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A Group of Writers in Brussels Were Discussing How to Deal with Terror While the City Was Under Attack

I got in touch with writer Andrey Kurkov to find out how those guys viewed the Brussels attacks and how the rest of their time together was spent.

Ewout Lowie

Ewout Lowie


Andrey Kurkov. Photo courtesy of Andrey Kurkov

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands

On Tuesday, the day of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we received a fairly bizarre message from someone who lives in the city. She was the organiser of Passa Porta seminar that took place this week and during which 16 writers from ten different countries, got together to discuss the point of literature. The seminar was held in Brussels' International House of Literature – about four kilometres from the Maalbeek metro station, which was attacked on the morning of the 22nd of March.

In preparation for the seminar, Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov had written an essay about how to deal with terror as a writer. On Monday, the first evening of the seminar and only a few hours before the attacks, Kurkov held a presentation based on his essay, which was titled 'Which Weapon Should the Writer Choose'.

Kurkov argues that in moments of crisis, there are only two things a writer can do – respond or not respond. When the shit hit the fan in Ukraine, Kurkov saw a clear split between those who just kept on doing what they always did (writing stories and novels) and those who immediately stopped writing fiction, feeling the responsibility to use their talents to write meaningful pieces about the situation for local newspapers, magazines and websites.

Kurkov personally believes that writers shouldn't hide behind their fiction in moments of crisis, but that they should tackle current events by talking to people and writing about events. He argues that writers should do everything in their power to exert some influence over the situation.

The morning after Kurkov's presentation, the terrible news about the attacks started to trickle in. The participants, who had gotten together in Brussels to think about how writers should deal with terrorism, were confronted with terrorist attacks. Apparently, the organisers decided to continue the seminar.

I was curious about how those guys viewed the Brussels attacks and how the rest of their time together was spent, so I got in touch with Andrey Kurkov.

You cannot stop your brain from working because some terrorists want to paralyse society and each of its members with fear and sadness.

VICE: Can you briefly describe how events at Tuesday's conference unfolded, after you heard about the attacks in Brussels?
Andrey Kurkov: Unsurprisingly, the programme was changed. Instead of starting with the reading of an essay and then moving on to discussing it, we started by referencing the conversation we had the evening before. The topic was the writer's role in times of war and crisis. We eventually went back to following the programme but the events of the morning were regularly present in conversations throughout the day.

Why was it decided to continue with the conference, and what do you think of that decision?
The seminar will go on partially and without evening sessions. You cannot stop your brain from working because some terrorists want to paralyse society and each of its members with fear and sadness. The terrorists' actions affected our list of priorities in terms of conversation topics, but to stop any activity is to give in, to show that they are winning. Conference is not entertainment – I find being together with other writers in moments like this very important and enriching.

What and how should writers and journalists write about attacks like this?
For journalists the most important thing is facts – like how many were killed and how many were wounded. Writers should not hurry to compete with journalists – they have right to act as "doctors" or "analysts" in light of the events. But the way each writer reacts, what they write or do apart from or instead of writing – that's up to the writer. This tragedy will now take on the form of a serious political, social and psychological issue and it will be the case for a while. So the texts that will appear in this time will also be political, social and psychoanalytical. But what writers should do first is fight hate – it's to avoid letting pain turn into hate among those who were most touched by the events.