Belarus Revisited: Fallout From Transparent Travel Writing

by Sonya Bilocerkowycz Mar 2, 2012

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.

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