Kaminsky grew up in Odessa, a city in southern Ukraine along the Black Sea, before her family came to the United States. Her book of poems, “Deaf Republic”, chronicles life in times of war, highlighting both the moments of beauty and terror – and condemning silence in the face of injustice.
CNN spoke with Kaminsky via email about his poem, what friends and family told him in Ukraine: Families make Molotov cocktails together; potatoes are increased by 50%; a group plans to launch a literary magazine — and what they want the world to know about Ukraine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For people who may have never been there, can you tell us about life in Odessa, Ukraine? What do you remember about your time there and what was it like before this month, as someone who still has family there?
I was 16 when I left Odessa, a deaf kid who heard the USSR crumble before my eyes.
The architecture of Odessa is reduced, “on a human scale”, and there was an opera before there was drinking water. Odessa loves art and loves to party. In summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every street corner. You smash them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends. The city has a special affinity for literature. There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they started erecting monuments for fictional characters.
The most important holiday in Odessa is not Christmas, it is April 1, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people take to the streets and celebrate what they call benevolent humor day. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor – think of the man who offered to tow the out of gas Russian tank back to Russia. Humor is part of our resilience.
Your book, “Deaf Republic,” tells a story about life in war and occupation. And yet, it opens with the poem “We lived happily during the war”. Why did you choose to open the book with this poem? What message did you want to send?
The book “Deaf Republic” opens when a deaf boy is shot dead by a soldier of an invading army in a public square. The whole community decides to protest against this murder by refusing to hear the authorities. The townspeople coordinate through sign language. In the midst of this violence, people are still falling in love, laughing, having children.
I grew up watching the collapse of the USSR and the war in Transnistria – Russia’s first so-called “humanitarian aid” campaign, which was very similar to the current war in Ukraine, although less publicized . Then I came to the United States, where for 12 years I lived just 8 miles from the US-Mexico border. It was not uncommon for your car to be stopped and searched for people trying to cross the border, or to see people being taken away in ICE vans. And of course, police brutality against blacks and browns has been an extremely visible and important issue, finally, in recent years.
So as the author, a living human being, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between the images of violence caused by this empire — the violence taking place here in this country — and the images of violence in Eastern Europe. And at the same time, there is happiness. People fall in love, laugh, have children.
Beginning with the poem “We lived happily during the war”, which is heavy with irony about the greatness of our capitalist nation, shows another kind of so-called happiness, the happiness of living with our backs turned – an ignorant happiness . The poem is intended to serve as a wake-up call; to prevent people from reading “Republic of the deaf” as a tragedy elsewhere. The deaf republics, with their hopes, their protests and their complicities, are everywhere. We live in the Republic of the Deaf.
This poem in particular was widely shared on social media in the wake of Russia’s attack. How does it feel to see your work resonate, especially this poem, right now?
“We lived happily during the war” is not a piece of journalism or philosophy, where one could get into facts or questions of ethics. In a poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader: in this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader to see his own complicity.
The poem does not want to be a statement. The poem is a warning. This is what happens when half measures take place. “We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins and ends with the same words. But by the time he gets to his last line, one hopes the reader will find the awful irony of this fact of repetition. How many wars can we live happily?
It is hoped that the reader will see the critique of this “we” and what it has done. By the time you get to the repeat of “our silver country” and then “our great silver country” – the word “great” comes into question. That’s what art hopes to do: it doesn’t scream at the reader “You have to change!” Instead, the reader is changed by the act of reading.
There is a part in this poem, the line “[forgive us]where the speakers seem to ask to be absolved of their guilt, for the “not enough” of protests and oppositions they made, for having lived “happily during the war”. Do you think this is something that can be forgiven? expect of those living outside Ukraine, or any troubled country, at times like these?
As an author, I see the irony in the citizens of the American empire who care so much about the victims of [for example] the Russian empire as America regularly bombs people’s homes, and while using police brutality against its own citizens [at] at this moment
But the author is not the speaker. The speaker of the poem says “we lived happily”, the happiness of living with our heads in the sand, pursuing wealth rather than justice. What can be done, you ask. I will answer your question with a question: who remembers Chechnya right now?
Putin used ballistic missiles to bombard his capital, Grozny, on the ground in 1999/2000. The West yelled about it for five minutes. Then we forgot. We are encouraged to forget. Why? Because the oil and gas companies make money from their dealings with Putin. Follow the dollar and you will see the root of the problem. Our silver country, says the poem. Our great silver country.
What are you hearing from your friends and family right now?
It looks like Yiddish is having a revival this week: every other message I get calls Putin “schmuck” and “putz.” Nice to hear my mom’s native language.
A writer from [Kyiv] tells me he sees people making Molotov cocktails with their children. An 80-year-old journalist from Odessa writes: “The air raid has just calmed down. It’s a sunny morning. My cousin tells me that potatoes are overcharged by 50%. A translator of James Joyce writes that he spent the night sleeping next to a dog in the bomb shelter.
A friend of [Kyiv] emails with a picture of a bullet casing: “There is a military outpost next to my house, just a 1 minute walk away. I found this on my balcony. A picture for you — a result of war in my hand.”
Finally, this conversation that I will never forget with an old friend from Odessa. After I asked him how I could help him, he replied, “The Poutines come and go. If you want to help, send us poems and essays. We’re starting a new literary magazine.” In the early days of the war. To imagine.
What do you want people to know about Ukraine or the conflict? What would you like us to understand better about the region? What do you think of the images that are beginning to appear on television?
Ukraine is not a perfect country. There is corruption and a lot of crime, especially among political figures. There are oligarchs. Although the Ukrainian president is Jewish, there is still anti-Semitism in everyday life (that’s why my family left). But what gives me hope is the new generation of Ukrainians, people who grew up after the fall of the USSR. They are free — probably freer than Americans or Europeans. They have respect for freedom because the corporate mindset has not yet entered Ukraine as it has in the West. They believe in culture. There are festivals everywhere. In Odessa, for example, they held an event where people created a human chain across the city, and each person read a favorite passage from a book to someone standing next to them. I have hope in this generation.
You are someone who always posts a lot of lines of poetry on Twitter. What words (and who) are you turning to now? Why?
The poem is a charm; he must actively cast a spell on the reader now.
If not, it fails whether the poem is about a face that launched a thousand ships or a woman standing before a prison wall or plums in the cooler. This freshness of speech delights the human in us.
As for what I am reading at the moment: it is high time to read Ukrainian poets. I recommend an anthology published by Academic Studies Press, “Words for War.”