Hanna Komar is the first writer to take part in Guernica Editions and PEN International's Writers Residency supporting refugee writers and writers in exile. This is the third article written as part of the residency.
Sometimes (not as often as I wish) I’m asked where one can read Belarusian poetry in English. After Belarus’ post-election protests of 2020-2021, anthologies of Belarusian poetry and prose have been published in several European languages: Swedish, German, Lithuanian, Danish, Polish, Russian. But not in English. Yet, Belarusian literature in English does exist; you can find some of it, but it’s a challenge. I want to make life a bit easier for those who want to read Belarusian writing in English, so I put together a little digest. It is not complete, it may not be coherent, it misses things. I built it out of a combination of what I know and what I’ve found through research.
Some of the names in the following list are big and famous, others are less well known (hopefully, for now) but to me all are important. Bits and pieces of Belarusian poetry and prose in English translations are scattered over different literary magazines, online and offline, gathering them is a bit like gathering glass beads. Still, I hope this collection will be updated and will grow.
I want to start with the project Free All Words, a text and translation fund for writers from countries under pressure. It was created in 2022 under the umbrella of the European Writers' Council (EWC), and has supported translations of Belarusian and Ukrainian authors, mostly poets, into different languages — English included. On their website, each author’s profile works like a book whose pages you can turn, or you can select a poem from the chapter list. Poems in their original languages are followed by translations, including some that are in English. Many of these poems are from the last two or three years, they talk about the war in Ukraine and protests in Belarus and the experiences that came with these events.
Julia Cimafiejeva’s collection Motherfield (2022), translated into English by Valzhyna Mort and Hanif Abdurraqib, is a Belarusian protest diary and collection of poems. The diary of a collective trauma is told from a personal perspective, with the details of everyday life and protest scenes, and the emotions and thoughts that take courage to write about. Julia’s poetry is embodied, it breaks the restraints of tyranny, patriarchy, and colonialism. Toby Altman wrote a great review which was published in the online publication On the Seawall; I recommend it.
Aside from being Motherfield’s translator, Valzhyna Mort is also by far the most well-known poet from Belarus, although she has now been living in the USA for many years and writes in English. Her latest poetry collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected (2020) was the winner of the International Griffin Prize, the UNT Rilke Prize and named by the New York Times as best poetry collection of the year. On the back cover, Jennifer Wilson calls the book, “a striking study of what Belarus can teach the world about state violence, collective memory, and the role of poetry in fighting tyranny.” I don’t need to add anything. Two of her other poetry collections in English, Factory of Tears (2008) and Collected Body (2011), have saturated metaphorical language and incredible imagery. They carry such power within them.
Yuliya Charnyshova is a poet who grew up in Minsk and now lives in Lviv, Ukraine. When I read her poem, translated into English by her and Elina Alter, I get goosebumps, and I can’t hold tears, and I experience flashbacks, and I want the poem to never end. In that same article in the LA Review of Books, there’s also a poem from Danyil Zadorozhnyi, a Ukrainian poet and Yuliya’s husband.
Another important voice of contemporary Belarusian poetry is Krystsina Banduryna. In her poetry, she explores the experience of the abuse and violence that a woman and a lesbian woman faces in Belarusian society. Her poem Mollusks in my translation was published in the November 2020 issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, and her poem HOMO in my translation was published on the London LGBTQ+ Community Centre’s social media.
Tania Skarynkina’s short story collection A Large Czesław Miłosz with a Dash of Elvis Presley (2018) was translated into English by Jim Dingley and published by Scotland Street Press. According to the publisher, the stories “mix life in a small Belarusian town with thoughts on world literature.”
Some of Volha Hapejeva’s poems are available in English on the website of the amazing project Lyrikline, which publishes poems in audio and in text from international poets in a variety of languages. Arnold McMillin, a researcher who probably knows more about Belarusian literature than any other British scholar, called the poet “a feminist from patriarchal Belarus.”
My own collection Recycled (2018) has poems about the experience of being a girl and then a woman in a patriarchal authoritarian society.
And a bit of classic: Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kupala and Maxim Bagdanovich all collaborated on the collection A poetic treasury from Belarus: A celebration of the life and work of Vera Rich (2019). Vera Rich was a British poet, translator, editor and activist who contributed hugely to the translation and promotion of Belarusian and Ukrainian literature. Belarusian classics translated by Vera Rich include the 1971 book Like Water, Like Fire: An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day.
A fantastic collection Poems on liberty: reflections for Belarus was published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2004) and it represents several dozen poems from Belarusian authors of different generations and writing styles.
Verbum was a project of the Belarusian Writers Union dedicated to translating and publishing contemporary Belarusian texts in English. The Union was liquidated by the decision of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus in 2021, along with hundreds of other public and non-governmental organisations in Belarus —they made living in Belarus better, and that is a threat to the neo-totalitarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Their only issue, as of this point, was published in 2019, and has a collection of interesting poetry and prose.
Alindarka’s Children (2014) by Alhierd Bacharevič was translated into English by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid. A curious (and challenging) feature of the translation is that the Russian speech was translated into English and the Belarusian parts into Scots. I spoke more about this book and a few others in this interview with Five Books.
The Zekameron by Maxim Znak (2023), is a collection of 100 stories translated into English by Jim and Ella Dingley. As the publisher Scotland Street Press says, “'Zekameron’ derives from the Russian word zek, an abbreviation formed by the names of two letters of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet - зк; it stands for zakliuchonny, a word that originally referred to a convict held in a Soviet labour camp. The word now has the general sense of ‘prisoner’.” Maxim Znak is probably the most well-known Belarusian lawyer, who in 2021 was sentenced to 10 years in a penal colony in Belarus for trying to bring the rule of law back to Belarusian society. This is prison literature, but it still has humour and light along with the dark reality of being a political prisoner. Correspondence for political prisoners in Belarus is blocked, so the fact that these stories reached us is a miracle.
A bit more prison literature: The Colours of the Parallel World (2018), a collection of essays by Mikola Dziadok that he wrote after serving 5 years between 2010-2015 in different prisons for the organization of protests; he is again in prison, after being arrested during the 2020 protests. On the Way to Magadan (2014) by Ihar Alinevich, an anarchist who spent 8 years in jail for his activism.
Svetlana Alexievich was the Nobel Prize Laureate in literature for 2015. Her book The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II helped me through 2020 and 2021; it reminded me that I was a woman and not a soldier of the revolution. It showed me that there were women who went through much worse experiences than we did, and they survived and preserved themselves and others. Her other most widely-read book is Voices from Chernobyl. As the poet Valzhyna Mort shared with me in a conversation, while most of Svetlana Alexievich’s books present the Soviet people in general, her book Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future must contain the most specifically Belarusian voices. Her other books are Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II. In 2020, she shared that she was writing a new book about love, but the protests disrupted it.
Svetlana Alexievich calls writer, screenwriter, critic and activist Ales Adamovich her teacher in documentary writing. In Out of the Fire (1980), Ales, alongside Yanka Bryl, and Vladimir Kolesnik, collect an account of how the punitive Nazi operation during World War II destroyed hundreds of Belarusian villages, sometimes burning alive and killing all their villagers.
Down Among the Fishes by Natalka Babina (2013). Its translator Jim Dingley told me that the novel, which follows twin sisters living in a small Belarusian village as they embark upon a murder investigation, may “help someone understand a little about Belarus.”
Two very classical books by the authors who we read at school in Belarus have been translated into English. One is King Stakh’s Wild Hunt by Uładzimir Karatkievič, translated by Mary Mintz into English in 2012. I wrote about it in an article on Five Books. The other is People of the Marsh by Ivan Melezh, translated by Natalie Ward into English in 1979. It talks about Soviet power and collectivisation in a Belarusian village called Kurani in the 1930s.
Maria Gulina’s Dear Diary contains extracts from her own diary which she published on Facebook in April 2022, two months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They’re collected in the short story anthology Contemporary Subjects.
Tatsiana Zamirouskaya’s two short-stories: Inside You In Your Absence and Chlorophyll: A Reminiscence translated into English by Fiona Bell. Tatsiana is one of the few Belarusian writers who I read in Russian. I like the idea that she shared on her Facebook page: literature should move from the “what did actually happen?” space to “why did it happen and with what purpose?” space. In her stories, Tatsiana explores topics like the “impossibility of an archive after the Apocalypse”, the “fragility of biological consciousness” and the “impossibility to preserve memory when it belongs to everyone.”
In PEPPER Magazine, tony lashden writes about writing on trauma and war in their theoretical fiction piece writing from the margin.
Volha Kastsiuk in her short-story Soram, translated into English by Shashi Martynova, writes about domestic violence, which is still a major issue and pretty much taboo to write about in Belarusian literature. In her short-story Mamo and Sinku, she doesn’t keep silent about the war in Ukraine.
Hanna Komar is a poet, translator, and writer. She has published three poetry collections: Страх вышыні (Fear of Heights) and Мы вернемся (We’ll Return) in Belarusian, as well as the bilingual collection Recycled. Her work has been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Czech, Lithuanian, Slovenian and Russian. She translates her own work into English. She is a member of PEN Belarus and an honourary member of English PEN, as well as a Freedom of Speech 2020 Prize laureate from the Norwegian Authors’ Union. She is interested in using poetry to support Belarusian women to share experiences of gender based violence and patriarchy.