Books | Culture

Touching a Nerve: Marina Lewycka talks to Eugenia Ellanskaya on becoming a world renowned novelist and on being Ukrainian

29/04/2014

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Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewycka, photo by Nicola Barranger

Today Marina Lewycka is a world class writer. With her first novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) selling over a million copies in the UK alone, it has now been translated into over 30 languages. Winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature, Lewycka’s witty tragicomic style was a much anticipated contribution to trans-cultural literature. One must add that Lewycka’s long journey in pursuit of a dream of publishing has been truly worth the wait. Marina Lewycka has since published three more books: Two Caravans (2007), We Are All Made of Glue (2009) and Various Pets Alive and Dead (2012), and, we are told, another one might just be on its way.

 

E.E.: Marina, hearing of your long journey to becoming a novelist certainly makes a great story and only adds to the prestige of your work. Having worked towards it for so long, how did writing change your life? It surely must have been very strange at first…

M.L.: The secret is thatI started when I was very young. I wrote my first poem when I was four and tried for the best part of forty years to get published. It was a long apprenticeship. In a way it was very exciting, to achieve this dream at the age of fifty seven, but you get used to it quite quickly. You know, it starts off as a dream, and then becomes a job like any other.

E.E.: Is it disruptive to the dream to be taken into this mechanic routine of writing and publishing by demand? 

M.L.:  Well, I am very lucky. Most people my age have now retired, and I am very lucky to be working on something I still very much enjoy doing.  Sometimes I get a bit fed up with working so hard, but on the other hand, it’s an enormous privilege to be so engaged with the world, because I have such an interesting life.

E.E.: I’d like to talk about your most life-changing book. First time A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian appeared in Waterstones, I never thought I could relate to the title, let alone the book. I think since then a lot of people, myself included, have realised how universal and profound your first book is. Yet, why the tractors?

M.L.: The title is due to the ‘book within the book’ which the main character is writing. It really is a history. But tractors are used in the book as a way of telling a much broader history. It’s my family history. It’s also a European history from the time of the Russian Revolution to the Second World War, and the subsequent peace, which happens to also coincide with the history of tractors. My father designed tractors and he actually wrote a history of tractors, which was short, and he wrote it in Ukrainian, so that part of it is autobiographical. Do you know the film by Dovzhenko [a Soviet Ukrainian film director and producer] Zemlya [Earth]? Of course, it is a very pro-Stalin film, but it’s a very beautiful film, full of the idealism of that era. In Dovzhenko you see that the tractor was essential to the creation of kolkhoz [a collective farm in the USSR, integral to socialist ideology]. And in a way that’s what it celebrates. Obviously it’s a very two-sided thing, because my own family suffered greatly because of the kolkhoz system. But the actual machine is very beautiful, as is the black earth itself.

E.E.: So in the end, it is a largely autobiographical story about Ukrainian history and your own family, which makes it incredible how far you enabled people to relate to the situations and characters you create.

M.L. Well, it’s very embellished. It’s not a personal history by any means. It’s certainly the case that the historic part, the part about my family, is based on some tapes my mother made. Two years after she died, I sat down to write the story and I listened to the tape, and it was very short…  It would have been terribly sombre and really quite a tragic narrative. And I realised there wasn’t enough material there for a book. I was going to have to embellish it and add things and make things up. And so that’s how the book came about.

I have had lots of letters from people, saying that   the family situation portrayed in the book is very like theirs. So I realised I touched a real nerve. But I think it’s a universal story, the book has been translated into 35 languages. Obviously, you know, cross-culturally the older man who marries a younger woman is very common throughout history. Chaucer writing in 1485 has a character called the Wife of Bath who is a bit like Valentina in my novel.  And I get irritated when people think this is solely a Ukrainian part. Actually my model when I was writing was Anna Nicole Smith whose story was in all the newspapers. She was American, young, blonde, very glamorous, very like Valentina [one of the main protagonists of A Short History of Tractors], who married an 89 year old man that she was pushing around in the wheelchair.

E.E.: Your former writing is a lot to do with care for the elderly. So there is definitely a continuity of interest there…

M.L.: I used to write self-help books for a charity called Age Concern, and I realised there is this whole world of human experience, the world of the old, which isn’t really covered in fiction at all. Although people have started to engage with ageing far more now, when you see films, the other younger characters are usually far more developed. It’s changing now, but there is still this tendency to think that once you are past 60 you become uninteresting.

E.E.:  With over 30 translations, there is no way to track down what happens to your narrative in translation. Are readers pondering the same things? Does that bother you?

M.L.: Well, not much, no. I can’t read most of the languages my book was translated into, so I just have to take it on trust. I know that people in Ukraine originally got to read a Russian translation, which is unkind to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian publishers were offered it, but nobody took it up until last year. I’m delighted that now Ukrainians can read it in Ukrainian.

E.E.: That original Russian translation surely did not help winning over the Ukrainian critics…. I looked at some of the Ukrainian reviews, and they are definitely taking it a lot more seriously than the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize did. It seems, that they don’t trust your knowledge of Ukrainian “psychotypes” and history, being an émigré writer. Many have felt caricatured by your ‘treacherous’ treatment of their culture…

M.L.:  That’s very interesting. One of my great heroes as a writer is the Ukrainian satirist Gogol, who treats his characters with great disrespect. Bulgakov, too. I don’t know why Ukrainians have suddenly started to think that they cannot be the subject of humour. I have a really good Ukrainian friend who used to work for the BBC and I met her on an interview. She told me that Ukrainians are like that – they always complain about anything and they take offence very easily. They always think it’s personal for them, and I shouldn’t worry about it. So after that I just decided to relax. That’s why also I am quite reluctant to do interviews, because a lot of Ukrainians like to put me into those corners.

E.E.: It does seem that with your Ukrainian roots, and Ukrainian protagonists in two of your first books, people tend to fixate on that identity a lot, thinking that “this is all she is about”. What would you say is your particular literary mission beyond that?

M.L.: I know Ukrainians in particular think that my books are about my Ukrainian identity, but it’s not really true. I think most writers draw on their own life, and on their family history, which in my case happens to be Ukrainian, but I get a bit fed up in the end with being pigeonholed only as a Ukrainian writer. I feel my later books are about a lot of different issues. For example I have ended up being a mouth piece for people who are marginalised in society, either because they are immigrants or migrants, or refugees. This is something that I didn’t particularly choose, but rather something that people have chosen me for, but as a result I am involved in a couple of charities for migrants.  Also one for cats.

E.E.: That seems a long needed missing puzzle, with many recent migration influxes never receiving a voice or a narrative, which people would be willing to understand. You were born in Kiel, a post WWII refugee camp in Germany and moved to Britain at the age of one. Have you ever visited Ukraine, where your parents are originally from?

M.L.: I have been a few times, including twice to Kiev. How this came about was quite interesting. I met my cousin through the internet when I was trying to find out more about my family background. I put out an appeal through a Russian family-search website called vge.ru . Then shortly before the book was published I received a reply. My parents had been completely unable to contact their family back home, but thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to get in touch with my mother’s sister’s son. He took me on the tour to all the places in our family history. My parents are originally from Kiev and Poltava, but my grandparents had a country cottage in Dashiv, which is near Vinnitsa in Western Ukraine. At the start of the war my mother was living there with my father’s parents who came from Kiev but lived in Dashiv during the war. My mother’s family came from the Poltava region, but she also lived in Kiev and Kharkiv. And then somehow her family all ended up in Lugansk, which is as near to Russia as you can get.  I always wanted to go to Ukraine, but I didn’t want to go as a tourist, so I waited until I had the opportunity to go beyond tourism and find something more personal.

E.E.: So how would you define yourself identity-wise?

M.L.: Well, I don’t have a lot to do with Ukrainians nowadays on a daily basis. My parents generation are mostly dead, and the people of my generation who grew up in England are completely assimilated. The new generation of Ukrainians who have come here since the nineties are much younger than me, and have different experiences and interests. My parents were Ukrainian but I think of myself as an English writer. English is my language. I spoke Ukrainian at home as a child, but it is very rusty now. I also learned Russian at school, so now I speak both, rather badly, and I am constantly confused about what is Ukrainian and what is Russian. My official nationality when I was born was ‘undetermined’. I had a special passport, blue with two black stripes. My sister was stateless, because she was born in Ukraine and we were refugees. But my official nationality was undetermined, because nobody could decide what my nationality was. I wasn’t German. I wasn’t Ukrainian and I obviously wasn’t British. And so until I acquired British nationality at the age of thirty I was undetermined. To be undetermined is rather good because it means you belong nowhere and everywhere. And actually that’s a good passport for a writer to have.

E.E.: I agree with Marina on the freedom of being undetermined. What she gives to the world of literature transcends the Ukrainian national fever we are so accustomed to, giving a witty sublimated alternative to the country and culture in crisis. Of course, it is especially poignant today to speak of the very essence of Ukrainianness – the issue which dyes its current revolutionary spirit with antagonistic tints. Yet, even in times of peace, being Ukrainian is more than just an idle twaddle. It is a matter contested in Ukraine every day, an obstruction to life’s flow, an excuse for politics, which has been nothing other than complicated. Well, like Marina, that is not all Ukraine is about. So I leave her thinking that although Ukraine is clearly not the only thing she wants her work to be remembered by, Marina unwittingly makes a fascinating and long needed contribution to Ukrainian culture today.

 

This interview was carried out before events in Maidan Square and their aftermath in Kiev this February. For Marina Lewycka’s views on the current crisis in Ukraine, please see the following link:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/10/ukraine-and-west-hot-air-hypocrisy-crimea-russia

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