Women Speak of War

Maria Tumarkin

The suffering in Ukraine grabs at my heart. I need to see beyond the gruesome images in the media and to catch a glimpse of life in this place of war. I hear of a Ukrainian woman tending a wounded Russian soldier and phoning his mother in Russia to tell her that her son is wounded but will live. In the past I have watched journalists doing the necessary and dangerous task of reporting in a war zone. I know from experience that there are even-deeper ongoing stories of everyday life even when battles are very close. Providentially, I have a friend who knows those intimate stories being lived right now in Ukraine.  Maria Tumarkin, Ukrainian-Jewish-Australian writer, born and raised in Ukraine, has been a faithful friend of mine since 2012.

Some of my family and many of my friends met Maria at the launch of ‘Writing for Raksmey’. They remember her well. She encouraged my writing. She believed that Cambodia’s trauma, and the fragile-staunch stories of survivors who worked for peace in the aftermath, needed to be written. Maria knows why I wanted to call that book ‘A Terrible Beauty is Born’. She understands that there is something deeper to tell about war than the descriptions of atrocities.  

Day by day Maria is ‘on the mobile’ to her home country. She listens to friends as they face the bombings and the carnage amid the tasks of daily life.  She knows their fear and their constant efforts to help each other. Fear. Resistance. Lament. Kindness. Hope. Solidarity.

On the ABC mostly, you can hear radio interviews with Maria. You hear her say that it is incredibly difficult for her to speak publicly about Kharkov where she was born, where she grew up and received her education up until the age of 15. When she speaks through tears she is back there in memory: the beauty of the architecture, the plethora of universities, the seven major research centres in walking distance from her childhood home. This is where she and her friends dreamed of a peaceful future.  Now she reads the news rather than watches it; to see ruins of loved places is soul destroying.   In her grief Maria offers on the internet an autographed copy of one of her prize-winning books: ‘Otherlands’ or another ‘Axiomatic’ to anyone who has donated fifty dollars to one or other of the agencies offering help to Ukraine.  This raises $30,000 for Ukraine when all the books have gone. She works from her cramped space at home to post each book, or bundle of books, to the right address with the right inscription.

Before this war began Maria was asked to curate the 2022 Festival of Jewish Arts and Music (FOJAM). There would be singers, musicians, poets and story tellers in a seamless 90-minute performance. Maria often quotes Svetlana Alexievich, ‘When women speak of war … they say nothing or almost nothing of what we are used to reading and hearing about.’ These are the stories to be told in the performance. It would interlace through music, images, poetry and testimonials.  

Then the suffering of Ukraine overshadowed the planning and it was agreed that a share from ticket sales would go to Ukraine. Maria writes, ‘To commemorate the Holocaust in 2022 in Australia is to stand in solidarity in Ukraine, is to acknowledge the genocidal violence at the heart of the Australian nation, is to speak of Bosnia, is to speak of other wars (visible or not) which have marked people and communities around us forever. Art can create spaces in which such histories, and our responsibility to them, are not at odds with each other but belong – in the most profound way’.

The performance is enacted on Thursday 28th of April at The National Theatre St. Kilda and streamed live online. ‘When Women Speak of War: Artists Reckon with Wars Declared and Hidden’. I am there in the theatre.

Share the experience with me. We sit high up in row R of the stalls. We read the program hastily before the lights dim. The theatre is packed to the rafters and we are quite close to the rafters; we look down, see and hear clearly.  On the darkened stage lights move across bulky shapes draped with white cloth. From an unlit place comes a powerful voice of a woman. She is singing a poem that was written by a Hungarian Resistance Fighter then set to music by an Israeli composer. The lights focus on the singer and then move to a pianist who throws back a drape covering a grand piano, accompanies the singing, and plays on. There follows an Aboriginal song of lament for lost daughters and mothers. There are 90 minutes of uninterrupted arts from the screen at the back of the stage, from poetry, from song ancient and new, from stories. We applaud, we cry, we laugh. There is a standing ovation. We are linked. I recognise the quest for peace, the strength of the human spirit, the lament of the suffering.

Resistance. Lament. Hope. Solidarity.