We asked curator Eva Neklyaeva if she would like to contribute to our ongoing thematic focus on “Fabulating” after her essay series on the Sex Positivity Community, published as part of our “Crafts” focus, and her conversation with the Mermaid Blixunami. She agreed and suggested her father, whom she considers an expert at fabricating stories, to be the interviewee for her article. Uladzimir Niakliaeu is one of Belarus’ most prominent poets, activists, and a former presidential candidate. She exchanged ideas with him about freedom and writing – in a process that was not without its challenges. Their exchange is accompanied by photos stemming from the VEHA archive and their “People of the Forest” collection. This independent initiative for Belarusian photography aims to preserve amateur photos and archives—and thus, the history of the everyday.
[07:46, November 7th, 2022] Dad: They just found an unexploded World War II bomb next to your grandfather’s coffin when they were restoring the gravesite.
This makes perfect sense, because as a soldier he always carried a weapon during his lifetime, so there is no way he would have gone six feet under UNARMED.
[09:15, November 7th, 2022] Eva: Hahaha, ok, but send me photo proof, please.
… Of course, there was no bomb in the grave, but the story my dad invented was so good that it would become a part of our official family history, like many other stories before that. Some of these stories really happened, some did not, but as my father, the Belarusian writer and activist Uladzimir Niakliaeu, always says: “A good story is more valuable than the truth.” My mother always disagreed with that statement.
Three books have been written about my dad’s life at this point. All three of them differ because each time dad has come up with new, better stories – and told them to the biographers, always with the hush-hush kind of hint, “only to you will I tell how it really happened.” Given this attitude it is funny that he ran in the presidential elections in Belarus in 2010 with the motto “Tell the Truth!” For this he was persecuted in a rather unimaginative way: prison, torture, all that.
I do not know if he really saw the poem that Eugeny Yevtushenko dedicated to my dad’s fight for freedom on a torn piece of newspaper used instead of paper in the prison toilet. To me it seems rather unlikely that a prison in a dictatorship would use democratic newspapers as toilet paper, but when dad got out of prison, that’s the story he would tell. In our obsession with finding out the truth, we sometimes lose sight of the flair a good story provides – and forget that, after all, it is fiction that makes life more bearable.
For V/A, I asked my dad to write an exchange with me. It’s the first time we did something like this. I have always been in awe of his writing, and this process of collaborative writing turned out to be difficult. Some of the old trauma came up, that is, the unprocessed hurt of having a genius and an activist for a father, someone who always felt he had a higher mission in life and who put the family through a lot: first being secondary to his literary calling, and then, later, when the persecution began, both feeling intensely proud of his sacrifice and angry that he did not seem to care what fearing for his life did to me and other family members. There are many stories about heroes but not many about the daughters of heroes.
While writing this, it also became clear how much I’ve inherited from him: a certain stubbornness, for example, to never accept any dogmas or to just believe whatever is considered “the truth” at a given time. But I also realized again how different we are, belonging to different generations and cultures. His spirituality, which is a strange mixture of paganism, Christianity, and mythology, feels rather patriarchal to me, as does the way women in his books are often portrayed as self-sacrificing saints. I have annoyed him with my questions, and in the end he provided the questions that he thought were more interesting – on my behalf.
What follows is not a hopeful conversation. I think we both had so much hope, but it was crushed so many times that whatever gland produces the hormone of hope in the body just stopped functioning. We were both born in the country that is now an ally of Russia in the terrible war against Ukraine, and even though we both worked against the dictatorship that allowed this to happen, even though my dad lost everything in this fight, the guilt and horror remain.
EVA NEKLYAEVA Dad, you always told me that you want to live your life in such a way that one could write an interesting biography based on it. How has your passion for well-written fiction influenced the way you live your life?
ULADZIMIR NIAKLIAEU There has always been a direct relationship or I would even say mutual influence of legend (I think this word is more suitable for the topic of our conversation than the word fiction) and truth.
When I met your mother, I was still a youngster. She was older, and I really wanted to appear more impressive to her than I actually was: stronger, more courageous. And when my nose was once accidentally broken during boxing training, I (because I was too embarrassed to admit the banal truth) came up with a story that I had been fighting for the championship title and even though my opponent broke my nose, I defeated him and won.
The story did not end there. One evening we were walking in the park and we saw three guys beating up another guy behind the disco. That guy was trying to protect a girl. In those days, fights were commonplace, even the police did not pay much attention to them, and I would most likely have passed by if … I had not told your mother the legend that I was a champion. Well, I did not win against those three that night. But to your mom, it was enough that I did something and did not turn a blind eye.
I don’t know if she still believed the legend of my championship after that incident, but she believed in me. And I had no choice but to live up to the legend throughout my life. So that it would become true for her.
As for the shell at your grandfather’s grave, that shell really was found there! But even if it never existed, if this was just made up, that doesn’t change the matter. Because there is no intent behind the fabulation; it has not been done for anyone’s benefit, nor to their detriment. This absence of intent is the fundamental difference between a legend (a story) and fiction (a fabrication), which is always done with an intent, and almost always an ignoble one.
EN I believe that fiction is at the heart of most social structures, and they only work if enough people believe in these fictions – for example, that money has value or that we are making progress in some form or another. The system of the state is based on fiction, a fiction called ideology. This became obvious to me at the age of eleven, when the Soviet Union collapsed. As soon as it happened, in the school I was studying in Minsk, our history textbooks were re-written completely, overturning one historical narrative for the opposite.
You and I were born in a country with one reality/fiction, I grew up in another, and now we are both exiled from a third. I remember how during the collapse of the Soviet empire, at the moment of the destruction of what seemed to be an unshakable paradigm, there was suddenly an almost physical sensation of pushing against the walls, of expanding the boundaries of the possible. I was a teenager at that time, I had nothing to lose, and – remembering this – I always say that there is nothing better than being a teenager during the collapse of the empire, when suddenly everything that was impossible becomes a reality.
Do you remember that one of my favorite books in those years was Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita? There is a moment when Margarita comes to the dance ball the devil set up inside an ordinary apartment in Moscow and the walls suddenly expand, turning it into a palace with an endless number of rooms. This is the feeling I remember from the beginning of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This dizzying sense of freedom is very easy to get addicted to, and I have become addicted to it. I keep looking for it in my work, in my relationships, in my life – but I rarely find it. How did you get through these years?
UN I tried to push the walls and expand the boundaries of the possible, everywhere I could. And then I saw that both in the country in which you were born, that is, in the USSR, and in the country in which you grew up, in the post-Soviet Republic of Belarus, walls and borders remained and rested on something that was also born here: the Soviet consciousness of the people shaped by the Soviet government. I realized that some of the forces and means of the culture in which I work cannot be changed.
Now I know that the influence of culture extends only to its own space. Before it seemed to me that it has a penetrating influence, affecting all layers of society. And how could it seem otherwise when even in the days before your birth I stood in stadiums where thousands of people listened to my poems? They came for a reason: not for football, not for hockey – for poetry! Thousands! And there was an illusion of the power of culture. But all further events in the history of our country show that culture does not affect anything, including, above all, the culture of power.
So the past years have led us towards dictatorship, towards the semi-criminal regimes active in many of the post-Soviet countries. And all my illusions collapsed, almost burying me under their rubble.
I had to get out from under them. And for me getting out meant looking for other strategies, leaving culture and poetry for politics, to achieve the goal that seemed so possible at the time: an independent, democratic Belarus. Not a puppet of Russia, as it is perceived almost all over the world, but a European country with its own culture, history, and language. You know what became of that effort, of course. Instead of the office of the President of Belarus, I ended up in the prison of the Belarusian KGB.
This is the external outline of events, but there was also an internal one, with nervous breakdowns, psychological crushes. I rushed about in search of a way out of the dead end. Belarus was disappearing, and together with it I was losing my way. I myself disappeared … I asked myself – “then why everything else? Why do I write, why do I live at all?” – and these meaningless questions led to a sense of meaninglessness of everything I did. I started drinking. That surprised your mother, who almost divorced me. I rushed to earn money, but that did not help either. I completely lost the ground under my feet.
Then one night my faithful friend, poetry, came and started to dictate a new book to me, a book she called “Proscha.” The Belarusian word proscha is simple and yet very deep, ambiguous. It means a place where something happens that cannot happen anywhere else. A sacred place. And one other of its many meanings is the forgiveness of all sins, which after ten years of sinning was absolutely necessary for me.
EN Can you tell me about the incredible things that could only happen in Proscha and nowhere else?
UN In Belarus almost every village has its own proscha. This may be a place where a spring flows, a thousand-year-old oak stands, a boulder lies, greyed by the passage of time. In Kreva, where your ancestors are from, this place was the remains of an ancient church on the outskirts of the township, now overgrown with forest.
There were once eight temples in small Kreva. Seven of them were destroyed in different centuries, and proscha also became a place of memory for the destroyed temples and our ancestors who prayed in them. In my opinion this alone is already enough for incredible things to happen there, things similar to miracles…
In pagan times there was a local custom similar to the one told by the Japanese director Shōhei Imamura in the film The Legend of Narayama. Once upon a time in Japan, older people who could no longer sow but could only eat bread were considered useless and taken to the mountains, where they, left to their own devices, died without water and food. They froze to death. And in Belarusian territory during pagan times, the elderly were led to the sacred place where sacrifices were made to the pagan gods, and there the old people were killed and burned.
When I read about this in a book on ethnography, I was shocked. And, of course, I wanted to write about it. But how? First of all, what kind of people were they? Because of the brutality of their actions I couldn’t imagine what they were supposed to be. Secondly, how did all this happen? Who decided whom and when to sacrifice? And who deprived the elderly of their lives, and how? There was some kind of legalized ritual for all this, so what was it? Several times I began to write, but nothing worked out for me until I remembered the legend of the son whom proscha bore to a prince. According to legend, the prince went to sleep in proscha, and woke up a father. And so I decided to spend the night in proscha…
I can’t even tell if I slept that night or if I didn’t. In the middle of the night, something suddenly arose in me, similar to a trance, I was half-awake, and a woman appeared. She called herself Milava and said that once there had been a temple here, where she was sacrificed in place of her old husband. And she told me why and how it happened. She gave me a plot (with all the details, with pagan names of the characters: Vit, Dan, Yur), which I myself would never have thought up. I just wrote it down.
EN I remember these stories. Even when I was little, you said that your best texts were not written but “recorded” by you, that someone or “something” dictated them to you. You weren’t to be disturbed when you were at home typing on a pre-war black Mercedes typewriter. (How much did I love typing on it when you were gone; my fingers still remember how to hold down the keys for a capital letter.) You were not to be distracted because, perhaps, at that very moment this something visited you to dictate something to you, and it was easy to frighten it away. One loud sound alone could make it disappear.
Almost forty years have passed since then, and now I know that yes, there are mystical moments in life, but still, behind any piece of art there is really just a lot of work. So doesn’t it seem dangerous to you to reproduce the myth (or fiction) about the poet, about the artist in general, as a “guide” of something mystical to the world? After all, if you do not write, but simply “record” the dictation, you are relieved of responsibility for the text. And what if suddenly you don’t hear any dictation, “the voice of proscha”, any more but you just write yourself? What then? Are you not a creator then? Or a creator but a lesser one to the one who writes down dictations and hears voices?
UN It looks like you are out to get me, as they say – as you always tended to do ever since you were a child..
Of course the responsibility for the creation is always mine. Let’s say I wrote something false and you filed a lawsuit against me. The judge would confirm that the text is signed with my name, the jury would find me guilty – and I’d end up in prison. To avoid this, I would have to sign the texts with the name of God. But then I would not end up in prison but in a psychiatric hospital.
I am not at all going to reproduce myths about artists as conveyors of something mystical into the world. I’m only talking about my personal experience. And according to my experience, there are two ways of writing.
First: you write because you can write – because you’re able to create and come up with stories. Conventionally, I call this method ontic (borrowing this term from Heidegger, who called a person’s independent capabilities ontic).
Most of the texts that are called world literature are written in this way. For example, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote precisely because he could write. He wrote to pass the time in prison. He was imprisoned more than once, which is why a short story about a knight with a single adventure, the battle with windmills, turned out to be so long. But it is written so aptly that it has become a literary masterpiece.
And this is the answer to your question, who is more and who is less of a creator, the one who writes, or the one who “records?” Neither, because you can write and “record” in different ways. It all depends on what kind of “ontic possibilities” you have (according to Heidegger).
And if Cervantes wouldn’t have known how to write and create stories, he would simply have remained an embezzler, for which he ended up in prison. But there he took up the pen and turned from a little-known embezzler into a famous writer.
EN Sorry to interrupt you here, but did you suddenly remember Cervantes because you, like him, were imprisoned? In prison, you wrote Letters to Freedom. What is it like to write in prison? Even just to be in it? We have been kind of avoiding this conversation over the past decade.
UN There are very few things that are as terrible inside as they seem from outside. Inside, what is terrible is to see how humans change. The jailers, who outside can be loving husbands and caring fathers, turn violent inside, where the practice of torture is normalized. And as there is no protection from outside, you start to look for it in the prison itself. Gradually, you get used to it, get used to the cell in which you are imprisoned, and which, with its walls, iron door, and steel locks, at least for a while, for several hours, protects you from bullying, nightly interrogations, tortures … It is paradoxical, but it is true. And it was about this that I wrote the poem “Prison,” which was included in the book Letters to Freedom.
EN It hurts all of me to think that you, and so many other people, are subjected to this kind of dehumanizing experience. But tell me about the second way of writing.
UN The second way of writing is that you write because you cannot stop writing. For this method it would be even more accurate to say: you cannot not write. It can be called either immanent, as if connecting the earthly with the transcendent, that is, going beyond the limits of the possible. You yourself could observe the practice of such writing when we lived together in Finland, where I wrote the poem “A Bed for a Bee.” This longest of all my poems (nearly 5,000 words/90,000 characters) I wrote faster than my shortest. Because I did not write; rather, I just wrote it down so fast that I could hardly keep up. Day or night, whenever it was dictated. It was not the same as in the case of proscha: no one appeared to me in a dream at night, no one told me anything, but somehow the poems appeared to me before I could think of them or compose them. And they were better than the ones I could think of. They were, as it were, outside of me, more than me, more than what I would have been able to do. They went beyond the limits of the possible.
When the poem “A Bed for a Bee” was published, the Belarusian philosopher Valentin Akudovich (by the way, a follower of Heidegger) called it the best Belarusian poem of the twentieth century. And he said to me: “This poem was not written by you. But no one but you could have written it.” Maybe this is the formula of the second way of writing.
Do you know why I’m still doing literature? Although I am not allowed to publish as an “enemy of the state”? Because miracles like the one with “A Bed for a Bee ” happen – not often but not only once either. It is incomparable to anything in terms of sensation, and I hope for this miracle to happen again. Every time I start a new text, I’m waiting: what if…?
I can relate to this even if the concept of “being dictated by a higher force” seems questionable to me. In my practice as a curator, for example during a festival I am curating, I sometimes feel like I am part of a bigger flow, like if the process we set in motion connects to many different desires and energies. It just feels right. There is a shared sensation of interconnectedness, of sharing a moment that is special. You know it on the intuitive level. It is definitely not something that can be put into an annual report – but still, for me this sensation of the flow is the most important part of my work. It is like magic, and I can never say why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
The difference is that for me this is created by the festival community and not a higher force. The way I see it, it’s when the curatorial proposal, a score, fits perfectly into the need of the moment and creates a sensation of what Astrida Neimanis in her book Hydrofeminism calls a “watery community,” when one of the biggest fictions we have – that we as humans have borders, that we sit tightly protected in our sacks of skin, in our identities – dissolves for a moment. We feel this porousness of our bodies in a very concrete, materialistic way: “As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies”. – That’s a beautiful, almost ineffable feeling.