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What the writer of ‘We Lived Happily During the War’ wants you to know about Ukraine

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

In recent days, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has left many living in the country in a nightmare.

Subway stations double as bomb shelters. Grocery shelves are bare. Cars idle in traffic as thousands attempt to flee. And some Black people living in Ukraine say they have faced discrimination when trying to escape into Poland.

As war unfolds, many Americans have watched the events in horror. Donation links, firsthand accounts and other information have been shared across social media. Among them is Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” a piece that indicts American passivity toward violence both at home and abroad.

Kaminsky grew up in Odessa, a city in the southern part of Ukraine situated along the Black Sea, before his family came to the United States. His book of poems, “Deaf Republic,” chronicles life in war, highlighting both the moments of beauty and terror — and condemning silence in the face of injustice.

CNN spoke with Kaminsky via email about his poem, what friends and family in Ukraine have told him — families make Molotov cocktails together; potatoes are marked up by 50%; one group plans to start a literary magazine — and what he wants the world to know about Ukraine.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For people who may have never been, can you talk about what life in Odessa, Ukraine is like? What do you remember from your time there, and what was it like before this month, as someone who still has family there?

I was 16 when I left Odessa, a deaf kid who heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes.

Odessa architecture is scaled down, “human sized,” and there was an opera house before there was potable water. Odessa loves art, and it loves to party. In the summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every corner. You break them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends. The city has an especial affinity for literature. There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they began putting up monuments for fictional characters.

The most important holiday in Odessa isn’t Christmas, it is April 1, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people come to the street and celebrate what they call the day of kind humor. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor — think of the man who offered to tow the Russian tank which had run out of gas back to Russia. Humor is part of our resilience.

Your book, “Deaf Republic,” tells a story about life in war and occupation. And yet it opens with the poem “We Lived Happily During the War.” Why did you choose to open the book with that poem? What message did you want to send?

The book “Deaf Republic” opens when a deaf boy is shot by a soldier from an invading army in a public square. The whole community decides to protest this murder by refusing to hear the authorities. The townspeople coordinate with each other by sign language. In the midst of this violence, people still fall in love, laugh, make children.

I grew up watching the collapse of USSR and the war in Transnistria — Russia’s first so-called “humanitarian aid” campaign, which was very similar to the current war in Ukraine, though less well publicized. Then I came to USA, where for 12 years I have lived only 8 miles from US/Mexico border. It was not unusual to have your car stopped and searched for people trying to cross the border, or to see people being taken away in ICE vans. And of course the police brutality against Black and brown people has been such a hugely visible and important issue, finally, in the past few years.

So, as the author, a living human, I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities between images of violence caused by this empire — violence taking place here in this country — and images of violence in Eastern Europe. And at the same time, there is happiness. People fall in love, laugh, make children.

Beginning with the poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” which is heavy with irony about the greatness of our capitalist nation, shows a different kind of so-called happiness, the happiness of living with our backs turned — ignorant bliss. The poem is meant to serve as a wake-up call; to prevent people from reading “Deaf Republic” as a tragedy of elsewhere. Deaf Republics, with their hopes, protests, and complicities, are everywhere. We live in the Deaf Republic.

That poem specifically has been shared widely on social media in the wake of Russia’s attack. How do you feel seeing your work resonate, particularly that poem, at this time?

“We Lived Happily During the War” is not a piece of journalism or philosophy, where one might go into facts or questions of ethics. In a poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader: in this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader see their own complicity.

The poem doesn’t want to be a pronouncement. The poem is a warning. This is what happens when half-measures take place. “We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins, and it ends with the same words. But by the time it gets to its final line, one hopes the reader might find the horrific irony in that fact of repetition. How many wars can we live through, happily?

One hopes the reader sees the critique of this “we” and what it has done. By the time you get to the repetition of “our country of money” and then to “our great country of money” — one questions the word “great.” That is what art hopes to do: it doesn’t shout at the reader “You must change!” Instead, the reader is changed via the act of reading.

There’s a part in that poem, the line “[forgive us],” where the speakers seem to be asking to be absolved of their guilt, for the “not enough” protesting and opposing they did, for living “happily during the war.” Do you think that is something that can be forgiven? What should be expected of those living outside Ukraine, or any country experiencing unrest, in times like these?

As an author, I see the irony in the citizens of the American empire showing so much concern for the victims of [for example] the Russian empire while America is regularly bombing people’s houses, and all the while it uses police brutality against its own citizens [at] right this very moment

But author is not speaker. The speaker of the poem says “we lived happily,” the happiness of living our heads in the sand, pursuing wealth over justice. What can be done, you ask. I will answer your question with a question: who remembers Chechnya right now?

Putin used ballistic missiles to bomb its capital, Grozny, to the ground in 1999/2000. The West shouted about it for five minutes. Then we forgot. We’re encouraged to forget. Why? Because oil and gas companies make money on their dealings with Putin. Follow the dollar and you will see the root of the problem. Our country of money, the poem says. Our great country of money.

What are you hearing from friends and family right now?

It seems like Yiddish is undergoing a revival this week: Every other message I get is calling Putin “schmuck” and “putz.” Lovely to hear my mother’s native language.

A writer from [Kyiv] tells me he sees people making Molotov cocktails together with their kids. An 80-year-old journalist from Odessa writes: “The air raid just quieted down. It’s a sunny morning.” My cousin tells me potatoes are marked up 50%. A James Joyce translator writes about spending the night sleeping next to a dog in the bomb shelter.

A friend from [Kyiv] emails with a photo of a bullet casing: “There’s a military outpost next to my house, just 1-minute walk. I found this on my balcony. A photo for you — a result of the war in my hand.”

Finally, this conversation I’ll never forget with an older friend from Odessa. After I asked him for any way I could help him, he responded: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are starting a new literary magazine.” In the first days of war. Imagine.

What do you want people to know about Ukraine, or the conflict? What do you wish was more understood about the region? How do you feel about the images that begin to appear on TV?

Ukraine is not a perfect country. There is corruption and a lot of crime, especially among political figures. There are oligarchs. Although the Ukrainian president is Jewish, there is still antisemitism in daily life (which is why my family left). But what gives me hope is the new generation of Ukrainians, people who grew up after the fall of USSR. They are free — probably more free than Americans or Europeans. They have respect for freedom because the mindset of corporations hasn’t yet entered Ukraine the way it has the West. They believe in culture. There are festivals all over the place. In Odessa, for example, they had an event when people created a human chain across the city, and each person read a favorite passage from a book to a person standing next to them. I have hope in that generation.

You are someone who always posts a lot of lines of poetry on Twitter. What (and whose) words do you find yourself turning to now? Why?

The poem is a charm; it must actively cast a spell on the reader now.

If it doesn’t, it fails, whether the poem is about a face that launched a thousand ships or about a woman standing in a line outside a prison wall or about plums in the icebox. That freshness of speech ravishes the human in us.

As to what I am reading now: it is a high time to read Ukrainian poets. I recommend an anthology published by Academic Studies Press, “Words for War.”

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