© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Lucky Breaks' fictionalizes the lives of Ukrainian women in the 2014 Russian strife


One woman sits at a public bench, unable to move. Another frets about her black umbrella, and another woman hides in a bunker. These are just some of the characters in a book by Yevgenia Belorusets. It's called "Lucky Breaks," and it's set in the aftermath of Russia's 2014 assault on Ukraine. "Lucky Breaks" was published in English for the first time earlier this week, and as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, it has only become more relevant.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The stories in "Lucky Breaks" are short - maybe three pages max - and they're character sketches more than anything, detailing women who are lost, confused, living in a not-clear version of reality.

EUGENE OSTASHEVSKY: If you sit in a basement under bombardment for a good few days, your sense of reality shifts completely.

LIMBONG: That's Eugene Ostashevsky, a poet, professor and the translator of "Lucky Breaks." Yevgenia Belorusets, the author, is primarily a photographer. She's in Kyiv currently. We couldn't record an interview in time for this piece. When I reached her by phone, she said things were a little too tense to talk at the moment. But back when tensions between Russia and Ukraine started to get violent in 2014, Belorusets headed to eastern Ukraine to take pictures and to talk to people.

OSTASHEVSKY: One of the options in the beginning was to do this as a non-fiction book. And then Yevgenia decided that doing it as a fiction book would actually be more true, if that makes sense.

LIMBONG: It does if you read it. Some of the stories bend and blend reality with folklore and absurdism to really get at the rootless existence of the people displaced by war. When Ostashevsky and I spoke, it was International Women's Day, and I asked him to read a story set on that day, titled...

OSTASHEVSKY: (Reading) "March 8: The Woman Who Could Not Walk." This, too, can happen.

LIMBONG: A woman all of a sudden is unable to walk, so she sits at a bench. At first, she doesn't want to say anything or ask for help.

OSTASHEVSKY: (Reading) She wished to sit on the bench a little to ponder things, to turn things over this way and that, to wait it out until she would finally realize what was happening to her.

LIMBONG: Then, very specifically, Belorusets writes, a person carrying three bouquets walks by and throws one at her.

OSTASHEVSKY: (Reading) The woman caught the bouquet mid-flight and brought it to her face in a grand gesture, as if displaying her ability to inhale the smell of roses. Before we said goodbye, she found the time to tell me that today, on this one special day, people would turn their attention to women and try to do them favors. But on other days, women were left to languish without attention in some backwater, with no holiday in the heart and no sense of personal dignity.

LIMBONG: Ostashevsky says it's important that the book focuses mainly on civilian women.

OSTASHEVSKY: It's not about generals. It's not about soldiers. It's about people who don't count. It's about people who don't count when you decide to invade a country, right? You sit around and say, well, they have this many troops and that many troops, but you don't sit around and say, well, they have this many civilians who are going to flee. Right? It's a book that makes invisible people visible.

LIMBONG: Belorusets is still in Kyiv because she's taking care of her parents, who refuse to leave, which is part of what she writes about in these daily war diaries she's been filing that get translated and posted on the website Art Forum. A typical entry goes like this. This is from Day 13, titled "The Night Is Young." (Reading) When I left my apartment today, I saw an empty street - no cars, no pedestrians. At such moments, Kyiv seems like a city that is yet to be inhabited, a city without a present, with only a past and a future.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.