With Volha Hapeyeva and Ronya Othmann – Poetry – a means of survival

Belarusian Volha Hapeyeva has been living in Germany for two years. Because of his critical views on the regime, he became a target of the Belarusian secret services. He writes novels, children’s books and poetry. Her latest volume of poetry, Mutantengarten, is the second book she has translated into German, along with the prose volume Camel Travel. In 2020 he was a municipal employee in Graz. Today he lives in Munich as a fellow of the PEN program “Writers in Exile”. Her publishing house was closed in Belarus. At the moment she sees no possibility of publishing in her home country.

ambiguous situation

Hapeyeva’s volume of poetry “Mutant Garden” is a collection of poems written partly in Belarus and partly in Austria. In her essay “The Defense of Poetry in Times of Permanent Exile” she describes what it means to live and write in exile, “trying on new costumes again and again.” She describes her life situation as ambiguous. It is exhausting to live in another language all the time. On the other hand, there are far more opportunities for writers here in Germany than ever back home.

mutated garden

slower than other instruments
the heart regenerates
full update
it never succeeds
says the instruction manual
This means
I think so
everyone who’s in stays in
perhaps the left part of a body wears out
someone loses face
and grows new
languages ​​will be mixed
such as years and names
my mutant garden
where we lost each other

(Volha Hapeyeva)

Ronya Othmann says of her colleague Volha Hapeyeva’s poems: “These poems bear little resemblance to prose. The lyrics contain little stories.”

he remembers and says

Escape and exile are also themes of Ronya Othmann. He was born in Munich. Othman has a German mother and a Kurdish-Yezidi father. Her debut ‘Die Sommer’ tells the story of Leyla, who grew up in Germany and spends the summers with her father’s family in a Kurdish village in Syria. The civil war in Syria and the killing of Yazidis by the so-called Islamic State is described based on a family history. Othman did not experience the Yazidi genocide himself, but he knows the stories from relatives. He had already started writing the novel before the Yazidi genocide. At first he wrote only about the village:

“When the protests against the Assad regime started in Syria, I was still at school. These protests were associated with hope. Like the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But then the Islamist groups became stronger and the violence culminated in genocide. Everyone tried to leave the country, better today than tomorrow. Then it was not possible to write about anything else. Because it also became clear to me that the Yazidi life I had known as a child would no longer exist. I started writing about small everyday tasks like baking bread. Little by little, the novel was created.”

“Crimes” is the name of her poetry for the first time and the sufferings of the Yazidis are also reflected in the poems.

Poetry in times of crisis

Othmann’s texts are about memory and narrative. In almost all of his poems, Othman works with a you. “You’re wider than me,” he says. “It can be me, it can be a monologue, a dialogue with someone walking away, many things. You are something anyone could be.”

cardamom, turmeric, walnut, indigo

in the carpet museum, almost at home
kilim fragment, the tulips fibers out.
the yellows, the flowers.
what is your hand holding, a stitch,
a sting, this conditioned silence,
that swallows centuries, intertwined
on a thread of ink until someone comes along,
untie the knots and tell the scorpions
on your skin, under your lips
Sun, you read the plants on earth,
on the axis the thread, on your face
the tattoo.
seven summers you cried, thistle
gather, sheared sheep, you have
all your carpets left behind, inside
the stranger you are the stranger.
you have knotted mountains that unravel,
in oak gall, dyer’s rouge, saffron, where
you walk as if among trees in your garden.

(Ronia Othman)

Volha Hapeyeva says of Othmann’s poetry: “I am impressed. To me, these poems have something of carpets that are tied together.’

internal exile

The motif of farewell and loss of home connects many of the poems of the two authors. Volha Hapeyeva dedicated one of her new poems to her hometown, Minsk, which she had to leave.

my dark dark city
under the black blanket of my thoughts
in a steamy cold cloud of basalt
he is waiting – for my return
he doesn’t say a word
walks away indifferently
I’m sure I’ll be back
in the orbit of my melancholy
guilt hurts
which is so familiar that it seems the only thing possible
to take me home to mine
dark dark city

(Volha Hapeyeva)

And Ronya Othmann also describes in her poem “I want to kiss every bird goodbye again” a landscape of memories and melancholy about saying goodbye to home.

I want to kiss every bird goodbye one more time

before you go to the mountains
my sister, study up there
you recreate your language, you borrow the syllables
you from dragonflies, grammar,
the one between your shoulder blades
it sits and hurts, you take it off,
you learn from snakes, the higher
you rise where the sun rises over the rocks
it licks like a wound.

(Ronia Othman)

Poems as a portable home

Ronya Othmann says: “Especially in times of war and crisis, poems are important. You urgently need them as reading material, they can also be comforting. Poetry can become a kind of portable home.” And Volha Hapeyeva adds: “Poetry helps us remain human.”

Both authors work with different genres. Ronya Othmann regularly publishes the ‘Import Export’ column in FAZ. She needs more preparation time for her lyrics and prose and collects material only over a longer period of time. Volha Hapeyeva adds that the brain works differently depending on what you write. “The poems are short and focused. It just takes a lot longer to do prose.”

Like peeling an onion

“You can say a lot in novels that you can’t express in poetry and vice versa,” explains Othmann. In her view, there is no literary form in which everything can be said. He wrote the novel and the poems at the same time.

“Writing prose is like peeling an onion,” explains Volha Hapeyeva: “You try to tell the story layer by layer. And in poetry it’s like trying to downplay the obvious a bit – and create mysteries.”

Poetry is more linguistically concentrated and therefore more difficult to translate, adds Ronya Othmann.

Ronya Othmann: “the crimes”, Carl Hanser Verlag 2021. 112 pp., 20 euros.

Volha Hapeyeva: “Mutant Garden”, Tanhäuser Publishing, 2020. Translated from Belarusian by Matthias Göritz, Martina Jakobson and Uljana Wolf. With pen and ink drawings by Christian Thanhäuser. 140 pages, 24 euros

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