Haska Shyyan Literature Panel

– 22 June 2023

Earlier this month, VATAHA had the pleasure of co-hosting a book reading event with award-winning author Haska Shyyan in Amsterdam.

Arriving for European Literature Night on June 2, Shyyan reached out to VATAHA co-founder Oksana Savchuk personally to meet the Ukrainian community living in the Netherlands. In this open dialogue with displaced Ukrainians, they discussed relationships, personal worries, intimate moments and thoughts during the war.

“For us, the Ukrainian community, the war is topic number one, but we understand that society is getting tired of it,” says Oksana. “That’s why it’s important to keep the theme of war presents but find new formats for it.”

Shyyan read excerpts from Behind The Back, which tells the story of how a young woman struggles to accept her boyfriend’s decision to enlist in the army to fight in the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014. 

The event encouraged an open conversation about military and moral duties, female sexuality, societal pressure, and both embracing and rejecting patriotism – complex topics which secured Shyyan the EU Prize for Literature for Behind The Back in 2019. At the time, Shyyan was the first Ukrainian writer to win this prestigious award.

“Some people say the book is controversial, and others don’t agree. We talked a lot about how important it is to talk about war in different ways. Behind The Back is yet another way to show the human aspect of war” says Oksana.

At the event, Shyyan also shared unpublished poetry and read excerpts from her debut novel, Hunt, Doctor, Hunt!, published in 2014. A major part of it was written on her mobile phone while she was bedridden. Shyyan signed several copies of her novels for several event attendees who were inspired by her words.

After the book reading, Shyyan went on to a panel of 10 European authors at the European Literature Night in Amsterdam, speaking on the topic of utopia and dystopia in literature.

On the panel, the writer shared that growing up in the former USSR, her definition of the “utopian dream” was Western Europe, paging through car and clothing catalogues. “You can have the same pair of pants in seven different colors? This is utopia.”

After the 90s, Ukrainians began traveling to Europe more, where her countrymen realized “we could build our own utopia.” But the apocalypse has been brought to Ukrainians’ doorstep by the war in Ukraine, said Shyyan, citing the daily shelling of Kyiv.

At a younger age, Shyyan’s idea of utopia resonated more with a hippie image of peace and happiness. But now, that utopian idea has gained a new definition: one where Russia is no longer a colonial imperial state posing a threat to her home country.

Despite Russian’s aggression against Ukraine, Shyyan stated her style of writing has not changed. She instead highlighted how many Ukrainian writers are on the front lines fighting for their countries, and that their experiences will shape the future of Ukrainian literature to come.

Photo credit: euprizeliterature.eu

Born in 1980 in Lviv, Shyyan studied classical philology at Lviv University. Throughout her published work, she touches upon the themes of existentialism and the search for a sense of security in the modern world, multiculturalism and identity, corporeality and sexuality.

Besides being an author, Haska Shyyan is also a translator, blogger, podcast producer, and photographer. Since 2010, she has been writing poetry that has not yet been published, and plans to organize the selected ones for a collection.

VATAHA expresses its gratitude toward the Ukrainian Embassy in the Netherlands for facilitating this meeting between VATAHA, Haska Shyyan and members of the Ukrainian community.