Saturday, 13 February 2021

Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko

Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko
First published in Ukrainian in 1996. English language translation by Halyna Hryn published by AmazonCrossing in June 2011.

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Called “the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence,” Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex became an international phenomenon when it shot to number one on the Ukrainian bestseller list and remained there throughout the 1990s. The novel is narrated in first-person streams of thought by a sharp-tongued poet with an irreverently honest voice. She is visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard and her exposure to American values and behaviors conspires with her yearning to break free from Ukrainian conventions. In her despair over a recently ended affair, she turns her attention to the details of her lover’s abusive behavior. In detailing the power her Ukrainian lover wielded over her, and in admitting the underlying reasons for her attraction to him, she begins to see the chains that have defined her as a Ukrainian woman – and in doing so, exposes and calls into question her country’s culture of fear and repression at the very time that it wrestled its way toward independence.

If Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex isn't yet classed as a feminist classic everywhere, then it absolutely ought to be! It is far from an easy read, but is a genuine tour de force outpouring of anger and resignation, desire and repression. Zabuzhko tells her story in a mix of first, second and third person narration, each point of view essentially hers, but dissolving into each other as her own points of observation change. She frequently questions her own sanity, attempting to understand how much of what drove her into an abusive relationship was her own free will searching out exciting danger, and how much was a longing for a sense of home that, in this case, was embodied by a man who spoke her language and could instantly understand her cultural references. I empathised with Zabuzhko's identification with her language as her home, rather than a particular spot on the planet. Her Ukrainian, she tells us, is only spoken by few hundred thousand people, yet within its idioms and phrases is the long history of a people emerging from decades of Soviet rule. The sense of a newly independent nation finding its wings runs alongside Zabuzhko's sense of finding herself in the aftermath of her ill-fated love affair.

I enjoyed reading Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex far more than I thought I would. My expectations had been informed by other, more scholarly, reviews and I thought I would be overwhelmed by this book. Perhaps I wouldn't understand it at all. As it turned out, I quickly got into the flow of Zabuzhko's energetic, visceral prose. Letting her carry me and allowing myself to be led by her words, rather than attempting to understand every sentence, connection and allusion as they occurred, meant I was drawn right in. Stream-of-consciousness writing generally works well for me and this book was no exception. I finished its relatively short length feeling as though I had been through a wringer, and I would love to know how much of Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex is actually fiction. To me, it felt more of a philosophical memoir, an authentic insight into the mind of a true Ukrainian poet.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Oksana Zabuzhko / Contemporary fiction / Books from Ukraine


  1. Interesting perspective, and something I've not come across in all my years of being an avid reader. I can see myself reading this one, for sure.

  2. Oh wow, this sounds so unique and I am incredibly intrigued by the use of first, second and third person combined to tell the story. And the questioning of sanity and longing for home combination intrigues me too... It sounds like a lot is unpicked in this one!