Turning Lviv into a Literary Focus

  • Turning Lviv into a Literary Focus
Issue 16, September 2009.

Oleksandra Koval is president of the Ukrainian Forum of Publishers and is one of the key figures behind this month’s annual Ukrainian language book festival.
We asked her why Lviv was chosen to host this event and what role the city plays in the growth
of Ukrainian literature.

Tell us a little about the history of the book fair. Why is such an important national event like this literary festival held in Lviv and not in the capital city Kyiv?
The idea to organize some sort of literary gathering first appeared out of necessity in the early 1990s when we recognized that existing publishing and educational structures had collapsed along with the old Soviet form of government.
We soon came to the realization that it would be necessary to build everything up from scratch once again. At the time (1994) the majority of the former Soviet publishing houses were literally ruined and the country was in a steep economic depression. As a result there were literally no books to buy andnobody with the money to buy them! At this point in time our goal was not to set up some kind of annual focus for the Ukrainian publishing industry, but simply to arrange a one-off event that would allow people who were active in this field, whether as publishers or authors, to regain contact with one another. My idea was supported by Bohdan Kravchenko, who was head of the Vidrodzhennya Foundation and the Association of Ukrainian Publishers, along with his successor Yuriy Priluk. Within a few years the event proved so popular that it was practically self-financing, but still it has been a constant struggle that has required huge investments in terms of both time and money.

Literature is art, but there are those who feel that in its present form the Lviv Book Forum is in danger of becoming too commercial in nature. Do you regard this as a threat?
When we decided to arrange the forum for the second time in 1995 I was so encouraged by the success of the initial event that I ventured to ask the Regional Administration for financial support. Lots of emerging publishers had contacted me and said they would love to participate but could not afford the costs, so I applied for state funds only to be told that we were quite capable of financing ourselves! So from the very early stages the event has been commercial in nature. Our business, ultimately, is selling books. We have to meet all the organisational costs of hosting the forum, and our participants benefit from both the ability to network and the chance to sell more books. However, there are clearly other dimensions to our event above and beyond commercial interests. By our very existence we are contributing to the promotion of a literary culture and popularising books to a whole new generation. If you look honestly at the relative failures in culture and education within Ukraine compared to our neighbours, it is clear that we are not doing enough to promote the development of the Ukrainian nation, but many of the skills we require as a young society can be developed from extensive practice at
the art of reading.

What is the role of the Publishers’ Forum on Ukrainian literature as a whole?
I can honestly say that virtually all the current stars of the literary galaxy in Ukraine enjoyed their first big breakthroughs at the Lviv forum. The careers of many modern literary greats can also be traced to the forum. They all follow a similar pattern – struggling to get published until they came to the forum, made contacts and performed their works at literary evenings. Eventually, they ended up becoming famous. This is our own legacy and is something we are very proud of. I’m 100% sure that if our forum didn’t exist, Ukrainian literature would be very different today. You could also write a different novel entirely about the number of people to have met and fallen in love at our event over the years. Sometimes our influence goes beyond the realms of literature itself!

What surprises can we expect at this year’s forum?
Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, author of the bestselling novel “Sophie’s World”, will be our special guest. Besides Gaarder we are also expecting over 200 famous and soon-tobe-famous writers from a total of 18 countries. I can name Andrukhovych and Zhadan who will present a novel Ukrainian-Swiss program, plus you can expect to see all the stars of the local literary scene including Karpa.