Hanna Komar is Belarus’ leading young poet. Imprisoned in the protests that followed the rigged Belarusian elections of 2020, she now lives in exile in the UK, where she continues to publish and perform her poetry. This includes Ribwort, her new collection, which is a special recommendation of Interpret. Hanna spoke with our editor, James Appleby.
To understand the progression of Ribwort, we need to know a little about you. Could you tell us about your life and writing before August 2020?
They often say that a poet’s life doesn’t matter, but it’s never been like that for me: always I’m interested in poets’ lives. When I started writing the poems of Ribwort, I’d volunteered in Ireland for a year, and come back to Belarus totally disconnected. I love Minsk – I used to love Minsk – but I’d become a complete stranger. I had to reconnect with people, with places, and with myself. Minsk was heavily bombed in the Second World War, then rebuilt in this... Stalin-empire style. We still have this huge Lenin statue by the parliament building, and what the war didn’t destroy, the Communists did. Even before 2020, when you live under an authoritarian regime, it kind of... makes you sad. You always sense the pressure. People wouldn’t smile at each other. It would be strange to smile at someone – considered very weird and suspicious. But still there was life! There was an unwritten social contract between the government and civil society. You don’t interfere in politics and we’ll let you do your little culture – your theatre, your music, whatever. And so people started to open creative spaces in old factories, developing them into cultural hubs, raves, amazing festivals... and books were published! But at the same time, that group was quite small. Wait a while and you’d know all the people involved.
Can you describe a poetry reading in the year of the protests?
Most people in Belarus live in blocks of flats – tonnes and tonnes of flats, and tonnes of tonnes of people who never communicate. But neighbours started meeting each other at political events big and small. Before the election, people were collecting signatures – then more people met at the polling stations, and they started discussing their opinions, and starting group chats on Telegram. Then the protests began – and maybe you don’t have time to go all the way to the centre, but you go to your neighbourhood and you see the same crazy people as you. You say – let’s do something! Let’s arrange... a tea party! Oh, I know these musicians – let’s organise a concert! Let’s invite this philosopher to give us a lecture! And so they also invited poets. Now imagine... I don’t know, have you ever read your poetry to your parents? Because my mother, for example, she doesn’t really understand my poetry. Imagine people like your parents... people of different classes, ages, backgrounds... people who would probably never meet otherwise. They relate to the poetry. They value it. They actually need it. At that time, there was this feeling: people were craving everything which was ours.
The received idea is that dictatorships are frightened by writers. What’s the relationship between power and writing in Belarus? Is it frightened? Does it even care?
I wouldn’t use the word frightened. I don’t think a dictator is scared of anything – but they can feel threatened. The dictator is a psychopath: how else can you be so cruel? But psychopaths still have intelligence in their own way. They’re very good at reading people and society. They know where a threat can come from – and open-minded, free-thinking people are always a threat. And writers can inspire others, so that’s another threat. Words have power – they can’t do everything, but they certainly do have power.
You were detained for nine days on September 8th 2020. Talk to me a little about the impact of that time.
It divided my life into before and after. It was so debilitating that I had to force myself to remain a poet in prison... to notice little details... little beauty in a teacup. I had to keep my imagination working, even a tiny bit. I tried taking notes, having a diary... and then, when I was out of there, I knew I had to write about it. I was trying to find any kind of sense in it – but imprisonment doesn’t make sense. It should never have happened to any of us. But it did, so I had to find something useful in it. I thought, I’m a writer and I’m going to write about this – otherwise my time in prison will have been completely pointless. And I don’t think I could accept that.
There’s something horrendous that you’ve mentioned in our previous conversations. What is Black PR?
Horrendous! [Laughs.] In this context, Black PR means that I purposely got myself in prison to become famous – to post it on Instagram! To have something to boast of! [Laughs.] In Belarus, Black PR is the publicity you get from disappearing – from going to jail. But you know... to be completely honest, we did feel like heroes. We were made into heroes. This was back when the scale of repression wasn’t that huge. Imprisonment is now a constant reality. A friend of mine brings a care package – I can see his photo on Instagram by the prison where he served several terms. He tells me, I don’t even feel anything anymore. This is just everyday life.
Ribwort also has a significant current of love poetry. How does that fit with your role as a poet of politics?
Everything is influenced by politics, even who we fall in love with and how that love goes, because politics affects the working of society, how people behave, what they allow themselves and how they treat others. Politics is one of the reasons why my family was dysfunctional – why I was traumatised, why I’ve been in relationships which mostly didn’t end well. But it’s true that I used to separate these things. If you’d told me before 2020 that I’d be writing political poems, I wouldn’t have believed you. Because I had no idea what it meant to write political poems. My early poems are political – about how girls are brought up and fucked up, about my father’s alcoholism – but not in the sense that most people understand politics. My protest poetry – I call it this way – is more conventionally political, but the point is that my focus shifted with the protests. It shifted from myself onto the country; from my personal experience onto the collective. For a long time I would say Belarus before saying my own name. I didn’t exist for my own sake. I existed for the good of Belarus. I became tough. Read those early poems: I was soft and gentle. I allowed myself to be fragile. Since 2020, I haven’t allowed myself to be fragile anymore.
There’s another break in your writing that I’m interested in. You grew up speaking Russian at home, began writing in it, then moved into Belarusian. What does the Russian language mean to you now?
Rationally, I know it’s not the language to blame. Colonisation is not the language’s fault. My... our... but I should speak for myself... I will never be able to restore my ruined identity, because I will never know Belarusian as well as I know Russian. It’s not the Russian language’s fault. But not speaking Russian is one of the ways to... how to explain it? I use my grudge against everything Russian that wants to suppress everything that is not Russian.
And on the other hand, what do you find beautiful about Belarusian?
Language is a code, and when I started writing in Belarusian, it was like finding the key. Something I hadn’t been aware of... it was there. And so much has been written in Russian that it’s difficult to find anything new – to find a new image or say something in an original way. But in Belarusian there’s so much space! The language can still offer so much, because so much of its potential hasn’t been used – or has been forgotten. And it just... feels good! It feels so good and you feel happy. There’s a Belarusian author who describes speaking our language as a psychoactive experience. A word gets you high, a phrase gets you higher, and a poem totally blows your mind. That’s how many of us feel when we get back to Belarusian. Language can be home when you’re homeless. When you don’t have your people or your place, language can be a home.
I’ve heard you say that, despite the horror of the Lukashenko regime, you still feel privileged to be writing in the current moment. Can you tell me more about this idea, and about your hope for your country?
That was long ago. Well... hope is not a static thing. Hope depends on some objective reality – and in our case, an objective political reality. When I said those things, I was very naïve. I was like a baby, you know – very pure. And I didn’t know many things, because I felt like I was newly born into the revolution. I know many more things now. I have insider information. I know much more about the processes of the groups we expected to lead us to a better place. And... I can see that they won’t. And that a lot of them betrayed us. [Pauses.] I didn’t lose hope. I think... for me, hope was associated with something magical. Magic! It’ll just happen: Belarus will be free. But oppression doesn’t stop. It’s non- stop. There’s so much suffering you can’t do much about. But I don’t want to say that you can’t do anything about it, whether personally or as a nation. The politicians won’t help us. Those groups we trusted in, they won’t help us. Even now, the same thing remains unchanged. I believe in action. I believe that if you do something, if you keep going, that sooner or later you’ll arrive somewhere. So I keep going. A lot of people do. Hope is not an abstract idea – hope is action. And as long as I take action, I have hope.
Ribwort, a special recommendation of Interpret, will be published by 3TimesRebelPress in August 2023.