Askold Melnyczuk remembers Victoria Amelina as Ukraine war rages

Askold Melnyczuk remembers Victoria Amelina as Ukraine war rages

Preserving culture amid conflict through the means of literature

by Suswati Basu

In a recent interview with Askold Melnyczuk, the renowned writer, translator, and Arrowsmith Press founder, How To Be Books delved into the life and work of the late Victoria Amelina, a prominent writer whose impact transcended borders. Melnyczuk recently edited and published the anthology “Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened,” which serves as a tribute to the human rights activist. Amelina’s story is one of talent, transformation, and tragic loss, and it serves as a powerful testament to the enduring importance of culture, history, and art in times of adversity.

Editor Askold Melnyczuk on Victoria Amelina killed in Ukraine and restoring the country’s publishing industry

Melnyczuk is part of a group of writers supporting Ukraine through HUBB (Helping Ukrainian Books and Booksellers), as the publishing industry has been devastated by the war. According to Oleksandr Afonin, president of the Ukrainian Association of Booksellers and Publishers, since the start of the war over 3,000 publishing professionals have lost their livelihoods. A number have lost their lives. Many bookstores and book warehouses in the eastern part of the country have been destroyed. Book sales in Ukraine dropped from 40 million last year to four million in 2022. Among these casualties was Amelina.

A multifaceted talent

Victoria Amelina was not just an accomplished essayist; she was also a gifted novelist, as Melnyczuk emphasises. Amelina was the author of two novels, “The Fall Syndrome” and “Dom’s Dream Kingdom,” which was a finalist for the European Union Prize for Literature in 2019. In 2021 she was awarded the Joseph Conrad Literary Award. 

The University of Massachusetts Boston Professor, who had the privilege of publishing some of Amelina’s early essays in English, speaks of her ability to uncover and convey the complex histories of her native city, Lviv, Ukraine. Growing up during the twilight years of the Soviet era, many young writers like Amelina were not fully aware of their own history. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Empire that they began to explore their roots, unearthing a rich tapestry of diverse cultures and identities that had once inhabited their city.

“Victoria was able to find a way to present this history and the complexity of it in a way that allowed her readers to not shy away from it, so that it was not kind of angrily confrontational, it was revelatory.”

Askold Melnyczuk

Melnyczuk underscores Amelina’s unique talent in presenting this history to her readers. Rather than adopting an aggressive tone, she approached her work with a sense of revelation, inviting readers to explore their own past. Her essays and novels were both aesthetically refined and morally significant, shedding light on the complexities of her city’s history.

Read: Rebirth of Ukrainian literature: Top authors from Ukraine

Her own journey towards becoming a war crimes chronicler was born out of personal necessity. After returning to Ukraine, she transitioned from being a novelist to documenting the stories of women who had given up their professional lives to record war crimes. Eventually, she began working with the organisation Truth Hounds. This transformation highlighted her commitment to the larger mission of preserving truth amid conflict.

Tragic loss and memorialisation

Tragically, her life was cut short when she was killed in a missile strike while dining with colleagues in Kramatorsk. Melnyczuk reflects on how her evolving role from an introspective writer to a committed campaigner was driven by the conflict. Her fluency in English made her an effective communicator for the Ukrainian writers and activists she collaborated with during the war.

“I was privy to a transformation in a person who I had always seen as very kind of soft spoken, inward, gentle, and not necessarily an activist to someone who had become, by force of circumstance, an activist pursuing the kind of work that she thought she was best suited for.”

Askold Melnyczuk

To commemorate her life and work, Melnyczuk and a group of friends and colleagues came together to compile a collection of tributes and memorials. The resulting book, titled “Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened,” serves as a testament to Amelina’s legacy and the importance of her mission. The anthology’s title, which originally came from an essay that she had written, took on an ironic and poignant meaning in light of her tragic fate.

Brookline Booksmith held a memorial for Victoria Amelina at their venue, organised alongside Arrowsmith Press and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

Brookline Booksmith, who has been helping to fundraise for HUBB and held a special memorial for Amelina on September 30th, announced that an incredible $15,000 was given from almost 4,500 individual donations.

Brookline Booksmith announces $15,000 raised for HUBB during Victoria Amelina memorial.

Supporting Ukrainian booksellers

The conversation then shifts to the topic of fundraising efforts to support Ukrainian booksellers affected by the war. This initiative, spearheaded by Melnyczuk and his partners, aims to provide financial assistance to individuals and libraries in Ukraine’s book industry. Libraries, in particular, serve as vital community centres, offering solace and companionship through the written word even in times of strife.

“I think, for all cultures worldwide, because we can only understand who we are now by learning something about how we got there and what we had done, good and bad, in order to get there. And understanding both sides of that is essential for us to fully inhabit our present moment and understand what direction we want to move in from here. So that’s why culture is important, and that’s why those libraries are essential. They’re places where people kind of can become fully human.”

Askold Melnyczuk

Mitchell Kaplan, a prominent Miami-based bookseller and former director of the American Booksellers Association, played a pivotal role in initiating this project. His podcast, featuring Amelina and Ukrainian poet Mariana Savka, shed light on the challenges faced by the book industry in war-torn regions. Afonin collaborated with Melnyczuk to distribute financial aid to those in need.

The fundraising project, he explained, has two key stages. The first involves providing grants to individuals affected by the war, including booksellers and printing press workers. The second stage focuses on replenishing libraries that have been damaged or deprived of financial support due to the conflict. The goal is to support these vital cultural institutions and help them continue their work once the war subsides.

Rare book auction to help Ukraine booksellers and publishers

He also touched upon upcoming efforts to auction rare and historical items related to literature and art, with the proceeds going toward the same cause. Arthur Fournier, a rare book dealer, and Avi Kovacevich of Catalog Sale are working alongside Melnyczuk to make this auction a reality. During our conversation, Melnyczuk mentioned that he has personally offered rare books from his collection, such as the first edition of the debut book of stories by the renowned Russian author, Anton Chekhov. He underscored the importance of maintaining transparency in how the funds are distributed in Ukraine and showcases the enduring value of culture in the face of adversity.

In discussing the broader significance of preserving culture in times of conflict, Melnyczuk draws attention to the role of books and libraries as repositories of human spirit and history. He believes that culture is essential for understanding our past and present, and it helps us avoid repeating the mistakes of history. The act of confronting difficult truths, rather than denying them, is essential for growth and progress.

Hence, as we reflect on the life of Victoria Amelina and the ongoing efforts to support Ukraine’s cultural heritage, it becomes clear that culture and history are not just artifacts of the past; they are the guiding lights that lead us through challenging times, reminding us of our shared humanity and the power of art to transcend borders and conflicts.

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