Irena Karpa
by Haska Shyyan
Short profile

Ukrainian writer, singer, journalist. Ukrainian PEN member.

Haska Shyyan: Hello everyone! Irena Karpa and I are sitting in the Luxembourg Garden and talking about our lives and work. We chose this place not by chance, but because we have a very funny story connected to the Luxembourg Garden. Irena had just moved to Paris to work, and I came here for family reasons around Christmas. It was probably…

Irena Karpa: The end of 2015.

Haska Shyyan: The end of 2015 — the beginning of 2016. It was December, and the weather was about the same as now, despite the fact that it is May now and today is the first really normal sunny day. We went to the Luxembourg Garden to drink coffee. We were sitting on chairs, drinking coffee and weren't bothering anyone. And the lady came to us and asked, probably pouncing on the bright sight of my skirt (laughs), if she could take a picture of us. She said that she was a correspondent for Le Parisien and that she was writing about an unusually sunny December. She asked if it was possible to take a picture of us and take a comment from us. We said, "Of course."

Irena Karpa: And we didn't believe her at all. She looked like a city madwoman. Her camera was very poor. We thought, "Parisien? No way", but then, “Well, she is a good woman”. She was very modest. She was very embarrassed to ask us, but we said, “Come on!”

Haska Shyyan: And then a few days later we met again. And Irena says, "Let's go buy Parisien." And I say, "Let's go buy Parisien."

Irena Karpa: There was hope: let's go for fun to buy Parisien, why not?! It is clear that this will not happen — that photo, that Luxembourg. We start flipping. We flip, flip, flip and here we are!

Haska Shyyan: I have several shots moments in my life when I remember someone's reaction before my eyes. Irena was like this: "Oh, cool! We are in Parisien”! And we saw it as a good sign of our future, connected with France in one way or another.

In general, the history of our friendship is even older. It is probably a bit connected to motherhood, although even then I was just looking for ways to motherhood, and Irena was already an experienced mother of one child and was planning to give birth to another. And we were not acquainted then. Irena wrote on Facebook that she was looking for a city in Europe where she could give birth to her second child. She was considering different options. Among them was Barcelona. I had just hung out in Barcelona then. I ​​rested in the summer for a couple of months and texted to her, “If you need any help — to go see an apartment or something, then I'm ready”. That's how we met. And somehow we immediately became friends. Then, I remember very well this episode, when I was still pregnant, Irena came to me in Rome for her birthday. It was a time when she was very active in encouraging me to keep writing and publishing, and I was very strange during my pregnancy. I didn't understand at all what was happening to me. I was in some prostration, in some bubble. I remember saying, “Why publish it, what's the point? If you don't write something like George Orwell, then don't print it at all.”

"My beginning was Izdryk"

Irena constantly reminds me of this episode, but in fact, it was still one of those impulses to have the courage to publish what you write. But you, Irena, started writing much earlier. That is, it is obvious that in your twenties you had more courage, some kind of audacity, than I had in my twenties. Did you have someone who motivated you so much, who pushed you to do so? How did everything happen for you when you came from Yaremche to Kyiv? You were obviously a bright enough person to have your own audience and to have your own community. Tell us, how did your formation, the beginning of your literary and public path take place?

Irena Karpa: I am a boring author in this sense because I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. And since I was a child, since I started writing and reading, I have said that I wanted to be a writer. As a rule, I was cited as examples some relatives who failed. There was a Svetka there who sleeps during the day, writes poems at night, doesn't want to work and is so lazy! And everyone said, “You also want to be like her?” Accordingly, there were no other options. I have described my turbulent path so many times that I am too lazy to talk now about it.

Haska Shyyan: Maybe someone didn't read and wants to hear again the prospects of a woman under forty.

Irena Karpa: … Women under forty. Ironically, you see, I still write it all. But I really have a gift for distinguishing talented young authors, even though you are a little older than me. But you know, at that time you were considered a young author. I read your poems, for example, on Facebook, and I really liked it. I wanted to push you to write it. And I really have this gift — to look at people and somehow push, and it's very cool. In my case, it must have been Mokh and Izdryk. I had an unhappy love for the boy on the course.

Haska Shyyan: In a torn sweater?

Irena Karpa: Really, yes, a boy in a torn sweater. I began to write about some of my sufferings there. I called them "Apologies of the Dead" — in fact they were poems in prose. No, in general, it was called "Blonde". And then I started writing in the magazines Moloko, and Extreme. This was the beginning of my journalistic career. The first buzz is when you get paid for what you like to do, for what you wrote and liked. It's like, "Wow!". And then I showed this funny text about "Blonde" to Mokh, and Mkoh sent it to Izdryk. Izdryk wrote, "Who is this?". And Mokh wrote: "Irena". Izdryk replied: "Who is Irena?" — and put many, many exclamation marks. And it was cool because he took me to Thursday Magazine.

Haska Shyyan: Did you manage to get into Thursday?

Irena Karpa: So, I did. And what Izdrik said, that is, he actually shoveled young authors and published them. It seems that the magazine Thursday did a lot for Ukrainian literature because Deresh, Povalyaeva and maybe even Babkina appeared there for the first time. That is, there were a lot of young authors, including me. And it was a super cool success that Izdryk himself saw me — he is a lump in general, an icon that I still love terribly. Sometimes some authorities of youth darken and disappear, but there are very real people, so Izdryk was the beginning for me.

"Now I owe more responsibility to the reader"

Haska Shyyan: Although your creative path has lasted for 20 years, I actually came across comments on social media that Karpa has changed a lot. She used to be a rebellious dude who climbed the Himalayas, and now she is a Parisian grande dame, a family woman, a woman under forty. In fact, I have not known you during all this period. Of course, there have been some external changes, but at the same time some of your core, your real Karpa does not change. But still, how do you see this age-old evolution, these lifestyle changes? Obviously, if our life context changes, we write about different things. Surely it's weird now to write about a boy in a torn sweater?

Irena Karpa: It would be strange of me.

Haska Shyyan: That is, it is clear that your worldview is changing, your life context is changing. How do you feel about your own evolution? How do you see it? What has remained the same in you, and what has changed in you? For the better or the worse, so to speak?

Irena Karpa: God, when you said “grande dame”, I immediately imagined some vulgar grandmother in some ruffles and sequins. I just remember which lady I once heard this epithet about. Tell me who that commentator was; I'll ban him forever from all my networks. I'm kidding.

Haska Shyyan: It was not meant in a negative way. There are obvious changes, if you look at your public image.

Irena Karpa: Imagine, I would be like this now in forty years: a dude who dresses in teenage clothes, shaves her head bald, and dyes her hair red. I'm not arguing — there are people who are OK with it in their forties. I will do this at eighty. I think it will be more natural then.

Haska Shyyan: Going back to the roots!

Irena Karpa: But now, for example, I do not dye my hair. I don't even cut it much. That is, I don't care about such a thing in many ways. It seems to me that this is really the best decade for a person between forty and fifty. The world is what you have already made for yourself, and the advantage of this age is that I understand everyone who is younger. I've been there. I understand their pain. I understand their problems. I do not laugh at anyone. I do not devalue anyone.

Haska Shyyan: By the way, don’t you lecture? In fact, I also see that the older I get, the more loyal I am to everything. Ready to accept any scenario.

Irena Karpa: I'm definitely not a classic teacher. Even when I teach, I always say that you are adults, you do what you need to do. I will not run after anyone to count truancy or
quarrel. I share experiences without teaching. I always emphasize to people what they can do better. When it is about young writers, I say that this, this and that is a strength because I like this kind of criticism the most. But there are people who need to be criticized. Obviously, with age, like any normal person, I have more responsibilities. The feeling that I am publishing should be more reasonable because at nineteen you think you are a genius and let everything be published — “I will not reread anything”. I wouldn't do that now. I owe more responsibility to the reader. And I love the Himalayas very much. I don't know what these people are watching. I continue to go to the mountains and do extreme sports. It is not like I settled down and I'm scared now of what I used to do before. No, I can't say that. Now because of Covid, everyone has traveled less. And since the revolution, I've been busy every winter and, unfortunately, didn't manage to go to the Himalayas. But there's still time. I have a good example: I saw once a lady, who was 77 years old, and she was climbing the mountains. So why not?!

Haska Shyyan: As I understand it, you are interested in teaching others. When for the first time did you feel pedagogical talent in yourself because I felt that I did not have it. When I tried to work at a school two years after university, the students of that time remembered me with pleasure. Good memories remain. But I probably wasn't a teacher after all (laughs). When did you get this feeling that you can share an experience with others, that you can teach something, and that you can be useful? 

Irena Karpa: First of all, I do not work with children. I work with adults. It's a completely different level of motivation — a different level of awareness. I don't need to interest anyone specifically. People pay their money, come for life hacks and new knowledge. I've always liked such things. I like to teach. I really like to see results, success, and excitement when students implement it. I have different worries — about self-confidence, about fighting fears, about how to build relationships. Now a writing course has started. In principle, I do not teach anyone. I do not preach. I share the keys; I share the experience. I give them knowledge, respectively, they give me money and time for it. And this is a good exchange. To me, this is the same communication with an audience as at a concert, although sometimes they write, "Thank you, Teacher!" in capital letters. This is written by some lady, who is 50-60 years old, and I'm such a teacher here ... (smiles). It's nice. It's important for me to feel that what I'm doing will help someone else. That is, it is not so easy to teach for the sake of teaching. I don't have any hierarchical things at all. It bothers me a lot! On the contrary, I am probably too democratic in this sense, careless, and conscientious.

Haska Shyyan: But it doesn't take away a resource for your own writing, for your own creativity? As for you personally, what tool is it?

Irena Karpa: It's very interesting. I have people; I have stories. I use these living stories, obviously, changing everything with the permission of these people as material. And sometimes, vice versa, when I give people some tools for writing. I know them, I've already tested them on myself. But I write to them, I throw them out, they say, look, I'm also doing something now to support them. But most people suffer from imposter syndrome, “Who needs it, I'm not Orwell”. This is a very typical fear of young writers.

"I can't write about places I've never been because it's weird to me."

Haska Shyyan: How did you feel, did your perspective, vision, and style change after moving to Europe? Your latest novel, of course, is based in Paris, but its roots are different: all the girls are Ukrainian. But this is a certain distance. How has this distance affected what you write and how you write? Does it make it difficult for you to communicate with your potential target audience, or does it simplify it? Do you feel that the target audience is expecting something different from you?

Irena Karpa: When I started the next novel, I honestly started it in some shabby apartments in Borshchahivka. I had never lived there, but I was a guest. I really wanted to write something like that, and none of the publishers understood me. Some of the people I was describing it to didn't understand either. Everyone is already waiting for Paris. Everyone is interested in this context. Well, it is clear that I will have both Borschaga and Paris in the text. I will not illogically describe "small cobbled streets, hyacinths in the windows, and dear grandmothers." I love the truth of life, so I will describe Paris during quarantine and all that. The context changes according to where the author is and what he or she lives. It is about topos, it is about chronos, it is all these things that affect us in one way or another. I live here now, and my characters must also live here. Or they can live where I have already lived. I can't write about places where I've never been because it's weird.

Haska Shyyan: I have to immerse myself when, for example, I read some works where the author is clearly reconstructing. I also do not understand how it is. It is too difficult for me to believe that I am
writing this truthfully. And there are, for example, such books where I trust the author only because I know that he was there because, for example, it seems to me from my own ideas that it should have been completely different. That's why I understand you well here. But, for example, tools such as banter, cynicism, outrage — these are basically such things that are often attributed to both of us. They are probably decreasing a bit now, although I don't know if they are decreasing. You always used them consciously, right? Was it your way of expressing yourself? What pushed you to do such things? Maybe you didn't see them as too outrageous for yourself, and other people did?

Irena Karpa: I have always written the truth without covering the delicate spots in the text. Although I am far from you, and you write your own style of naturalism.

Haska Shyyan: You see. And for me it's OK (laughs).

Irena Karpa: And for me, no. I would not describe this scene of yours where she, Martha, examines her vagina in the mirror.

Haska Shyyan: Vulva.

Irena Karpa: Well, Karpa can not distinguish one from another (laughs). But then again, probably because I didn't do that. If I did that, I would write about it. I have a tool, a measure of what I write. I did it once at a photoshoot, by the way, for Playboy.

Haska Shyyan: Nobody will believe that you didn't do it.

Irena Karpa: Yes, I really did it once at a photoshoot when I was at Playboy. It was just outrageous. What none of the models could afford, because all the models were photographed in thongs, and then: "erase my thongs in Photoshop." Well, damn it!... What bullshit.

Haska Shyyan: For me, there is a very interesting thing, which I also understood with my latest book, to which there were many very different reactions. It is really something that people perceive very differently in their own way, and some do not perceive it because they do not have it in their life: gourmets, for example, or something else. And to you as the author it is strange; you write the truth? Why don't they agree with that?

Irena Karpa: Absolutely. For me, because maybe I did some such things in my youth that were deliberately provocative. I came up with something about some extreme sex, which I really did not do because I wanted everyone to believe it. But now I don’t need it all. I write about what is happening now. I understand that many things shock others. For example, now this novel normally captures the swinger world, the Auchanji world, which in Paris is part of the culture, and I'm already wondering how it will be. And it is even now part of the culture in Kyiv. But there is such a deep and painful topic for me which is that I do not know how this book will go into the world at all because it is very different, and it is very frank in its own way. It's not about myself, but about some other things that are taboo in society. That is, I have departed from biographical topics here, but I am heading towards other difficult ones. 

Haska Shyyan: What are the most taboo topics for you? Because, for example, for me, when they talk about the taboo of sex and descriptions of sex — it's strange to me because I always say it. I describe it as I would describe some big meal, food, or some fun at a party, or boredom at home. That is, for me, it is an integral part of life. I never had the feeling that when I write about sex, I write about something very taboo.

Irena Karpa: I don't think I have any taboo topics. I just have topics that I want to talk about at the moment and that I don't want to talk about. These things are taboo for me: a lie; a kind of hypocrisy for me; the thought that every girl should sit straight, tie a handkerchief, and listen to her husband. I'm not going to write this because it's not my thing. I don't believe it. We all have some dark corners of our soul and our biography that we do not want to talk about. But one way or another, I will talk about them through other characters. I will let one of the minor characters experience this trauma. No matter how much you want to hide it, you will still let the character go through it. And this is exactly the strength of the writer because someone will also look at this trauma. Someone will look at this story and find catharsis in it. The person will not be alone.

"Get two or three people who say you're fucking amazing because there will always be more people who say you're shit."

Haska Shyyan: You mentioned criticism. Which format of criticism is correct for you? It still seems to me that we are all vulnerable, creative people, and sometimes take criticism quite painfully. How did you develop any mechanisms for yourself during all this time? For example, I know that there are authors who do not read criticism at all and do not look at reviews of their books. There are those who just read and get mad. This can also be seen on social networks and everywhere else. During all this time you had to develop some tools in yourself.

Irena Karpa: I have a friend Serhiy Lunin. He’ll say, "Look, they wrote about you there again." I’ll say, "What, shit or something normal?" He’ll say, for example, "Yes, it's normal." I’ll say, "Well, fine," and I won't read it. He’ll say, "Shit." I’ll answer: "Then I won't read it at all." First, it seems to me that we still have a poorly developed institution of literary criticism. If it was some, let's say, Bondar who wrote a critique of my novel, I would read it with pleasure because I know who Andriy Bondar is. He is cool, he reads a lot, and he writes himself. Criticism of writers by writers is important to me. For example, I wrote something, I read something to you, and I read something to Mekhed. I understand that you are very different people. And from these pieces, I change something for myself, but it's just before I published it.

Haska Shyyan: Beta-reading.

Irena Karpa: Yes, beta-reading, and it's very important. It doesn't make a difference to me what some journalist wrote about my book. Or if I have an interview, and we dig into the trends of society, the trends of psychology, and the trends of relationships. The feedback from my readers is important to me. I read it in one sitting; I read it with pleasure and all that. You see, we have so little literary criticism that I can't even say a single name that I would focus on and say, "You know, such a great critic." Who do we have now? Our favorites are Trofimenko, Stasinevych…

Haska Shyyan: Ulyura.

Irena Karpa: Yes, such people I know. They are heard. I read and ask their opinion ... It is clear that as a vulnerable person, I will not reread something bad about myself. I know that I wrote this book with a pure soul. I know what I wanted to say. Here it is important to understand the motives of your words.

Haska Shyyan: What were the most unexpected reactions, positive and negative, to your books? You have a bigger and richer history than mine. I don't know if you had such instances when, for example, you didn't expect a positive reaction from a person at all, but it came up. Or vice versa — some mega negative reaction from who you thought was gonna like it — read about life in Paris.

Irena Karpa: I remember the last book. By the way, when you and I were in the bookstore "E", an 83-year-old man came and said that a year ago he had met his love story. He told me about his girlfriend.

Haska Shyyan:  And in my case, two old ladies argued over which of them was more like Martha.

Irena Karpa:  You know, it's very cool and very nice. I always tell my young writers, "Get yourself two or three people who say you're fucking amazing" because there will always be more people who say you're shit.

Haska Shyyan: At some point, I realized that I am so sincerely surprised when people like it, that when they don't like it, I don't care.

Irena Karpa: You have a very correct position. We must assume that all people are assholes. If someone is suddenly not an asshole, then it's so nice.

Haska Shyyan: Hashtag: life wisdom from women under forty. We are in limbo. Awesome age, by the way. It lacks nothing.

Irena Karpa: There were some stupid unprofessional reviews. A 20-year-old girl wrote that she was not impressed by these sex scenes. OK, I kindly envy her and that she has more experience in twenty years than I do in forty. Let's look further, you will be too bored to live, my dear.

Haska Shyyan: There is another scenario: that she can come to her senses after she turns 22 and that's it.

Irena Karpa: Maybe. Marry a Catholic and have five children.

"I consider Ukrainian culture part of the world"

Haska Shyyan: And finally, of course, the topic that everyone expects from us: the discussion of men, including French men, children, and clothes. Why this interview about literature, if there are much more interesting topics in life? If we talk about men, then you have diverse experience in geographical and geopolitical terms.

Irena Karpa: International.

Haska Shyyan: How did you always share it, or was it intuitive? Do you feel the difference between stereotypes, attitudes, and everyday relationships? Or do you think it is related to culture? Or did it just happen because such a person appeared?

Irena Karpa: I always came across cosmopolitan people. I didn't feel, to be honest, that we had any cultural differences. My husband is French, and at first, I giggled at him, saying, “Why are you soaking a croissant in coffee with milk?'' We have only toothless retirees doing that in our country. So now I soak croissants in coffee with milk. There is no difference at all with my American husband. In my "marriage" course, I say, "Girls, look at the Americans. It seems like we went to the same school and played in the same sand." Because of globalization, because of this whole American context, you are coming to New York for the first time, and you know where to turn and how to get anywhere. I don't know whether I'm adapting, or if my men are cosmopolitan, or if I'm cosmopolitan. I am not a bearer of square culture. I think of Ukrainian culture as a part of the world, and I always emphasize some peculiarities. But I give them equivalents. For example, I say that dumplings and borscht are a kitchen of survival and other peasant things. Here they have the same. That is, it is always important to build bridges. I do not believe that one culture is superior to another. There is no such thing. There are probably countries that have gained more international recognition , but still, everything happens here and now. Look at all these wonderful people who sit around us, then go to Podil in Kyiv. You will not notice the difference.

Haska Shyyan: Your children have grown a little, so it's probably less relevant to you. But how did you find this balance for yourself? How conscious was motherhood for you? And if it was conscious, then how much was everything that came with it expected?

Irena Karpa: I've always been child-free. Hi child-free, I understand you! Without children, it is clear that life is easier and simpler. It’s easier to travel; you are your own master. But there is another very convenient way: to get married, have children, and divorce. Then half the time your children will be with their father. It's just the second breath of youth because my husband's children are often with his ex, and my children with my ex. Accordingly, we have time as a couple, and this is very important. I don't know what it's like to live with children all the time. I was lucky because our children are nomads.
Haska Shyyan: Mine just got used to sleeping like me before dinner. It's a failure if you need to get them up for school! (laughs).

Irena Karpa: I also sleep until noon if they don't go to school. But I also get up at seven-thirty, cook them breakfast, and do lessons with them. That is, I deal with these people, and everything is a part of my life. But I'm not like "I'm a mother." I'm more of a mother-rider. However, I love them madly, and they love me too. But on what exactly I will not give lectures — it is on some pedagogical pieces of education of children because I have the impression that "on devices we go". At least they are good, they are empathetic, they are good people, and that seems like a good sign to me. The children get it from the family — so we are not such assholes.

"Clothes are part of the overall harmony"

Haska Shyyan: And the last one is about girls' things — about clothes. This is a question that is probably interesting to everyone. How do you choose a style of clothing because it has changed all this time while you are a public person, even when you were shooting in thongs for Playboy? How do you choose a wardrobe and in general, what clothes for you? What do you see in it in the first place? Is it some way of expressing yourself, or is it some kind of social attribute?

Irena Karpa: The way to express yourself in clothes — it's about you. This is your statement. Every time I see you, it's like I go to the museum and look at the installation. This is the type of dress of "dead grandmother's best friend." This is a cloak that my mother bought in short supply in Moscow. I have a cultural diversion here now. I wear Ukrainian clothes in Paris. Now, for example, my Ukrainian blouse is a brand from Ivano-Frankivsk. I have awesome pants — Ukrainian, I am brand. The jewelry on my neck is from a Ukrainian woman who looks for some historical jewelry at the right flea markets, shops, and sales. For me, clothes are appropriate. It is clear that at home, like everyone else, I wear shabby shit, some sportswear, or a T-shirt, because I clean there. Ugh, God forbid, spit. I squatted. Thank God I have a cleaning lady. For me, if you go out somewhere, a white shirt is the perfect piece of clothing for the lazy — a white shirt and, for example, jeans. I have some of my men's shoes, but I came in cables. They are also Ukrainian — it's Kocharovskaya. 

Haska Shyyan: So we have the same red cables and red lipstick — we are from the same club. Women over forty, like, you can't beat us.

Irena Karpa: Yes. And I have a love for beautiful things, a love for beautiful people, a love for delicious food, a love for nice fabrics — it's all very important to me. I like to eat cool food. I love fine wine. I love good music. I love books that are delicious and cool to read. That's all. Clothes are part of the overall harmony. And now there are cool Ukrainian designers that I often find myself wearing while walking down the street, and I'm the best dressed. I go to Paris, and I'm better dressed than the famous Parisians because I was dressed by Ukrainian designers. I picked what they do, and it's top-notch. This is also a very cool trend. And I have the impression that it came literally after the revolution — a lot of young designers. Don't spend money on a mass market, but spend money on the support of native business and young talents.

Haska Shyyan: It was Irena Karpa, she keeps in touch with Ukraine through clothes — what is closest to her body. Ukraine is always with her.

Irena Karpa: Ukraine is always in the heart!


Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova

Short profile

Ukrainian writer, singer, journalist. Ukrainian PEN member.