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 her second article written as part of the residency.
What happens when you stop writing? What happens when you used to bubble with words, and the words carried oxygen, and then you stop breathing? Or, actually, you stop breathing out. And instead of the oxygen of bubbling words, carbonated anxiety sprouts inside you. Anxiety squats in your body. You don’t control it anymore. You are kept hostage in it.
In her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman writes that “the victim of chronic trauma may feel herself to be changed irrevocably, or she may lose the sense that she has any self at all.”
I remember when I felt more vividly than ever that I didn’t own my body. I felt so disconnected from it that I literally saw myself from the outside. Thoughts were like cautious steps on the floor of an abandoned house. It's a hot sunny day in mid-August 2020. Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Pushkinskaya metro station. I am standing on the lawn by the road, together with several dozen other women. We are holding flowers and large A1 printed photos of beaten and bruised men: bloodshot eyes, faces, backs, buttocks, legs… It was the first weeks of our uprising, which began on the night of August 9th as a protest against the rigged presidential election, and expanded into a protest against state violence when thousands of mostly peaceful people were captured and tortured in police departments and prisons across the country. When they started to be released and we saw what had happened to them, we couldn’t let it remain unnoticed, and we went out to the streets, with these huge photos, standing by the roads with our arms stretched out above our heads holding them. There was so much pain that the best thing one’s psyche could do for self-preservation was to dissociate. And my consciousness dissociated from my body: I’m just a slope holding this photo. I wrote a poem then:
Many of my Belarusian female friends recognized their experience in this poem. It felt both painful and liberating to finally find the words to capture that experience. This is what poetry was for me, like it is for many others—finding the words to speak about the unspeakable.
“The worst fear of any traumatized person is that the moment of horror will recur, and this fear is realized in victims of chronic abuse,” says Herman.
In 2020, I saw a lot of violence. Countless stories, photos, and videos of beaten, tortured, raped people. These people were your neighbours, friends, your friends’ friends. People were beaten in front of my eyes, and many times I ran from the riot police. I was in jail for nine days. But my “story”, with the violence and trauma caused by it, didn’t start in 2020. When I was a child and my drunken father became aggressive and physical, I served as a buffer between him and mom, I served as a peacemaker. Standing between them, trying to defend mom, I begged him to calm down. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one able to stop him.
In 2020, further traumatization and re-traumatization happened to me. I'm still processing the scale of that violence. The protests continued for months, and repression still continues as I write, and you read, these words. In the light of this it became very difficult for me to write anything at all, especially poetry, because my poetry was embodied but I lost connection with my body; a typical PTSD symptom, as described in Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score: “In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, patients [with PTSD] had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror.”
Everything became triggering, and I got so scared of going deep inside myself that I stopped writing poetry. When you write poetry for a long time, and when many people know you as a poet, it may become the thing that defines you. It did for me: instead of poetry being a part of my identity, I saw it as my entire identity. So losing poetry felt like losing my entire self. Luckily, psychotherapy helped me figure out that even if I lost poetry, I was still there. I still was. And I always will be. This gave me courage to ask myself if poetry was the only way I could connect to myself, the world, and people, the only way I could spread ideas and bring about change. I also asked myself if I really wanted to share my story, or if I just felt obliged to. The answers were: you do have a story to share, but also there are others’ stories that you can help share. And there are ways other than poetry.
In his book Avoiding Emotions, Living Emotions, Antonino Ferro explains that “If one of our psyche’s activities (“down the slope”) serves to protect us from emotions, another function of our psyche (“up the slope”) is to restore the contact with what had been pushed out or dissociated.”
I've started writing documentary poetry. Basically, it gives shape to the stories which are already out there, so you delve into others’ worlds rather than your own. I am also working on a creative non-fiction book which includes both my and a polyphony of other Belarusians' experiences of being political prisoners for a few weeks in the autumn of 2020. I've started a practice-based PhD exploring how poetry can help Belarusian women share their experiences of domestic abuse and political terror. So, poetry keeps leading me forward, being gently present even if not in the form of poems born inside me like an avalanche in the mountains. I also learned, while dealing with what I thought was a loss, that writing doesn’t have to come from a place of violence; it can come from the place of love, and realizing that is like being able to breathe out, finally, then breathe in, and breathe out again, filling my blood cells with bubbling oxygen. There is nothing poetic in violence, but there is poetry in the courage with which you can embrace your vulnerability and choose to be silent, when speaking takes more than it gives.
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.