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by Haska Shyyan


When men are at war, what is expected of the women left behind ?

When her boyfriend Max decides to enlist to fight in the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, Marta is confused and upset. She has a successful career in Lviv’s booming IT industry and she and Max live a comfortable life distant from politics and war, until Max’s decision.

With Max hundreds of kilometres away, Marta tries hard to fit the model of a war hero’s girlfriend and to embrace the new patriotism that has become the norm in Ukraine. She volunteers for the Army, meeting other women whose partners are away fighting, yet she resists this social pressure and her resentment towards Max builds. At breaking point, one drunken night, Marta has a passionate liaison with a female friend. Then she jumps at an opportunity to travel to France where she meets Xavier and has a one-night stand. On the way to a party, they are separated in the chaos following a terrorist attack. Left with nothing but her purse, she has no idea what happened to Xavier nor how to find him.

Marta makes her way back to Ukraine. Once home, depression sets in and she stops returning Max’s phone calls. Marta realizes that the burden to conform is impeding her from living her true spirit. The idea of leaving Ukraine takes hold of her.

Behind Their Backs is a daring novel that tackles female sexuality and social pressure in a patriarchal society, and shows how nationalism and patriotism only exacerbate those pressures.


Following in the footsteps of Oksana Zabuzhko’s groundbreaking and internationally acclaimed Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), Haska Shyyan has become a new voice in Ukrainian literature who tries to convey sexually positive messages and break two layers of taboo: the church & post-soviet patriarchal culture.

In a singular style that is at once poetic and sarcastic, Shyyan talks freely about sex and bisexuality and also writes with unsettling poise about the female body – its hair, its smells and secretions. Mixing wry humour and riveting emotional depth, Behind Their Backs paints a portrait of womanhood in war-torn Ukraine and recounts the intimate journey of a woman trying to reconcile freedom and societal expectations.

In addition to female agency, the novel abounds with contemporary issues including patriotism and nationalism, military and moral duty, the search for a sense of security and finding one’s place in the modern world, salary discrepancies within couples, long-distance relationships and corruption.


Haska Shyyan is a writer, poet and translator. Born in Lviv where she co-owns a bookshop, she studied classical philology and is an active campaigner against corruption in textbook selling. Haska wrote her first novel Hunt, Doctor, Hunt! on her cell phone while bedridden. Her second novel Behind Their Backs was the first Ukrainian novel to receive the European Union Prize for Literature in 2019, as well as two Ukrainian prizes (LItAccent Award and Espreso TV Readers Choice). She regularly contributes short stories and poetry to literary magazines. She currently lives in Kyiv with her French partner and their young daughter.