A big melancholic world: Interview with Ilya Kharkow

By Ilya Kharkow (He/Him), Louise Østergaard Sørensen (She/Her), and Mariya Alfa Staugaard (She/Her)

Throughout 2023, HeartCore has collaborated with Ilya Kharkow to publish three of his short stories: Port Street in the Eyes of Daniel, Conversations in Polish Detroit, and Requiem for a Cracked Birch. For this final publication of his work in HeartCore, we wanted to explore more of Ilya’s thoughts behind his work and the importance of language, prose, and poetry in the contemporary world. 


Would you like to introduce yourself?

My name is Ilya Kharkow. I’m a writer. But since I have been hiding from my country in Europe for the last 10 months, I don’t like the idea of being called a Ukrainian writer.


To give our readers an idea of your surroundings, can you describe where you are sitting right now?

For now, I live in Portugal. In a small town by the ocean. Before that I lived in Lisbon, Warsaw, and Katowice. Before emigration – in Kyiv. Now I have settled in the westernmost point of Europe, because in the new circumstances distance is my new safety. But who knows where I’ll end up next month.


What language do you originally write in?

Like half of the citizens of Ukraine, my native language is Russian. And I’m not ashamed of it. Of course, because of the war, the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians by government stats is reduced. Now, high officials would tell you that this number is only a third or even less of the population. But they do it on purpose. Judging by the news, statistics today cannot be trusted either in Ukraine or in Russia. And the reasons for this are obvious.

I think and write in Russian. Less often in English. Ukrainian is as foreign to me as English. The difference is that learning English is my conscious choice and learning Ukrainian is a forced measure. Because of this, I didn’t become a lawyer, because when I graduated from school, they passed a law – education should only be in Ukrainian. Previously it was in Russian.

I have loved reading since childhood, and therefore I went to the Faculty of Philology to study literature. As a gay teenager raised in a homophobic country, literature classes were literally the only place where gay people were talked about with unquestioned respect. At university I chose English and Russian as my main languages. So, I might as well teach but I prefer to remain an eternal student. But these are all boring facts. Much more interesting is what language a person reads poetry in when he or she gets drunk. And I usually read Joseph Brodsky or Marina Tsvetaeva. I read in Russian. It doesn’t mean that I support Russian aggression. No. It only speaks to cultural preferences. It’s easy to get reproach from Ukrainians for reading Russian poetry during wartime when I’m drunk, but for me, it’s worse not to read poetry at all than to read it in the wrong language.


What has it felt like to be translated into Danish?

Being in emigration, I constantly have to deal with foreign languages. When I lived in Poland, I was issued a document to visit the library. I loved to walk between the bookshelves and guess among the Polish books the titles of the ones I read. And when you see your favourite books in a foreign language, you perceive them differently. Books become not style and language experiments, but an idea and the memory of this idea. Then it would be completely stupid to refuse a book just because of the citizenship of its author.


Has your relationship with language changed since the war began?

I was angry at Russia’s aggressive actions, which put me, a Russian-speaking citizen of Ukraine, in an uncomfortable position. As if the Russian language is a mark of the aggressor, and if I don’t refuse it, then I automatically support the war. But I don’t support the war, and at the same time, my native language is not Ukrainian, but Russian. Language is my tool as a writer, and I cannot frivolously throw away what is the basis for me. And I’m surprised that others can, because of the actions of a politician, abandon Dostoevsky’s legacy. 

Has my relationship with language changed? Yeah, definitely. As a writer, I determined that I had to stand up for culture. When I was a gay teenager, I found refuge in literature classes, now it is my duty to protect literature from the attacks of others. I think those who go to war talk about their Motherland in a similar vein. But the concept of Motherland is alien to me, and from patriotism I don’t expect anything other than manipulation of the sense of community with those for whom hatred of gays is an obvious phenomenon, innocent in its everydayness.


What are your thoughts about the process of giving life to (dead) characters through your writing?

It will soon be 9 years since my best friend died, so giving life to the dead is a common thing for me. I describe her partly when I need to describe girls and women in my stories. But when I mentally communicate with her, I communicate with the version of her that is imprinted in my memory. If she were alive today, she’d certainly be a completely different person.

I based “REQUIEM FOR A CRACKED BIRCH” on the suicide of my classmate. But this is not a documentary text. Not at all. Nevertheless, I got the tension to write it at the moment when our mutual friend called me and said: “I don’t understand why he decided to do this?” I was so outraged by this question that it became a short story. Obvious story for me. 

This one was harder to write than others. Working on it, I listened to «Помни имя свое» (“Remember Your Name”), and their songs are too depressing even for me. I forced myself to listen to this music almost non-stop because they sang Yesenin, and for this guy Yesenin was an extremely important poet. I usually write late in the evening and at night. I drank coffee at midnight to finish this text as quickly as possible. Finally, it took me three full rainy days. Frankly, all six months in Katowice were rainy as hell. And when I finished it, I suddenly became scared. And then I forgot about it. Completely and suddenly. As if I didn’t write at all. It happens. Sometimes it seems to me that my texts don’t belong to me. And this one is more his story than mine.

Because of the war, I had to imagine a lot of scary things. When an oil depot was first blown up near Kyiv, I imagined how those of my friends who remained in Kyiv were dying from lack of oxygen. When my mother refused to leave Kharkov, near which there were battles, I imagined her death a couple of dozen times. And recently I had to imagine how a rocket hits a cemetery, and the corpse of my best friend flew into the air. Louis Ferdinand Celine wrote that for those who have a fantasy, death is already superfluous.


What are your hopes for the future?

Hope? Hm… One cold morning, both Ukrainian and Russian soldiers will emerge from the trenches, join hands and refuse to continue fighting. Kidding. I’m not that naive. And yet there is micro-hope for this, and therefore, although in a frivolous tone, I want to say (shout) about it.

The war has been going on for a year and a half. During this time, only the Russian writer living in emigration, Boris Akunin, said that he felt sorry for Russian-speaking writers from Ukraine. I’m not looking for pity, but I understand that in Ukraine I am impossible. Impossible because I’m writing about gay people. Impossible, because in my prose I refer to Fedor Dostoevsky, and not to Taras Shevchenko. But in Russia I am impossible too.

My only hope is to find publishing platforms in Europe. I don’t care about awards, or popularity, or anything other than the process of writing a literary text and the opportunity to show it to a potential reader. The plot doesn’t interest me either. Just ideas. And the creation of the world.

Do I hope that the war will end soon? No. It seems to me that this war will last for a long time. I see how people get angry at each other, quarrel over language issues, how the bad side of manipulative politics penetrates more and more into their lives. My acquaintances from Ukraine and Russia increasingly answer questions with quotes from the news. This means that propaganda is working well. But this is better not for the individual, but for the government. And yet, this happens with the consent of the person. That’s why I look at this extremely pessimistically.

Soon it’ll be a year since I emigrated, and I have nowhere else to return, because the Ukraine I left no longer exists. Now the government’s interests are higher than the interests of the individual over there. Cities are not just destroyed, they are militarised. Russian music and literature are banned. It’s easier to buy a book by Brodsky in Lisbon than in Kyiv. My university was bombed. But firstly, my faculty was renamed, and then completely closed. So, at the beginning the Ukrainian education system destroyed my university as an idea, then a Russian missile destroyed its building.

I don’t see the point in choosing who – Ukraine or Russia – is to blame for what is happening. I don’t see the point in taking sides. If there had been a war in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Estonia, or any other country, would men there have become hostages of the situation or not? I don’t know what it would be like in a hypothetical future, but I read Franz Kafka and he described in his short prose a rather humiliating mobilisation in the Czech Republic. Therefore, the enemy is not Russia or Ukraine, but any government that puts its own interests above the interests of citizens. The only thing worse than such a government is people who voluntarily agree to this. And I see only culture as salvation. If Remarque’s books had been placed in each military unit, there would have been more deserters. But they won’t put it in. Obviously, they won’t.


And what do you hope for your writing to accomplish?

I just want to create something beautiful. A big melancholic world in which it will be comfortable to live. To which all those who feel different can escape.

On the first day of the war, I was sitting on a bus that was stuck in traffic for eight hours on its way out of Kyiv. Sirens sounded. And suddenly an explosion was heard. It was nearby. And we were all locked in the bus. Then the driver opened the door. Passengers ran out into the street. But where to run? And then another explosion was heard. The second explosion made it clear to me about my own insignificance. My life could be cut short so easily. And I imagined that in a minute the missile would hit this particular bus. I will die. But what then?

Then I decided to take advantage of this “last” minute. I found the Instagram profile of actress and film director Renata Litvinova. I just felt grateful for her movies. Especially for “Goddess: How I fell in love.” I’m not sure if it was her real profile. I’m not sure if my message was even read. But it was important for me before my death to thank her for the world that she created. Another place where a defenceless gay teenager can escape from the hatred of the post-Soviet outskirts.

In Lviv, I was sheltered by a local couple. One day at breakfast I was asked to talk about how I left Kyiv. And I told this story. About eight hours on my way out of Kyiv and 30 hours on the bus in total instead of the regular seven, about scary explosions, the omnipresent military, and about my pre-death message to Litvinova. And they asked me how I could dare to write thank you to her. She is Russian. In a few minutes I was asked to leave. I had nowhere to go. Displaced people were caught on the street and forcibly sent to the battlefield. The huge backpack and accent gave me away as a displaced guy. Going to Western Ukraine, I expected to receive shelter, but I became an easy target for Ukrainians in uniform. 

If my prose becomes a place for someone to escape to, then I will consider my mission accomplished.


How can a reader in Denmark contribute?

This applies not only to readers in Denmark, but to absolutely everyone – take care of the culture. Fortunately, at first glance, things are better with this in Europe than in Ukraine.

For now, I got an idea to create a website where I could share some stories. I plan to post there the whole set of ‘HOLES IN THE SHAPE OF HUMANS’, and 2 novels: ‘THE INTIMATE SMELL OF THE MARINE’ and its second part ‘MARBLE ANALYSIS OF THE JAPANESE NO’. The second part is a real story of how I escaped Ukraine. Both of these novels are still only in Russian. I’m only going to translate them to English, and it’d be great to find translators for other languages to spread these texts more than I can by myself. This project has a draft name – “Inner City Library’. It’s always better to do it in a team. So, I’d like to invite an enthusiast back-end developer and a web designer for cooperation. 

Anyway, I’d like to ask about something. When you see an emigrant, please, don’t ask him or her where they are from. At least not in the first question. The fact that I’m from Ukraine says very little about me. Better ask us about our favourite books. This will tell you more about the person. Because an emigrant is a person, not a passport with a stamp. But sometimes it’s easier to write a damn huge novel than to explain such a simple thing.

If you are interested in working with Ilya on publishing or translating his works, you can reach out to him on [email protected] or learn more on his website.

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