Books and bias: Why the latest wave of d ...

Books and bias: Why the latest wave of denying Ukrainians agency feels so intensely person

Jun 18, 2023

Almost three years ago I had my eldest child. The world around me was a far better and safer place than it is now, and yet I felt overwhelmed and anxious to the point that I started questioning reality and the way I perceived it. Everything — even the most mundane of tasks — seemed like an impossible challenge filled with danger. Whenever I’d feed my baby, my imagination would immediately conjure up images of him choking, and I’d have to re-watch a video on infant CPR just to shake the vision. Whenever we’d go for a walk in a nearby park, I’d be haunted by horrifying imaginary scenarios to the point where I found myself standing in the middle of the street, paralysed by fear and with tears streaming down my face. In those weeks and months, made even more confusing and bleak by constant sleep deprivation, books were my constant companion and a welcome distraction from the all-encompassing anxiety I felt. Out of all the purchases I made during the early days of motherhood, my Audible subscription was definitely one of the more useful ones (an assortment of gadgets promising to somehow entertain my newborn were decidedly less helpful). Whenever I felt myself on the brink of another panic attack, I’d will my brain to focus on whatever book I had recently purchased. 

Almost three years (and a good therapist) later, I found myself in the maternity hospital once again. And although I was better equipped to deal with my anxiety this time (thank god for Zoloft!), the world was a decidedly more threatening place. I spent part of the night before my C-section huddled in the hospital’s makeshift bomb shelter, a cold basement filled with other expectant mothers and worried, overtired nurses. Outside, drones exploded in the sky, blasts of fire illuminating the empty hospital corridors. If you listened carefully, you’d hear gunfire as soldiers attempted to shoot the drones down, and even cheers from especially brave onlookers who’d ventured onto their balconies to sneak a peek at the deadly machines flying through the night sky.

The next few nights weren’t much different, only then I was also dealing with a newborn, worrying about how my toddler was dealing with all of this, and trying to recover from my second c-section. The pain made it too difficult to hobble down to the basement each time the air raid siren went off (and I hated asking for asking the kindly nurses for even more help), so I’d usually spend the air raids sitting in a secluded and mostly windowless corridor, hoping the two sets of walls would be enough to shield me from possible debris. I was tired, slightly delirious, weepy from all the hormones flooding my body, and anxious beyond measure. And, once again, I turned to books for comfort. 

The first book I downloaded once I renewed my Audible subscription was Rebecca Makkai’s thriller I Have Some Questions For You. I found it hard to sympathise with the self-important protagonist (especially when the book got to her questionable views of who counts as a victim and who doesn’t), but the themes the book brought up were relevant and intriguing. Is cancel culture real? Are we quick to judge others based on the incomplete portrait we gather from social media? And anyway, the narrator’s voice was a welcome distraction from screaming babies, air raid sirens and far-off explosions. 

When Elizabeth Gilbert announced her plans to publish a book set it Soviet Siberia on Twitter a mere month later, I was mildly annoyed but not really surprised. The idea of portraying Siberia — a land which hundreds of thousands of families associate with deeply personal tragedies — as an exotic, almost magical wilderness seemed distasteful, especially after a month of singularly intense nighttime attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. And yet it was nothing new. Even as the war rages on, Russian culture with all of its deeply-rooted imperialism remains as popular and as immune to criticism as ever. 

What was new, however, was Elizabeth Gilbert’s response to the dozens of saddened comments from her Ukrainian readers. Whether in a display of sincere empathy or a desire to avoid scandal, the writer announced that she would be postponing the book’s release. After a year of feeling like western authors were more likely to block their Ukrainian fans on social media than they were to engage in honest conversation, many of my social media mutuals were genuinely happy to hear this. And make no mistake — the mutuals in question are people I know and respect in offline life, too. They are outspoken activists, journalists, publishers or even writers themselves. Although these days most of them have devoted their online presences to writing about the war, in other circumstances they’d probably be doing anything else rather than arguing about politics with westerners on social media. 

But if Elizabeth Gilbert’s decision to postpone the book’s release was a mildly pleasant surprise, then what followed can only be described as a shitstorm. As missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities, English-speaking authors of various calibres took to Twitter to voice their displeasure at Gilbert’s decision — and to mock and harass Ukrainians in the process. Previously well-respected outlets such as LitHub published opinion pieces speculating that Ukrainian users of GoodReads were ‘suspicious’. After all, they were writing reviews in English! Rebecca Mikkai — the same author that had brought me at least some comfort just over a month back — wrote a gargantuan thread in which she ridiculed the very idea that an author should show their readers empathy, exaggerating the presence of ‘cancel-culture’ to extremes and claiming that the people thanking Gilbert for her decision just wanted a reason to be offended at something. 

Joyce Carol Oates (who had previously taken to Twitter to voice an odd conspiracy theory based on the fact that photos from Ukraine have more cats than dogs in them) claimed that the Ukrainians interacting with Gilbert obviously ‘did not read anything at all’ and did not buy books. Other authors chimed in, too, and so did their readers. They accused Ukrainians writing about their experiences in English of being bots and online bullies — even though it was western journalists who wrote scathing opinion pieces with titles like ‘Live, Laugh, Cringe’ and outright demanded that Gilbert publish her novel without delay. No amount of polite attempts to disagree worked — in fact, many of us found ourselves trying to prove the very fact of our existence to the condescending people we’d once seen as intelligent and empathetic. 

Ukrainians are no strangers to feeling dehumanised: just as the Russian empire once denied the existence of our language and ethnicity, modern-day pundits on Russian TV claim that we are not a real people. But while being dehumanised by Solovyov and his peers feels like being cussed-out by a drunken, obviously unwell stranger on the street, being blocked and ridiculed by people we looked up to feels… well, like being ridiculed by people we looked up to. There’s something uniquely surreal about sharing views on almost every subject with someone, appreciating their stance on most crucial issues, admiring their work from afar, and then coming to realise that they do not, in fact, see you as human. Over the past two weeks I’ve come across multiple columns written by western journalists portraying people like myself as faceless trolls (or, better yet, a ‘sheltered virtue signaling idiots’). These columns were well-written, sardonic, and obviously penned by smart, well-educated people. They were also some of the worst-researched writing I’ve seen, with century-long oppression and genocide being downplayed as ‘a reshuffling of borders’ and even the dates of the ongoing full-scale invasion we’re currently living through were somehow messed up. Whenever I tried engaging with the authors to argue my viewpoint, I was either ignored, harassed or instantly blocked. Joyce Carol Oates, for one, blocked me for sharing her own quote about how reading encourages empathy, and daring to ask why that empathy was not extended to Ukrainians such as myself. Another one of the so-called ‘trolls and bots who do not read books’ was blocked for sharing a photo of herself holding one of Oates’ own books as proof that Ukrainians do, in fact, exist, and that aren’t quite the illiterate savages we’ve been made out to be. 

It is bad enough to feel dehumanised by an enemy, but being treated as sub-human (or, better yet, as a fictional construct) by people calling themselves your allies is another thing entirely. Now I’ll have to spend precious time checking my reading list for authors who’ve written especially heinous things about Ukrainians online — after all, how could a faceless bot offer them real money?

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