Having won the 2014 Jan Michalski Prize for Road to Donbass, Serhiy Zhadan writes for PEN Atlas about growing up in eastern Ukraine, a region now at war, and how love and attentiveness are the lessons of literature in a world of silence and oblivion.

Translated from the Ukranian by Boris Dralyuk.

Four years ago I wrote a book about the places where I was born and grew up, about my homeland. I wanted to talk about two things that are of great importance to me and to many of my compatriots: memory and responsibility. The Road to Donbass is, after all, about precisely this – memory and responsibility. And, of course, about all the other things associated with them.

What does our memory give rise to? Our understanding of the past, our relationship with history, our awareness of our homeland. Responsibility, on the other hand, indicates a readiness to defend all this – our past, our history, our homeland. Something of this kind occupies the hero of my book – as he sinks deeper into his own memory, he discovers things that are at once simple and very important. After trying to recall everything once and put it in its proper place in the past, he comes to terms with his own future, with how he can go on, with what he can hold onto. And it is responsibility, in this case, that is the principle – sufficient and significant – which motivates the hero, lending logic and consistency to his actions. Responsibility to his family, to his friends, to shared secrets, to those who have left, and, most importantly, to those who have stayed and who rely on him. This responsibility is what makes one an adult, since it has a bearing on extremely serious things – like love and hate, or life and death.

But this isn’t a matter of abstract concepts and categories. Thousands of wonderful books have been written about life, and even more about death. And the same goes for memory and responsibility. For me, the novel isn’t just a fictional story with conventional characters and fantastic situations. No, for me it’s associated with real landscapes and a very tangible geography. These landscapes really do exist – they stretch along the Ukrainian-Russian border, and they are now beset by fighting. You can see the locations described in my book on the news; the same gas stations where ‘more or less rotten’ fellows stood around squabbling are now encircled by Ukrainian ‘Grads’, Donbass’s system of defense against potential aggression.

Reality has shown itself to be far more ruthless and unpredictable than any fantasy. After all, who could have imagined a year ago that columns of Ukrainian prisoners would be led down the streets of Donetsk, that the morgues of Ukrainian towns would be filled with torn bodies. Today, war, death, pain, loss and danger are part of our everyday reality. And reality itself has somehow wound up in the spotlight. People are talking about Ukraine, arguing about Ukraine – everyone must take a position. In Western Europe, which seems to have recovered and found peace after the impossibly bloody twentieth century, it suddenly became apparent that the threat of a new massacre, a new general war, is still quite real, that history marches on in the streets and in the trenches, and that subtle diplomacy and multibillion-euro contracts cannot protect civilians from the madness and paranoia of a single man, if that man happens to have a high domestic approval rating and a well-equipped army. Ukraine cannot be ignored. It is increasingly difficult to pretend that the war raging on its territory is an internal conflict, increasingly difficult to deny the presence of Russian tanks in the mining towns. The attempts of European leaders to flirt with the aggressor, to maintain a civilized conversation with a man who coolly wipes out hundreds of his own citizens and those of neighboring countries appear ever more dubious and equivocal. To be sure, for Europe, this is merely a nightmare unfolding at a safe distance. The nightmare must be reckoned with, it is impossible to circumvent, but, by and large, it remains at a relatively safe distance, at least for now.

It’s a great shame that the world only remembered our country when it began to bleed. It’s a great shame that the news about Ukraine always presents bombed-out houses and the dead. It’s extremely painful to know that, even in this situation, Ukrainians have to convince many Westerners of their right to freedom and independence – ultimately, of their right to memory and responsibility. But it’s good that you’re listening to us, that you’re forced to listen, that you don’t pretend that nothing is happening, and that sometimes you even try to understand what’s really going on – in the East, beyond the realms of your comfort and security, beyond the realms of your experience and established notions. It may be precisely in this situation that literature, and culture in general, can be of some use. It may be that today literature provides the only real opportunity, however dubious, to explain something – without agitprop.

Many among us in the East still believe that literature should educate, should teach. To me, however, this idea about the nature of writing always seemed rather false and frivolous; I’d always thought (and think even now) that literature can only teach love and attentiveness. Moreover, in many cases, these are one and the same thing. In this book, this novel, I also spoke about love and attentiveness. I was lucky to be born and to grow up in eastern Ukraine, yet I was always troubled by the absence of this region, of these landscapes, of these people from the surrounding text – I missed the presence of this air in literature, the presence of this geography in the pages of books. I wanted to write about all of this with love and attentiveness. I wanted to capture countless details and moments that seemed important and decisive. I wanted to understand what makes this region special, unlike any other place in the world.

Today I realize that most of the things I described remain in the past. And there’s no chance of bringing them back. And there’s no sense in trying. Everything has changed. Even if these landscapes, fields, and valleys will be just as sunny, and the rivers just as warm, war has changed everything anyway, stripping us of many illusions. But, at the same time, it has stripped many of us of fear, of uncertainty, and of indecisiveness. It has left us our memory. And our responsibility.

It so happened that we, the residents of eastern Ukraine, have now found ourselves in a warzone. The towns where we grew up, the streets and buildings in which we lived, are now the sites of battle or are near them. For many of us the war is a personal matter, even though the majority are not involved in the fighting. But one way or another, we are all now living this war, are all affected by it, all think and talk about it. Sometimes we’re short of interlocutors – people quickly tire of talking about bad, unpleasant things. Sometimes we’re short of words. All the same, one way or another, we must talk. And we must listen. What is said forms memory. And what is heard forms responsibility. Silence leads to death and oblivion. That is why today it is especially important to talk to one another, listen to one another. Listen, even if you don’t agree with what you hear. Listen, even if you know how this story ends.