German Book Trade’s Peace Prize: Ukraine’s Serhiy Zhadan

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Peace Prize board praises Serhiy Zhadan for his illumination of wartime conflict and his humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

Serhiy Zhadan, in his appearance on April 16 in a Kharkiv bomb-shelter release party for his translation into Ukrainian of Adam Mansbach’s 2011 ‘Go the F*ck to Sleep.’ Image: Provided by Vivat Publishing, Serhiy Bobok

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Unique Language’
The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade this morning (June 27) has announced that the Ukrainian author, poet, translator, and musician Serhiy Zhadan will receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on “Frankfurt Sunday” at the conclusion of Frankfurter Buchmesse, October 23 in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche, the Church of St. Paul.

The honor carries a purse of €25,000 (US$26,451) and has as its key criterion “an important contribution to peace, humanity, and understanding among peoples.”  The Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga was the winner of the 2021 prize, and you can see a retrospective on all the program’s winners here.

In announcing the decision today, Schmidt-Friderichs is quoted, saying, “We honor this Ukrainian author and musician for his outstanding artistic work as well as for his unequivocal humanitarian stance, which repeatedly motivates him to risk his own life to help people affected by war and thus to call greater attention to their plight.

Karin Schmidt-Friderichs

“In his novels, essays, poems and lyrics, Serhiy Zhadan introduces us to a world that has experienced radical change yet continues to live on tradition. His stories illustrate how war and destruction enter into this world and turn people’s lives upside down. Throughout his entire oeuvre, he uses a unique language that provides us with a vivid and differentiated portrait of the reality that many of us chose to disregard for far too long.

“Thoughtfully and with the precision of a true listener, in a poetic and radical tone, Serhiy Zhadan reveals how the people of Ukraine defy the violence around them, striving instead to lead independent lives rooted in peace and freedom.”

Earlier this month, Zhadan won the EBRD Literature Prize from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development with translators Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler for his book The Orphanage from Yale University Press (February 2021). And he won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in 2010 for his novel Voroshilovgrad.

Zhadan is an activist in Ukrainian nationalism, a part of the Red Thistle literary group, and co-founder of a foundation created to provide humanitarian to Ukrainians in the Donbas. He has at least a dozen books of poetry out, and has translated poetry from German, English, Belarusian, and Russian. He writes in Ukrainian. He also has written lyrics for rock bands and has been the singer with the Ukrainian band Sobaki v kosmosi (Dogs in Space) since 2007.

As you may recall, when Kharkiv’s Vivat Publishing, led by CEO Julia Orlova, launched a translation of  the American writer Adam Mansbach’s 2011 Go the F*ck to Sleep (Akashic Books) in a bomb-shelter celebration on April 16, Zhadan was at the event, details and images were provided to Publishing Perspectives by the publishing house’s chief communications officer Galina Padalko.

‘Intensive Social and Cultural Activism’

Serhiy Zhadan, from Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, is, in the Peace Prize’s rationale provided to the news media, “one of the most important, innovative and best-known voices in contemporary Ukrainian literature.”

He studied literature as well as Ukrainian and German studies in Kharkiv and received his doctorate with a thesis on Ukrainian futurism in 1996. From the early 1990s, he has played a role in Kharkiv’s cultural scene, organizing literary and music festivals and publishing novels, poems, short stories and essays.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Zhadan has been active in a number of social and cultural projects in the partially occupied (by pro-Russian separatists) eastern Ukraine. Indeed, his most recent novel, The Orphanage, for which he and his translators have won the EBRD Literature Prize, is called by the Peace Prize board, “a convincing account of the conflict in Donbas. A teacher travelling through the war zone in a dense fog repeatedly gets caught between the front lines and is ultimately confronted with the question of whether one can remain neutral in times of war.”

Titled Internat (Suhrkamp, 2018), the German translation of the novel by Juri Durkot and Sabine Stöhr was awarded the top prize for translation at the Leipzig Book Fair that year in its year of publication, 2018.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, Zhadan stepped up his own efforts to provide humanitarian aid to the affected regions.

“In his early literary works,” the Peace Prize board writes, Zhadan “undertakes an exploration of the upheavals associated with the post-Soviet era.”

His third novel, Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass (The Invention of Jazz in the Donbas, Surhkamp, 2012, translated by Durkot and Stöhr) “functions as a kind of ‘road novel’ set in the Donbas industrial region,” the board writes, “to which the author lends a poetic charge by means of surreal elements and an anarchic narrative style, thereby providing a backdrop for the quest to find some kind of home in a world of increasingly dissolving frontiers.”

The Ukrainian BBC, the board reports, chose that work as its “Book of the Decade.”

Zhadan’s books have been translated into numerous languages and have received a number of international prizes, including the Brücke Berlin Award for Literature and Translation and the Vasyl Stus Prize from the Ukrainian PEN Centre.

In 2017, Zhadan launched the Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation, which works to support educational and cultural initiatives in eastern Ukraine and is flagged by the Peace Prize board as “an example of the author’s intensive social and cultural activism, which he stepped up even further in the wake of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine.”

Zhadan reportedly remains in hard-hit Kharkiv, where he organizes concerts, rescues civilians from gunfire and shelling, gives poetry readings, and distributes aid in the city.

His recent articles have focused attention on the situation in Ukraine and on how citizens are struggling to maintain daily routines amid Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault on the nation.

Serhiy Zhadan in Kharkiv on April 16. Image: Provided by Vivat Publishing, Serhiy Bobok

This is Publishing Perspectives’ 117th awards-related report produced in the 119 publication days since our 2022 operations began on January 3.

Follow our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing players and international industry reactions. 

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade is here, more on publishing industry and book awards is here, and more from us on the German book market is here

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.