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Editor’s note: Last week, Matador published 6 truths and a lie about Belarus. The rest of the editorial team and I view the piece as a total ‘success’. It created dialogue and web-culture around place. It did not attempt to commodify that place. It was executed in an original and artful manner.

(And, as a personal note to Belarus tourism: It made me want to travel to Belarus.)

Many readers shared these positive reactions, and expressed them in the comments.

Others did not. To me, it felt like this was due to missed nuance, and the subsequent unauthorized translation, appropriation, and politicization of the author’s words. Of course, these are consequences beyond her or my control, and an inherent risk of publishing online.

Regardless, Sonya has requested the opportunity to post a followup essay, and we’re happy to feature her voice again at Matador.

- Hal Amen

* * *

The lie is, of course, that nobody cares about Belarus. In fact, a lot of people — both within and abroad — care very much about the place and its citizens.

I care very much about Belarus.

Last week I published a creative nonfiction piece on Matador Network entitled 6 truths and a lie about Belarus. The piece was observational and the opinions expressed weren’t necessarily my own. Rather, I was recording opinion trends and ideas that I had noticed around me in the past months. Yes, some of these ideas are dark. And some of them feel like a muddy mixture of fact and fiction — some of them might actually be fiction, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t hear them. The piece wasn’t written as investigative journalism, nor was it intended to serve as a sweeping condemnation of life in Belarus. I had no agenda.

But I realize now that to some it looked as if I was trying to capture the entire soul of a nation in seven short vignettes, and for that I apologize. I wasn’t prepared to truly engage with both Western and Belarusian readers; thus, the dialogue was stilted. I hadn’t considered how my words would resonate within the population about which I was writing.

On February 24th a Belarusian oppositional website got a hold of the piece and published it without anyone’s permission. The site re-framed it with a new title, an insulting byline, a Russian translation, and my full name. They ignored my request that the article be taken down immediately. My text had suddenly assumed a life of its own. It was being used by someone else for their agenda — a phenomenon that would be quite interesting to study in a composition theory course, but which is frightening to watch unfold in real-time. In this context especially, many people were angered by my words.

I understand why.

“Why didn’t you write about my Mom’s cookies?” a Belarusian friend asked me after reading the piece. I didn’t have a good answer; her mother makes amazing sugar cookies. Although I’ve preached about the problem of the one-dimensional, sensationalized news story — usually the only story — that the West receives about Belarus, I’m afraid I was guilty of perpetuating that story as well. In my attempt to give the country’s complexities a face or a voice for American readers, I, too, failed to tell the other side of the story.

The backlash to my piece was strong and came from places I hadn’t expected, including from the university at which I teach. People were upset. The university has asked that I write a followup essay to contextualize the original. And, after watching the way my piece reverberated among my Belarusian friends and associates, I understand why they’re encouraging me to do this. In fact, I welcome it as an opportunity to explore the factors surrounding the writing, reading, and reception of my piece both within Belarus and abroad.

As travel writers, we don’t always stop to consider how our writing will be received in-country, since that’s not usually our primary audience. This unfortunate turn of events has forced me to consider it. As an outsider, I didn’t have the foresight to predict that my words would be so politicized, controversial, and consequential inside Belarus. This, I believe, is a paradox of travel writing.

I am not writing now in order to ‘retract’ my original piece. Instead, I am revisiting and reconsidering the ideas that I chose to circulate. In part, I think my words caused recoil because they gave the impression that my time in Belarus has been negative. They only tell one side of the story, and I regret that. Because it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The other side of the story is that a total stranger will help you catch the right marshrutka taxi when you’re lost and late. The other side is when a man selling bright Braeburn apples at Komarovksy Market overhears your accent and is eager to tell you about his son who lives in New York. It’s when a curious, blue-eyed student asks you a pointed and insightful pedagogical question that you had never before considered. It’s when you wake up at 6:00a.m. on the night train from Brest and look out your window to see low pockets of mist and the first glints of dawn light over dachas, goats, and tremendous evergreen forests.

The other side of the story is barbecues in the snow and Friday afternoon vodka around those cozy kitchen tables. It’s three generations living and dying through two nations in one small flat. It’s heavy fur coats, tight French braids, state-owned chocolate factories, and the most delicious pickles from your grandfather’s village. It’s Moscow’s delicate marble skyline on the wall of the metro station in Minsk which makes you pause — for just one moment — to think about history.

It’s pancakes and Forgiveness Sunday at the end of a very bad week.

The other side of the story includes these realities about Belarus. Admittedly, I’m nervous about how my words could be twisted again, but this time I do have an agenda: I want my honesty to facilitate meaningful dialogue. While it’s sometimes hard to tell where fact stops and fiction starts in this country, I’m certain that I care about it.

And that’s the truth.

 


 

About The Author

Sonya Bilocerkowycz

Sonya is currently on a Fulbright grant, teaching English in Belarus. She is an ethnic Ukrainian, originally from South Dakota.

More By This Author

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  • http://miller-david.com david miller

    ‘I think my words caused recoil because they gave the impression that my
    time in Belarus has been negative. They only tell one side of the story,
    and I regret that.’

    this doesn’t seem true: ‘they only tell one side of the story.’

    to me there is a strong subtext of positivity, of caring, or ‘real life’ throughout the entire original piece which, if the reader still isn’t sharp enough to catch, is stated outright (but of course ironically) in the final section of the story, which is the ‘lie’:

    “Good, old Bell-ahh-roos,” Sasha wiped his chin. “Nobody cares about Belarus.”

    what’s being said here (and this is something i can see being totally lost in translation) is that of course we do care about Belarus.

    the narrator, despite all the details, is in fact there, caring about it, working with students and finding, ‘despite their cheeky comments, I loved them. I wanted to learn about their lives.’

    once a piece of work, whether it be an article, a photoessay, or a video attempts to dictate a single emotional response, a ‘side of the story’, it goes from (potential) art to propaganda.

    this is why so much ‘travel writing’ that reduces people, places, and cultures into ‘exotic locales’, or ‘carefree locals’ ends up failing (except as propaganda).

    the original piece felt artful to me because it didn’t suggest a single emotional response but allowed me to access various: interest, concern, sympathy, laughter.

    and as hal said above, it made me want to visit the place.

    it put belarus on the map for me as a real place.

  • Jenia

     We are definitely lacking the freedom of speech and  unfortunately plagiarism
     isn’t taken into account  in our country.  You had written about our reality and those negative responses of the Belorussians  were  the offense of  being revealed negatively AGAIN . We are  trying so hard to find something positive in our gray lives that being reminded about the black sides is painful..    
    But I really think that it is our problem – just to be offended and sit crying about it, to deny and protest the truth or to try to change the story, you’ve told us. Thank you for telling another part of it- it made my day and inspired hope in me.   

  • trampampam

    Sounds like you’re making excuses. The previous was great. Those who understand a bit about living here are 100% agree.

  • http://sparkpunk.com/ Zak

    Hey Sonya, I read the first article in addition to this one, and while I can somewhat see how things could get twisted around, I just wanted to let you know that I, in fact, was really moved by the first piece—Of course, I understood that vignette seven was the lie, but I also thought that the previous six were wonderfully transparent and enriching—I left the article feeling like I had only glimpsed a brushstroke of a beautiful country.

    And you know what I did immediately after finishing the article? The preliminary trifecta of travel planning and research: airfare, lodging, and map-gazing…to Minsk.

    I have to see this place for myself. Thanks for inspiring us.

  • Franz Berkemeier

    It has been a long and adventurous romance of mine to find the beauty in the overlooked.  Artists like Camilo Jose Vergara capture an ineffeble truth in images of rusted filling stations in Gary, Indiana or a neglected building in Detroit.  The art is in the story of the rust and not simply the rust itself. 

    I wonder why a follow-up essay has been asked of the author and artist because I thought that the original collection of stories did just that–captered the story and landed on beauty and truth. Maybe I’ll just have to travel to “good, old Bell – ahh – roos” to find out for myself.

    • Paulvermont2000

      I totally agree. The first piece was an honest and sincere essay precisely because Sonya wrote it without thinking of the repercussions that art and impartial observation can give rise to in a totalitarian society.

      With all due respect I have to say that the apologetically-sounding second piece has ruined that sincerity to a certain extent. As I was reading the first essay I thought to myself: “That’s it – she is probably going to get her visa annulled as soon as Belarusian authorities get wind of this essay.” It looks like I wasn’t too far from the truth – apparently University management is putting her under pressure to retract her essay now.

      Just a word of advice for Sonya – it doesn’t matter that you didn’t tell the other side of the story because the other side of the story is irrelevant for saving the country from implosion. Being spontaneous and sincere you told the reader what struck you most, you spotted desperation and helplessness that are killing my country at this point in time, and hundreds of thousands of better-informed Belarusians were grateful to you for shining that light where there was darkness. You are probably going to come under a lot of pressure now from University management and the authorities but remember that all you offered to the reader was the truth.

  • ABroadWriting

    I know this is “a followup essay to contextualize the original essay,” but together, these also make for a fascinating story about the ethics of travel writing. Thanks for publishing this second piece, Matador. Stay strong, Sonya.

  • BY Friend

    Sonya, be strong, don’t pay attention to what people say especially at the university! All you wrote in the previous piece was absolutely true, except, of course, the last vignette.

  • FishnetsRock

    Meh…next!

  • KarinMarijke

    Sonya, thanks for sharing. I love your 1st (Belarus) piece, and although for me it didn’t need any follow up, I do see how you came to writing it. 

    Of course, some (many) readers see the 1st article for what it is, as e.g. David and Zak explain in their comments. However, not everybody does, and even though you don’t have to understand that / agree with that, I think it it’s to your credit to acknowledge that emotion by writing this 2nd piece. Chapeau.

  • http://www.katiegoingglobal.com/ Katie

    Having visited Belarus for 11 days in January, I was very interested to read your first piece and am saddened to hear how it was twisted and repurposed. I wrote multiple posts on my own blog about my time in Belarus and, as you mention above, I gave more thought than usual to how my writing would be perceived in-country, particularly by those I met while I was there. I discussed my low expectations going into my visit and how most of my fears/worries were unfounded, but I don’t know that I was entirely positive about everything either. To my surprise, one of the travel agents I worked with closely sent me a message saying it was very interesting for her to see her country through a visitor’s eyes.

  • max.t

    Thank you for caring about that country! That’s the most important thing here!

    I guess,
    most of observations made by an outsider about any country would sound somewhat naive or exaggerated to that country’s people. Just by nature.

    After all, it’s not a bunch of hard facts, these are PERSONAL impressions magnified through the prism of some cultural shock, which implies a whole lot of subjectivism.

    Your second essay adds nicely to the whole picture; it’s definitely thought-provoking to see my home country through a foreigner’s eyes.

    Sorry about that plagiarism thing; intellectual property rights are not strong over there:)

    • max.t

      Also, I’d like to add that the author really had had ***tty luck running into a box of bad cookies. That’s highly unlikely, food is OK in Bela-roos :)

  • Philipgavan

    Another nice article, it’s what we call ‘back-pedalling’ in English))
    I think I will visit Belarus and make my own mind up about the country and its people.

  • Lev Murynets

    After getting past the rightful suprise about the near-instant rise of the first article the follow up is a rather lovely picture of people making the most of their existance in Belarus,

    Being an ethnic Ukrainian from London the article touches on many things I noticed while working in Kyiv and travelling around the rest of Ukraine. A two-piece article of this sort would be a rather novel idea on Ukraine, if you’ve been that is.

    Belarus became a lot more real through this article, as before I may have studies it’s history from the Duchy of Pinsk, Turov, Polotsk and more recently the adventures of Bulak Balachowicz while Father had a few Belarusian friends with the White flag with the red stripe as their banner. This reminded me of the time in Kyiv, and is an article I’d recommend to the thoughtful.

  • Lev Murynets

    After getting past the rightful suprise about the near-instant rise of the first article the follow up is a rather lovely picture of people making the most of their existance in Belarus,

    Being an ethnic Ukrainian from London the article touches on many things I noticed while working in Kyiv and travelling around the rest of Ukraine. A two-piece article of this sort would be a rather novel idea on Ukraine, if you’ve been that is.

    Belarus became a lot more real through this article, as before I may have studies it’s history from the Duchy of Pinsk, Turov, Polotsk and more recently the adventures of Bulak Balachowicz while Father had a few Belarusian friends with the White flag with the red stripe as their banner. This reminded me of the time in Kyiv, and is an article I’d recommend to the thoughtful.

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