Lviv became a magnet for all book lovers, as the international Book Forum started here on September 18. Traditionally, this is not only an event where the most interesting books are launched (including this newspaper’s Ave...), but also a platform for the exchange of ideas and discussions of important social issues. Den/The Day met with president of the Publishers’ Forum Oleksandra Koval to find out what meanings were to be actualized at this year’s Forum. Also, we wanted to determine the priority issues in the literary sphere and learn which of them Koval planned to resolve as director of the Ukrainian Book Institute, the latter being an institution which many are hopeful about, but sometimes not fully aware of all the difficulties facing its head. Therefore, the following interview is also an attempt to analyze the situation and find ways to effectively solve the emerging problems.
FREEDOM AS (IR)RESPONSIBILITY
The focus theme of this year’s Forum is the Freedom Market. The choice of the theme is due, among other things, to the anniversary of the 1968 revolution wave. What meanings you would like to actualize and what you would like to highlight with the Forum’s events?
“We proceeded from the 1968 revolution wave to remind us of freedom in general. But when we began to ponder this topic, it became clear that with the recent spread of social networks, fake news, post-truth and all these negative phenomena (which are associated with the allegedly positive technology developments) the very attitude to many very basic values had changed. And even such a value as freedom has become negotiable. It probably has always been one, but now it is especially noticeable and clear. We would like intellectuals to express their views on this and our society to reflect on the fragile time we live in: it may turn out that anything can actually be bought and sold, while it seems to us that some things remain fundamental, and no one dares to touch them. So it seems to me that these should be some very interesting discussions.”
Is this connected with the fact that after the Revolution of Dignity, there has been a deeper understanding emerging that we, as citizens, have to assume more responsibility, and we are capable of it, and so, we are actually freer and enjoy more freedom?
“It is good to see such an interpretation, because most people usually think that freedom is complete anarchy. ‘My freedom’ seems to mean ‘I do what I want, for example, I want to park on the sidewalk, although it inconveniences everyone else.’ However, freedom is responsibility.
“Incidentally, the Forum will host an interesting book launch of the 1st December Initiative Group, the intellectuals brought together by His Beatitude Lubomyr Husar. They are publishing a book which is called just that – Freedom and Responsibility. Overall, there will be many books dedicated to freedom there. By the way, the Forum will also launch a book by our splendid philosopher Myroslav Popovych, entitled A Philosophy of Freedom. I have even noticed (and I think that it is not only me): once you start to think about something extremely necessary to you, it immediately appears before you and leads you further and further. I am very excited about this.”
“THE PEOPLE OF CULTURE SHOULD SUPPORT EACH OTHER”
The Night of Poetry and Music is one of the most successful events of the festival. Could you tell us how this idea came about? What is the secret to its success?
“I do not know the secrets of how something becomes popular. Obviously, people always love poetry, and if it is combined with music, then they enjoy it even more. I came up with this format a long time ago, back in 1997. This night then lasted two hours, from 9 to 11 p.m. It has been held under its current title since 1999. All in all, we will host the 20th Night of Poetry and Music this year.”
And to what extent, in your opinion, is such a combination of several art forms a promising idea?
“From the very beginning, when the Forum was just being created (not as a one-time event, but as an event to be repeated), we aimed to get different art forms combined. We wanted the musicians to communicate with poets, artists with architects and so on, to create new valuable things. We did not really succeed then. I know that now the interaction between artists from different fields has improved. There is visual poetry, there is music of architecture, and so on. And all this is experimental in character and very interesting. I believe that it will become more common at some point, because the people of culture should support each other. In addition, the Ukrainians like something new: for instance, not just books, but books and fashion. The Forum, in turn, is totally open to all. When it comes to artists, we have created the Ukrainian Visual Book cluster, which is very successfully run by Pavlo Hudimov. We tried to create a music cluster as well, but failed at it, however, I have not lost hope. We have creative industries and urbanism represented, that is, we are already involving architects in it.”
A YEAR AND A HALF OF COMFORTABLE SITUATION FOR PUBLISHERS
This, moreover, is a way to look at a certain art form from a new perspective. But you have repeatedly mentioned in interviews that the impetus for creating the Forum was a crisis that prompted a search for new forms of cooperation. How, in your opinion, has the situation in the literary sphere changed after the Revolution of Dignity and the beginning of the war in the east of Ukraine?
“There are two possible responses to each crisis situation – you either freeze or start to run quickly. And in our case, the second option was chosen, so we have had a major recovery. Obviously, this is due to the Revolution of Dignity and the Maidan, but one has also to take into account the ban on the import of Russian literature to Ukraine. This gave our publishers a year and a half of a very comfortable situation, since bookstores now had room for our products. Meanwhile, consumers, prompted by a wave of enthusiasm and patriotism, began to read Ukrainian, even those who did not do it before.
“Now the situation has slowed down a bit, because such an artificial excitement needs constant support. The wave of enthusiasm is receding and Russian books have started to reenter the market. They enter not so much legally, across borders, because the ban is still in force, but through the good services of Ukrainian ‘pirates’ who ‘pirate’ Russian paper and electronic books and reprint them here. And we need a coordinated effort of law-enforcement agencies to combat it.”
“WE NEED TO BUILD A TRUST SYSTEM”
You have been selected as director of the Ukrainian Book Institute. What challenges do you see? And what are you planning to do?
It is all very complicated. I feel the hopes that many people have placed on my service in this position: both those who know me and those who have only heard of me. I just do not know what changes they expect, what should happen to satisfy them.
One should understand that as a director of a government institution, I will have to deal primarily with other officials. So, I have to forget that I have ideas on some events or programs. I just have to promote it all. And this is an extremely difficult path. In particular, there will be no Ukrainian Book program this year, because it has been delayed so much that there is no way for it to be done now. And now it is necessary to use this saved sum for the program of library purchases. Money has been allocated for it, but it cannot be spent because there are still some two documents missing. Nobody knows why the responsible officials do not sign them. So this program is now under threat as well. I will try to rectify the situation. For this purpose, I will have to work with legislators, because it is probably necessary to change something in the relevant laws. By the way, the entire culture domain public procurement system needs huge changes, because these systems in this country are based on the assumption that each manager is a wannabe criminal who will necessarily break some norm or another. So first of all, we need to build this trust system, and then everything will become much easier, it seems to me.”
“BOOKS FOR LIBRARIES SHOULD BE PURCHASED BY THE LIBRARIES THEMSELVES”
How is procurement going now, and what needs to be changed?
“Now the list of books that are purchased for libraries should be approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. And despite the fact that, for example, Sumy and Odesa regions have different needs, the same books are purchased for everyone. And it is very worrying to me. I believe that books for libraries should be purchased by the libraries themselves. It should be done locally, where they are, because only the local librarian knows which book may be interesting to readers in this specific village. Also, books should be purchased not once a year, but as soon as a new one appears, for the situation is currently as follows: for example, a good book appeared in the beginning of the year, people do express interest in it, but the librarian has to wait for it until the year is out, when the readers’ interest has already moved to something else. What I propose, meanwhile, is for the librarian who had read or got told that a new book appeared to be able to order it and receive the book two days later. And the whole village will start reading. So, in terms of procurement, we need decentralization and localization of funding.”