Vira Ageyeva, a Professor of Ukrainian Literature at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, is a permanent member of the judges' panel for the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year and Children’s Book of the Year. Here she shares her thoughts on the importance of the prizes, whose winners were announced on Friday December 13, for Ukraine’s literary scene.
It is hard to overestimate the role of respected literary prizes in promoting literature in Ukraine. The annual book prize for adult and children’s fiction, organised by the BBC Ukrainian Service in partnership with the cultural programme of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is among the most influential. The winners were announced on Friday 13 December.
After Independence in 1991, Ukrainian literature for a while was dominated by score-settling with our Soviet past, revisions of established ideological myths and reflections on texts by classic authors previously banned by censors and locked in secret archives until the late 1980s. Without this revision of the past, it was impossible to move on to analysing newer events.
But today our prose is concentrated mainly on the contemporary societal experiences, on an all-encompassing analysis of complex social and psychological trends. Sometimes the writers who came of age on the verge of the Soviet and post-Soviet epochs are known as Generation-86, meaning the tragic date of the Chernobyl catastrophe and the related profound re-thinking of values.
Since then we have witnessed the development of the nascent private publishing sector. The industry’s development is less dynamic and stable than we would like, partially because of the competition with powerful Russian publishing houses, able to print much larger runs. Ukrainian publishers are not yet getting proper state and donor support and have had a really tough time dealing with the consequences of the global economic crisis.
But what is still missing is a single authoritative, academic account of the modern literary process. And the closest thing that exists to it are literary prizes, among which the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year – now in its ninth year – is one of the most resonant and one of the most trusted. The final awards ceremony each year attracts media attention. Some of the most interesting and popular writers of prose, like Serhiy Zhadan, Yuri Vynnychuk or Yurko Izdryk, have won the prize. It is not an exaggeration to say that all known literary names have been shortlisted.
The support from the EBRD’s Cultural Programme enabled the prize to establish a separate nomination for children’s literature. For the BBC Ukrainian Service book prize judges, the choice between books for adults and children always used to be painful and difficult, because it involves different criteria and because authors pursue different goals and are driven by different motives and constraints.
So this new category has been a success. Not only for the authors and readers, I might add, but also for the artists, because good illustrations not only supplement the text but make the book many times more attractive to younger readers. Plus this new category is all the more important because our modern children’s literature is of quite a high standard. Many popular “adult” authors love working in “children’s” genres, with great results.
In 2012, the winners were: The Tango of Death (Танго смерті) by Yuri Vynnychuk (who had been previously awarded for his novel Spring Games in Autumn Gardens, or Весняні ігри в осінніх садах). The author calls his book “the first Ukrainian novel about the Holocaust”. It traces friends from different ethnic groups in Lviv through decades and even centuries.
And in the children’s category – Lesya Voronyna with The Secret Society of Cowards and Liars, or Таємне товариство боягузів та брехунів, an adventure in which heroes overthrow a tyranny of blue frogs, invaders from space who want to conquer the Earth for its tasty flies. What unites these two very different books? I would say the topics of freedom, of resistance of the individual person who wants to protect his or her dignity.
The bright logos of the BBC Ukrainian book prize in partnership with the EBRD’s Cultural Programme are visible in any good Ukrainian book shop, where winning books are displayed in the best positions. The award is clearly an honour – and one of the few in Ukraine to carry a money prize for the author, equivalent to £1,000. This recognition helps readers find these books and improves sales.
This book prize – of which I am proud to be a judge – is one of the best ways to follow modern Ukrainian literature and does a lot to support it.
Article translated by Svitlana Pyrkalo, who represents the EBRD as a judge on the BBC Ukrainian Book Prize panel.