Phillip Ernest is a Canadian writer with an extraordinary personal history, as even the briefest version of his bio suggests: Born in 1970, Phillip Ernest grew up in New Liskeard, Ontario. Fleeing home at fifteen, he lived on Toronto’s skid row until he was twenty-eight. He learned Sanskrit from the book Teach Yourself Sanskrit, and later earned a BA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and a PhD in Sanskrit from Cambridge University. The Vetala (LLP, 2018) is his first novel. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II is here.
Q&A: Frédérick Lavoie4 September 2018
Frédérick Lavoie’s For Want of a Fir Tree: Ukraine Undone laments the deadly cost of conflict, and is both timely and universal. LLP’s Leila Marshy asked the author a few questions.
LM: The first thing that struck me about For Want of a Fir Tree was its melancholy. I’ve read lots of books and articles about lots of conflicts, but rare is the one that captures the aching sadness that accompanies them. Can you talk about that?
FL: Sadness did indeed overshadow all other feelings I had while covering the conflict in Ukraine and continued while I was writing this book. I was sad to see people killing each other. This might sound naive, and it is, actually. But as the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote, “there are no questions more urgent/ than the naive ones." Listening to our inner naiveté is useful sometimes in order to go back to what’s essential. I wasn’t oblivious of course of the reasons each side claimed to have to take weapons and fight. I tried to explain that in detail in the book. But I wanted my readers to remember that beyond all these political, historical or personal justifications, innocent people were dying, and nothing could actually justify this at the end.
You begin the story of the Ukraine conflict with the death of a child. We can’t help but also think of little Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy found dead on a Mediterranean beach. And in each case, the death became a kind of cause célèbre. What is it about the death of a child that galvanizes reaction, even shames us?
In wartime or time of crisis, most people end up taking sides. We tend to rationalize irrational arguments, demonize the other side. Neither Artyom nor Alan had anything to do with the decisions made by their parents nor with those made by the political leaders of their countries. Some people might find it possible to rationalize the death of an adult who had decided to stay in a warzone despite the danger, or one who entered into a perilous journey across land and sea to flee that warzone. But no one could ever pretend that a three or four-year-old child is responsible in any way for his or her death in such a situation. So, it becomes impossible to escape our direct or indirect responsibility in their death. In Artyom’s case, both sides were partly responsible. The pro-Russian separatists had knowingly installed their artillery in the neighbourhood where Artyom and his family were living. The Ukrainian Army had then fired on the neighbourhood to destroy the separatists' artillery, knowing that there could very well be collateral damage, as their firing being very imprecise. Artyom’s death thus became a very good example of the criminal indifference to human life on the part of both sides in this conflict. Unfortunately, there are many other examples of this. I tell a few stories in the book in which sometimes the roles are reversed between the Ukrainian army and the separatist forces.
You have been reporting and writing from around the world for many years now. Why were you drawn to Ukraine?
During my years as a freelance correspondent in Moscow between 2008 and 2012, I was in Ukraine a few times, covering different topics. From the moment the protests started on Independence Square in Kyiv in November 2013, I wanted to go back there. I found the time to do that in January 2015, when I stayed for a whole month, travelling across the country. I went not only close to the front line, but also to places where the war was only a distant reality. I wanted to draw as complete a picture as possible of the impact of the conflict on Ukrainians’ lives. I am not a war reporter, and I don’t want to be one. I decided to cover this conflict because I knew the country before the war, when it was at peace, which is useful when trying to understand how it went from one stage to the other.
At one point, you write, “We drink, we laugh, we dance. The bombardments outside the window force us to live as best we can.” It reminds me of how people coped during the Lebanese civil war. Is this delirium? Or is it life at its most determined?
Life at its most determined. I was a bit surprised to realize how I could function more or less normally in a war zone, how I was keeping a clear head in spite of everything. Even though I was obviously moved by what I would see and experience – and especially by Artyom’s death – these were not my personal tragedies. That said, constantly hearing bombardments was a reminder that it was possible that I, too, could also become a victim of the conflict. Which was one more reason to appreciate life and, at times, let myself go and have fun for a few hours.
Were you ever afraid? Considering the risks you took, is this kind of reporting really worth it?
I was scared at times, yes. And I am glad I was. It would have been even more scary if I'd forgotten that need to save my own life. One day in Mariupol, I decided to go to a neighbourhood that had been bombed a few hours before, and the bombardments started up when I got there. The rockets fell further away, thankfully, and nothing happened to me. I was nevertheless angry at myself for risking going to this neighbourhood. I didn’t want to risk my life. But as a journalist, curiosity sometimes prompted me to cross limits I had set for my own safety.
What can we learn from conflicts like this?
There are around one million Canadians of Ukrainian heritage, so this conflict rings close to home. Since the release of the book in French, I have had many conversations with Ukrainians both here and in Ukraine. Some have accused me of creating propaganda for Russia because I depict a situation slightly more complex than a simple Russian invasion of Ukraine. Don’t get me wrong. As I make it clear in the book, Vladimir Putin did invade Crimea and did support the separatist rebels in Donbas. He is still doing so, as we speak. But I thought it was important, as well, to point out the internal factors in Ukraine itself that ultimately allowed Putin to take advantage of the situation. As I say in the book: “The revolution had resulted in Ukraine losing its balance. The country was divided more than ever. Irreparable moves had been made. Citizens had died. Violence had been used as a political weapon. What the country needed was a national dialogue, hands held out, a calming. The days to come would be crucial. But what everyone, at that precise moment, wanted above all, was to be right. Sadly […], in great moments, people often show themselves to be very small.”
Where are you going next? Are you planning other books?
The book I am currently working on is about Bangladesh. I went twice last year to report – as a journalist – on different water issues in this very peculiar country, which is among the nations most affected by climate change and natural disasters. It is also a country that has taken big steps out of poverty since independence in 1971. During these trips, I gathered much more material than I could fit into the newspaper articles I wrote. I'm now looking for a way to turn this journalistic material into a book, as I did with For Want of a Fir Tree.
Frédérick Lavoie's first book in English, For Want of a Fir Tree: Ukraine Undone is translated by Donald Winkler (LLP, 2018), $19.95. His most recent book, Avant l'après. Voyages à Cuba avec George Orwell is shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction.
© 2018, Leila Marshy
Montreal writer Leila Marshy was editor of the online culture journal Rover Arts. She founded the Friends of Hutchison Street, a groundbreaking community group bringing Hasidic and non-Hasidic neighbours together in dialogue. The author of stories and poetry that have appeared in Canadian and American journals and anthologies, she published her first novel, The Philistine (LLP), in Spring, 2018.