Ukrainian translator Tetyana Denford on war, identity and the importance of stories

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passing the two-month mark recently, reports of ongoing atrocities and the bravery of everyday Ukrainians still dominate the news agenda the world over.

With no end in sight for the brutal conflict, FIPP spoke to author and translator Tetyana Denford, who has been using her social media channels to offer advice to Ukrainian refugees, share Ukrainian customs, translate news from the country’s media outlets, and inform her followers about how they can support Ukrainians. Read on to hear more.

Can you please tell us a bit about you? What’s your background and profession?

I am a first-generation immigrant Ukrainian, born in NYC. I am a freelance writer, translator of Ukrainian, Italian, some Spanish and Russian. I’m a mother of three and an author of four books, my first one was a historical fiction novel called Motherland: War and Hope in Ukraine, published in 2020. It’s a story based on a true account of a Ukrainian family displaced and separated during WWII.

How has the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine impacted your work?

I’ve always been aware of Russia’s presence, ever since I was little, listening to stories from my grandparents and parents who lived under Soviet rule, so it was never such a far away thought. But since 2014, there has been a simmering of spirit and fire in Ukrainians trying to hold onto their independence, and I knew that once I started writing and researching my first book in 2015, that it was an important story to tell, not just for myself but for others to understand Ukraine and Ukrainians better. When Feb 24th unfolded, I went into overdrive, and I have not stopped educating people about Ukraine and its story since then.

“The world is educating themselves on who we are: we are a humble, generous, creative people who will do whatever it takes to fight for our freedom.”

In a recent piece for The Flock, you said that this invasion isn’t really a surprise to Ukrainians, who have always felt the past and present looming over them. Could you please say a bit more about this?

For centuries, Ukraine has been seen as a discardable country, through the Russian colonialist lens. Every single Ukrainian will have stories in their family of murder, robberies, needless arrests, imprisonment, and even mental and physical torture. Russia’s playbook has always been the same: intimidation, arrogance, greed. So, Ukraine has been trying to survive and adjust under this shadow and misunderstanding. Russia have marketed themselves to the world for years, as this powerful rich country. When in fact, they stole a lot of what they have, from other countries. Simply because they could. Now, Ukrainians are taking the opportunity to wrestle it back and show the world that this has all been a lie. The world has been conditioned to believe a lie. We are now telling them the truth.

We’ve observed an enormous amount of media and public attention on Ukraine in the past two months. Has the invasion changed the kind of stories outsiders are telling about Ukraine, and the stories Ukrainians tell about themselves? Is there any narrative you would challenge?

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, this is the very first time that the narrative about Ukraine and Ukrainians is changing in such a huge way: it is not about farming and political scandals. Ukraine is now pushing back on a historical narrative that has never accurately portrayed our history and our culture. The world is educating themselves on who we are: we are a humble, generous, creative people who will do whatever it takes to fight for our freedom and for the ability to stand strong on our own land on our own terms.

When I was growing up, all I spoke was Ukrainian for a while because I didn’t learn English, and the assumption (even in the 80s) was that Ukraine = Russia. Everything was ‘Russian’. And Ukrainians were seen as dumb farmers who liked to drink and dance. That was one narrative that filled me with so much sadness. The other narrative that I still get angry about to this day is that in the media (TV shows and movies), Ukrainian women are portrayed as rent-a-brides, nannies, cleaners, or prostitutes. And Ukrainian men are portrayed as gold tooth idiots. We are now changing that narrative, and may the world learn how frustrating that kind of narrative has been for us. No more. We have had enough.

“Literature and art and music are the things that we can now use to educate, to immerse ourselves in, to understand better how to keep Ukraine front of mind.”

You wrote on Twitter that there has been such a surge of interest in your critically acclaimed book, Motherland. What role can fiction and literature more generally play at times like this?

Fiction and literature, in my opinion, is the rebellious resistance effort that plays the long game, once the war narrative becomes boring for people. War ends eventually. Society moves on, especially in the digital age. But literature and art and music are the things that we can now use to educate, to immerse ourselves in, to understand better how to keep Ukraine front of mind. These are the moments that extend people’s hearts and minds past the politics and grim realities. These are also the ways that people can lean in and help find hope for the future; this is how we, collectively, rebuild together.

Which media outlets, authors or commentators do you think people should be following to learn more about Ukraine?

I am now connected to SO many wonderful writers and journalists and creators, I am more than happy to shout about them from the rooftops (they are on Twitter and Instagram, which , despite social platforms’ faults, have been great places to find so much rich information about Ukraine now):

  • Maksym Eristavi (activist/journalist)
  • Val Voschevska (activist/journalist)
  • Vinok Collective (activist/artist)
  • Julia Kril (activist)
  • Olia Hercules (activist/chef)
  • Kate Tsurkan (writer/translator)
  • Yana Suporovska (journalist)
  • Euromaidan Press (news)
  • Oleksiy Sorokin (journalist)
  • Experience Ukraine and Beyond (travel company)
  • Lesia Vasylenko (Ukrainian MP)
  • Nika Melkozerova (award winning Ukrainian journalist)
  • Kyiv Independent (news)

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