INTERVIEW/Publishers from war-torn Ukraine seeking collaborators at Taipei book fair

06/03/2022 06:13 PM
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Valentina Butenko (center). CNA photo June 3, 2022
Valentina Butenko (center). CNA photo June 3, 2022

Taipei, June 3 (CNA) Three months ago, Valentina Butenko, who heads the international business section of Ukraine's leading online bookstore, was living in a bomb shelter in Kyiv with her family, as invading Russian military forces bombarded her country.

Today, she is hustling at the Ukrainian booth at the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) to promote books by writers in her country and find publishing collaborators in Taiwan.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, has crippled Ukraine's cultural sector, and its publishing industry is now on the verge of collapse, said Butenko, who heads the international business development section of the online bookstore Yakaboo.

"In the first month of the war, March, we did not sell a single paperback book," Butenko said in an exclusive interview with CNA on the opening day of the June 2-7 Taipei book fair.

The Ukrainian booth, which is being managed by Butenko, features dozens of books from Yakaboo Publishing, an independent publishing house founded by the bookstore.

CNA photo June 2, 2022
CNA photo June 2, 2022

One of Yakaboo's main goals at the TIBE is to find collaborators that will publish those books in Mandarin in Taiwan, according to Butenko, who arrived in Taiwan from Ukraine two weeks ago to help set up the booth.

"We needed to find international partnerships," she said. "It is fundamental to ensuring that the Ukrainian book market survives ... We need to have an audience abroad to keep selling, promoting Ukrainian books."

Butenko also sees those efforts as part of Ukrainians' resistance to Russia's ambitions in their country.

The war being waged by Russia is based on "a fundamental denial of Ukrainians' right to exist," and it poses "an existential threat" to Ukrainian culture, she said.

"Bringing Ukrainian books, Ukrainian authors, Ukrainian writers to the international market is so crucial," Butenko said. "The actual preservation of what Ukraine is, is through Ukrainian voices."

The battle on that front, however, is a tough one, as at least 50 of the roughly 400 publishing houses in Ukraine have closed down in the past three months, due to financial woes brought on by the war, according to Butenko.

She said those that are still standing, including Yakaboo Publishing, have also suffered heavy financial losses.

CNA photo June 2, 2022
CNA photo June 2, 2022

According to a recent survey published in the Ukrainian media, nearly 10 percent of Ukrainian publishers have ceased operations because of the war, while book sales have fallen dramatically among 95 percent of the remaining publishers.

The potential opportunities at the Taipei book fair, therefore, are "incredibly significant" at this time of crisis, as it gives voice to Ukrainian authors and allows for representation of Ukrainian culture, Butenko said, expressing gratitude to Taiwan's Ministry of Culture for the invitation to participate.

Over the next few days, Butenko said, she will be meeting with representatives from Taiwan publishing houses to explore the possibilities of collaboration.

"I do think Ukrainian literature has a lot to offer to the Taiwanese market," she said. "I'm hoping they can help us, give us insights, with their expertise, into publishing in Taiwan."

Alongside that, she said, the Ukrainian section at the TIBE also gives exposure to the organizations that have been providing humanitarian support to the Ukrainian people, particularly refugees.

CNA photo June 2, 2022
CNA photo June 2, 2022

The booth also features exhibits by 15 Ukrainian illustrators, depicting the resistance of the Ukrainian people to Russia, said Butenko, who has remained in her country for most of the war and will return there when the book fair ends.

Established in 1987, the TIBE offers the opportunity for visitors to buy books from a variety of publishers and take part in talks by authors, illustrators, and professionals in the publishing industry.

The book fair, which is hosting a Ukrainian section for the first time in 35 years, also provides a platform for exchanges between Taiwanese publishers and their foreign counterparts.

Butenko, who is also involved in Yokaboo Publishing's business, said she hopes her country's participation in the TIBE will lead to broader cultural exchanges between Taiwan and Ukraine, as they both have a lot in common.

Ukraine and Taiwan both know what it means to forge and consolidate national identity in the face of exterior threats, Butenko said.

They share "the understanding that freedom isn't something that is taken for granted. It's something you have to fight for," she said.

She also encouraged the Taiwanese people to continue upholding the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and universal dignity.

"There is nothing more valuable in the world than the values you choose to stand for," Butenko said. "As long as you have that, as long as you have that conviction, then yes, you will face threats, you will face aggression, but that can never break you essentially, as a nation."

(By Teng Pei-ju)

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