Maryja Martysevich: “Our Literature Mafia Speaks Belarusian”

Maryja Martysevich: “Our Literature Mafia Speaks Belarusian”

Ales Kudrytski: Please, tell our readers about your book “Dragons Fly for Spawning”.

Maryja Martysevich: This book appeared because it had to. I want to create literature in the future, although I still don’t know exactly which one. In the world of Belarusian literature one can only make his claim by writing a book. The feeling that I must write a book came in a very natural way. I have been choosing texts very carefully. These are essays in poetic and prosaic form. Two main concepts of the book are the concept of borderland and the concept of birth.

A.K.: How would you describe yourself – as a writer, translator, journalist, critic or someone else?

M.M.: That’s a tough question. I don’t know.

A.K.: Do you feel the need to categorise yourself at all?

M.M.: I think it could be possible. However, when I find a definition for myself, I will immediately get bored and betray myself with another role.

A.K.: What is your view of the relationship between the Soviet and “independent” tradition of Belarusian literature?

M.M.: I don’t think the canon of Soviet Belarusian literature will perish even in the next twenty years. School curriculum and mass culture must ensure the general rethinking of the Belarusian classic literature. It is already happening, albeit very inconsistently. Until such rethinking takes place, the qualitative progress of Belarusian literature and culture in general will not be possible. The scene of contemporary Belarusian literature exists not owing to but in spite of what is being taught at schools. We must change the mainstream. We must change the way people see the classics.

 A.K.: How was such a literary canon developed?

M.M.: In spite of repressions, the Belarusian language hasn’t seized to exist. Belarusian literature developed itself more or less proportionately to any literature of other European nations. We had traditionalistic as well as modernistic developments. “Owing” to the Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s a very powerful correction took place. All modernists were mown clean, and only traditionalists were allowed to stay alive. In the following decades the “harmony and balance” were maintained in order not to let modernism raise its head.

The purpose of a school programme is not only to get children acquainted with literature, but also to impart some ideological guidelines to them. Looking at our school programme, one can’t help thinking that Belarusian authors wrote only about love towards their native tongue, motherland, nature, and their hatred towards the Nazis. Some female writers were also allowed to write about love. As a result, the people who will never be professionally connected with literature in their future lives, but who, potentially, would be interested to attend some literature reading, tend to think that the entire Belarusian literature is like that. The most troubling thing is that our writers notice that such works are in demand by schools, state authorities, officials who distribute literary prizes, and state-owned publishing houses. As a result, they begin to write accordingly. This literature is insincere. I am convinced that this canon has to be changed. In my view, literature of any country cannot avoid being influenced by ideology. Every state tries to impose its values through literature. However, the contents must change, at least thematically. In Belarus, however, as a result of a recent reforms in education, the programme was purged of the last remaining interesting works.

A.K.: Who is to be blamed of such a state of Belarusian literature?

M.M.: Mafia! The blame is on the “literature officials”, apparatchiks dealing with literature. These are academic institutes, university professors, critics… I don’t want to say that they must board some kind of “philosophers’ ship” and leave the country. This is not a problem of generations; this is a problem of discourse. Someyoung people have exactly the same mentality.

In Lithuania or Poland modernist and provocative writers, just like green party activists, have filled offices in parliaments and serious newspapers. Here, in Belarus, they are either already dead or ruined by drinking. Many of them don’t have anything to do with literature anymore. Our system is so skilled at nipping everything in the bud, that it would do an invaluable job by using the same energy in stifling Colorado beetles on our potato fields.


A.K.: Does Russian-language Belarusian literature exist?


M.M.: As long as there are people who claim that they are Belarusian writers who write in the Russian language, such literature does exist. This is similar to a population census: if someone calls himself an elf, this is the way he should be noted in the form. The lack of understanding between Russian- and Belarusian-speaking people was an acute issue in the 1990s. The generation of twenty- or thirty-year-old people has outgrown this problem. My Russian- and Belarusian-speaking peers are politically correct and polite in their communication with each other. Today, Belarusian- and Russian-language literatures coexist, complementing each other without fusing into one. The division runs along aesthetic, not linguistic lines.


A.K.: How well developed is Russian-language Belarusian literature?


M.M.: I wouldn’t say that there are no vivid Russian-speaking writers; it’s just that there are not too many of them. If a person living in Belarus decides to do creative writing in Russian, then he or she finds it more logical and pleasant to communicate with Russian-speaking colleagues from Russia and Ukraine. Why? Here in Belarus Russian-speaking authors are often regarded as a minority. This is a major paradox of our situation – despite the fact that the majority of Belarusians are Russian-speaking, our “literature mafia” is Belarusian-speaking. This is a very special phenomenon. Many Belarusians who speak Russian in their daily lives choose to create literature in Belarusian. Personally, I haven’t had this choice. I have never written in Russian simply because I didn’t want to. I knew I would do poor job writing in Russian. The problem is that the Belarusian language has lost its communicative function in our society.  “Thanks” to the Soviet policy of russification the Belarusian language was forced into the purely ornamental role – songs, folk fests, festive speeches. Today, for Belarusians, their mother tongue is a sacred matter. Its aesthetic function is hyperbolised. The one who creates literature in the Belarusian language applies it as a precious tool, as a material, which is very scarce. That is why their works turn out to be better than they could have been otherwise.

  A.K.: What are the prospects for the Belarusian language? Will it survive?


M.M.: The Belarusian language is still being developed as a means of communication. I deeply respect young men and women who translate interfaces of popular websites like Google into Belarusian, create dictionaries, and renew the communicative function of our language. I think, in about fifty years everything will be fine in Belarus in terms of the language situation.


A.K.: What will happen if Aliaksandr Lukashenka decides to launch a policy of Belarusification?


M.M.: I like to put labels on people. Once I have said, that everything Franak Viachorka, one of our youth opposition leaders, does, in the end turns into publicity stunts. I have also said that everything Adam Hlobus, one of our controversial writers, does, turns into a scandal. Well, everything Lukashenka does also turns into something – but I still can not find the right word to describe it. I wouldn’t like to see Lukashenka pursuing Belarusification. The result would be the same as we see it with his recent policies of promoting sports, reviving villages, and building new national library – misérable. He better not!


A.K.: You call Belarusian men losers. How do you live in this country?


M.M.: Oh, it is very difficult. I thought I would offend men with my essay, but their reaction showed me that I was wrong. All men formed two big groups. One of them felt insulted by this text, another one agreed eagerly: “yes, we are losers!” I have just as many grudges against the group which agreed, as against the ones who protested. Perhaps, this essay was too emotional. However, the very concept of a nation of losers, outsider nation, is worth serious consideration. Today I plan to go to a concert in the company of my friend, young man from Poland. Some time ago he called me in order to ask which clothes he should wear. He didn’t want to wear jeans if I don’t, and vice versa. I was so impressed and even shocked by this attitude. Would any Belarusian men ask me which clothes should he wear in order to match mine? Never! I think something is definitely rotten in terms of men in our society. That is why aged Italian men and Turkish exchange students have much more success among our girls than Belarusian boys. However, I wanted to write that I really love losers, because a person who couldn’t care less which clothes to wear for a party is still much closer to me than any other.

A.K.: If Belarusian men are losers, then how would you describe Belarusian women?

M.M.: They are feminists. FeminEasts, better to say. These are women who adapted an Eastern model of feminism. The whole world sees them as oppressed women; however, they are much more feminist than any western gender equality activist. I have often noticed, also on the example of my relatives, that Belarusian men would never make it without their women. Seeing that a man fails in his life, our woman overtakes his role. My grandmother married the most promising guy in her town. He was a communist, military officer, war veteran with a big salary. However, it took him just one year to ruin his image, mess up the collective farm he was a director of, and cheat on his wife with an agronomist. He was thrown out of the Party with a “wolve’s ticket” – he could not work anywhere in the region where he lived. In order to bring the life of her family back to normal, my grandmother took all the functions of a family head in her hands. She raised two kids, became a popular local council leader in a faraway village where she found a refuge with her family away from humiliation. She was a hero woman. I think Belarusian women are much more feministic than anyone, including themselves.

A.K.: Are you also like that?

M.M.: I think I am. Perhaps, this is due to peculiarities of my family upbringing. All my familiar lines show obvious signs of matriarchy.

A.K.: How would you describe a typical reader of Belarusian-language literature?

M.M.: These are very strange people. So far this is only a subculture, unfortunately. From what I see these are mostly students with interest in humanities. For these people, reading contemporary Belarusian literature is a sign of being European.

A.K.: Is it possible to live from professional writing in Belarus?

M.M.: Speaking about poetry, it is just as marginal here as anywhere in the world. Poetry is like a sect which attracts a special kind of people. The majority of poets can not earn their daily bread with poetry, because it is unremunerative. In order to live from literature, you must be either a star poet, who is internationally famous, or become a prose writer who produces novels of specific genres and sizes, which fit the demands of the book market. Due to the language situation in Belarus, such a novel wouldn’t sell. It is unprofitable. All attempts to write prose fail here because of banal economic reasons. The ones who still write are either altruists (which doesn’t automatically make them good writers) or people like Alhierd Baharevich, who found the opportunity to live from literary fellowships. He also had to sacrifice something in order to be a Belarusian writer.

A.K.: Which type of book do you lack in Belarusian literature the most?

M.M.: I would like to see something like “Gone With the Wind”.

A.K.: Don’t you have a temptation to write such a book yourself?

M.M.: Of course, I do, but I also realise that in order to write such a book one has to be a housewife, not some bohemian chick. So, there’s no chance of me writing it!

A.K.: How has our society changed in the course of these 15 years of authoritarian rule?

M.M.: I don’t know what to say. We don’t have our own South Korea which could show us what Belarus could look like if it had a different regime. I think that during the first decade of authoritarianism Belarusians were in a state of shock. In terms of literature, the most popular cultural projects were rock bands like N.R.M. and their analogues in literature. However, Belarusians eventually got used to this situation. As a result, now there is a widespread tendency to abstract away from reality. Although, foreign observers tell us that this is not possible, because we still consider the political situation, even if it is not present in our literary works directly. In general, the development of Belarusian literature doesn’t deviate much from the universal trends. We have a problem of aesthetic, not political censorship. The state policy may change, but if the people with the same aesthetic model come to power, the cultural situation will remain the same. In this regard, the conservative part of the opposition is not much different from the authorities. What we need is a nationwide liberalisation of consciousness. Similar to the regime of Lukashenka, the opposition of the 90s has compromised itself with its inclination to totalitarianism. However, I also see a new literature of young writers emerging. I call it “new age literature”. These are authors like Paval Kastsiukevich, who writes about Israel, but tells us about Belarus in his books.

An article about Maryja Martysevich can be found at

The Men We Choose by Maryja Martysevich

By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB