In the new special issue of “read in emigration” the team of “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to the Belarusian LGBTQ+ writer, translator and author of the dissertation “Feminization of the Belarusian language” Vladislav Ivanov (Gorbatsky), about Belarusian LGBTQ+ literature, problems of modern Belarusian literature and the importance of language with grammatical gender.
Hello, can you tell us about yourself?
Vladislav Ivanov (Gorbatsky), lecturer of political science at the Department of Social Sciences at EHU (European Humanities University), senior researcher at the Centre for Gender Studies at EHU. Originally a specialist in political science-European studies and gender studies, PhD defended in sociolinguistics. Translator from French, Ukrainian and Lithuanian. Writer and also a member of the editorial board of Skorina publishing house (London).
Why did you emigrate?
I emigrated before 2020 – back in 2013. The reason for emigration was economic, professional and gender. I have been teaching at EHU since 2007, but at first I was working on a part-time basis. I spent most of my life in Belarus in Vitebsk, teaching via Moodle on distance learning. There was no permanent job in Belarus, because I was not accepted to teach in Vitebsk universities: both because I was Belarusian-speaking (I was told that I would have to teach in russian), and because they were surprised by my EHU diploma and my French diplomas. That is, the working, economic moment was the push that led me to the idea of leaving my homeland. The last push was the acts of homophobia and arrest for participating in a gay picket in 2010. At that time I decided to leave my homeland permanently because of discrimination, both economic and homophobic. EHU just accepted me for a position and I moved to Vilnius.
Tell us, for those who don’t know, about your literature? What are your short stories about?
Thank you for your interest in my literary activity. I am connected with fiction both as a writer (prose writer) and as a translator. I write prose, mostly short and medium length: stories, novellas, tales, legends. This is the best format for me to share with a reader, as it is important for me to convey a message in a humble, stilted, cadential way. To everything, I believe that with short prose I better attract the younger generations of Belarusians who have other reading practices – favouring shorter texts rather than larger ones.
I work I write strongly autobiographical texts, which I certainly romanticise, process, add fantasy. I work in a genre that in France is called “social novel”, sometimes “sociological novel”. Such authors as Colette, Annie Ernaux worked and work in this way. My personal experience as a Belarusian-speaking person in an ocean of Russian-speaking and Trasianka-speaking society, as well as my experience as a gay man in a heterocentric society, is at the centre of my writing. I write about love, about the life of Belarusian gay men, about the challenges faced by gay and Belarusian-speaking individuals, about how my grandmothers passed on and taught me the beautiful Belarusian language. I write about how our language was stolen from us and about how my grandmothers gave me a precious dowry-Vitebsk Belarusian language. In other words, my stories touch on very intimate and public topics at the same time. I also write a lot about Vitebsk, I am creating a hymn to my native place, horribly disfigured by the Soviet authorities, deprived of its history and charm – in my texts I bring back its history and unique Dvinsk charm.
You are also a representative of LGBTQ+ literature. Are there any problems related to LGBTQ+ creativity in Belarus? Is it being shut down by censorship?
So, from my early texts and the book “Songs of Trolleybus Tracks” (2016), journalists labelled me as a gay and/or LGBTQ+ writer. It was a compliment, although I initially identified simply as a writer. However, in the Belarusian context, the ignoring and often boycotting of the gay theme gave the label “gay writer” or “LGBTQ+ writer” a principled sound for me – activist, fighter. I willingly accepted it.
I am very proud that my collection of prose, “Songs of Trolleybus Tracks,” became the first book of gay prose in Belarusian literature in 2016. Of course, I have had poems or short stories with a gay theme published in Belarusian, but it was in a scattering – the first book entirely and with such a definition belongs to my pen.
Back in 2016, I published my book in London with the support of librarian and publisher Igor Ivanov, an active member of the Belarusian diaspora in London. Because I could not find support in Belarus. Although at the same approximate time and later, books with a queer theme were published in Minsk (collections by Anastasia Mantsevich, Kristina Bandurina and others).
If in Belarus, especially after 2020, you openly identify as gay or a LGBTQ+ author, it means facing a challenge and requires a strong and principled civic stance, placing you in a constant risk zone. Although there is no law in Belarus similar to the Russian law banning gay propaganda, the homophobia of the authorities and law enforcers is ahead of the laws. Therefore, almost all activists and LGBTQ+ authors have either left the country or exist/silently endure in their homeland. Printing any alternative books, including LGBTQ+ themes, is impossible in Belarus today. Therefore, this segment of Belarusian literature is developing and being published outside Belarus, particularly in London, in the “Skaryna” publishing house, where an unofficial queer series has been created.
LGBTQ+ literature is sometimes considered marginalised literature, do you think this is the case? And why does this opinion exist?
LGBTQ+ literature is marginalised only in authoritarian countries, including the Belarusian dictatorship. In Western democracies, queer-or LGBTQ+ literature has gone from marginal to mainstream literature and is a strong, highly demanded, and fully integrated stream of literature. It is read in gardens, schools, and universities; it is studied in departments of many Western universities. Once in a while, on the fringes of Western democracy, there will be a rare scandal of an attempt to ban a particular queer book (in Poland, Lithuania or Hungary), but then the scandal quickly dies down and the book returns to the shelves of bookshops.
It should be pointed out, however, that sometimes some LGBTQ+ authors/authoress themselves express scepticism towards the definition of LGBTQ+, sometimes they state that they are just writers/writeress, although they sometimes write on LGBTQ+ topics. But this is a perennial dispute between proponents of universalism and differentiation, that is, those who deliberately emphasise the significance and role of different identities. In general, LGBTQ+ literature in the West is institutionalised and widely supported.
In European and world literature, it is not new when a writer had a same-sex experience Arthur Rimbaud, Proust, Oscar Wilde and it is considered common, are there such cases in Belarusian literature and why is it hushed up? You wrote about it in the anthology “guys getting out of control”, could you tell us more about it?
Homosexuality is a well-known and quite widespread phenomenon in the world, and it is also reflected in literature. There were individuals in Belarusian literature who had same-sex love experiences (such as the 19th-century poet Tomasz Zan), this experience was not always labelled homosexual at certain times, so we simply speak of non-heteronormative experiences. There are also gay and lesbian authors/authoress in contemporary Belarusian literature – (Yury Humeniuk, Vyacheslav Bortnik, Kristina Bandurina, Artur Komarovsky, etc.).
I believe that many authors/authoress may have concealed or continue to conceal their identity for their own safety and due to societal conservatism. Throughout the centuries, living under empires and perpetual authoritarianism, often without our own state, under the control of others conservative ideologies (initially religious and later secular moralising during Soviet times), the topic of homosexuality became so taboo and forbidden that individuals with homosexual tendencies were forced to hide and suppress their true desires. That is why we often had and still have the impression that we really had neither gays nor lesbians. Only the history of language, literature, folklore prove and demonstrate another thing: they were always there, only they were deprived of a title, a name, a history.
The whole world has experienced a sexual revolution that has affected all spheres of creativity, from painting to sculpture, and eroticism in works of art is the standard. Belarus, in my opinion, is lagging behind this trend. What do you think this is due to?
At different periods of history, Belarusian men and womens experienced the liberation of morals (as extensively discussed by Belarusian gender historianess Natalia Slizh). However, as mentioned in my previous answer, we often found ourselves under the rule of other authoritarian imperial states, and as a result, our culture became preserved, moralised, and refined in the style of the dominating culture. When the West experienced a sexual revolution in the 1960s, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, as part of the USSR, underwent a new wave of conservatism and extermination of any dissidence, including sexual dissidence. Therefore, in the 20th and then in the 21st century we were significantly late in gender and sexual emancipation in all spheres.
To overcome this situation, it is necessary to develop a pro-European direction for Belarus. Ties to the Union State and Russia only worsen the situation and turn Belarus into an outsider.
Could you give examples of authors of LGBTQ+ literature from Belarus and the post-Soviet space?
In Belarus, I would mention the following names: Yuri Gumenyuk, Vyacheslav Bortnik, Dmitry Alexandrovich, Kristina Bandurina, Anastasia Mancevich, Arthur Komarovski, Tony Lashden. I highly recommend Ukrainian author Yuri Yarema. Unfortunately, I am less familiar with the situation regarding modern LGBTQ+ literature in other post-Soviet countries.
You are also a feminist, and you wrote a dissertation on the history and evolution of feminisations in Belarus, tell us about this work?
My monograph, “Feminisation of the Belarusian Language,” based on my PhD dissertation defended at the University of Warsaw in 2017, is a sociolinguistic study of female gender-specific job titles in the Belarusian language (old Belarusian and modern). Additionally, the research includes a comparative dimension, introducing readers to the state of feminisation in Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and French. The monograph will be of interest to those who are interested in gender linguistics and sociolinguistics in general. It is primarily a scientific work, not devoid of a feminist message, which I would summarise with a pointed statement from Danish linguist Christopher Nyrop: “The absence of the feminine gender in dictionaries leads to the absence of women’s rights in codes.”
In your view, what is the value of feminitives?
Feminitives are valuable because they enrich the language, make it diverse, and emphasise the historical presence of women in language, and therefore in society. Feminitives help women describe themselves. Their value is not only symbolic and feminist but also practical: they clarify, helping to avoid absurdities and anecdotal situations. A classic example is the headline from Nasha Niva in 2015: “President of Estonia Engaged to Head of Latvian Cybersecurity.” In reality, it’s not about a same-sex marriage since the head of cybersecurity is a leadership position. But the absence of feminitives confuses and, conversely, if they were present, the reading would avoid ambiguity. The editorial team rejected feminitives and created the ambiguity themselves. Therefore, the value of feminitives is in clarifying personal identity.
Why did feminitives only become relevant in Belarus in the 2000s? Or is this not the case?
Feminitives have always been important, relevant, and present in the Belarusian language: we can observe them even in old belarusian. With each century, the number of feminitives in the Belarusian language has increased. In Old Belarusian texts from the 13th to the 17th centuries, there were 130 feminitives denoting professions, and by the early 20th century, Tikhinsky’s dictionary listed over 600 of them. In the 21st century, the Belarusian language has around 3000 feminitives agents. That is, the number of feminitives in the language increased as the role of women in society increased.
However, due to the marginalisation of the Belarusian language over the past centuries, feminitives have also suffered. In independent Belarus, when the feminist movement began to develop, the issue of language feminisation naturally appeared on the agenda. This is where the feminist movement benefited from the findings of linguists and language historians – not only narrow specialists, but also a wider circle of society became interested in feminitives. Thus, the gender movement rehabilitated and actualised the issue of feminitives.
How long have feminitives been present in other world languages?
Feminitives are not a creation of modern times; they have been present in ancient languages. Since the beginning of humanity, women have existed, and languages have described them using feminitives , including agent-femininatives like midwifess, doctoress, queeness, cookesss, weaveress, pharmacistess, herbalistess, etc. Of course, this discussion applies to gendered languages that have both feminine and masculine grammatical genders.
Returning to literature, in your opinion, does language shape thinking, or does thinking shape language?
Without delving into the philosophical aspects and related conflicts (which is more primary and essential, language or thought), I’ll focus on the linguistic and sociolinguistic aspect of this global question. Both language and thinking are related but not equivalent phenomena, processes, or systems. Language, however, has a more active and stronger influence on thinking. The Sapir-Warf hypothesis (according to which the structure of language determines thinking and the way of cognition of reality) has some rational basis. I don’t claim that language completely determines everything, but it does create predispositions and influences thought patterns, describing the world with specific nuances that contribute to a distinct worldview. However, the universality of all languages in describing and presenting the world is also important: besides differences, all languages have something in common. Not only language, but also the environment influences thinking, but language plays a major role in conveying and describing the environment. The modern French linguist Claude Hagège, professor at the Collège de France, critically revises and only partially accepts the Sapir-Warf hypothesis: “language is quite a special way of thinking, imagining, encompassing reality”. In his research he argues that “to impose a certain language on someone means to impose a certain manner of thinking, reasoning and even behaviour”. We observe this in Belarus, when russian-speaking Belarusians often approach russians in their models of thinking and behaviour, while distancing themselves from Belarusian-speaking Belarusians. In turn, Belarusian-speaking Belarusians often more easily and naturally understand the code, the message of Belarusians/Belarusianess – the diaspora. But one should not generalise: it is only a question of predisposition, inclination – russian-speaking Belarusians do not become russians, although they can be assimilated much faster for Belarusian-speaking Belarusians.
Therefore, adhering to the principle of avoiding mysticism and essentialism, based on analysis and various linguistic approaches, I believe that language doesn’t create but significantly influences consciousness and thinking.
Which literary authors have influenced you and why?
First and foremost, the French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir has profoundly inspired me (and continues to do so). She convinced me with her realism, atheism, feminism, and principled optimism about the present and future of humanity. Her concept of living an authentic life, avoiding mysticism and irrationality, still keeps me grounded in reality. Something similar I find in the works of Vasil Bykau – another important and close literary figure for me. In my youth, I was influenced aesthetically by decadent, predominantly French-language literature: French writer Rachilde, Belgian writer-uranian (a term previously used for gay men) Georges Eekhoud, etc. Among Belarusian authors-activists, linguistically, I was influenced by Mihas Zaretski, Kuzma Chorny, Lukash Kalyuga. I believe I was also impressed by the texts of Elena Vasilevich (for their psychological depth and magical language), Elena Brava (for her feminist critique of contemporary Belarus using art history literature), and Eva Vezhnovets (for her feminist approach and some kind of magical realism). I regularly reread texts by Ukrainian classics Ahatangel Krymsky and Olga Kobylanska. The humour of the former and the melancholy of the latter especially influenced me (not to mention their powerful and enchanting language). Among russian authors, I would mention one who influenced me in my youth and to whom I still want to return, even in the current conditions of the russian-Ukrainian war (through beautiful language that would hypnotise with a lullaby and subtle criticism of Russia, empire, bureaucracy, narrow-mindedness) – decadent Fyodor Sologub.
I’ll stop there, as I have a long list of authors/authoresswho xhave fascinated and influenced me.
We currently live in a world where visual thinking predominates, quick information takes precedence, and literature and longreads are pushed to the background for modern youth. What are your thoughts on this? What could be the implications, and might literature and bookshelves disappear from people’s reality?
The fact that technological progress changes us and our practices, including in the realms of information, culture, writing, language, and their consumption, is a reality we must live and work with. Observing students/studentess, I see that younger generations engage with literature differently, read less, skim read, and prefer summarised versions of books, among other trends. As a writer, I often work with short and medium prose, avoiding novells as I understand that younger generations are less likely to read them. They face new challenges, interests, and demands.
Also in universities, the demands on students are becoming lighter: we cannot require them to read large arrays of texts, whereas 10 years ago the demands were large. This often leads to the visualisation of materials, to the replacement of text with visuals, to the transformation of classic texts into retro artefacts. The book on paper often loses out to the electronic, but I would not panic: the paper book, bookshelves, libraries, bookshops, archives remain an important and indispensable resource in academic life, in the life of the researchers/researchess in the West.
There’s an opinion that Belarusian literature is stuck in time. In your view, is this true? What themes and problems exist in contemporary Belarusian literature and are relevant at the moment?
I don’t think our literature is stuck or frozen in time. On the contrary, Belarusian literature is quite open, dynamic, and modern compared to other cultural layers. We’ve seen the emergence of gay and queer literature recently, and there’s a feminist stream in literature. It has always been bold and progressive – that’s why Soviet authorities systematically destroyed Belarusian literature (mass executions in the 1930s, sending writers to the Gulag, banning writing, etc.). That’s why the modern Lukashenko regime actively fights against writers/writeress. The problem is more that, due to russification and the state’s colonial policies, many Belarusians are not familiar with Belarusian literature and its richness, so they can’t fully appreciate it. Belarusians often know Russian literature better – they were taught to disregard their own literature and language.
Contemporary Belarusian literature pays a lot of attention to social, environmental, political, gender, and linguistic themes – and in this way, it fully fits into the European context and tradition. We have our own peculiarities, so-called Belarusian themes: the influence, echoes of the Second World War, the Chernobyl theme, the extinction of the village and with it of the Belarusian language, life under dictatorship, etc.
The main problem in contemporary Belarusian literature, in my opinion, is the ideologization of literature (subordination to the regime’s needs) and the russification, the development of literature in Russian, and the marginalisation of Belarusian-language literature.
Which contemporary and non-contemporary Belarusian writers would you recommend for those who are not familiar with Belarusian literature at all?
I would recommend starting with Jan Barshchevsky and his “Shliachtich Zavalnya”. It is the pinnacle of our literature, even though it was written in Polish with a lot of Belarusian words the 19th century. I recommend reading and rereading this work, which should be adapted into cinema. It’s a wonderful fantasy. Also, discover the works of Andrei Mrija and Lukasz Kaliuga. Read them because they are written in a unique language, and they are full of humour and criticism of the Soviet system. Still relevant and powerful are the Gulag memoirs of Frantsishak Alyakhnovich(“In the Claws of the GPU” (1937)) and Sergei Grahovsky (“Zone of Silence”). To understand the violence of the modern Belarusian regime, one should know these texts. From contemporary authors, I recommend Elena Brava and Eva Vezhnovets – their texts and perspectives are important from a feminist position, and under their pen, high-quality contemporary European literature is created with a strong social message.