“Language is my life”

She is one of the leading voices in contemporary Belarusian literature: the poems by Volha Hapeyeva, a poet, author and translator with a doctorate in linguistics who was born in Minsk, have been translated into more than 15 languages. She has been living in exile since 2020 and is currently a fellow of the DAAD’s Artists-in-Berlin program.

Issue 1 | 2023

Interview: Gunda Achterhold

After spending a year as Writer of the City of Graz, you were warned by friends not to return to Belarus. Ever since, you have lived in various places, including Munich and Krems. What influence have all these relocations had on your work, and also on the way you engage with language?

Hapeyeva: Almost all of my poems are the result of real-life stories. I write about things that happen to me, about what I feel, and where I live. This alternative lifestyle, with no fixed abode, has also become a leitmotif in my texts. Although very tiring, it has taught me not to become so attached to places and things, to be more free. That is a very Buddhist view (laughs). I pay a high price for this because I have no security and never know what the next step will be. It is an extreme experience. But it teaches me to see many things differently, to gain a different perspective. That is why I am working so much with the terms nomadism, homeland and language just now.

You describe yourself as a “nomad”. What do you mean by that?

Hapeyeva: Words like exile, refugee or migrant are only rele­vant in the context of a state, and I do not like these terms. To me, “nomad” sounds more like a voluntary journey – even if that is of course a problematic concept if one doesn’t have the right passport. I have started to call wherever I am – be it a hotel room or a friend’s spare room – my home. I have become accustomed to this through my many years of ­travelling.

Can language be a homeland?

Hapeyeva: I only recently experienced just how much language is part of our identity. For the last six months I had mainly spoken German and English – and Belarusian only with a few people on the phone. And then my mum came to visit me and I spoke my native language with her in my everyday life. Afterwards I felt grounded again! It was as if I had previously been in a vacuum. Until 2019 my life took place in Belarusian and Russian. Then, no longer having this connection, it was as if my former life had never existed at all.

“As a linguist one is always immersed in language, thinking about words and viewing them as a phenomenon.”

And yet in your essay “A Defence of Poetry in Times of Perpetual Exile” you describe poetry, not language, as being your true home.

Hapeyeva: Language is also a home. But it is a home that can be taken away if for ex­ample one no longer has the chance to speak to anyone in one’s own language. That is why I feel that poetry is my true home. It is always in you. And it stands for humanity and empathy, characteristics that are so essential to human existence. What is more, it is varied! Poetry can be so much fun – like sound poetry that plays with sounds and fragments of words, for instance. But it can also be a means of protest in difficult times. A means of survival for those who need support at tragic moments in their lives. When language, which can at times be so full of hatred and aggression, enters the realm of poetry, something happens to it. For me, that’s magic, in a good sense.

Language is not only your in­strument of poetry. As a translator with a doctorate in linguistics, you engage with language on many different levels. In ­connection with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, you translated letters from prisoners, contracts and documents at an early stage. How does all of this fit together?

Hapeyeva: Language is my life. As a linguist one is constantly immersed in language, thinking about words and viewing them as a phenomenon. That’s nice, but it can also become compulsive. And if one then uses at least four languages in one’s daily life, one sometimes needs a bit of a rest from language. That’s why I took up painting a few years ago. It helps me clear my head and find other ways of expressing myself.

What sparked this passion for language?

Hapeyeva: I was born in 1982 and spent my childhood in the Soviet Union. There was a shortage of everything, we were all very poor, and children had little in the way of toys. Words were our capital, so we played lots of games related to language. “Broken telephone”, for ex­ample – that was the most fun. One person would whisper something into their neighbour’s ear, who would then whisper it to the next person, and by the end the message would have become completely distorted. I also played a lot with words with my mother, like when we were travelling by bus. Then I would say: “Mum, give me a word, and I will turn it into a poem for you,” or we would create compound words. I mostly spent my summer holidays with my grandparents and aunts in the countryside, which I describe in my novel “Camel Travel”. All of them were teachers, of Belarus­ian, Russian, French and German. There were no children of my age there, so I would spend the entire three months with books in different languages. And in ­nature. Books and nature were my friends there.

How do you work, and in which situations are you most creative?

Hapeyeva: I work in different ways – for instance I always have a lot of thoughts when I’m on a train. The motion is very important for me. It doesn’t always result in a poem, but then perhaps in an idea for a poem. Once I saw some birds at the top of a tree, and the first line of a poem that I wanted to write popped into my mind. Often my poems are triggered by some external impetus. Others are like research projects. For a poem like “drink, my girl, drink”, which addresses centuries-old abortion methods, I research and read a great deal. I can read three, four or five books just to write one line … (laughs). That’s why I am a poor prose writer.

Do you still write in Belarusian?

Hapeyeva: Belarusian was always my poetry language, ­never Russian, even though people in Belarus use Russian very often in their daily lives. As Writer of the City of Graz, I began in 2019 to write some things in German; poems and short essay-like texts work pretty well. Just recently I started working on a new novel and attempting to write some of the passages directly in German. I recently asked Matthias Göritz, who translates my texts into German, how to best express a particular word. He just said: “Volha, if you want to write prose, you must think in paragraphs, not in words!” But I am a poet, I think in words. Which is why I write novels very, very slowly. —

Video portrait of Volha Hapeyeva

Dr Volha Hapeyeva has won numerous prizes and awards for her work, most recently the Rotahorn literary prize (2021) and the Wortmeldungen literary prize (2022). Her two volumes of poetry “Trapezherz” (2023) and “Mutantengarten” (2020), her novel “Camel Travel” (2021) and her essay “Die Verteidigung der Poesie in Zeiten dauernden Exils” (2022) have been translated into German. “Mutantengarten” has been translated into English as “In My Garden of Mutants” (2021).

Artists-in-Berlin Program

The DAAD’s Artists-in-Berlin Program is one of the most highly regarded residence programmes for international art and culture professionals in the areas of fine arts, film, literature and music & sound. Each year, it honours around 20 outstanding fellows, providing them with funding for a residence stay in Berlin. The invitation enables the fellows to devote themselves to their artistic thoughts, activities and research without any pressure to produce. Encounters with other art and culture professionals generate transdisciplinary perspectives and trigger reciprocal learning processes.