Liliia Omelianenko
fotografy: Liliia Omelianenko

Ukrainian publisher: ‘There is no safe place in Ukraine now’

TIALDA HOOGEVEEN – 

 

“40 million citizens, 40 million stories”

 

Poems, literature, illustrations: art is one of our strongest weapons. Therefore, Leeuwarden City of Literature, the bilingual cultural magazine De Moanne and poets collective RIXT spoke to the Ukrainian publisher Liliia Omelianenko, who represents her Ukrainian authors and illustrators in exile. ‘We might lose all our books we left behind at the office in Kyiv through bombing or a fire.’

You just left your home country Ukraine, how are you?

‘It’s a very difficult time for all of us. We left Ukraine on Friday the 4th of March and drove to our neighbouring country Slovakia, where a close friend of mine lives. With a lot of help from many people we succeeded in getting there as quickly as possible. I’m safe in the capital Bratislava with my mum and my two daughters, who are 11 and 18 years old. My mother, who suffers from dementia, doesn’t understand what’s happening, she’s in a lot of distress. My husband stayed in Kyiv to help protect our country and destroy Russian enemies. I need to take a lot of medicine to calm myself down and to cope with this nightmare situation, so do my children.’

What can you do as a publisher?

‘Our army is 40 million Ukrainian people; we are strong; everyone is doing  something to fight the Russian terrorists. I’m happy and surprised that I’m able to do something as well. Because from the very beginning I was not sure how I, as a publisher, can help. I experience a huge amount of support from my colleagues all over Europe. Saara Tiuraniemi from Tammi, a great publishing house in Finland, has become my personal hero. She bought the rights of one of our children’s books called Maya and her moms written by Larysa  Denysenko (1973) and illustrated by Masha Foya, and started the whole campaign of promoting this book in Europe. So now  the rights are sold to Sweden (Bonnier Carlsen), UK (Bonnier Books UK), Poland (Wydawnictwo Kropka), Germany (Rowohlt) and Estonia (Koolibri).

In most of the countries all proceeds from the sales of the books will go to Ukrainian children, in particular, via UNICEF. They have also found a printing house that will print everything for free. Tammi made it number 1 in the bestseller lists right away!

We cannot sell books right now for obvious reasons, but this is the way to actually help. Really amazing, I could not imagine that our publishing house could do something like this during the war.’

Maya and her moms

Maya and her moms

What ’s the book ‘Maya and her moms’ about?

‘It’s a book for children aged 6 years and older about seventeen types of families in which children live in Ukraine, with one school class representing the whole. There are children who left Crimea after Russia’s invasion, children whose parents died in the war, children whose parents are working abroad, children from same sex families and others.’ 

Where is Larysa right now?

‘She is still in Kyiv with her two parents who are quite old and sick. They can’t leave Kyiv. They are just sitting on the floor of their apartment, not able to go down into a bomb shelter when the city is being bombed. A bathroom and the corridor are their only protection. We stay in touch every day and we talk – besides a daily update – about her books and what else we can do to help.

During this war Larysa wrote a new book about children hiding in bomb shelters in one single day. It’s a really powerful text. The book has already been translated into English (The children of air raid warnings).’ Masha was still in Kyiv up to the 9th of March, but today she said that she is planning to evacuate.’

Are you in touch with other authors and illustrators?

‘Yes, I am. All people survive in different ways in difficult situations. Some do by writing and illustrating. Some do not have any inner strength or resources to do something right now. This is how it goes in Ukraine right now… We all became closer: me and our writers and illustrators and with those who translated our books, they help where they can.’

What type of books does Vydavnytstvo publish?

We started our small independent publishing house in 2015 in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the Donbas, the eastern parts of Ukraine. Our books, for both children and adults, have a strong social focus and raise and discuss difficult questions such as human rights, equality, feminism, minorities, adulthood and death. Our mission is to break the range of stereotypes which exists in Ukrainian society. So far we have been mostly oriented on translating literature and comics, but we have also published several books written by Ukrainian authors.’

Will you carry on publishing online? 

‘I think it is too early to answer that question, because I don’t know how the war will develop. But it’s most likely we’ll publish for free and online in Ukraine. I don’t know what our future will look like. We might lose all our books we left behind at the office in Kyiv and Zhytomyr by bombing or a fire. Not a single place is safe right now in Ukraine, not even nuclear plants… At least my co-founder and co-publisher Eliash Strongowski, who had left Ukraine for Warsaw with his family, has all our digital files.

On February 24th the war came to our house. We are preparing books about the present war and hope to be able to publish them whenever they are finished. But now there is no possibility to print books in Ukraine…’

How has it affected you that your motherland is forced into a war?

‘At first I thought this would all be over within two days. After two more days I still thought that. Now I don’t know how long this will all take. The only wish I have now is that it stops immediately. 

In Bratislava I watch the news and see how Russia is bombing our cities, how cruel they are and how they kill children and civilians. This is pure terrorism. I have not cried since the war started, until today, 9 March 2022. Today Russian animals, they are not people anymore, bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, with mothers and children there. I have no words and have only disgust and hate towards them. So the effective way to stop Russia is to close the sky over Ukraine, but Europe is afraid of Putin. Europe doesn’t want to be involved in this war, but they are already undeniably involved.

I don’t want to be titled as a refugee, because I want to go back to my home as soon as possible, I’ve just saved my family for the time being.’

How might writers around the world be helpful to you or your writers?

‘Speak and publish as much as possible about cruelty, this insane war, the propaganda spread by the Russian, about what Russia is doing. People must know who the real enemy is. Please do whatever you can; send money, material, support.’

Which Ukrainian writers should we read? Which poems would you advise us to start to translate?

‘We have prepared a website with a list of Ukrainian books about the war for urgent translation, you can find it here: ось тут більше 

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Larysa Denysenko and Liliia Omelianenko

Larysa Denysenko is a well-known writer, lawyer, human rights activist and journalist in Ukraine. She is also a member of Ukrainian PEN and is serving as a UN Goodwill Ambassador to increase tolerance in the country. Liliia Omelianenko is – together with Eliash Strongowski – publisher and founder of publishing house Vydavnytstvo.

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DE MOANNE

'de Moanne' wol in breed en kreatyf poadium biede foar aktuele en skôgjende bydragen oer kultuer en de keunsten. 'de Moanne' lit sjen wat der yn en om Fryslân spilet, yn taal, byld en nije media. 'de Moanne' ferskynt op it web, op papier en organisearret 'live'-moetingen.