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23 November, 2012  ▪  Kateryna Koval,  Alla Lazareva

Sophie Jullien: Ukrainian literature is rich, versatile and deserves to be known

The Ukrainian Week talks to Sophie Jullien about this year’s LITTERATURES EUROPEENNES COGNAC festival and Ukraine as its Guest of Honour.

Cognac, the city in southwest France known for its drink, is also the birthplace of the “Father of Europe”, Jean Monnet. The LITTERATURES EUROPEENNES COGNAC, literature festival, was started in 1988 marking 100 years since Monnet’s birth. The festival promotes European literature and writers and give authors and readers a chance to meet and talk. Each November, writers from all over Europe flock to Cognac to meet, debate, and discuss their writing together with the audience. In 1995, the Jean Monnet Prize was established to reward a European writer for a novel or short stories written or translated into French. Ever since, festival attendees have discovered significant European writers, including William Boyd, Claudio Magris, Danièle Sallenave, Jorge Semprun, Antonio Tabucchi, and Sylvie Germain last year. The Ukrainian Week talks to Sophie Jullien about this year’s festival and Ukraine as its Guest of Honour.

UW: Why did you choose Ukraine to be the central guest this year?

In 2011, Spain was the Guest of Honour. Now, we are discovering the East of Europe and a country whose literature is little known in France. Ukraine is the second largest country on the European continent, and the biggest country whose territory lies entirely within Europe. So Ukraine is part of Europe. The opportunity to explore various themes with writers and raise the issue of frontiers makes our choice even more interesting.

UW: In 2011, France hosted a big Ukrainian literature delegation at the Paris Book Fair (Salon du Livre de Paris). Has Ukrainian literature become more interesting for the French audience since then?

Literature is one part of cultural identity that gives use an idea about countries and their cultures. It enhances imagination, the experience of other cultures and countries, and pushes the audience to open their minds. Translators have an important place in taking books across borders –geographic and cultural: they build bridges between cultures, hence between people.

Ukrainian literature has not been translated much in France. The few contemporary Ukrainian writers that are translated and published in French include Yuri Andrukhovych, Igor Baranko, Lyubko Deresh, and Andrey Kurkov.

In fact, it was very important for the Ukrainian delegation to be present at the Book Fair in Paris when an Almanac presenting unpublished writers was compiled. Being present at that meeting and listening to the writers encouraged me to discover more Ukrainian literature and look forward to new translations. And I’m delighted to know that some of them will be published in France.

UW: What Ukrainian writers were invited to the festival? What will be its main theme?

In his History of Charles XII, Voltaire wrote: "Ukraine has always aspired to be free." So, we chose the theme of Freedoms. We invited Ukrainian writers from a variety of genres, from novels and poetry to cartoons and children’s books, including Yuri Andrukhovych, Igor Baranko, Kateryna Biletina, Lyubko Deresh, Anton Kouchnir, Andrey Kurkov and Maria Matios, to name a few. And there were European writers, such as French Hubert Haddad and Gilles Rozier, Polish Mariusz Sczcygieł, or Czech Jaroslav Rudiš. They had a chance to exchange ideas in meetings and at roundtables. Such things are very important as they encourage new cultural and literary projects, and boost creativity.

UW: How popular are book fairs in France? What is the overall situation with book reading there? Are books giving way to digital media?

Book publishing is a very big cultural industry and book fairs are very popular in France. Every weekend, there is a book fair in some city. Digital books change reading habits, of course. But the latest data from the National Book Centre shows that more and more books are being sold, as are translated books. Some may think that people tend to read less now, but I think it is the practice of reading that has changed. If people are encouraged to take a book and read it, they will. What we have to do is to find some innovate ways to encourage reading. People are still willing to discover and explore, and to share what they have read with others.

UW: How can Ukrainian literature attract European readers? Does it have something unique that surprises them?

Ukraine is at the crossroads of history and culture, a blend of different cultures. From what I’ve read, I can see that Ukrainian literature is rich, versatile and deserves to be known. In my opinion, it offers an original perspective of society, humour and irony, and historical background. But the most important aspect that leads a book to the foreign audience is translation.

There is still much to be done on the state level to create the image of Ukrainian literature abroad and to open the country. For example, France had the Year of Poland in 2004. Ever since, more and more Polish books have been translated into French.

UW: What themes prevail in modern European literature? Actually, is there European literature, or is it rather a generalized theoretical term? 

Each European country has its own authentic literature, but common historical and literary references show that all Europeans have something in common in terms of their culture. What we try to do with books is to ask questions. And as Umberto Eco said, “the language of Europe is translation”.

UW: Ukraine is the second non-EU Guest of Honour at the festival. Was it worth choosing Ukraine for the role this year?

We highlight the cultural and geographical Europe, not politics.When Iryna Dmytrychyn came here as the translator of Yuriy Andrukhovych in 2009, she suggested that we could invite Ukraine, and I enjoyed the idea. I’m really glad about the outcome today. We had so many visitors every day, and especially now they discovered Ukrainian writers and it gave a better idea of the cultural Ukrainian landscape.

UW: Your audience is mostly local, isnt it? 

The festival has existed for 20 years now. The city has got used to it and the locals really enjoy getting to know other worlds. People came from other cities of region Poitou-Charentes, and beyond. Some come back every year, and each year we get new audience attracted by different events we arrange all year long.

UW: Spain was the guest last year. Was the audience then different from the one this year?

There were more people. Actually, we see every year that the seeds we plant into the soil grow into beautiful flowers. Each year, the number of visitors has in fact increased. But we need time for this seed to grow. People got interested in Ukrainian literature and we have to keep encouraging this interest. Next year, Italy will be the Guest of Honour. But the main principle is to share experience and ideas and arrange meetings. We invite several writers from one culture, and other European writers. You saw that we had people from Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Catalonia last year…It gives us a chance to share ideas and not get frozen in just one vision. Next year, we are planning to invite Serhiy Zhadan as his book will be published in French. Thus, we hope to launch consistent communication with Ukrainian writers.

UW: In your opinion, how does festival promotion affect the development of literature and promotion of foreign writers in France?

The French have a good taste in books and they still need help in discovering new interesting writers and seek advice. We’re trying to not only offer a book but understand and decipher a given society. We could see how Ukrainian writers invited this year were responsive and enthusiastic to tell people about their country, not just about themselves or their books, and to meet writers from other countries. I believe that Ukrainian culture is very deep and original, it’s worth being known in the world. And that recognition comes through meeting new people, among other things. I hope that French publishers will continue to translate Ukrainian books. In a way, a country does not exist without translation, you know.

UW: Some compare literature to wine. How about literature and cognac?

Just like with cognac, one should savour all the different flavours of any given book. It is a perfect blend of shape and style. And just like cognac is made for future generations, literature goes through time, passing down knowledge from generation to generation.

There is a beautiful French expression: “la part des anges”, or "the angels’part" used for the part of alcohol that evaporates from liquor.   It’s the same with a book: there is an angels’part in it that affects us. I like the idea of the blend and transmission in cognac. A novel, too, is a blend, an adventure, a discovery. The difference is that one can consume literature without moderation. The main thing is that both cognac and literature are something to enjoy and share.

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