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Member Spotlight: Oksana Maksymchuk

Translator Oksana Maksymchuk smiling directly at the camera and an image of her work of translation The Voice of Babyn Yar

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? Writing does not necessarily change the world, but it can transform individuals. At the turn of the twentieth century, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote that “poets and artists together determine the features of their age, and the future meekly conforms to their edit.” This was perhaps optimistic. Far too often, it is the people with money, power, and technology who determine the features of their age. Poets and artists are able to push back against the desires, fears, and anxieties that the powers that be peddle in our communities, offering alternative values and visions of a shared destiny, a shared future that we must all take responsibility for. In the age of rising authoritarianism, nationalism, warmongering, and terror-driven propaganda, artists and poets often remain true to their calling of speaking truth to power, challenging unearned authority, and withholding unquestioning obedience—often at a great risk to themselves and their loved ones. It is through nourishing such common goals and values in our own writing that we can stand in solidarity with writers across the world.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? When I can’t write or translate, I do my best to remain active in other ways. I try to find a cause that engages my creative and cognitive capacities. I read. I do something restful and restorative, like cooking or gardening, spending time with family and friends. Taking a long walk in nature, visiting a museum, or going away on a short trip are also among my favorites.

What is your favorite time to write? I benefit from established routines. I try to pick a time and place where I can reliably do a little writing or thinking every day. Now that I’m mostly on the road, this usually means the bedroom, first thing in the morning. When I have the luxury of being in a city for an extended period of time, I try to find a co-working space that isn’t too loud—I pay a monthly fee, which commits me to going every day for one or two hours. It’s the trick some people use to get themselves to the gym!

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? I’ve started writing in English about five years ago—my first writing language is Ukrainian. In my Ukrainian poetry, the most important thing, for me, was selecting my interlocutors, the poets with whom I enter into a conversation, a competition, a romance—poets whose voices generated just enough friction to help me calibrate my own voice. “Read a lot” was thus very sound advice. This is, perhaps, because Ukrainian poetic tradition is quite “literary” and focused on novelty. By contrast, in my English-language writing I’ve started thinking of myself not only as a craftswoman, but also as a storyteller. So I especially appreciated the advice to travel to as many parts of the U.S. as I can, to get a sense of the landscape and of the people, of the twangs and twitches of speech in different parts of the country. Those experiences shaped not only my sense of the language, but also my understanding of what it means for me to be a poet in the U.S.—an outsider, with a distinct accent, yet longing to be a part of this beautiful unfolding story. The U.S. has one of the most racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and sexually diverse communities of writers in the world today—and it’s a privilege to be a part of this powerful, magnificent chorus.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? I’d like to say that it would have been great to be a writer at any time, anywhere—but I stop myself. Through most of the world’s history, a person like me wouldn’t write, even if she were an excellent story-teller. My own paternal grandmother was illiterate. Realizing that we are in a rather unique historical situation—that we belong to the generation of women lucky enough to have benefited from educational and publishing opportunities unavailable to people like us just ten decades ago—well, we’d want to make the best of it. And there are so many of us making sense, collectively, of this new, historically unprecedented situation, gradually changing the literary canon—which makes it all the more exciting.

Oksana Maksymchuk’s translation of Marianna Kiyanovska’s The Voices of Babyn Yar is out now with Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.