For several years, Darya Tsymbalyuk has been drafting a new history of Ukraine’s Donbas that overturns our assumptions. Rather than focus on the industrialization and war that have dominated the region, she interviews locals and asks them to draw maps of their hometowns, based on their memories and emotional connections. The resulting maps—which emerge in dialogue with Tsymbalyuk, who gathers oral histories in the process—are eventually displayed publicly. When, together with Yulia Filipieva and Viktor “Corwic” Zasypkin, she first started work on this project, called Donbas Odyssey, in 2015, Tsymbalyuk was surprised to find that her interviewees’ drawings often depicted gardens and other green spaces—a discovery that led her to dramatically reconceptualize her PhD research.
There are many ways to describe Tsymbalyuk’s multilayered, interdisciplinary work—oral history, art, sociological analysis, mapping—but none sufficiently encapsulates its numerous components. Perhaps this is because each element is but a single piece of a larger project: to better understand human–plant relations within the context of war-ravaged Ukraine. Ultimately, Tsymbalyuk’s work reveals how narratives regarding Ukrainian history have been shaped in misleading ways. This process uncovers a fresh fossil record, so to speak, that challenges official narratives of industrialization, colonization, and displacement in the region by evoking memories and visions rarely seen or documented.
I teach a course called Ecological Displacement in Russophone Literature, at Bryn Mawr College. During the spring 2022 semester, I convened a series of discussions with writers, asking my students to develop interview questions for these guests. The meeting with Tsymbalyuk took a slightly different format from the others, as she requested that the group also draw and discuss their own maps. Our conversation with Tsymbalyuk, about her work and its intersections with the ongoing war in Ukraine, is transcribed below, accompanied by images from her fieldwork.
Isolde Gerosa (IG): In your introduction to “Between Plant Fossils and Oral Histories,” you write that violence and tenderness are the two dynamics that define humans’ relations to vegetal matter. Have these dynamics appeared in your interviewees’ maps?
Darya Tsymbalyuk (DT): My research unfolded this way. In 2015, together with Yulia Filipieva and Viktor “Corwic” Zasypkin, I started a participatory art project called Donbas Odyssey. We asked people displaced from the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk—often referred to as “the Donbas region”—about their hometowns, and we made art interventions in public spaces and exhibitions based on maps and stories. In 2018, starting my PhD, I looked at the these maps again and started wondering why there were so many stories about gardens. Why are people talking about them? It was like the stories about cities moved to stories about gardens.
War is violence, and people talked about it. There were lots of narrators who lived through violence, and their interviews were coming out of the space of violence. There were also emotions of feeling betrayed: people felt betrayed by their hometowns in a way, especially if they actively engaged in the civic life of the city before displacement and felt that their efforts might have been in vain. A lot of negative emotions.
But, at the same time, what I realized was that quite often when people talked to me—when they were drawing their maps—97 percent of the maps didn’t feature any traces of war. They created space for peaceful memories. People told me that when thinking about their cities before the war and invasion, they were reconstructing their love for them. This tenderness was coming back. They realized that even though that space was now mostly associated with negative things and trauma, ultimately, there were some memories that they could go back to—such as their childhood or their younger years—that would then seep through the violent stories.
What I liked in the stories about gardens is this dynamic, which is not black and white: they’re neither about victimhood nor pure tragedy nor trauma nor heroics. There’s a mixture of emotions. This is very much how we experience reality.
These days, when I’m talking to my mom—who is in Ukraine—she sends me photos of the plants, and they’re all really beautiful and tender. And yet, what we ultimately end up talking about is the war. So, there’s this ongoing violence, and there are moments of tenderness that keep you going. These tender moments are really the meaning of her days recently. It’s what keeps her alive.
Jae Tak Kim (JTK): Previously, you conducted research into human–plant relations and displacement due to the 2014 conflict in Ukraine. Given that earlier work, what are your current views on the war in Ukraine right now? Are you doing any work related to it?
DT: When I was writing my dissertation, I tried to shift the conversation about war to show that it’s not only about humans. When you look at statistics of forced displacements—for example, numbers from UNHCR—they only count human bodies moving. These statistics are all about human factors. But in all my time doing my PhD, I thought, We’re already more than human. You’re connected to your dog; you’re connected to your plants. When you have to leave home, you don’t want to leave your plants behind. You’re entangled and embedded in these relations.
There wasn’t much of this talk in Ukraine in 2014. But now it’s really blown up: there’s so much writing coming out about the ways nonhumans are affected, the way people are separated from their more-than-human companions, the way fields and forests have landmines, toxic pollution from weapons, and obviously Chornobyl is there, too. This has become more discussed, and it’s important that we’re thinking beyond the human bodies affected.
I’ve also been working on an animation project: a docufiction about people fleeing their homes with plants in tow that blends research, interviews, and art. There are four core people on this team: director Kateryna Voznytsia, producer Yulia Serdyukova, artist Viktor “Corwic” Zasypkin, and me as a screenwriter and an artist, as well as many other people, of course.
Viktor, with whom I also worked on Donbas Odyssey, is from Donetsk. He’s the only person in the core team who experienced forced displacement in leaving Donbas. I’ve studied this context—my father was in a volunteer battalion in the first phase of the war, and I was involved in helping people—but I’m not from Donbas, and I didn’t live through that. When we started working on the film, we knew that we were removed from the war—not emotionally, of course, but in terms of our positionality. With the escalation in February, sadly, we’ve also become a part of it in a different way; we’re all extremely affected by the war. Even me, being away: my parents are in Ukraine, and I’m worried for them, for my friends, for my hometown, for the whole country. Some other team members have been displaced, and now they’ve come back, others have been living under shelling.
So, when we started the film, we were working on stories that weren’t our own lived experiences, and now they’ve become our lived experiences, too. For example, Yulia has a lot of plants and she’s been taking care of other people’s plants—plants left by people who had to flee the city—so in a way living through stories that we worked on. We haven’t reflected on that yet, but we’ve been exchanging photos of plants and stories.
Leila Bagenstos (LB): So much of your work focuses on the relationship between human and plant life. What, to you, is the role of animals in the fossil record and in the memories of displaced people?
DT: My work is about multispecies relations, with a focus on plants. But I’m definitely very curious about relations with animals, too.
One of the women I interviewed in 2015 had an animal shelter in an occupied town. So, it was a difficult decision for her to move away. However, when she settled in Kyiv, she set up a network of volunteers—in the occupied territories, in Kyiv, and abroad—that helped to evacuate animals from the east of Ukraine, treat them if they had injuries, and find them new homes, mostly in the EU.
There are many more stories about human–animal relations with the current escalation, and, of course, relations with other species are inseparable from people’s understanding of their lives and of themselves. However, because my research came out of the interest in space and relationships with spaces that one was forced to abandon, I focused more on plants than animals; our understanding of places is often quite vegetal and linked to images of rootedness. Also, plants are fascinating, and the more you learn about them, the more they branch out into your research and life.
Sophia Cunningham (SC): Why is it so important that history and context, especially in terms of colonization and industrialization, be included in the scientific study of plants? How can it help us to further understand the human perspective and our impact on nature?
DT: That is a very good question. First of all, science and power are very closely entangled, just as culture and power are. My study of Donbas made me think of the very close relationship between geology and the military, for example, and how the region has been colonized through both. At the same time, there’s still a strong false myth of objectivity, which often leads to scientific texts and objects being perceived to exist slightly outside of historical contexts. Of course, feminists have long fought to debunk this myth, but it’s still present, even in a particular type of academic writing.
What I’m interested in is making these connections of entanglement more visible: How does paleobotany relate to the colonization of Donbas? How does the excavation of plant fossils relate to the burial of murdered civilians? I believe tracing these connections allows for a richer and deeper understanding of separate elements and of the dynamics through which these elements have been forged.
SC: What do you see as the future of the scientific method and research? How can science, art, and oral storytelling continue to combine?
DT: I’ve always been quite interdisciplinary. To study environments, you can’t just be a literary scholar. You must engage in the science that’s at the forefront of understanding climate change. For me, that’s the exciting part: the conversations that happen at that moment of encounter between disciplines.
For my research, I’ve read quite a bit on critical plant studies. It’s exciting for me to see scientists telling stories that are accessible to the broader public. I might not always love the way all of them turn out, but it’s really exciting to see what Monica Gagliano is doing with her writing on plants, or even people like Merlin Sheldrake, who really popularized fungi in the UK. He’s a biologist but writing in a more accessible storytelling form that really brings the stories to the broader public.
Environmental humanities and environmental studies are very vibrant spaces at the moment, in terms of people from different areas who, together, try to talk about similar things, maybe in different languages. That’s the way forward for me. Many other fields can learn from this.
Grace Sewell (GS): Given your reflections on the limitations of human language as a means of representing memory, I’m interested in the place of language in the maps created by your interviewees. In the maps you collected and those we produced, the artists frequently provide labels for places that take the form of place names, memories, and sensations.
What do you think of the role of language or labeling in the mapmaking process? Have any participants refused to label their maps?
DT: Since every interview and every map was developed as a dialogue, it was often me who encouraged people to leave captions on maps. These maps were meant to go to public spaces in the city, so it was important for us that a passer-by could “read” the map, and captions helped unfold the story in the absence of the recording of the interview.
We don’t have instances of people refusing to label, but there were cases when people captioned things subversively. Also, not all things are labeled on each map. For example, for my MA thesis I analyzed a map that was labeled with lots of details, and the only location without a caption was a monument to a tank. Analyzing the map closely alongside the interview, I was wondering whether not naming the tank reflects the narrator’s refusal to use the word “war”—where the war becomes an unspeakable and an all-encompassing event.
LB: How do you approach the process of collecting oral histories and eliciting mental maps from your interview subjects?
DT: In 2015, in Kyiv, we started to look for narrators in volunteer centers. We ran into people there, and we also asked friends of friends. We had a sociological approach; we tried to include people of different ages, different genders, different professions, so they wouldn’t all end up being artists whom we knew personally. And then sometimes I did cold calls. I was surprised people trusted me, or met me, or invited me home.
Interviewing is always unpredictable. Working with people is a lot about allowing yourself to lose control, which is great. It’s scary, but every map is ultimately a conversation and dialogue documented. And the same is true of Donbas Odyssey as a whole. When you go out in the streets with art interventions, you have no control. The map you make can be there for two hours, or it can be there for three years, until the rain washes it away. This kind of process is not for everybody, but I quite like that dynamic. I like to be surprised and to learn from the process.
GS: Do your interviewees ever ask or choose to revise their maps, either in consultation with you or independently? If so, what kinds of revisions are of interest to them, and why might this be? If not, why do you think they do not wish to return to their maps?
DT: When we were in Odesa, transferring the maps to asphalt, one of the authors of the stories started to worry about his safety after we drew the map. In the morning, we came back, changed his name, and erased some of the parts of the map. My goal is to create space for people to share their stories, so if they do not feel comfortable, that is totally fine with me to change or delete something. Other than that, most people have not revised their maps.
Of course, if we asked people to make a map every month, their maps would probably look different. A map captures that moment—a particular relationship with space and time. Each person changes over time, so if I interviewed people now, they would tell me different stories. Sometimes, people ask to collect their maps from us, which I love. One person took their map and framed it, and some others followed. They wanted to own their maps. The first person who asked us for her map said, “I feel like it is time for me to let go. I want to have the map framed so I can let it go.” She sent us a picture of her holding the map of her hometown in its new frame.
GS: Have you been surprised by any particular patterns or tendencies that have appeared in the mental maps of your interviewees? While each map is, of course, an individual production, are there shared characteristics that link the maps together (visually, conceptually, linguistically, sensorially) in unexpected ways?
DT: There were several approaches to mapping. Some of them tried to portray places accurately, in relation to existent geographies, and some of them were mapping emotional relations, where spatiality did not matter. That freedom of delinking from a geographical space was interesting for me. What I also found surprising is how many maps of a particular city included other locations, sometimes other towns, or forests, or quarries. So, the city extended for people beyond administrative borders, which links back to emotional documentation, too.
IG: Near the end of your forthcoming article “Radiant Absences” you mention the importance of local knowledges in helping “populate [silent spaces] with sounds, colors, and all forms of life.” How do you define local knowledges, and how have they helped in the creation of your art?
DT: Local knowledge for me is defined by the relation of a person to the place. Being local means spending a certain amount of time in the place, which allows you to know it intimately.
With places like Donbas, there are lots of imperial narratives. If you look at literature about Donbas, it’s often easier to find Russian writers than local authors (in Ukraine, of course, this changed with the Russian invasion, but in academia you still find studies of the region that are exclusively based on colonial Russian literature). I have so much anger towards Vikentii Veresaev, for example, who came to Donbas for a couple months and wrote orientalizing short stories, which became canon even in Donbas. There is a book I have, published in 1978, in Donetsk, called “Discovery of the Land of Fire: Russian Writers about Donbas.” So, in a colonial way, locals are supposed to think, Oh my God, these “great Russian writers” are writing about us, what an honor. It’s the same in my hometown of Mykolaiv, in the south of Ukraine. You grow up with these stories about you, but you often don’t know the stories that actually came from the places you grew up in. And it takes much more digging to be able to excavate anything that didn’t come through the imperial center, which is not easy.
Take, for example, Svitlana’s map, which features Savur-Mohyla. This place is mostly narrativized as a space of heroic battle—there are songs about it—and that’s how you hear it represented on TV, both during the Soviet era (as the site of a World War II battle) and in contemporary times, during the recent war. But then you talk to people who lived around Savur-Mohyla, and they have stories about wild peonies that grow in this place. These stories are related to their childhood memories and make you see the place in a completely different way.
I’m very interested in things you can only know if you are in a place itself. You know it as an embodied knowledge, you know it through smell, you know it through touch, you know it through narratives that are passed on to you. It’s something that’s not often documented. That’s why oral history is easily passed through generations, quite often just in the kitchen with your grandma telling you stuff. It’s not necessarily in a novel written and published somewhere by a big cultural center. Oral history, as a method, allows you to document this kind of embodied knowledge.
That’s the whole premise of Donbas Odyssey, because there were so many stories about Donbas. There were so many people from this region, who lived and grew up there, who knew how it smells, how the apricots taste, who can tell us about that. It’s so difficult being a researcher and trying to find these kinds of sources. They’re really not easily accessible. I have to keep digging. This is almost like geological work.
GS: One thing that interested me in “Radiant Absences” was the idea of reciprocal erasure: plants have the capacity to “erase” human spaces, just as humans erase plants from the record. What role does erasure play in how you conceive of creating, preserving, and sharing art within and outside of its home?
DT: The primary goal of our Donbas Odyssey project is community rather than permanence. We were looking at interactions in space, coming from the understanding that space is dynamic. The elements of erasure and disappearance played a role in this project, in terms of memories vanishing. For example, when interviewees resettled in new places, with time they often forgot street names. As such, when they drew with chalk on the asphalt, there was the sense that the memories were vanishing and were very fragile.
Of course, the format of the project is also a very tricky question. These are precious memories, so to put them on the asphalt and have people walk over them is a bit controversial. For us, the priority was coming together at that moment in space for a conversation. These aren’t fully sustainable connections, but now, given the escalation, I have been writing to some of the people we interviewed to ask if I can channel money to them or provide assistance in another form. In a way, the community building that was part of the project design is continuing.
GS: To what extent do you gravitate to less permanent artistic methods like chalk drawings versus methods that immortalize or extend the life of an artwork, like digital media, and why?
DT: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the imperial erasure that is happening in Ukraine, as cities are literally erased and cultural identity is erased. I write about the erasure of local histories. For example, we tend to think about Donbas as having been empty steppe until it came into existence through Russian industrial development; this, of course, is not true. These narratives erase the people who lived there, and their knowledge.
Thinking about myself, when I speak in the West at rallies or academic events, some aspects of my identity—as a Ukrainian, activist, researcher—are erased. My own university often forgets that I am a researcher with a PhD, too. Often, I am perceived only as an activist with parents on the ground. When the escalation started, I took a few weeks off work, as I was fundraising and trying to help people on the ground. The war conquers you not only physically; it also takes over your identity. Suddenly, there is no space for you to be a friend, a teacher, or an environmental humanities scholar. You become an activist citizen on constant alert. I stopped doing everything apart from living with the war.
In the past few weeks, it has been interesting to see how many panels went forward without any Ukrainians. I was invited, for example, by a debate society here at the university. There were five speakers, including four non-Ukrainian men; I was the only woman on the panel and the only Ukrainian. I told them that I could not speak on the panel under these conditions, and they still went forward with it.
The absence of Ukrainian voices leads to a deep misunderstanding of what Ukraine is and how the war is unfolding, in Russia and the West alike. Not knowing the space led to the illusion in Russia that they could take Ukraine in a couple of days; in the West, it led to the illusion that Kyiv would immediately fall because people would not resist. These are the consequences of erasure. I’m thinking a bit differently these days about erasure—I am trying to resist it.