated will have the privilege of wearing the high-heeled beauty. 

I see pleasant contradictions. I think Ukraine is a country struggling to yield the garb of communism. So many young people go to church, yet the clothing and jewellery shops are opened on Sundays. I hear that some bishops rage about shops which are opened on Sundays, yet they bless the same malls and centres in communion. The student of European history would remember that during the Serbian-Croatian war, there were priests who blessed the tanks and munitions of crises, surely not in the name of Christ, but by their own logic of hypocrisy!

In company of Olga, my escort, I met a Polish guy who knew so much about Nigeria that the first question that fell from his lips was “I know you have Christians and Muslims out there. Are you an animist?” Pierre was lost in Lviv. We showed him the way to the orthodox Greek Catholic Church (St. Ura/St. George) which he was in dire hope of seeing. Through that walk, the man from Warsaw spinned his own tale of how Lviv was founded as part of Polish history, to the stern denial of my embarrassed chaperon. I realised for the repeated time that there's so much politics of nationalism, occupation, and appropriation to the making of European nations, so much to the invention of a homogenous community above other minority presences. All histories of origins are a peculiar mess.

I saw a man urinating not by the road, but by the foot of the Church's hallowed ground.

I met two couples walking their dogs in the park, one too fat to be fed that its tummy swept the ground; the other was too thin to be seen. I thought of the many legends of human want and excess.

I saw too well-dressed guys struggling to start their stubborn car until they realised it had run out of fuel. So they fed it the motor spirit from a big can. I thought this was a scene only reserved for other places outside modern Europe.

I saw a gathering of people so poised and riveted on the enveloping action that they reminded me instantly of the typical crowd on a market day in Ibadan in the late 1970s. Rondo-rondo, the mobile magician has come to town...! I moved closer to the crowd and expected to see Harry Houdini and his portmanteau of tricks in the square. There, I saw two old men in deep concentration, playing chess, the game of wits.

I met Sasha the sane drunkard, in the bus to Kingcross, a twenty-minute drive to the most important shopping mall in the outskirts of Lviv. He saw my black face in the bus and lost his lid. Sasha broke my privacy and dialogue with Olga. He wouldn’t let me rest until I answered all his questions which came rapidly with the breath of rum or cheap vodka. His company felt embarrassed and apologised or commiserated with me with a knowing wink. I smiled through it all. An old woman raised her voice to quieten the drunk. The dialogue or rant became complicated; Sasha stood up and charged at the woman old enough to be his mother. A heavy hand blocked his movement to the back to the bus. When he looked up, it was the grimace of another ombudsman he met. I did not understand what Klitschko said, but his gesture was fierce enough for me to know that he dared Sasha to move an inch further towards his mother. Matter resolved, Sasha and his friend dropped off at the next bus stop, his racist questions hanging on his drooping lips. He didn’t look back. It had been an ugly scene indeed. 

I also witnessed the rural beauty here. A commune of old Ukrainian men and women brought their tenor and multi-coloured attires to the Market square. They sang like possessed canaries in flight. I was rooted. I caught the music which needed no translating. Each piece a meal for the passionate; I could feel the glow in the singers’ eyes, the trot in the leader's voice and the perfect mimicking of the bird whistles by that diminutive woman. The band was on a fund drive for a cause, seeking money to pay for the sculpture of Tschevchenko the poet in their town. I heard that very little comes from government into the sponsorship of art and artists. With what I saw, I really got amused thinking of my Nigerian example.

IV: An Open Letter to...

Dear Grigoriy, dear Lyuba, dear Yuri, dear Hanna, Halyna and Lesya...:

This is my first major mail after arrival in Nigeria. Lest I tell you that my journey to and back from Ukraine was very interesting and tedious of course. It was my first time of spending two nights and two full days to get to destination - approximately 9 hours of flight and 9 hours of train, with sun-up or sun-down intermission and meetings with young, friendly and enthusiastic Ukrainians along the way, Kyiv and Lviv.

Here is to appreciate all your support and the time shared while I was out there in Ukraine for the Book Forum...

Now settled down a bit to do some work and Ukrainian reflection, so many pleasant images of your land come before me. 

But as writers we do see beyond pleasantries, as we try to record significant moments of both pleasures and pain in between...

Incidentally, Ukraine is the only European country I have been to where people are genuinely interested in what the stranger, visitor or tourist feels about the country. Everywhere, in very intimate tone, I was asked "did you like it in Lviv?", "how was it there?" "did the Forum meet your expectation?" and "how do you feel...?" Very eager questions waiting for immediate answer. At a point, I remembered that I said it was too early to say, I was still measuring the space, encountering bodies and counting my time. Yes, Ukraine was a great place, a relatively unknown part of Europe but ready, and yielding to the dynamics of global change, exchanges and cultural interactions. Ukraine is the energy of forward-looking youth, poised to exert a meaningful dialogue with other parts of the world, standing strategically on the fringe of the old and worn Iron Curtain and peeping out, but still different slightly from the absolute individualisms of the other Europe... How much of the positive and negative potentials of "western" Europe Ukraine would embrace in the coming decade will be determined by national policies, and the resolve of the people of your country.

I have pleasant tales about your land, because I associated easily with it, the geographical images and the historical sounds of Nigeria are embedded also in Ukraine. The discovery and relation with your unique alphabets, the infectious eagerness of helpful people, the wonderful order of things at the Forum, the clement weather and the beauty of the architecture around, the informality of your men, and the astonishing openness of your women, the several meetings and parties, one under the belly of Lviv, right by the visible arm of Poltva river. I can’t remember all, but I won’t forget the beauteous taste of Ukrainian borsch, the unusual improvisations with time and space, the easy fatalism of things and yet the huge reverence for the church. I have not forgotten the genuine eagerness for literary collaboration between my country and yours, initiated by Yury, and my promise of introducing other authors to your Forum and readers...

But something odd and unpleasant happened in the last moment of my departure from Boryspil.

I was lucky to leave at the nick of time, I was lucky to catch the plane to Amsterdam at 6.25 am. I had checked in my only bag at the counter. I had no problem going through other checks. I had converted my last Ukrainian currency to Euro for the next expected trip. I was eagle, ready to flow with the wind on the homeward journey. Then just as I crossed the yellow line, and presented my passport to the Immigration official, who wore a very boyish and gentle look, I didn't expect the next thing. This suave-looking officer pointed at the clock and said, “Man you have problem with visa... you stay one day long”. I tried to explain that I began my journey out of Ukraine from Lviv on Monday, stayed one night at the hotel in Kyiv because there was no seat on KLM for me on Tuesday, and if there was, I didn’t arrive in the city until 7.30am, one hour after the scheduled plane would have left Boryspil. Pressed to impatience, impervious to my words, Oleg, the young blood in Carel 6 said militarily, “stay on yellow line, please, move”, meaning that I should stay behind the yellow line, separate from others filing by like a family of termites in hot pursuit of time. 

The waiting minutes seemed like eternity. When a senior and older officer appeared, it was a grim reaper that I confronted. A quick interrogation in demotic English. No reason, no explanation would do. He disappeared swiftly, and when he re-appeared, it was a stocky girl who followed, apparently to translate my offence and penalty: staying on Ukrainian soil six or seven hours after the expiration of visa. I searched Valentina’s face for some rare understanding, hoping for a cliff-hanger escape from the guillotine. I tried again: “I think the problem is with the embassy and the airline, not me... I have a one-week visa but there’s no connection from Kyiv to Amsterdam until this morning. You see...” No chance. Valentina delivered the judgement: “It is your problem. Sorry I am to translate for you. You go back to pay at the first floor... eight hundred and fifty hryvnia.” Here was I, a very helpless sojourner, who had only one thing in his mind: travel, travel, see, buy, fly; and there was Mr. Grim whose sense of time had nothing to do with the misery of the traveller; he stepped forward: “nothing you say, nothing,” he wiggled a finger for emphasis, “you pay, penalty, penalty you know.” He said it with the sternness of the referee on the pitch, a very hard tackle on my limb. I was the offended man, now I have to pay for being delayed by a day. 

The procedure was long, but in the end, I paid the fine of 850 Ukranian Hryvnia (UAH), which amounted to 80 Euros. I was just lucky to still have some money on me, I thought, otherwise I couldn’t imagine what the old brigade officer would have done to my trip. Yet, the logic was so uncommon: I paid 95 dollars for a one-week Ukrainian visa in Abuja, Nigeria, but I had to pay another 100 dollars for a one-day visa at Boryspil, out of no personal intention to stay back in the country!

In all my journeys, I had no experience of this kind of a mix-up, which started first at the Ukrainian embassy in Abuja where I had been made to repeat my visit to the hallowed ground three times before the visa was finally issued. Of course, it is not news that visa officers everywhere including Nigerian embassies are a different breed of suspicion, sentries at the door, gods of tinsels and touts who must be worshipped on the pain of refusals and rejections. But to reduce my visa days by one day, or to cut my application to the one-week slot, thereby reducing me to green matter to be fed upon by corrupt amoebic officers in white uniform, was the unkindest cut. It was not the money but the fear of being grounded, the fear of time - the time it took me to return to the queue, to change the Euro to Ukrainian currency, to pay the fine, and then return to a second round of frisking and radiation...? The arrested time, the disturbance, and the unfortunate feeling I carried to that plane lingered, but these too will pass over time...

I was delayed, practically fleeced because Oleg, Grim and Valentina, acting out the odd script, knew that anyone in my situation, with luggage ready, mind made for flight, the only connecting flight in the hour, would give a limb to hop into that plane in order to overcome the impolite intolerance. After payment, and on my return to the same box, my passport surfaced, duly stamped for exit into international space.

Word of the Day

Ukraine: A country in a hurry to change, to transform, poised to be distinct and national among the many unyielding minorities of Europe, surviving in spite of its fractious politics. There goes a country struggling to soothe its own pains.

Remi Raji

October 30, 2011


Published on:: 
April 13, 2019