At the annual 'Paschal Joy' festival that finished in the latter half of this April, Tatyana Dashkevich is a regular participant. Together with our monastics and friends of the Convent, she contributes to our educational and cultural events. Tatyana is a known Russian and Belarusian poet and fiction writer, a firm Orthodox believer, mother of two sweet children. As she is looking for meaning in her life, she writes for others and helps them find meaning in their lives. What impact should a writer's works have on the reader, and how does faith affect a writer's approach to her works? We asked Tatyana to reflect on these questions in our interview.
As a participant in the 'paschal joy' festival this year, you presented to its guests your literary project called "Wartime children", interviewing and writing about Belarusians who were children during World War 2. What kind of relevance do these stories have to our present lives?
From a fiction writer's perspective, one of the best ways to explore a character is to set the narration in some extreme context, such as war. My colleagues in the West also use this strategy extensively, and apocalypse story plots are still very common in Western literature and film. However, these stories are mostly fictional, while mine is not. I tell true histories of real people who experienced World War 2 in Belarus as children. In the harsh circumstances of the war, my heroes' integrity - and their very humanity - was put to a severe test. All of them have endured it with dignity and honour.
In my stories, I talk about genuine love. I show loyalty and truthfulness that trump the interests of daily survival. I give examples of strong faith and spirituality. During the occupation, the Nazis allowed the churches to open, hoping to win the loyalty of Belarusians. The people went to church and prayed. But this did not help the enemy in any way. There are no compromises with God's truth.
My heroes are not from the past. They are heroes of our times. Our life still throws up many sorrows and puts our endurance to the test. The world's future is looking increasingly uncertain, and there is no way to know what new trials and misfortunes lie in store for us. My stories about the wartime children invite the reader to ask themselves if they still have the grits to stand up for their human dignity as my heroes did. We have come to value comfort and convenience more than we used to, but our hearts still in the right place? Do we still remember that our foremost life achievement is not to plant a tree or build a house, but to cultivate our souls?
As I saw during the festival, these questions still resonate strongly with my readers. My work as a writer has not been futile. My father, who was the first person I interviewed for the project, came to the festival and spoke at my presentation. His performance made an impression. A woman approached me after his talk and volunteered to be interviewed for my book.
The wartime children project explores individual human fates. One of your best-known books about the Soviet wartime poet Alexey Fatyanov is also a biography. What are opportunities does this genre open to a writer?
Exploring and writing about individual life experience have always fascinated me, and my interest in writing biographies is strongly connected with my faith. According to God's plan, each of us has a great destiny - to reach sanctity and to achieve unity with God. In my biographical works, I describe the progress of my heroes towards this ambitious goal. I take this approach in my Wartime Children stories and my biographical book on Alexey Fatyanov. From the same perspective, I wrote the biographies of some of the new saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Blessed Valentina of Minsk, Archimandrite Serafim (Tyapochkin), and the Venerable Saint John of Ruza.
Many people believe that the ordinary person is so remote from the ideal of sanctity that trying to reach out for it is not worth the attempt. To justify this position, some like to repeat, "I am not a saint." With my biographical works, I refute these views. I call on everyone to treat sainthood as an ambitious but realistic objective. The example of the saints of the distant past and more recent times prove this point very well.
In one of my books, I narrate the life of Father Serafim (Tyapochkin) who spent fifteen years in prison through no fault of his own. Most people in his place would be embittered and angered with their fates. But Father Serafim was different. He did not seek to restore justice, he sought love. He prayed for it, and it grew in him. With his love, he changed the lives of many people and performed multiple miracles. My books are more than a biography, they give us examples of the actions that all of us can take to advance to sanctity.
Nowadays, when reading has become so uncommon, how can a writer reach the hearts and minds of their audiences?
Admittedly, people nowadays are reading fiction and especially poetry much less than they used to. This trend is most unfortunate. It is happening in Belarus and most other places around the world.
Yet we are all living in very interesting times, amid some exciting events. Many of us have something to say - and write - to others. Building on my experience as a writer of biographies, I have launched a project called a story of my life to help interested people write literary biographies about themselves. It is a good way for people to make sense of their lives, to find their voice and expand their horizons. My students have already published two books, and a third one is awaiting publication.
Through my work with adolescents, I also discover the power of literature to build character and promote personal growth. Children and adolescents nowadays are too short of choices for meaningful activities. Literary writing has great potential in this regard. It gives adolescents and youth a chance to be heard. As I teach them literary writing, I encourage them to write in different genres - novels, poetry and many others. By practising a variety of writing forms, they build their individuality. Some have chosen literature as their profession.
How has your relationship with the Convent helped you reach out to more of your potential readers?
Our friendship with the Convent has lasted many years and helped me expand my readership, touch their hearts, and also gave me new friends. The Convent's publishing centre had published many of my books. As a participant in the Convent's initiative "Treasury of Talents", I have travelled with talks and concerts to many cities in Russia and Belarus. One important outcome of our partnership is our daily video programme "Little beacon" addressed to children and young people and available to our Russian-speaking audiences through the Convent's youtube channel. Every week, we tell our young viewers a magical and inspiring bedtime story. I write the scripts and the stories, and I value greatly every minute spent in contact with our young viewers.
Just as the Convent has helped me reach out to people's hearts and minds, I have also helped some members of the broader monastic community pursue their projects and creative initiatives. I have led a writer's club and worked at the Blessed Heavens workshops. I have also participated extensively in the Convent's festivals such as Paschal Joy. In all of my initiatives, I have felt the support and intercession of the Convent's patron saint, Elisabeth Romanov.
Which of your works is your favourite, and what message does it bring to the reader?
For many writers, their most precious work is their latest one. One of my most favourite works is my recent song called "Expectations". Unlike my other writings, centred on the past or present, this work talks about my expectations for the future. Many people see their future with anxiety, but my future is bright. It is filled with hope and faith. My best dreams and hopes are fulfilled in it - of love, children, and certainly an everlasting life in God. I hope that my readers will come to share my expectations of the future and see their best dreams and hopes materialise.
By Alexander Piskunov and Yan Malov
Photos from Tatyana Dashkevich's personal archive
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