Today we have a special issue “Reading in Emigration”. The year 2020 was a crucial year for many Belarusian book publishing houses, as most of them were forced to close down under the pressure of repressions.
However, Belarusian-language books continue to live and publish abroad. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to Igor Ivanov, founder of “Skaryna Press” publishing house, about contemporary Belarusian literature.
Hello, can you tell us about yourself? What do you do?
I am from Belarus, I was born in the 1970s, there was still the Soviet Union, the end of which I caught as a teenager. It was the time of the Belarusian Popular Front and crowded rallies under national flags, which at first nobody dispersed. Then I studied at the History Department of the Belarusian State University. At that time I became interested in the Christian faith and became a practicing Greek Catholic. In many ways, this became a determining factor in my worldview. I have been living in Britain for more than 20 years – half of my life. Here I studied theology and information management. Eventually I became a librarian. This profession, at least its university segment, has a rather different status from its Belarusian equivalent. Almost all librarians here have master’s degrees, and PhDs are not uncommon. I work for a private company that teaches students from seven British universities at its four campuses in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Three of them have libraries, where I am the host.
Historically, people in the British diaspora are engaged in Belarusian affairs in their free time, at their own expense. This has always been the basis for organisations, Skaryna Library, church, periodicals and book publishing. And I have been involved in various Belarusian projects since my student years here.
Why did you emigrate? And why did you choose London to open a publishing house?
I came to Britain to study theology and return to Belarus as a Greek-Catholic priest. The fate was to crunch and halve – as it is sung in “The Folk Album”. For personal reasons, I took the opportunity to stay in Britain many years ago.
The question of where to open a Belarusian publishing house has never arisen. First of all, I live here. Secondly, Great Britain is the only country to the west of Poland where Belarusian life has been organised for almost 80 years. Both material cultural treasures and a lot of experience, connections and trust have been accumulated here. London attracts a considerable number of Belarusians and Belarus scholars. On this ground, a lot of things rage as a result. This heritage of the Belarusian emigration, which exists already in the third or fourth generation, should be enriched also through book publishing. And thirdly, perhaps, it should be noted that the Anglo-Saxon world is extremely liberal, there is a minimum of control and bureaucracy. Sometimes I regret it, but in this case I am happy to use the fact that I can publish books that would have no chance to be published in Belarus. Nobody cares what books Skaryna publishes here.
Do you publish only Belarusian writers, or foreign writers too?
The first book of “Skaryna” was a magnificent translation of “Beirut stories” by Agathangel Krymsky, a Ukrainian intellectual titan of Belarusian origin. And the second book – “Mercks Graz!”- by the Belarusian author Vladislav Gorbatsky. Then Belarusian poets Ales Dubrovsky-Sorochenkov, Artur Komarovsky and Dmitri Rubin came out, and very soon one of the most distinctive poems of recent years on a global scale – “Republic of the Deaf” by American Ilya Kaminsky – will appear in Belarusian.
For now, I decided to limit myself partly to Belarusian-language literature – both our authors and foreign ones translated into Belarusian. This is something I understand a little better than the other. But Skaryna will not be limited to fiction prose and poetry. London is one of the intellectual and cultural centres of Belarusian life in general. That’s why next year, I’m sure, we will see interesting scientific and popular science publications.
Tell us about Belarusian literature, where to start if you are not familiar with it?
I would start with short books – they are faster to read. For example, “Radziva” Prudok”” by Andei Horvat. All of Svetlana Alexievich’s books are gems. From my younger years I remember the cool detectives by Miroslav Adamchik. You can find them now on the site “Communicat”. Of the classics, “Notes of Samson Samosuy” struck me once upon a time. I reread them recently and was convinced again in the power of Belarusian satire. I also looked through “Extinguished Dawns” by Massei Sednev. In my opinion, it is the best prose of the Belarusian post-war emigration.
Are Belarusian classics familiar to readers not from the post-Soviet space?
No. A small circle of specialists.
There is an opinion that modern Belarusian literature is in decline, is it true? And if so, what is it connected with?
I don’t agree. It is very diverse now. What we lack is a space where non-specialists would read and talk about literature among themselves. I subscribe (electronically, of course) to “The Guardian” – a typical British daily newspaper: politics, economics, analysis, culture, sports. On Saturday and Sunday they publish dozens of articles-reviews, interviews, reports-about books, authors and writers, trends in literature. I don’t need to subscribe to specialised publications to navigate what’s on the readers’ lips today. This is what I lack in the Belarusian-speaking environment.
Tell us about modern Belarusian literature, what is currently in the public eye? Which Belarusian authors would you recommend for reading?
Don’t take offence that I will limit myself to the authors of “Skaryna” – they are the closest to me. Vladislav Gorbatski has very interesting stories and novels. Unexpected themes in simple forms. His francophone interests are undoubtedly evident in what he himself creates. Yulia Timofeeva’s “Minsk Diary” is coming out soon. She is a poet and translator, but has created a book of prose – notes from the 2020 protests and the months afterward. Very quiet, emotional and even intimate prose.
Belarusian bookshelves lack non-fiction literature, are you going to publish anything from this series? And is there Belarusian non-fiction literature?
Belarusian-language non-fiction literature focuses on Belarusian proper topics in part: history, cultural studies, etc. As a nation, we are still at some thorough degree of formation. If we recall the model from another discipline – Maslov’s pyramid of needs – we have not yet secured the security needs of the country, nation and language community. Therefore, attention is drawn to topics that are appropriate to the needs.
I think it’s harder for this type of literature to compete with the foreign-language, Russian-speaking world.
Consensus. An effective non-fiction market cannot exist without a large number of potential readers. We Belarusian-speaking people are not enough for that yet.
AST book publishing house had a series of books – “alternative” (in orange cover), is there any similar literature in Belarus? Are there any authors writing “non-conformist” works?
Of course there are. I already remembered Vladislav Gorbatsky earlier. In October an anthology of Belarusian gay writing will be published. Several more authors will make themselves known there. And we still have something in the manuscripts.
Belarus is rich in poets, what contemporary Belarusian poets are there?
There are really a lot of them – it’s so great! Our editorial board includes poet Hanna Komar. I especially like to listen to her poems. From a small poem Hanna creates a performance that touches and turns on. And she is the soul of the Belarusian community in London right now. I was impressed by Dmitri Rubin’s debut collection “Case”. It’s very concentrated, precise poetry. And if you have an hour of free time, listen to Hanna and Dmitry’s conversation about “case” on our YouTube channel. The recording quality isn’t great, but the content is cosmos.
Now let’s talk about publishing, was it difficult to start your own publishing house?
In Britain you don’t need to create a company, you don’t need to have a printing education, you don’t need to pass exams, you don’t need to get a licence to do publishing. When you make a profit, then you start paying taxes. Otherwise, no one cares.
I’m interested in taking this chance to help books appear that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day at all. Unnecessary control even hinders technical development. Most of our books are published on a print-on-demand basis: you sell twenty copies, you print twenty more. This has advantages and disadvantages, but one of the results is that we publish books that interest us. We don’t make a business out of it in the first place, and partly we don’t limit ourselves by thinking about whether we can make money out of it or not. And that’s incredibly cool, because in the process we deal with wonderful people and are surprised by our own abilities that we might not have realised we had if we hadn’t taken on the books.
What is the minimum print run of books you need to publish?
From one copy. Current technology allows for such things as well.
What price range do you rely on for your books? And why? Because literature in the modern world is becoming an expensive pleasure?
Our books are relatively expensive. But they are a niche product. Publishing Belarusian books on the outskirts of Europe will not work otherwise. A 100-page paperback book cannot cost less than 10 euros in the case of “Skaryna”. But our e-books cost many times less.
Literature is priced differently around the world. In Britain, I sometimes don’t even need to buy books, as many are available at the local library. Not all of them, of course. I download them to my tablet and read them for four weeks. Then they disappear-return to the library. My local library even gives me access to two dozen periodicals from Belarus, including regional ones. Obviously, this is all Lukashenko’s nonsense, but the fact itself is interesting. It shows that there is no one right way to create, publish, and consume literary products. And I love that Skaryna Publishing has found its niche, looking for loopholes to do books differently.
Are your books sold online, can they be found in stores, at exhibitions? And where? And on which ones?
We’re only a year old. We are just looking for opportunities. On the other hand, a lot has changed in Belarusian emigration during this year. From what we have learnt: we need to get books to the readership, we can’t expect them to come to us. The books are collected by the community and sold there. During the first year we organised parties in Warsaw, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Batumi, Tutak Festival and in our native London. Of course, from Britain it’s not easy to get to all those wonderful fairs in Poland. But you will be able to see us at the Congress of Belarusian Culture in Warsaw, at the Congress of Belarusian Researchers in Gdansk, at the events of the Pradmova Festival. And if we don’t come to you, just invite us to visit your communities. We will bring books and tell you many interesting facts about the Belarusian Foggy Albion.
Which Belarusian writers are popular and famous in England?
Svetlana Alexievich is well known, if we compare among other Eastern European authors. No one else is.
What is the most popular with readers right now? Are your top three books selling?
Of course, it is impossible to judge general trends by our publications – we are still a niche publishing house. Among our publications the most popular are “Beirut Stories” by Ahatanhel Yukhymovych Krymsky, “We Will Return” by Anna Komar and “Guide to the Feminisation of the Belarusian Language” by Vladislav Horbacki. We have not published “The Event” by Nobel laureate Anna Erno, but our bookshop seems to be the only place where you can buy this book. It is in great demand.