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Tony Lashden is a writerness and activistess from Minsk: these two personalities are inextricably linked in the life of our interviewee. In the section “Read in emigration” we talked to Tony about queer writing, politics in literature, and how texts are born out of terrible events.

– How did your activist path begin? As far as I remember, you were among the first who actively covered the topic of queer and feminism in social networks in Belarus (if we talk about the generation of millennials)?

– I am quite critical of labeling some phenomena, people and events as “first” and “only” and I sabotage the attempts of journalists/journalistess to put me down as the founder of queer feminism, feminist literature, or radicals in the Russian-speaking space. Firstly, in the vast majority of cases this is factually incorrect, and secondly, it cultivates a specific type of memory of the past, where there are individual heroes and heroines thanks to whom something happens. Although, in fact, change happens solely because of collective effort.

For me, the last four years, that is, from the crisis of 2020 to the current state of affairs, when thousands of Belarusians found themselves in forced emigration and the infrastructure of social movements was violently destroyed inside Belarus itself, have shown how vulnerable memory – individual and collective – is.

And how much effort is needed to preserve this memory. With my body, on a very physical level, I have participated, probably, in almost all feminist and queer processes that have taken place in Belarus since the 2010s. I carry this memory in me, I share it, and I see great value in talking about this memory.

When I started to engage in queer feminism, there were already people in the Belarusian space who were writing and talking about this topic, and many of them were doing so in an academic environment. A lot of it was work in physical spaces: people were giving lectures, doing festivals, putting together reed groups. Because I didn’t have access to that academic environment and was doing online activism, I constantly felt like I was doing some work from scratch. In the 2010s, when I started doing feminist activism, the Belarusian media was very wary of the topic, and the level of rejection of feminists in society was very high.

Tony. Photo by Katya Myat

It is probably hard to imagine it now, but at that time it was a radical practice to speak publicly about oneself as a feminist and a queer activist.

Over the years, I grew contacts, like a plant grows roots, and then I found “my people”. I saw that my work overlapped very closely with the activism of Tatyana Shchurko, Nadia Gusakovskaya, Alex Pershay, and other researchers with whom I shared a generation, and I began to find fellow activists from my own field. I realised where I was in the history of Belarusian queer feminism. This served as a very big support and encouragement for me: to know that there are other people in Belarus who are engaged in queer-feminist issues.

The big problem of the Belarusian field is that even in those years, people bound by the same values and political utopias might not have known about each other. We were separated by distances: someone worked in Lithuania, and someone worked inside Belarus. We were separated by generations: when I started activism, I was 20 years old, and many of my colleagues were 35 and older. Now, it seems to me, this has only worsened, which is why it is especially important to return names to our common history.

– How did your literary journey begin?

– I think I’ve always written. It’s a very natural way for me to think about the world and fix myself in it. I’ve written in very different forms and genres, but I think I started writing in the conventional sense of fiction after I finished school.

– Your first collection was called “15 Days I Was Dying.” It was based on your personal experience of a depressive episode, as far as I understand. How did you come up with the idea for it? Did writing the collection help you to reflect, to experience these states?

– “15 Days When I Was Dying” is not a collection, but rather an auto-fictional novella written as a diary during a period when I didn’t even know the term “auto-fiction”. I can’t say that writing this text exactly “helped” me.

Tony. Photo by Katya Myat

When I was writing this novella, I felt the heaviest pressure of social stigma and gaslighting about my condition.

On one hand, I was marked as a “mentally ill” person. On the other hand, almost everyone in my close circle and psychiatric support structures constantly told me that my “illness” was a result of weakness of will, a lack of desire to pull myself together. This double message had a devastating effect on me. For many years I made no attempt at all to begin the healing process, because I believed that my problems could be solved by willpower.

This tension gave birth to this text. It captures a critical moment in my experience of chronic depression turning into psychosis, and shows how mental illness has a logic within it that cannot be understood from the outside.

– Can your work be classified as queer literature? If so, what are the specifics?

– I refer to myself as a queer writer. By this I mean that the experiences of queer characters, representation of non-normative sexualities and gender identities are central to my writing. Additionally, the queerness of my writing is expressed in the way I deal with topics that, at first glance, have nothing to do with sexuality. This includes themes such as ecological crisis, war, migration, political collapse. The queerness of my work is to find in these themes a point of speaking that makes visible the multiple vulnerabilities caused by these catastrophes.

– Tell us about the project “Stretch” and your role in it?

– “Stretch” is a community of Belarusian writers/writerness and poets/poetsess who together seek feminist alternatives for Belarusian literature. It’s an informal community without a structured manifesto. We came together with the desire to bring more women’s and queer voices into Belarusian literature and support each other in individual and group projects.

As a community, Stretch was formed after a feminist writing lab of the same name that we did with my colleaguesess in 2022. I came up with the idea for the Stretch Lab in late 2021, and the first collection written as part of it appeared in the autumn of 2022. The lab was about the experience of the 2020 protests and forced migration.

In 2022, when Russia began a full-scale war in Ukraine, I often wondered whether I should do the lab at all. Maybe we should postpone it, and come back to this idea later. I was plagued by ethical doubts: wouldn’t it distract from the monstrous events happening in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be a selfish move? Do people even have anything to write about? Looking back on it now, I wonder at my desperation. In parallel with the lab, I was very active in antiwar work, doing collective and personal activism, writing my own texts, trying to cope with the PTSD I got from working with evacuation and relief work in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I had neither the energy nor the time. Still, I decided that the lab had to be done.

I felt then that there might not be any future in which we have time to reflect on what happened in 2020. The future will only shrink, and the space where Belarusianess can express themselves risks being erased.

Tony. Photo by Alexandra Wells

The collection includes texts, including those reflecting Belarus’s role as an aggressor country, and I’m satisfied that we were able to create a space where Belarusianess spoke about themselves, their experiences, and their realities.

The collection can be downloaded for free here.

This year, in 2024, together with the literary zine “Figures” and “Stretch,” we completed the decolonial writing laboratory “Roots/Leaves”. I’m very proud of the resulting collection of this laboratory. This year’s collection works with historical memory and the complexity of Belarus as a multicultural country. We aimed to create a space where authors could openly discuss their relationships with language, culture, history, and politics – and the texts of the collection confirm that we succeeded.

The collection can be downloaded for free here.

– Your recent book “Black Forest” was dedicated to the events of 2020. How long did you work on it? And how did the events in Belarus affect you as a writer? After all, some people immediately tried to reflect on what happened, while others fell into a creative stupor for a long time, and only after a while could start writing again. How was it for you?

– I started writing stories for this book in August 2020, not knowing yet that it would be a book. The texts poured out of me. In the summer of 2020, I was involved in human rights and media work: I talked about torture in Belarusian prisons, gave interviews about the situation in Belarus, wrote public reports. I don’t know how to describe it, except to say: “It was terrible”.

It was terrible. I faced an unimaginable, incomprehensible nightmare that I couldn’t digest. My friends were detained, my colleaguesess were snatched away at night, I was afraid of being arrested. I didn’t write because I thought it would make a great book. I wrote because I couldn’t not write, I didn’t know what else to do.

I tried to make sense of what was happening, but there was no sense. The world was falling apart, and I was fixating on that breakdown.

I understand well those who stopped writing for some time. My usual artistic language, with which another collection of my texts, “The Last Bus Leaves at Eight”, was written, turned out to be inapplicable to the context in which I lived. I have been picking up the pieces of a new way of writing – and it is a different language, a different way of seeing.

Tony. Photo by Alexandra Wells

– Is it difficult to combine activism and writing? Are there not situations where the “inner activistess” suppresses creativity?

– The only difficulty is that there’s no money! I should have chosen some other, more profitable profession.

But generally, they’re different modes of work for me. As an activist, I control myself much more than as a writer. Creativity for me is a way to express emotions and thoughts that might be unacceptable in human rights work, it’s a space where I don’t censor myself.

I sometimes hear criticism that my writing is very political and that real high literature transcends politics and the problems of everyday life.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the privilege to transcend politics. My queer trans body is inherently political, my experience of double forced migration is political.

Every day when I wake up, I wake up inside politics – and it is from that perspective that I write.

– What inspires you to write your works (besides what we discussed above)?

– I don’t believe in inspiration. I’m explaining to everyone right now that I don’t do fiction – I have a modest role as a documentarian. I go out into a world disfigured by the events of recent years and write what I see.arian. I step out into the world, disfigured by the events of recent years, and write what I see.

– What literary plans for the future?

– Right now, I’m working on the newspaper “Evening Minsk”. It’s my gift to myself. I’m a fourth-generation Minsk citizen, and for me, the impossibility of returning to Minsk is a very serious loss. In my newspaper, I record the news I receive from the chthonic mirror Belarus, its joys and sorrows. I hope that by summer, this text will be available to readers.