The Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic tells the story of a city under siege from an occupying force, and the steps the citizens to fight back. It also portrays the experience of watching conflict from a safe distance—something many Americans have experienced this week as images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine flood our social feeds and televisions. I emailed with Kaminsky this week about what he hopes readers take from his work, how the Ukrainian sense of humor has influences images of resistance, and the newly heroic Volodymyr Zelensky.
Slate: Earlier this week your poem “We Lived Happily During the War” went semi-viral online. What was it like to suddenly have a whole new audience encounter this work, divorced from its context as the opening poem in your book Deaf Republic?
Ilya Kaminsky: “Deaf Republic” opens when a deaf boy is shot by a soldier from an invading army in a public square. The whole community decides to protest this murder by refusing to hear the authorities. The townspeople coordinate with each other by sign language. In the midst of this violence, people still fall in love, laugh, make children.
I grew up watching the collapse of USSR and the war in Transnistria—Russia’s first so-called “humanitarian aid” campaign, which was very similar to the current war in Ukraine, though less well publicized. Then I came to USA, where for 12 years I have lived only 8 miles from US/Mexico border. It was not unusual to have your car stopped and searched for people trying to cross the border, or to see people being taken away in ICE vans. And of course the police brutality against Black and brown people has been such a hugely visible and important issue, finally, in the past few years.
So, as the author, a living human, I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities between images of violence caused by this empire—violence taking place here in this country—and images of violence in Eastern Europe. And at the same time, there is happiness. People fall in love, laugh, make children.
Beginning with the poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” which is heavy with irony about the greatness of our capitalist nation, shows a different kind of so-called happiness, the happiness of living with our backs turned—ignorant bliss. The poem is meant to serve as a wake-up call; to prevent people from reading “Deaf Republic” as a tragedy of elsewhere. Deaf Republics, with their hopes, protests, and complicities, are everywhere. We live in the Deaf Republic.