Vira Vovk
by Bogdana Romantsova
Short profile

Vira Vovk is  Ukrainian and Brazilian writer, literary critic, playwright, translator, and scholar. She is a co-founder of the Literary Union New York Group. Winner of the Ivan Franko Prize, the Ivan Koshelivets Prize, the Glodosky Treasure Prize, and the Panteleimon Kulish Prize. She was awarded the Order of Princess Olga of the III degree and the Shevchenko Prize in the field of literature.

I have never seen Vira Vovk live. To me, she is one of those legendary authors who created the poetic landscape of the second half of the twentieth century. Even Lina Kostenko described them with the words “they are like Atlanteans, holding the sky on their shoulders”. The New York group of poets and novelists, to which Vira Vovk belonged, is studied at the university in the fourth year, when students are finally ready for complex texts. At the same time, Emma Andievska, Yuriy Tarnavskyi, Bohdan Rubchak, Bohdan Boychuk, and Vira Vovk herself remained unattainable and almost mythical figures for me. This interview is my attempt to get closer to Vira Vovk, despite the thousands of kilometers and several generations between us.

You have been living in Brazil since 1949. Going there, did you think of yourself as a future writer of the Ukrainian diaspora?

Going to Brazil, I barely had any idea about its needs and literary possibilities, and even less about my potential activity in this country. Everything came with the demand of time. Noticing that in the state of Parana there was no teacher of Ukrainian literature on vacation courses, she began to teach. She lived in the city of Curitiba for a long time and later moved to Rio de Janeiro, where there was no Ukrainian community. There I devoted myself to the translations of Ukrainian literature into Portuguese and published two series of 12 books each on classical and modern literature. After that, I switched to my own creative activity.

Circumstances made you go to Brazil: the death of your father in Dresden during a raid, the threat of your family being exiled to Siberia. Did you feel an urge to return to Ukraine when it became independent? In your youth, what did Ukraine mean to you?

In my youth as well as in my senescence, Ukraine has always been my motherland. I longed for it, but the circumstances didn’t allow me to return. It was the question of independent housing and living, so as not to live off my generous relatives, as well as the question of health: for many years I suffered from sarcoidosis of the lungs, which required specific care.

What is the modern Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil like and what are its cultural practices? 

The Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil lives on religious celebrations of Greek Catholic and Orthodox rites and Ukrainian folklore, such as vechornytsi and similar events.

Were you not tempted to go completely into Brazilian literature and realize yourself in it?

Earlier, in particular at the university, I was pursuing both German and Brazilian literary activities. Published several books. However, this did not mean that I was planning to leave my Ukrainian activities in favor of one of those. For a while, I was engaged in it simultaneously with Ukrainian literature, but the latter surpassed the rest.

How would you describe contemporary Brazilian literature? Which of the modern authors should Ukrainian publishers pay attention to? 

Ukrainian translators and publishers should pay attention to at least two important large-format writers from Brazil. These are Joao Ubaldo Ribeira and Milton Hatoum. Ribeiro (1941–2014) was the spokesman for the state of Bahia, with all its Portuguese and African influences. The main works of this novelist are the ironic novels "Viva o Povo Brasileiro'' and "The Lizard’s Smile". And the second one is the writer from the state of Amazonas, Milton Gatum (1952), a descendant of Lebanese immigrants. His nostalgic texts have been translated into Arabic and a number of European languages and adapted for theater and television. It is quite popular but, unfortunately, not very well known in Ukraine.

Almost the entire Ukrainian literary diaspora practices translation. What has translation become for you and how do you select authors for translation? 

I translated according to a program that I created myself: 12 books of classical literature, selected by content and size, suitable for the Brazilian reader; and 12 contemporary texts that I personally liked. Having fulfilled my plan, I gladly returned to my own creativity, because I never considered myself a professional translator.

Among the books mentioned are many complex Ukrainian classics: Lesya Ukrainka, Kotsyubinsky, the early literary activity of Tychyna, Antonych. Which texts are closer to the Brazilian readership?

Different translations had different readers. The brightest among them was Claudio Aragao, my former student from the University of Saint Ursula. He liked Ukrainian folk tales to such an extent that he translated a selection of them into Portuguese poetic form and is currently discussing with my publisher the publication of them as a separate book.

As a translator, you have worked a lot with the small form, but you have never taken on translating novels. Why?

I have never taken on a large form, either in translation or in my own work. Perhaps I was afraid that I would not finish the idea because I was often seriously ill. However, a large form always appealed to me, and even today, at the age of 96, I would like to try such madness.

So, in 2009, you completed your translation mission and focused exclusively on writing. What was the reason for such a decision?

After finishing my translation program, I happily moved on to my own work, which is my favorite. I took it upon myself to translate some works by Ukrainian classics and several modernists because there was a complete wasteland of our literature in Brazil. This should have been a call to work for professional translators, not amateurs like me, but unfortunately, they have not been found to date.

"I am molded from good Boryslav clay. No matter where the storm carries me, the dark firs rustle in me," you write in one of the poems. Do you feel rooted in a specific territory? 

Yes, I feel it. The heroes of my poems are the inhabitants of Boykivshchyna or Hutsulshchyna, whom I have known since childhood. I don't know much about other parts of Ukraine.

In one interview, you said that "young Ukrainian poets very often imitate the West in places where it is not captivating" instead of looking up to their own. Can the Ukrainian poetic tradition give the world something new and fresh?

Ukraine has many riches to be discovered because there’s not enough spare time to find them all – she had to hide treasures from the invaders of different eras.

You work mostly with free vers, although you also use traditional verse forms, for example, sonnets. Why did vers libre become your base? Does it give more freedom?

Vers libre was my beloved poetic form of a certain time. Now it is rather a Lyorki rhyme on the last two vowels.

The blooming of oleander is endless,
The spring is rising between US,
The laughing river and the sky
Rejoice on the wings of titmIce.

Today, do you identify yourself with the New York group or rather no longer?

In our younger years, we searched for our identity in the New York group. There is no need for this today because we have matured.

If you examine the creativity of each New Yorker individually, you will discover more differences than similarities. Everyone has a strong author's voice. The territorial feature as a unifying factor also does not fit: you lived in Rio de Janeiro, and the rest of the group lived in New York...

You correctly observe the difference in the work of the members of the old New York group. They move to different parts of the planet and absorb the local color to a certain extent. For example, Brazilian landscapes and typical local flora are important in my poetry, completely new for a European woman. Nature plays an important role in my work.

Let's talk about your friendship with Ukrainian artists: Ivan Dzyuba, Vasyl Stus, Hryhoriy Kochur, Mykhailyna Kotsyubynska, Igor Kalynets, Mykola Bazhan. Who was closest to you and how did this rapprochement happen? 

My communication with Ukrainian artists has different accents. Mykola Bazhan and Hryhoriy Kochur were my teachers, and I gratefully accepted their advice on new works, while Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska and Ihor Kalinets commented on the achievements of the 1960s. They enjoyed walks and long conversations with Dzyuba and Stus. Those closest to me at that time were Hryhoriy Kochur, Ivan Svitlichnyi, and, somewhat later, Vasyl Stus.

Living abroad for a long time, the poet risks losing the stylistic lightness, and the ease of the line because he is outside the linguistic context. But the author is simply forced to work on developing his own style all his life. How do you support and develop the Ukrainian in yourself?

All my life, I read a lot and tried to keep in contact with people with a broad knowledge of and command of the Ukrainian language. I myself looked up rare words in dictionaries. I have a whole notebook of such treasures and use them.

Advise readers where to start getting to know your work? Which text among your own is especially close to you?

I entrust beginners to start their acquaintance with me in those genres that are most dear to them. It depends on everyone's choice.

Short profile

Vira Vovk is  Ukrainian and Brazilian writer, literary critic, playwright, translator, and scholar. She is a co-founder of the Literary Union New York Group. Winner of the Ivan Franko Prize, the Ivan Koshelivets Prize, the Glodosky Treasure Prize, and the Panteleimon Kulish Prize. She was awarded the Order of Princess Olga of the III degree and the Shevchenko Prize in the field of literature.