Perpetual Instability: An Interview with Lars Horn, by Natalya Sukhonos

Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish (Graywolf Press, 2022) is a collection of lyric essays in which the author enters into a dialogue with ancient writers and contemporary artists, contributing personal reflections on the elusiveness of the trans body. The book is made up of 23 sections that converge on the theme of water. Most sections are further broken up into short segments or sentences set off by Roman numerals. In the first section, “In Water Disjointed from Me,” the author describes the way in which a mysterious illness upended their life and their ability to communicate. Four pages later, in “Last Night, A Pike Swam Up the Stairs,” Horn speaks to the experience of their trans body through short segments. This is the opening page of this section:

I.   Perch circled the skirting boards.
Sticklebacks twitch at the foot of the bed.

II.   As a child, I believed the body thrummed with fishes. I drew pictures: the body aqueous—ovular, amorphous—walled by cartilage, algae, silt. Eels coiled in the stomach. Anemones pulsed in the gut. And always a pike—lone, muscular—writhed up the throat.

III.  When I matured physically and my body began not to fit, I always wondered whether it had nothing to do with biology or hormones. Whether it was because the fishes had stayed or left.

Within a single page, Horn is able to conjure and weave together the major forces reigning within their book: images of fish go in tandem with the aqueous, elusive body; an inability to speak overlaps with a discomfort with self-image; and a poetic sense of wonder makes all of this really unusual.

Indeed, the collection is a provocative collage of entries about species of fish, aquariums, and tattooing; a meditation on the author’s relationship with water; a travel log through Russia, France, Belgium, and Georgia; childhood memories involving modelling for their mother’s artworks; and a foray into illness and trauma.

At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make the writing itself embodied and textured, to speak through bodies of water. Poised neatly between the abstractions of literary theory and the concrete joys of poetic memoir, Horn’s writing is electrifying, aphoristic, restless, and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. The result is visceral and deeply moving, like a dream or the force of memory, leaving readers to meander through the different strands Horn offers and reflect upon our own relationship with our bodies and with language.

This interview was conducted over email and Zoom. Author’s idiom is preserved.

Natalya Sukhonos: What moved you to write this book?

Lars Horn: The book began from a place of fatigue, perhaps, even a certain despondency. For several years, I’d been doing shift work, starting in the early hours. I’d written a prose-poem novella and hadn’t gotten anywhere with it. I barely managed a single publication of any kind—and that after years of writing. It was midwinter. And I just thought: I can’t keep going with this. I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford clothing. I can’t afford healthcare, anything. I was seriously considering a job in HR, a nine-to-five that would pay the rent and the bills. Around the same time, I met Jaquira, who is now my wife. We talked, often into the early hours. One night, I mentioned modelling for my mother’s photography projects. She looked over: “You really should write this. You should write nonfiction.” I protested, and Jaquira replied something to the effect of: Stop making excuses and write. That January, I set my alarm at 4:00 AM and wrote before my morning shifts. I started from anecdotes I shared in conversation but had not previously brought to the page. In some sense, Jaquira moved me to write the book, her enthusiasm, her certainty—especially at a time when mine failed. But, most of all, the trigger of switching to nonfiction when I had only ever written poetry—that proved an opening, an opportunity.

Natalya Sukhonos: What do you think brings your essays into a single collection? They’re so fascinating and heterogeneous. How do you see them coming together in this particular book?

Lars Horn: When drafting Voice of the Fish, I received feedback that, though the individual essays were interesting, editors or agents couldn’t see how the book held together as a collection. Nor did the aquatic vignettes and themes of fish make themselves sufficiently understood. Reflecting upon this feedback, I realised that I had been purposefully withholding the resonance of the aquatic bodies insofar as they relate to my experience of transmasculinity and embodiment. Though I didn’t, myself, find the essays disparate—their unity residing in a shared memoirist arc or themes of faith and spirituality—I did see how they could appear so to another. I realised that unless I explained the meaning of these aquatic motifs, unless I allowed people access to their pertinence in terms of my gender or bodily experience, the book wasn’t going to make sense. This spurred me to write the final, threaded essay, which, in making these connections explicit, acts as a throughline. In this way, the threaded essay holds the collection together—on both craft and thematic level—as does the aquatic and its relationship to transmasculinity. That being said, I would also argue that questions of faith unite the collection. Especially when the writing examines moments of strange cohesion, understanding across elements, bodies, or lives. There is a consistent tension, a desire to ask how the spiritual might manifest in the physical.

Natalya Sukhonos: At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make your writing itself embodied and textured. Reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project—an unfinished body of writing centering a feature of 19th century Parisian architecture—your writing is restless and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. What’s the relationship between writing and the body, as you see it? 

Lars Horn: When I think of writing, I don’t think of the more complex interplay of assigning meaning to words, but rather of tools—chisel, brush, pen, keyboard. Of scored stone, gouged velum, of paper or glowing screen. Writing has always been, in essence, a set of bodily gestures. From stone tablet to silk scroll to papyrus, page, or laptop, writing is deeply gestural. It exists as practices of chiselling, drawing, scribing, typing. It is intricate learnt gesture, repeated so as to become intuitive, innate.

In many ways, I cannot speak of a relationship between writing and my body. I can only collapse the two. Writing is my body. The movement—however refined, however minimal—of performing the line-work of an alphabet and language. There is a spatial element that I appreciate. A choreography—left to right, top to bottom, front to back. Or, in other languages, the inverse.

Yet, though I sense writing as physical craft—bodily capability, proximity—I also experience writing—in its more abstract sense of communicating meaning—as distance, disconnect. I do not think in words. Language hovers—peripheral, not quite of my body. Instead, thoughts come as image, movement, as gesture. I struggle to express myself linguistically. Growing up, my family were predominantly visual artists. To communicate in image, sculpture, in tone or texture, rooms of pigment, felt, fat, meat—this I understand. In these terms, what I feel or think finds material expression. I am not someone who writes to understand myself or to clarify my thoughts. Writing has an uncomfortable habit of confusing, meandering, or even disintegrating an impression that might be surfacing in collapsing images or shadowed understanding. Similarly, I find it difficult to word an emotion or to formulate a coherent counter-argument. I am slow to react to events—my feelings coming at a disjoint, sometimes by days, other times by years. And I am slow to find linguistic expression for those reactions.

As a writer, I feel both submerged in language and utterly at odds with it. I simultaneously don’t think about language at all—in that my thoughts are visual, spatial, tactile—and I think about it consistently in my daily craft: This word or sentence—what texture is required, what atmosphere. Does the line need to flow or rupture. At what speed. It’s a counter-intuitive career choice in many ways. I spend days reflecting on language instinctually, at the level of the sentence or paragraph, but very little time thinking about language—speaking, writing—as acts or phenomena that relate to consciousness or embodiment.

I come to language at the level of the sentence. One slow construction at a time. To approach writing otherwise overwhelms me. I also tend to write the concrete elements of my work—those parts that have colours or forms, a sequence of events or descriptive content—before I attempt to tease out the emotional truth of a piece. Usually, at the point where I need to examine what I think or feel, what is posing me difficulty in relation to the work—I falter. Completely and wholly. It is the moment where I walk a line of giving up writing altogether. Trying to put those kinds of thoughts or sensations—ones I would rather express visually, physically—into language exhausts me. But the tension I experience with language—written, spoken—might well be part of the dynamic tension that drives my work. I predominantly read poetry, ancient texts, and theology—these arenas where writing begins to question its own construction or its own ability to transmit meaning in the face of otherworldly concepts. I am always interested when language starts to rend, break towards the visceral. Abstract, under tension. Perhaps, ultimately, I understand writing and the body in terms of visceral, even violent tension. There is a perverseness to translating embodied experience into language. Why translate that which is. And yet, what strange experiment—consciousness, existing. To live this life embodied. Maybe writing affords, if not an antidote, at least a lens. Glass through which to warp and distance, watch oneself reflect. Strain at the confines of one’s flesh.

Natalya Sukhonos: I’d love to touch on your travels to Russia and Russophone countries. Do you feel like the estrangement you often write about actually gave you access to a deeper understanding of the places where you travelled? If so, how?

Lars Horn: I question whether my bodily estrangement could ever give me a better understanding of another country, simply because to understand a country is an impossible task. A place’s history, politics, the people and cultures it contains—they are all too vast for any single comprehension, especially that of an outsider. But, perhaps, more modestly, living at a disjoint from my own limbs destroys the illusion of knowing an unknowable quantity. Perhaps, more accustomed to estrangement, I expect to look from without. At my body. My own sense of self. At an environment. I expect distance. Am willing to stand in it. Know it as the only viable viewpoint. I am maybe more inclined, when travelling, to know that anything I experience will always remain just that: my perspective—singular, flawed, constrained by time and self—from where I stand in a place that isn’t mine.

Natalya Sukhonos: In the beginning of the section where you describe your travels to Russia and Georgia, you speak with a painful candor about Russia’s flagrant homophobia and transphobia; the phrase “the last time I spoke Russian” appears as a refrain to the oppression you and others experienced in that country. Then you reveal that when you went to Georgia you were openly queer and transmasculine. Can you speak to your decision to avoid speaking Russian in Georgia, and the few times you broke away from this?

Lars Horn: Russian, like my own native tongue, English, carries a history of violence. With the Soviet Union and the British Empire, Russian and English became the voice, the sound and articulation, for acts of incarceration, enslavement, and genocide. In Georgia, particularly at the Tbilisi Writers’ House, I met individuals fluent in Georgian, Russian, and English who specifically asked to converse in English. I found that this trend characterised Tbilisi’s younger generations, many of whom either spoke Russian and refrained from using it, or didn’t speak Russian at all. In this way, the central reason behind my not speaking Russian stemmed from a desire to respect the wishes of Georgians who chose not to communicate in a language that they associated with an oppressive Soviet regime. Moreover, after I fell ill and struggled to speak, write, and read even in English, I never recovered my former ability in Russian, meaning that Georgians invariably spoke better English than I did Russian. Communication, like water, has a tendency to flow along a path of least resistance. If English allowed myself and someone else to connect more quickly and authentically, I let English carry us both. Pragmatically, however, there were many times when I needed to communicate with individuals, often of an older generation, who spoke Georgian and Russian, but not English. Out of necessity, we spoke together in Russian—the immediate need to understand one another superseding wider questions of language politics. In those instances, each individual possessed a different feeling towards Russian, yet the conversations were, in fact, consistently warm, usually because Georgians had almost never heard a British national make an effort to speak anything other than English.

Besides questions of language politics or pragmatic necessity, there is, of course, a personal, even intimate difficulty I have with Russian. I do not necessarily associate Russian—as a language—with the explicit homophobia and transphobia in Russia. Or rather, Russian will never only represent that for me. It is undoubtedly a privilege to enjoy a language despite its echoes of violence—one that speaks to my not having lived under colonial or totalitarian regimes. To not have known people killed to the noise of another people’s tongue. Yet, I have an abiding appreciation of Russian—its acoustics, its case system, the winding migration of the Cyrillic alphabet from Greece. I associate it with writers, artists, musicians. With the time I spent in a country that allowed me, for a short space, to breathe beyond the confines of myself. But, also, it is a language that reaches far beyond the borders of Russia. I feel Russian deserves the richness that comes with being spoken by nations and cultures with distinct histories to Russia. Russian is not Russia’s alone. English is similar. I have a complicated relationship to my mother tongue. It carries histories of enslavement, of murder. Yet it is also the language I know best. It is my mother’s voice. The murmur of church. Bite of winter within woodsmoke.

In this way, my difficulty with Russian, though in part a reckoning with its legacy, also has a personal dimension. Speaking Russian now, I am acutely aware of how much I have lost my own linguistic faculties—the same is true of French, a language I once spoke and wrote fluently, but with which I now struggle. Unlike English, which, through years of necessity, I have slowly regained, French and Russian didn’t see me have to drag myself over sentences, re-learn spellings, or force my throat and mouth around words whose dimensions had become strange to me. Russian and French cast a shadow—of illness, loss, of a life that I look back upon and don’t recognise. Or, perhaps, in which I see how frequently I negated myself. Speaking Russian and French force me to grammatically gender myself, recall years of learning to sound myself in ways that didn’t fit. Russian and French force me, in some sense, to look at a former self that I find difficult to remember. Someone I do not necessarily like, even fully understand anymore. There is loss there. Echo of inadequacy. A sense that I have failed both languages and the people who spent such time and care gifting me their sound and structure. How did I, could I, allow them to be lost to me.

Natalya Sukhonos: I’m very curious about your relationship with Feodor, your St. Petersburg landlord who loved to while away the afternoon talking about species of fish over tea, and Ivano, the Georgian driver who insisted that you speak to him in Russian and wanted to set you up with his son. You write that “somehow, like Feodor, Ivano saw me, the pace and gesture of me.” Can you comment on how and why these men were able to truly see “the gesture of [you]” despite their transphobic background? What made you bond with them, and were there other instances of you connecting with people in Russia and Georgia despite their prejudices?

Lars Horn: I am unsure how or why Ivano and Feodor chose to meet me with generosity, with time and care. Nor do I know what drew us together. Perhaps, it comes down to the same elusive alchemy that sees us connect with certain people and not others. Strange mix of circumstance, character, and timing. Feodor had such a powerful gentleness to him. A slowness. He had a genuine appreciation for the simplicity of sunlight over skin, of winter turning into spring, of spending a day fishing. Ivano had humour and energy. Yet still that desire to enjoy what each day brought him. Both men had a sense—born of age and, in Feodor’s case, illness—that people deserve time, attention. That others require a certain breadth in which to be themselves, that we can only meet them in this nebulous space where selves connect and dislocate. Not knowing how or why we struck up an intuitive understanding drove the writing of the piece. But knowing that disparate individuals can find moments of communion in this world is something that brings me relief. Hope even. I wanted to bear testament to the possibility of human connection without necessarily understanding the mechanics of it. To treat it as one might the sacred or mystical.

As for connecting with others in Russia and Georgia despite differences of opinion—yes, I was drawn to and interested by more people than I could ever list. I still reflect on many of the conversations I had with people I met in Russia. Though we are not in contact, I carry them with me—their thoughts or actions, time spent in and out of conversation. Their memory is dear to me, surfaces at moments of isolation or uncertainty.

That anyone has escaped holding some form of prejudice, has entirely avoided committing violence, hurting another or living a smaller version of themselves—I doubt anyone can lay claim to such a life. And, because of that, connecting with people in Russia or Georgia is no different to meeting people in the UK or the USA or any other country. Transphobia and homophobia are worldwide phenomena. As is racism, ableism, misogyny, classicism. People are stigmatised, violated, are killed for who they are across the world. I only hope that, flawed and failing as I am, people might find some worth in talking with me, something that can comfort or uplift. So, I, likewise, endeavour to do unto them.

Natalya Sukhonos: As of my writing this, Putin has annexed several regions of Ukraine and escalated the war. In Voice of the Fish, you write powerfully of Georgia’s colonial history and oppression under Russia’s violent, imperialist power. Can you comment on what is unfolding in Ukraine right now, especially in light of your travels in Russia and Georgia?

Lars Horn: Any adequate response to this question would require significant length and research to capture the extent, nuance, and implications of this conflict—especially if one hopes to contextualise current events within a long history of Russia’s colonial oppression of Ukraine. Any less would be a disservice to Ukraine. In this sense, I think others—political scientists, historians—would be better placed and more qualified to speak on this topic. Similarly, I don’t want to speak in place of Ukrainians and Russians. But: I stand with Ukraine. I stand with Russians who do not want this war. I stand with Ukrainian trans women being allowed to leave the border and not being told they are men, detained, and sent to fight. And I stand with men who do not wish to be drafted having that wish respected. Ultimately, though, it is a deeply troubling and complex reality—one I cannot speak of with authority.

Natalya Sukhonos: You describe your relationship to your body as “custodial” and reveal that “the more [you] lived at a disjoint from [your] own body, the more [you] turned to theology… as a way to find rough peace with these limbs.” I’m very intrigued by your relationship with theology and religion, especially in the context of your travels in Russia and Georgia, where you often traveled for miles to visit a distant monastery or to locate a relic. Can you speak about the role of theology in your life and your writing?

Lars Horn: Linguistically, theology is an arena that strives to speak the ineffable, to word the unknowable. The entire exercise is one of allegory, poetry, rhetoric, and faith—faith in that which cannot be seen or known or voiced. Yet scripture persists. I am captivated by the enterprise of scripture—to deliver the words of gods unto Earth. What amplitude. What spectacular premise. But also—what sincerity. This desire to render that which exceeds terrestrial bounds—the devotion of such a gesture. The service. I appreciate the very workings, the poetry, rhythm and meter of scriptures from across times and cultures. How language reveals itself incantatory, hallucinatory confronted with the divine. And I appreciate the humility that such work requires, how it places a body, a life—short span of living and breathing—within greater breadth. This, far from desolating me, consoles me. To know the smallness of myself and life.

Transmasculine, I do not recognise my body as my own. To live with that inescapable estrangement, has brought me to beauty, to communion with landscape or the slow heartbeat of another animal. It has also brought me to pain, frustration, isolation. To understand the strangeness of living in dissociation from oneself, the why of that—not in a social, genetic, or biological way—but to imbue it with greater purpose or meaning. To consider oneself a soul that carries itself at a strange angle to the body it resonates within. To consider this state of being as a gift, God-given even. I draw strength from that. When much of the world seeks to medicalise, criminalise, or simply negate what, for me, is a visceral reality, I am ever more convinced of the need to understand myself within a metaphysical framework, to understand who I am as sacred, not defective. And, though religion is so frequently homophobic and transphobic in its institutional ministry, theology as well as religious rite and ritual have been a source of vitality in my understanding of who I am. Voice of the Fish can be read as an ongoing discussion of faith. Of how to reconcile to that which is complex, painful even. To that which others disdain. I am drawn to faith. To the world as mystical, mythical, as shimmering beyond human understanding. I would like to think there is meaning to our living. That, just maybe, I can bring this body to bear in ways that aid or reassure. To write something in which another can rest.

Natalya Sukhonos: I noticed that you used the words “slip,” “slippage,” “slippery,” and other derivatives seventeen times throughout the book. These instances have to do with water and fish, as well as writing and identity. At one point, you suggest that reading can be reconsidered as “sensing the slip of a body through this world,” at another, the body is cast as “speaker of a strange, slippery language.” Can you comment on the importance of slippage to your writing, especially the way in which it relates to writing and the body?

Lars Horn: As I mentioned, I experience a level of dislocation or “slippage” between language and my body—specifically the distance of language from how I think and engage with the world—as well as between my sense of self and the body I inhabit. Slipperiness, liminal space, the inability to grasp or locate—these qualities are central not only to my writing, but to how I exist in, and interact with, the world around me. I do not come to other people and other environments, I do not even come to my own body, with a sense of continuity or stasis. A haziness pervades how I approach selfhood, embodiment, and language. I am similarly hesitant in how I step through the world. Fixity, binaries, linearity, formulaic simplicity—they unnerve me. Perhaps, more simply, I do not recognise them as characteristic of my lived experience. I doubt many people do. I am drawn to the complicated, the contradictory. That which acts as a portal—transient, unstable. To bodies that multiply, morph, suddenly eclipse. To depth—especially that at which the world turns over, reveals itself—lightless, unfathomable; that moment of impenetrability before it shifts. I am interested in possibility. In slippage as potential energy, space in which contradictory realities can tensely exist. Slippage articulates something I recognise as fundamentally human. Our bodies, selves, this world—all exist in perpetual instability. Slippage seems truer to what it means to be human. To live.

Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about the publishing industry as a trans writer?

Lars Horn: I was incredibly lucky at Graywolf—they are a phenomenally kind, encouraging, and understanding press. But, looking at the publishing industry as a whole, there is a lack of diversity and equality when it comes to what is predominantly published and who is getting paid most fairly for their work. As with any industry that functions on a for-profit business model and that caters to majority groups, the publishing industry favours cis-white-heterosexual writers. It also pays more for narrative, often realist, work. Underrepresented groups face multiple challenges entering the publishing industry: systemic racism, particularly anti-Blackness, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia—all of which affect not only the money one earns or the publicity one receives, but also the stories that one is, tacitly, expected to “perform.” This is true of any underrepresented group in publishing. There are not enough native writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and trans writers being published. Historically, for trans writers, there has been a proclivity to publish transition stories. And—I want to stress here—these are rich stories. But they are not the only stories. You can be trans and want to write about astrophysics, for instance. If a publishing industry doesn’t make space for more writers, with different stories, or starts to systematically only publish certain kinds of stories from an underrepresented group—that, I feel, is where we get into serious problems of misrepresentation. It creates an expectation among readers—especially not from that community—of how to interpret and consume communities in which they play no part.

Personally, I am interested in the question of nonfiction in the publishing industry and how this might highlight the very question of industry expectation. As with all genres, it is impossible to define nonfiction. But, perhaps, one—even if erroneous assumption—is the idea of truth status. That nonfiction confers a truth status upon an object of study or enquiry. Even if it’s lyrical, speculative, or experimental, mythological or poetic—nonfiction and the essay still have their roots in a perceived truth status. In the last few centuries, however, the essay and nonfiction have become entangled with Enlightenment logic, with rationalism, the Sciences, and the University as academy. With, in short, a pervasive whiteness and Eurocentrism. It’s telling that you have poetry books like Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, Jericho Brown’s New Testament, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas or Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and, yet, all these works read in some sense like book-length essays. Nonfiction and the essay tend to be very white, cis, heteronormative genres. And if not heteronormative, at least very white and cis. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Nor do I think it solely a product of the publishing industry. Instead, I believe it is indicative of society-wide, systemic bias. A bias that encourages and makes space for certain individuals to speak within nonfiction, which is to say, to speak with truth status, and to favour others in spaces like poetry or fiction—in the realms of the mythological or literary, but with an implicit removal of “fact,” “reality,” or real-world “truth.” And, yet, all the poetry books I just mentioned provide societal and political truths. Truths with real-world implications. Truths born from and destined to affect lived experience. They hold all manner of truths—spiritual, mythological. Essentially, I’m interested in why they are categorised as poetry. Why can’t they be essay? What have we—as a culture, a society—decided eliminates them from a category of essay, even from a category of poetry/essay. Because nonfiction hasn’t always been white or Eurocentric or concerned with the scientifically factual—ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Maya, these all possess rich and radically different histories of nonfiction. Mystical, poetic, visual. I would like to see more interrogation of our expectations around contemporary nonfiction, especially in the publishing industry, as I would the expectations that are placed upon narratives from underrepresented groups.

Natalya Sukhonos: Poetry, you said, is one of the genres that you are continuing to read nowadays, and I was wondering why poetry, and also, if you can share some poems that you’ve been reading recently, or some texts that have been interesting to you.

Lars Horn: I do read a lot of poetry and ancient texts. I’m a primarily visual, tactile, and spatial thinker. Poetry plays into that, as do ancient texts in their unusual forms. Alongside poetry and ancient texts, I actually look at books a great deal: volumes of sculpture, installation art. I’ve always found Fine Art to work similarly to poetry, but within space and time. Artworks juxtapose strange textures, imagery, objects. They force specific movement: the winding through an installation, the confined space of tight looking. And so does poetry, only on the page, which is, perhaps, why I respond well to it. The strange connections, a more lateral or spatial association—it resonates with how I experience the world. I struggle with works that require narrative continuity.

In terms of what I’m reading at the moment: Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Solmaz Sharif, and Tracy K. Smith are poets I deeply admire. I recently read and adored Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies. It starts with a protagonist frozen in the ice, but who still experiences the world through seven others. I don’t normally read novels, but it’s written sparingly, poetically, and uses blank space to brilliant effect. Put simply: it’s beautiful. And humorous—which is equally adept.

Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about your next project?

Lars Horn: I’m working on a book of experimental lyric essays that explores gods, religion, and faith across different times, places, and people. It stemmed from an interrogation of faith in my own life. Having attended a Catholic school, I feel a lot of affinity with Catholicism—its rites, rituals. Yet, I am queer and trans—which is not welcomed in the way I wish it were within the Church. I am interested in this, in the tension between faith as belief and its manifestation as human-enacted doctrine. I am also interested in wider questions: Will we resurrect? Is there an afterlife? What are the ramifications of a yes or a no. Formally, I hope to bring the essay form nearer to poetry, taking cues from the hybrid forms of nonfiction that are prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These traditions in which medical texts combine with spells, harvest decisions with the movements of god or planet; traditions in which poetry, mythology, and fact blend.

Natalya Sukhonos: I just wanted to say that I really resonated with your idea of reading as a process that’s textual and gestural.

Lars Horn: I’m pleased. I do believe reading could be expanded to a form of inquisitive interaction with the world. That we can still see a kind of poetry in that.

Image Credit: Richard Allen

Lars Horn is a writer and translator working in literary and experimental non-fiction. Their first book, VOICE OF THE FISH, won the 2020 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and was an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce Selection. Horn’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. They hold MAs from the University of Edinburgh, the École normale supérieure, Paris, and Concordia University, Montreal. They split their time between Miami, Colorado, and the UK with their wife, the writer Jaquira Díaz.

Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She is Assistant Professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University and has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of PoetryThe Saint Ann’s ReviewDriftwood PressLiterary MamaMiddle Gray MagazineReally System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press in 2021. 

Embattled Homeland: Readings by Authors Born in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova

Punctured Lines is happy to announce an in-person reading by seven women writers who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and now live in (or in one case, coming to visit) Los Angeles. This event follows the original Embattled Homeland reading during LitCrawl in San Francisco in 2022, with ex-Soviet immigrant writers living in the Bay Area. Like its San Francisco predecessor, the Los Angeles event is in support of Ukraine, which has been defending itself against Russia’s unprovoked attack for nearly a year. While the reading is free, we encourage people to donate to the vetted organizations below. Many thanks to Sasha Vasilyuk for organizing this event.

The reading will take place on Friday, January 20, 2023 at 7 pm at Stories Books & Cafe (1716 W. Sunset Blvd.). Please RSVP here.

Our performance is free, but please consider supporting these organizations:

Please read more about the writers below:

Julia Alekseyeva was born in Kyiv in the former USSR and emigrated to Chicago in childhood. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a graphic artist specializing in non-fiction comics. Her first full-length graphic novel, a nonfiction historical memoir entitled Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution, was published by Microcosm in January 2017 and won the VLA Diversity Award. She has published non-fiction graphic essays in The Nib, Jewish Currents, Paper Brigade, World Literature Today, and Lilith, and was one of the guest editors of the Soviet Issue of Jewish Currents in Winter-Spring 2022. www.jalekseyeva.com and @thesoviette on socials

Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter and translator. Her novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buzzfeed, and others, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and has been translated into Spanish, Catalan, French, German and Italian. She has published stories in various literary magazines and translated poetry and prose for Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008), short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She has done residencies at VCCA, Playa, Ucross, Art Omi: Writing and Fondation Jan Michalski in Switzerland. Born in Moscow, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1986. www.apekina.com

Inna Effress is a speechwriter, fiction writer, and poet who emigrated from Ukraine to the United States as a child. Her work appears in numerous publications, including CutBank, Air/Light Magazine, Santa Monica Review, Swan River Press’s Uncertainties series, and Strange Tales at 30 (Tartarus Press). Inna writes for grassroots organizations and leaders in California that are working to bring equitable outcomes to their communities. www.innaeffress.com / @InnaEffress on Twitter

Yelena Furman was born in what was then Kiev, the Soviet Union and is now Kyiv, Ukraine. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches Russian literature at UCLA. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative and the Willesden Herald, book reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Baffler, and academic articles in various venues. She and Olga Zilberbourg co-run Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures. Twitter @YelenaFurman

Rimma Kranet is a Ukrainian American writer with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from University of California Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Across The Margin, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Construction Lit, EcoTheo Collective, Fence, The Common Breath, Door Is A Jar Magazine, and others. Featured in The Short Vigorous Roots: A Contemporary Flash Fiction Collection of Migrant Voices and the IHRAF Ukrainian Voices Anthology. She resides between Florence, Italy and Los Angeles, California. Twitter @ RKranet

Ruth Madievsky is the author of a debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy (Catapult, 2023) and a poetry collection, “Emergency Brake” (Tavern Books, 2016). Her work appears in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. Originally from Moldova, she lives in Los Angeles, where she works as an HIV and primary care pharmacist. www.ruthmadievsky.com / @ruthmadievsky on socials.

Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and author of the novel Your Presence Is Mandatory, set between Hitler’s Germany and post-war Ukraine. It will be published in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Finland and Brazil in 2024. Sasha’s writing has been published in The New York Times, TIME, NBC, Harper’s Bazaar, BBC Radio, USA Today, The Telegraph, Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. Sasha grew up between Crimea, Moscow, and San Francisco. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and children. www.sashavasilyuk.com / @sashavasilyuk on socials

Every Story Deserves a Beautiful Happy Ending: A Review of Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, Edited and Translated by Tatiana Klepikova, by Dante Matero

Today’s review gives me special pleasure to feature on Punctured Lines, as Dante Matero was my student several years ago at UCLA. As he discusses below, Putin’s Russia is virulently homophobic, while as he also notes, the U.S. has its own share of highly regressive elements. In a heart-breaking and maddening coincidence, this review is coming out just after Russia has enacted its most far-reaching anti-LGBTQ law and in the aftermath in the U.S. of another mass shooting targeting LGBTQ members. Words cannot prevent homophobic laws or stop bullets. What they can do is offer a space of community and solidarity and to amplify marginalized voices. We at Punctured Lines stand with the LGBTQ communities in our old and new homes and are grateful to Dante for highlighting this unique and necessary collection. To support LGBTQ organizations, you can donate to RusaLGBTQ, which helps former Soviet immigrants in the U.S., and which, because of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, has started a GoFundMe for Ukrainian refugees in the U.S.

Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, Edited and Translated by Tatiana Klepikova, Review by Dante Matero

Although the number of LGBTQ books in the U.S. has risen sharply in recent years, the genre’s offerings—no longer “emerging” or “burgeoning,” but establishedstill fail to meet the demands of its (mostly) young, multilingual, global audience. Censorship of the genre has likewise expanded. Right-wing legislators are proving eager to fall in line with the anti-LGBTQ agenda of their constituents, and recent book banning campaigns are singling out books by queer-identifying authors and on LGBTQ topics. To those of us following Russian news, these tactics are eerily familiar.

In 2013, when the now-infamous “gay propaganda laws” were introduced in regional, then national, Russian government, Russian state media was rife with hateful caricatures of the LGBTQ community. Bolstered by laugh tracks, these “news” programs publicly shamed anyone skirting sexual or gender norms and often insinuated that they were pedophiles. Since then, the Russian population’s exposure to LGBTQ literature, media, and online spaces has been closely monitored and curtailed. In contrast to the Soviet-era strategy of penalizing gay sex acts, the Putin regime represses queer culture in an effort to stop the generational transmission of queer identity. Their tactic implies that non-heterosexuality is infectious, and their efforts have been incredibly successful. As a result of the ensuing stigma, Russian LGBTQ people have been subjected to immeasurable persecution and violence; they are the victims of taboos that differentiate “wrong” from “right,” always being pushed towards conformity. The emergence of a post-Soviet LGBTQ literary scene in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the 90’s and early aughts was unprecedented. Today, however, after more than a decade of targeted repression, LGBTQ authors, publishers, readers, and their allies have been systemically dislocated from each other. Although a society may progress, its taboos maintain dividing lines, ready to separate us one from the other. They scar societies, leaving marks as irrevocable as borderlines drawn on geographical maps.

Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights (Methuen Drama, 2021), edited and translated by Tatiana Klepikova, is a literary key to reading this map. Out of the shared queer experience reflected in the collection’s seven plays, Klepikova has rendered a topography of Russian society under Putin, carefully marking its safe passages, pitfalls, and borders. She has invited Russian theater’s most politically vulnerable LGBTQ playwrights to contribute: Valery Pecheykin, Natalya Milanteva, Olzhas Zhanaydarov, Vladimir Zaytsev, Roman Kozyrchikov, the duo Andrey Rodionov and Ekaterina Troepolskaya, and Elizaveta Letter. Furthermore, standing alone in its sub-sub-genre of queer Russian drama in translation, the book itself is a call for publishers to expand their queer offerings. It’s the kind of collection an undergrad Russian Lit major fresh out of the closet—I can confirm—would devour.

Klepikova’s collection arrives as relations between Russia and the U.S. have become mired in intractable conflict. Simultaneously, far-right politicians in both countries, from Governor DeSantis to President Putin, have been stirring up domestic culture wars in a time-honored tradition of political diversion, and in both places, newly-won civil rights are at risk or already lost, fallen victim to the old taboos. For refusing to omit LGBTQ issues from their social studies lessons, teachers in Florida face censure and termination, along with accusations of pedophilia. Meanwhile, in Russia, LGBTQ parents face the removal of adopted children from their custody. Recently, a lesbian couple and their two children were featured in a high-end supermarket chain’s online ad campaign, attempting to signal progressive values. The campaign backfired terribly and the family was forced to flee Russia, sparking international condemnation. Circulated on social media at the end of Pride 2021, the ad showed the couple—a feminine, dread-headed hippie and a butch lesbian with a blond buzzcut—looking at ease in the kitchen with their two teen daughters, one sporting dreads and the other looking tough. It drew a lot of hate online, where it attracted the attention of the Russian state’s political machine. While the company faced minor fines in Russia for what the authorities considered distributing pro-LGBTQ propaganda amongst minors, the two women and their daughters faced threats of violence online and in real life.

I was reminded of this regular queer family’s experience while reading A Child for Olya by Natalya Milanteva, who spent eighteen years in an Orthodox convent before finding a new life in the theatre. The anthology’s only play to feature lesbian characters, A Child for Olya centers on the end of a long-term relationship between two ordinary women in Moscow. Olya is riddled with anxiety, her maternal longing for a child mixing perversely with the fear of being outed and labelled a monster, while Zhenya is content with their life as it is, despite her nosy mother’s meddling. The couple, like so many LGBTQ partners in homophobic societies, has to tell their parents and colleagues that they live as roommates. Eventually, the lies turn Olya restless and bitter, leading her to pressure Zhenya for a child. The ensuing fight precipitates the end of their relationship, a casualty of a society that aims to drive lesbians to extinction. (If you have to guess which one of them actually gets pregnant, you haven’t seen enough Russian theater!) Despite the play’s classically Russian unhappy ending, the playwright uses her “Author’s address” to warn that the play is not about “the plight of LGBTQ persons in Russian society.” Rather, Milanteva wishes to convey the message “that love is a precious gift that is rare to get and hard to keep.” This wish is quickly broken as the play refuses to stay in Milanteva’s sealed box. Precious and rare as it may be, Olya and Zhenya’s love is traumatizingly fragile under these social conditions. They are left half-broken and starving for love by their relationship’s end. Indeed, every character in this collection is searching, or at least hungry, for connection, but Milanteva’s narrative locates that loneliness inside a queer relationship, where one would not expect to find it at all. Her play left me wondering not if queer people in Russia could find love, but how they could ever manage to hold onto it.

In Olzhas Zhanaydarov’s The Pillow’s Soul, set in a preschool at recess, the main character does not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, but as a pillow named Bucky. On Bucky’s first day at preschool, the other naptime pillows—Fuzzy, Cushy, Smarty, etc.— spot some grain spilling from a tear in his seam and, alarmed, ask why he is missing his feathers. It is in this moment that Bucky learns for the first time he is filled with buckwheat—different to the core—and he begins to spiral, looking to the others for answers. However, all they offer him are ominous warnings of an underground place called the “Mentbase” (“basement” inverted), where humans stick old and damaged pillows. Even as the other pillows lose interest and go back to sleep, Bucky keeps obsessing over his perceived flaw:

Bucky prods himself, buckwheat rustles inside him.

Bucky Why is there buckwheat in me? I’m not a pot, for pillow’s sake!

He tries to shake out the buckwheat—jumps, twists, stands on his head, gives himself a few good shakes, rustling loudly all the while. Fuzzy wakes up.

Fuzzy  Bucky, what are you doing there? Stop it. You’ll lose all your filling and die, you know.

Bucky stops and tries to catch his breath. He sighs. Stumbles away slowly—buckwheat keeps trickling out of the hole.

Bucky (sad) Why live like this? Nobody needs buckwheat…

Subtitled “A Play for Children,” The Pillow’s Soul may be written for a younger audience, but it grapples with weighty themes like social isolation, shame, and even body dysmorphia. Instead of offering to help patch the hole in Bucky’s seam, some pillows advise him to replace the buckwheat with feathers. As Fuzzy says, “No down, no feathers—no pillow!” Others question if his condition is contagious, harkening back to the panic of the early AIDS era that stigmatized a generation of queer people. Out of the often deeply emotional plays collected in Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, the one written for children, about pillows, was not the one I expected to make me cry. However, it was hard not to identify with Bucky; I was a closeted kid in a Baptist school, and bullies always used my insecurities against me, too. In the end, Bucky learns that his differences are what make him valuable, as his owner, Kostya, turns out to have severe allergies and cannot tolerate most pillows. He becomes proud of his buckwheat, learns to love himself, and steps out of his shame. Skirting LGBTQ characters and terminology but concealing a message of tolerance for the queer community, the play represents one slice of a genre “that many lawmakers are trying to legislate out of existence” (Jessica Winter, “What Should a Queer Children’s Book Do?”).

Interestingly, although The Pillow’s Soul is the only play out of the seven that is explicitly created for kids, most of the collected plays grapple with the fraught relationship between queer people and children in Russia. The subject is most provocatively addressed in the collection’s standout play, A Little Hero, by Valery Pecheykin. A master of the craft, Pecheykin weaves a dark fable featuring a young, self-hating gay dictator’s rise to power and the ensuing genocidal homophobia, bit of romance, and chorus of clear-eyed victims. Early in the play, Vovochka’s desire to kiss his best friend is unexpectedly realized. Instead of happiness, however, he is overcome with rage, paranoid that his friend might expose his secret. His ensuing rant is a brilliant foreshadowing of his tyranny:

Vovochka  I had my suspicions about these perversions in you. I saw them in the way you look at me [… I]f you betray me … I don’t know what I’d do to you, but whatever I’d do, they won’t put me in jail, ‘cause I’m still a child, like you. It’s adults that aren’t allowed to do anything to us, but children to children—that’s another story.

Pecheykin’s cutting dialogue, impeccably translated here, often appears in interviews and recollections that allow Vovochka and his victims to tell their own stories. The result is breathtaking, frightening, and one of the best plays to come out of Russia in a decade.

Roman Kozyrchikov’s Satellites and Comets is a pensive, dramatic memoir in which a gay Muscovite’s visit to his ailing, nostalgic mother takes him back to the small village where he grew up and first fell in love:

Mom   I’m ready to retire. I’d play with my grandson. Or with my granddaughter. I had a dream that you’d have two daughters. (Knocks on wood.) I saw it very clearly. So, I’m waiting now.

Silence.

Me      People must love children because they miss themselves.

This play sets a moody tone that is quickly broken by Andrey Rodionov and Ekaterina Troepolskaya’s Summer Lightning, a whimsical play in verse about ancient forest spirits working queer, pagan magic on unsuspecting children in a dystopian Russia of the future. Finally, the collection is rounded out by Vladimir Zaytsev’s Every Shade of Blue, an emotionally wrought, classically Russian family drama about a gay teen’s coming out, and Elizaveta Letter’s A City Flower, the soul-searching, full-throated monologue of a young Russian woman in the midst of transitioning. Though Letter’s writing is at times clunky, it’s also engaging and honest. She closes her play—and the collection—with a contemplative and hopeful “P.S.”:

Erika, in a gown. She stands in the spotlight.

—Every life is a challenge. Every story deserves a beautiful happy ending. An ending which marks not the end of life, but the beginning of a new, wonderful, long-awaited life.

The most important thing. I am not alone anymore. On my birthday. It’s a present I’ve earned. Like a blessing, a talented, smart, and loving man entered my life. It is in his hands that a City Flower will blossom.

Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights is an ambitious and painstaking feat of heterodoxy, showcasing Russian theater’s most politically vulnerable playwrights whose work is nearly impossible to find in English. For this mammoth project, Klepikova’s translations needed to remain cohesive despite the various playwrights’ idiosyncratic styles, while conveying political and cultural context. Somehow, she accomplishes this feat. She avoids the jarring reading experience that often results from multiple translators’ efforts. In the book’s foreword, Klepikova’s comes out as an ally, but these days, that label gets used by everyone from Donald Trump to the bachelorette-party arrivistes getting bounced from the gay bar. Honestly, I hate the word “ally.” I’d rather have an accomplice. But Klepikova liberates banned lit through translation as if she were a mouthpiece facilitating a conversation, not just between LGBTQ readers but between all readers—using her position as an ally to let us tell our own stories to each other with fluidity.

Dante Matero lives in New York City, where he earned an M.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Columbia University. His writing has been published by The Institute of Modern Russia, Office Magazine, Prism, PEN America, Rip Rap, and others. With Susan Kresin and Susie Bauckus, he co-wrote an essay on Russian language use in modern-day Los Angeles, which was published in the anthology Multilingual La La Land (Routledge, 2021).

Readings by Authors Born in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova at San Francisco’s Lit Crawl

Update: there has been a venue change. This event is now happening at Stage Werx Theatre, 446 Valencia Street.

Punctured Lines is co-hosting a Lit Crawl reading by six Bay Area writers born in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova. Shaken by the horrific tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we will read pieces exploring our connections, direct and indirect, to the part of the world we associate with home and exile, and where many of our friends and relatives are suffering as a result of the war. We work in the genres of nonfiction, literary and historical fiction, YA, flash, and other literary forms to tell our stories, and will read excerpts from our published and new work.

This event will take place at 5 pm on October 22nd at Blondie’s Bar Stage Werx Theatre, 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco .

Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer and lecturer in the English department at Santa Clara University. She was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and grew up in San Francisco. She has a PhD in comparative literature from UC San Diego. Her creative nonfiction and journalism have appeared in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, The LA Times, Current Affairs, and Lithub. Twitter: @MLevantovskaya

Masha Rumer‘s nonfiction book about immigrant families, Parenting with an Accent, was published by Beacon Press in 2021, with a paperback coming out in October 2022. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Parents, and more, winning awards from the New York Press Association. Twitter: @MashaDC

Originally from Kishinev, Moldova, Tatyana Sundeyeva is a Russian-American writer living in San Francisco. She writes short fiction, travel writing, and Young Adult novels and has been published in Oyster River Pages, Cleaver, and Hadassah Magazine. Twitter: @TeaOnSundey

Vlada Teper is a writer and educator from Moldova. Her essays have been featured in Newsweek and on NPR. A former Fulbright Scholar in Russia, Teper is the founder of Inspiring Multicultural Understanding (IMU) Peace Club. With MAs in English and Education from Stanford University, Vlada is the recipient of the 826 Valencia Teacher of the Month Award. Twitter: @VladaTeper

Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and author of forthcoming novel YOUR PRESENCE IS MANDATORY set between Ukraine and Nazi Germany (Bloomsbury, 2024). She has written about Eastern Europe for The New York Times, TIME, BBC, Harper’s Bazaar, NBC, USA Today, Narrative, and others. Twitter: @SashaVasilyuk

Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language story collections. She has published fiction and essays in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She co-edits Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures, and co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop. Twitter: @bowlga

“Writing Fiction Allows Us to Build Bridges”: Ian Ross Singleton and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry in Conversation

Punctured Lines is happy to host a conversation between Ian Ross Singleton, author of Two Big Differences (M-Graphics Publishing, 2021) and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, author of The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022). The novels’ synopses are below, and you can listen to the writers read excerpts here. Both of these works feature post-/late Soviet space, Ukraine in Two Big Differences and late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia in The Orchard. To support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, you can donate here and here, as well as to several other organizations doing work on the ground. If in addition you would like to support Russian protesters, you can donate for legal help here.

Ian Ross Singleton, Two Big Differences: In Two Big Differences, Zinaida is returning to Odesa, Ukraine, after having lived in the U.S., where she met her traveling companion, Valya, a native of Detroit. Having grown up in Odesa, Zina has a sharp sense of humor. Returning home during the 2014 Ukrainian Spring (Euromaidan), she relies on humor as a tool for survival, as she and Valya navigate their way through the confusing and violent conflict. In Odesa, they meet Zina’s father, Oleg, and other characters from her past and present, and each must decide on which side they stand.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, The Orchard: Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening to Queen songs, and fantasizing about trips abroad and the lives of American teenagers. By the time the girls are fifteen, the Soviet Empire is on the verge of collapse, and the fleeting time they have together is cut short by a sudden tragedy. Years later, Anya returns to Russia from America, where she has chosen a different kind of life, far from her family and childhood friends. Haunted by the ghosts of her youth, Anya comes to the stark realization that memory does not fade or disappear; rather, it moves across time, connecting our past to our future, joys to sorrows.  

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry interviews Ian Ross Singleton about Two Big Differences.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: What are the origins and inspirations for Two Big Differences? How long did it take you to write it?

Ian Ross Singleton: I have been a student (although not through any university) of the Russian language since 2006, when I met my partner, the poet and teacher Natalya Sukhonos, who is from Odesa, Ukraine. Eventually, we ended up traveling there for part of our honeymoon in 2010 and then again in 2012 to visit a family friend who was dying. As a child, Natalya used to talk to the trees of Odesa. At the dacha of this family friend who was dying of cancer, there were two twin trees in the yard. I suppose the trees told me something back. I stayed a little longer than Natalya that summer in Odesa. When I made the long journey home to San Francisco, where we were living at the time, one early morning I put my jet lag to good use and started writing this novel. It was based on something my father-in-law, also from Odesa, said about two twins, like those trees. One immigrated, and one remained in the post-Soviet world. Since my relationship with Natalya began, my life has more or less become spread across two linguistic modes: American English and Ukrainian Russian.

So, similar to The Orchard, it all starts at a dacha. And it took nine years to publish, which meant a lot of editing and polishing.

KGN: There are many wonderful анекдоты throughout the novel. They remind me of that peculiar “Odesa” humor. Where do those jokes come from? Why are they so important to the story? And if you had to pick a favorite, which one would it be?

IRS: During the last fourteen years since I met Natalya, I also became a student of Odesan humor, which I would identify as a specific category of gallows humor. Jokes often belie inner trauma, of course. They often come from a desperate need to smile, maybe even laugh. On the other hand, constant sarcasm can be identified as a kind of hidden hostility, and I wanted to get this aspect of humor into Two Big Differences as well, such as when Valya first meets Oleg. Humor can harm, and humor can heal. Look at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense twitter account. They use humor and trolling to counter Russian trolling, which is hostile. The Ministry of Defense’s response can be powerful, and it can perhaps be healing. Humor can diminish but also lift up a person in a vulnerable place, such as in a foreign country speaking a language different from the one they’ve spoken their whole life. I had to get the two sides of humor into the novel.

If I have to pick a favorite анекдот, it would be the one about traveling to Yalta at the beginning of Chapter Two. I hope I don’t ruin it in my translation: “Two travelers are on a boat. One asks, ‘Where are we headed?’ ‘Yalta,’ says the other. The first says, ‘You said we’re headed to Yalta because you thought I would think we’re not headed to Yalta. But we’re definitely headed to Yalta. Why are you lying?’”

KGN: I write in a foreign language about my native culture; you write in your mother tongue about a foreign land. Do you find it captivating, rewarding, challenging? Did you have to do any research? Brush up on history?

IRS: I found it very captivating to write about this foreign land that certainly captured me the last time I was there, in 2012, when it was Odessa with a double “s” under Viktor Yanukovych, a place that is now gone in so many ways. I find it very rewarding if a reader enjoys what I have to say about this place that is foreign to me. I find it very rewarding if anybody reads anything I wrote about any place. Many people, including some from Eastern Europe, have said some very kind things about my novel. That is the greatest reward.

Challenging? It’s easier to say what wasn’t challenging: describing Valya’s (and Zina’s when she was in the U.S.) feelings of alienation and isolation. My native culture is that of the U.S., of course. But I’ve lived all over this country, and I have never not felt foreign or like an outsider in any place other than Detroit, where I was born, even though I don’t necessarily feel at home there either. Detroit is unlike most of the other places I’ve lived, like San Francisco or New York City. People, like those in my extended family, are not as transient there. But the fact that I’ve lived elsewhere, even within the same country, has made me foreign even to my home.

I did do research, both formal and informal. It helped to be able to speak Russian and talk to people in Ukraine and the U.S. And it helped to be able to read novels like those of Valentin Kataev and others. I had to brush up on the history of May 2, 2014, when supporters of the Euromaidan Movement clashed with those who wanted to maintain the subaltern status of Ukraine in relation to Russia. This history is still being written and rewritten—like most histories, I suppose. I watched freely available documentaries on YouTube, talked to people from that part of the world. As with so many things Odesan, people have different opinions and are vehemently sure of them, even within the same family. However, differences of opinion about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia ceased on February 24, 2022, of course, when Russia invaded Ukraine and escalated the war from the Donbas to all of Ukraine. Coincidentally, that was the night I did a reading from Two Big Differences in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. Many of the audience members asked me whether there would be an invasion. It didn’t seem believable then.

KGN: What was the hardest thing to write? What was the easiest? Do you personally identify with any of the characters?

Odesa, Ukraine; Google images

IRS: The hardest thing to write was probably Oleg, Zina’s father who lives in Odesa and speaks Russian, with almost no English. So his thinking happens only in the Russian language. While I can think in Russian, it’s very difficult to imagine not being able to think in English. And I believe that my thoughts in English affect my character and, were they absent, would make me a different person. Oleg doesn’t have much English at all; Russian completely forms his personality. There’s one person I can think of in my life who hardly spoke any English. But she was very different from Oleg and spoke Surzhyk, a hybrid language that mixes Ukrainian and Russian words, types of which can vary based on the region of Ukraine from which a speaker comes. So I took different inspiration from her. Now that I’m learning Ukrainian, I’m able to understand more about Surzhyk. And in my family, we speak a kind of Russian-English Surzhyk, or hybrid language, that is now starting to reincorporate some of the Ukrainian of Natalya’s childhood and that is new to me.

The easiest character to write was probably Valya. Of course, I can identify with him most of all. But I often found I had to check myself with him. Any similarities between us shouldn’t have let me not treat him as objectively as any other character. But I like him less than Zina. Zina is me deep down. I love her so deeply, more deeply than Valya, so deeply that I wrote a worse fate for her than I ever did for Valya. The more love I have for a character, the worse I arrange their fate, it would seem. I don’t know what that says about me as a person…

I could also use my identity as a father to help with Oleg. I think that I identify with all of my characters. I’m not sure I could write them without that. Such an idea can be frightening when you have somebody who’s truly horrible (like Anton, a minor character from Zina’s past). But I think that writers must do that, no matter how dark the character’s inner maps.

KGN: You write about Ukraine; I write about Russia. Two big differences! And yet, I couldn’t help thinking that both our novels grew out of love and that writing fiction allows us to build bridges, connect cultures and generations. Despite the horrors of this war, we must find a way to communicate. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D says to Sethe: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” What will you write next? What kind of books will be birthed in the future? Will there be a future?

IRS: I’m learning Ukrainian as a small bridge, a way of resisting the culture war that Putin’s Russia is waging against Ukraine. My novel was supposed to bridge English and Russian, America and Ukraine (or the Russian-speaking world as represented by Ukraine). I never saw a need to bridge Russia and Ukraine coming. I’m working on something now that comes very much from what I think and feel about the war. And I hope that Two Big Differences can be some kind of bridge. I’m not sure if it can be a tomorrow since it’s so much about the past, at this point the very distant past, because so much has changed since the Russian invasion and had already been changing since 2014. I’ll always be an outsider. But this position gives me an advantage. I don’t have any personal hang-ups about defending Russian culture or the Russian language from criticisms and from those who have abandoned it because of the war. I understand such an attitude of refusing Russian culture, of course. But I don’t share it.

Of places in the world where Russian is spoken widely, I’ve spent most time in Ukraine, not Russia. I was only in Russia for a week in 2008. And I don’t know if I’ll ever go there again. But I’m sure I’ll go to Ukraine again. So my some kind of tomorrow is in Ukraine.

***

Ian Ross Singleton interviews Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry about The Orchard.

Ian Ross Singleton: In your author’s note, you write a lot about loss. Can you talk about how The Orchard is about loss?

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: As a writer, all I ever want to do is to tell a story the best way I know how. The Orchard is a commemorative tale about a childhood friendship. It is also my attempt at remembering those who died fighting for Russia’s newly fledged democracy in the early 1990s, and who I lost without being able to say goodbye. The novel grew out of that loss, the inability to mourn someone other than through a narrative act. I wanted the readers to feel that loss, wanted to make it as real or palpable to them as it has always been to me. And it took me many years and much heartache to be able to write The Orchard, but I regarded it as my duty, my moral obligation to let the world know what had happened to my generation during perestroika, as well as to our country that no longer exists.

IRS: You write, “I was always amazed how bodies could convey [knowledge], how they could exchange information without words or much sound, how they could protect, nurture, and sustain, the bare tremble of someone’s skin against your own.” You also write about women victims of the gulag: “Most women talked about their bodies existing separately from their minds, as though their heads had been cut off, their limbs numb and distant.” Anya’s reaction to hearing the whole truth about Milka is so visceral and includes no abstraction at all. And there is this: “Sometimes a parent could become a mountain in flat land; other times a mountain could be washed down to a mound of sand.” Finally, there’s: “I remembered my grandmother saying how the earth could make invisible the deepest wounds, hide the thickest scars.” I think you get what I’m pointing out: how does The Orchard interact with embodiment?

KGN: Thank you for singling out some of my very favorite lines, although my answer to your question might not be entirely satisfying. To me, a novel is a live being. As long as people keep reading the book, they keep experiencing all that is happening with/to the characters, and the story keeps on living. I want my readers to be involved, active, paying attention to the use of language and to all the minute details of the story—the landscape, the atmosphere, the food, the drinks, the music, the movies, the clothes, the homes, the feelings of love, lust, pain, grief, longing—so at some point, the readers become part of the narrative and embody the characters. For that experience to take place, all the senses must be present on the page. The readers must know how things look, smell, taste, or feel while being transported into a foreign world, so different from their own. And as a writer, that’s my task—to give birth to that imaginary (but also very real) world, in all its ugliness and beauty, agony and bliss, heartache and loveliness.

IRS: In The Orchard, if individual bodies carry suffering, does the territory where a culture resides experience that too? What does this idea mean in relation to Ukraine today?

KGN: I think the “territory” suffers just as much as its inhabitants. It absorbs everything, all the woes and crimes committed against its citizens or the rest of the world. If you abuse your homeland, it grows hostile, barren, cold, ostracized. It dies, both spiritually and physically. I don’t know what it means in regards to Ukraine, but I do know that Ukraine will survive and prosper, as it has done for centuries. It’s a mighty country populated by mighty people, who’ll spare no effort defending and rebuilding their home.

IRS: In The Orchard, you mention a “rule” that a Soviet woman should have three children, “one for herself; one for her husband; and one for those who’d perished in the war.” Can you talk about this “rule” and Soviet womanhood in particular and how you’ve depicted Soviet womanhood and/or womanhood in general in your novel?

Propaganda poster for heroine-mothers, USSR; Google images

KGN: Twenty-seven million Soviet people died in World War II. To revive the nation, it had to be repopulated. This principle was widely preached, especially to the post-war generation. My mother was born right after the war, but even during her younger years, the same principle applied. To answer the second part of your question: There always existed wonderful camaraderie between women in Soviet Russia, where I grew up. A woman’s world seemed to be very different from a man’s. Womanhood in the Soviet Union was burdened with incessant duties and responsibilities—for your work, your family, your children, your home, your garden. A Soviet woman was also expected to excel in everything she did, including her appearance and education. She had to be well-read, culture-savvy, fashionable, and worldly, which is funny because most Soviet people couldn’t travel outside the country; they weren’t allowed. However, a lot of Soviet women I know are resilient and resourceful, smart, ambitious, fearless, and restless. They carry mountains on their shoulders. It never ceases to amaze me how much they’ve accomplished and how much they’ve endured. Their sense of place, friendship, love, loyalty is astounding. On top of having spectacular careers, they are some of the best mothers and wives/partners I know. The novel’s protagonist, Anya, her mother, and grandmother are those women: righteous, hard-working, selfless, the embodiment of great spirit and care. But there’s also Milka’s mother, who neglected and abused her only daughter, and that’s why I had to write The Orchard—not to revel in Anya’s family, which is the opposite of Milka’s, but to show the difference and what that difference does to a child and her self-awareness, her survival in the world. If a daughter can’t trust her parents, who will that daughter become as an adult? How can one grow into a healthy, confident self when one has been betrayed by the very person who was supposed to love her most? I wanted to explore the lovelessness of Milka’s home, her reality, her everyday life and how it was transformed by her friendship with Anya, its tender intimacy and tragic circumstances.

IRS: What would you say to a reader who might say to you, “That’s not how it was!”?

KGN: No, of course not, but that’s how I imagined it. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction—we get second chances at first things. First love. First friendship. First marriage. We get to do it all over again, only better, with more compassion and understanding, and more humanity too.

Ian Ross Singleton was born in Detroit and has lived in Alabama, Munich, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. He is the Nonfiction Editor of Asymptote and teaches Writing and Critical Inquiry at the University at Albany. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in Saint Ann’s Review, Cafe Review, New Madrid, Fiddleblack, Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Writers Review. The novel Two Big Differences, published in October 2021, is his debut.

A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry moved to the U.S. in 1995, after having witnessed perestroika and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Writing in English, her second language, she published fifty stories and received nine Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Zoetrope: All Story, Joyland, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Gorcheva-Newberry is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the 2020 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her first collection of stories, What Isn’t Remembered, long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize. Her debut novel, The Orchard, was published by Ballantine Books in March 2022. The paperback edition will be a Penguin Random House Book Club title, forthcoming in March 2023.

From Black Panthers to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and More: A Conversation with the Author of Revolutions of All Colors Dewaine Farria

Revolutions of All Colors (Syracuse UP, 2020) first came to my attention when we were putting together Punctured Lines’ 2021 Books for Review list. The novel’s description indicated that it featured African-American characters and was set, in part, in Ukraine. Intrigued, I looked it up and found myself completely immersed in the multi-generational saga that intertwines locations and histories that I had not previously seen connected.

This novel opens in New Orleans in the 1970s, with Ettie, a young African-American woman who, unsatisfied with what she perceives as her preacher father’s complacence in the face of racial violence, becomes involved with the Black Panther Party. The story details a dramatic incident of police brutality against the Panthers and the long-term repercussions of this violence.

The novel then jumps forward in time to the 1990s, when Ettie becomes a prison counselor and raises her son, Simon, in Antoine, Oklahoma—a town where a quarter of the population is employed by the state prison. We then move to a different point of view character, Frank, a well-respected prison guard, who takes Simon under his wing and raises him alongside his sons, Michael and Gabriel. From there, the book opens up even further to the perspectives of these young men and moves locations to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2005, and Kyiv, Ukraine in 2004, before returning stateside to New Jersey in 2006 and later that year back to Oklahoma.     

Though this book has been called a novel-in-stories, and each piece stands very well on its own, at the end of each story I found myself yearning to turn the page, to know what happened next in the lives of these characters. In this way, it reads as a multi-generational family saga condensed to a few brief chapters.

Having finished the book, I emailed the author, Dewaine Farria, and he generously agreed to answer a few questions. The following conversation was completed over email during Farria’s residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony.

Punctured Lines: In a Q&A with Book Culture, you said that the book grew out of the first story set in New Orleans. Could you tell us more about how your writing developed from there—when and how did you conceive the three central characters, Michael, Gabriel, and Simon, whom we first meet as young boys and see grow up in the course of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: While a Boren Fellow at the Kyiv Linguistic Institute from 2004–05 (during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), I supplemented my income by teaching English as a second language. In this capacity, I substituted at a posh Ukrainian secondary school for a couple of weeks, taught “Business English” for a few private firms, and tutored one very rich kid in a high-rise apartment overlooking a Soviet-era TSUM department store that now blinked with advertisements for Benneton and Bvlgari. I returned to the States in late 2005 to begin a position as a contract analyst in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, mostly doing translations. It was around this time that I first got the idea for a novel about a Black American teacher of English as a second language in Kyiv—the character that eventually morphed into Gabriel.  

I first conceived of Gabriel’s brother Michael and their friend Simon for the short story “Walking Point,” the original version of which was published in Line of Advance back in 2017. In the story, Frank—the prison warden narrator that you mentioned in your introduction—describes his service in Vietnam to all three boys, but at the behest of Simon who is considering joining the military.

Tim O’Brien once remarked that, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” I originally conceived of Michael holding Frank accountable for the war story he tells the boys. Bookish, bisexual, and brooding, Michael suffers to defy Black masculinity’s rigid confines of expression. The experience renders Michael emotionally bulletproof. He learns young that there’s no way not to suffer, but that people will try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it—including lying to each other and themselves.    

From his pedigree (Black Panther parents, war hero grandfather) to his service in the U.S. Special Operations community to a stint as a professional mixed martial artist, violence is central to Simon’s arc. For those capable of giving themselves over to it, violence can be one of life’s most intense pleasures: a visceral moral proposition that rearranges the universe into the present at its most absolute. As emergency medicine and mixed martial arts are among the endeavors that have demanded my closest consideration of violence, Simon became a paramedic and a fighter. 

Punctured Lines: In the scope of this novel, the chapters set in Ukraine take up a fairly small part. Gabriel, the youngest of the three protagonists, is an aspiring writer, and he goes to Ukraine to teach English and also as a quasi-retreat where he hopes to finish his book. While there, he falls in love with a woman named Tamara, who encourages him to move from writing Tolkienesque fantasy and focus on something closer to his own life. In a lovely post-modern gesture of make-believe, you allow the reader to assume that at least part of Revolutions of All Colors belongs to Gabriel’s pen. I know from reading your biography that you spent some time in Ukraine, and I would love to know how that time has helped to shape you as a writer?

Dewaine Farria: My wife, Iryna, anchored me to Kyiv, but my fascination with that part of the world began long before she and I met. During my junior year in high school, I happened upon a copy of Tolstoy’s Master and Man and Other Stories, which contained the grandmaster’s fictionalized account of the real-life 18th century separatist guerrilla, Haji Murat. For a sixteen-year-old obsessed with fantasy heroes, Tolstoy’s tale of valor, violence, and betrayal struck all the right notes. It was also the first story I ever read about counterinsurgency, a mode of conflict that has defined warfare in the 21st century. I subsequently flew through Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov’s short stories.

In Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou writes of her discovery of the Russian writers: 

I walked the sunny California streets shrouded in Russian mists. I fell in love with the Karamazov brothers and longed to drink from a samovar with the lecherous old father. Then Gorki became my favorite. He was the blackest, most dear, most despairing. The books couldn’t last long enough for me. I wished the writers were alive, turning out manuscripts for my addiction. I took to the Chekhov plays and Turgenev, but always returned in the late night, after I had collected my boodle, to Maxim Gorki and his murky, unjust world.

For my part, I pictured cities that were snow-dusted amalgamations of Moscow, Prague, and Paris. Locales brimming with intellectuals, radicals, and artists living in the sort of romantic poverty that I imagined bred great culture.

Dewaine Farria, Amman, Jordan, 1999

I enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school and volunteered for embassy guard duty at the first opportunity (back then you had to earn the rank of corporal before applying). After finishing a year and change at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, the Marine Detachments in Saint Petersburg and Moscow topped my “wish list.” I jotted the Detachments in Vladivostok and Kyiv into the third and fourth place slots with (as anyone who knows anything about the Marine Corps can attest) inordinately optimistic disregard.  

In December 2000, I stepped off a Ukrainian Airlines flight at Boryspil International Airport, blowing into my palms and looking up at a sky like a dull, grey smear—a twenty-something Marine Sergeant brimming with lion cub swagger. I last visited Ukraine in the summer of 2019, to christen our third child, return my father-in-law’s remains, and get some dental work done—more family business than vacation.

I ended up returning to Kyiv again and again for the same reasons other folks end up returning to Caracas or Cleveland. You meet someone, fall in love, and then discover that the package deal includes their hometown. For me now, Kyiv is friends and family who knew me when I was young. It’s dacha summers of darting swallows, dragonflies, and sun flowers—as well as drunken fistfights where I feared for my life. I’m not sure how Ukraine shaped me as a writer, but I do know that I cannot pretend to be unbiased when discussing the country or its people.                

Punctured Lines: Gabriel studies ballet, and his Soviet émigré teacher Sergei is a big influence in his life. But thinking further about the connections that you draw between the United States and the Soviet and post-Soviet space, you mention Angela Davis receiving USSR’s Lenin Peace Prize. The Soviet Union famously made overtures to prominent African Americans, affecting support for the cause of Black liberation—a bit of political theatre, with some kernel of earnest engagement. I’m curious to know to what extent this history is a part of the context for this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Along with the rest of his generation, the Black Power movement colored my father’s views of international relations. So—despite his career in the United States Air Force—my dad frequently touted Soviet anti-racist and anti-colonial rhetoric as one of our Cold War enemy’s most redeeming features. As I didn’t make any distinction between “Soviet” and “Russian” back then, my dad’s attitude certainly affected the way I approached the work of the Russian writers I read in my teens.

Under Putinism, the Russian Federation continues to exploit the West’s weakness and division, and race continues to play a huge role in this. The Cold War maxim that “Everyone in America is racist and everyone in Russia is Russian” reflects how the American concept of race remains an easily exploited societal fault line. In the novel, I wanted to give a glimpse as to how the political theatre surrounding exploiting this fault line looked to the public within the Soviet Union.  

Incidentally, I first heard the story of Angela Davis receiving the Lenin Peace Prize from one of the drivers at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv back in 2000. Guy named Andre. Big Stevie Wonder fan.

“She had been one of the Чёрные Пантеры,” Andre said of Angela Davis during our conversation, and I immediately committed the phrase to memory: Чёрные Пантеры. Then, he asked, “Whatever happened to them?”

Punctured Lines: Going beyond Soviet sloganeering, what Gabriel encounters on the streets of Kyiv is a whole bunch of unfettered racism as well as some benign curiosity about a Black American traveler. He also meets a local woman, Tamara, and the two begin a passionate love affair. Tamara is quite a sinister presence—she works for an international arms dealer, and her contracts extend to Africa and Asia.

In addition, you introduce a Jewish character, Max, who helps Gabriel and the reader to navigate the complex cultural landscape with nuance and savvy. These and other characters in the story create a fascinating representation of Ukraine at a transitional moment without falling back on stereotypes. I’m curious how you came up with Tamara and Max and what were some of the issues that arose for you in trying to describe Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004?

Dewaine Farria: I don’t attempt to write characters with an identity different from mine unless I already have someone like that in my life whom I love. I don’t necessarily model the character on that person but keeping them in mind sustains my cognizance of the responsibility writing outside of your identity entails. Especially when you’re writing from the first-person POV, as I do with Tamara.

With a Georgian father and Russian mother, Tamara refers to her ethnicity as “mongrel,” but I like to think of it as “Soviet.” Either way, Tamara is a citizen of Ukraine. Max’s ethnicity is Jewish, and he too is a citizen of Ukraine. Two citizens with very different views of the country, due—in part—to their ethnic identities. Gabriel couldn’t have asked for better cultural liaisons.   

For Tamara, the Orange Revolution holds the prospect that her country—the only country she has known for her entire adult life—might finally shed the residue of the empire capitalism defeated. As she puts it in the novel:

Before the Orange Revolution, Kyivites bitched about the wife-beating Afghan war veteran in the flat next door and the bumzhiki drinking themselves blind in Mariyinsky Park. Now we were having our first inferiority-free discussions of the European Union, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance was running vacancy ads in Kyiv’s English-language weeklies. Even expats like Gabriel—that is, expats without Ukrainian hyphenated identities—could not ignore the fire in the air. For a stark beautiful moment, my tribe—by far one of the world’s gloomiest—transformed into true believers.

Many of the aviators in the United Nations Department of Peace Operations hail from the former Soviet Union. While working in Mogadishu, I would occasionally find myself inebriated with these guys and—man—did they have some stories. One of which sparked the idea to make Tamara an arms dealer. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers and Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld also influenced the world of white, grey, and black arms deals that I wanted Tamara to inhabit. A world that also bleeds into Simon’s chapter in Somalia, “Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Misfits.” 

Max’s perspective as an Eastern European Jew corrects some of Gabriel’s more rosy notions about the Orange Revolution. As Max puts it in this exchange with Gabriel in the novel:

“The hypocrisy of these anti-Semitic Cossacks suddenly pretending to be liberal with all this Orange Revolution nonsense disgusts me. Truly. I swear, I prefer the Russians now. At least you know where you stand with them.”

Before I can get a word in, Max jams a finger into my sternum.

“Save it. I’m an Eastern European Jew, man. I know the depths these motherfuckers can sink to.”

When I served in Kyiv, the U.S. State Department rented a large home in the city’s Syrets district for use as the Marine barracks (usually called the “Marine House” in U.S. diplomatic circles). As the infamous site of the Babi Yar massacre, living in Syrets got me interested in Kyiv’s Jewish community. An interest that led me to Anatoly Kuznetsov’s memoir, Babi Yar—a phenomenal book that, for some reason, no one really talks about much. Kuznetsov named his book for the ravine across the street from the Marine House, where Kyiv’s German occupiers murdered at least 33,771 Jewish children, women, and men.  

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything’s Illuminated influenced how I wanted Max to sound.   

While working in Jerusalem as UN field security officer, I got the idea to make Simon a “re-patriate”—someone who returned to Kyiv after serving his mandatory stint in the Israeli army. The Israelis are by far the most casually racist security personnel I worked with during my career. But, as a former Marine, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I recognized aspects of their police and military culture. But most of all, Max is based on a friend, and he remains one of my favorite characters.         

Punctured Lines: Thinking about the book’s title, I posit that each character in this book experiences his or her own revolutions, both in the very real political sense, as well as metaphorically—revolutions that transform their understandings of themselves and the world around them. What does this title mean to you and how did you come up with it?  

Dewaine Farria: Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview with Adrian Boneberger at the WBT podcast. In his explanation of the title, he’d found a correlation between the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and American race relations. I just listened to the episode again and his explanation still sounds pretty good. But then your explanation feels right on point, too… Far be it from me to tell readers how to interpret the title!    

Punctured Lines: One of the central themes of this novel, I believe, is the culture of violence to which Black and Brown kids are so often subjected growing up in the United States. Simon, perhaps, comes the closest to embracing this violence and turning it into a kind of art, first by joining the military, and later as he becomes a mixed martial arts fighter. I see Gabriel attempting to reflect on this experience of violence in his fiction. Michael, Gabriel’s older brother, has the most exceptional response to violence. As a teen, he suffers from the Dostoevskian “sacred disease”—epilepsy, and his epileptic episodes often seem to occur in anticipation of, or as a reaction to fighting around him. He starts to understand himself as a bisexual, becomes a fashion writer, and moves to New York City. In the same Q&A with Book Culture you mention being heavily influenced by the work of James Baldwin. Am I right in reading Dostoevsky and Baldwin as two of the prototypes for this character? I’d love to know what your additional influences in writing this novel have been.

Dewaine Farria: I drew heavily from both Dostoevsky and Baldwin for the character of Michael. Thom Jones’s story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” also played a big role in my conception of the left temporal lobe fits that plague Michael during his teen years. Here’s Jones’s Vietnam veteran narrator describing “the sacred disease”:  

Dostoyevski {sic} was nervous and depressed, a tormented hypochondriac, a compulsive writer obsessed with religious and philosophic themes. He was hyperloquacious, raving, etc. & etc. His gambling addiction is well known. By most accounts he was a sick soul.

The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially a part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine. It was the experience of satori. Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme. He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.

Punctured Lines: Your book came out in December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and now Ukraine, the country that plays such an important role in this book, is under attack from Russia. Your characters feel so alive to me that I’m tempted to ask, how Simon, Michael, and Gabriel are holding up through it all. I am also impressed with how well the characters and the world you’ve created prepare us for this violence that broke out in the real world: you pointed out so many problems that have been brewing for decades. I would love to know what you think writers can do in the face of war, and if your thoughts on this have changed after the publication of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Thank you so much for saying that, Olga. I really appreciate the care and attention with which you read my work.  

The war in Ukraine is this generation’s Spanish Civil War—the conflict that future generations will look back on and wonder why good people didn’t do more. This generation’s response to nationalist-fueled authoritarianism will define it. As Timothy Snyder pointed out recently in the New York Times, people continue to disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism—but today’s Russia meets most of the criteria:

It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.

In many ways, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a war against the humiliation that many Russians felt during the tracksuit banditry that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Grievance-fueled nationalism has always been a precursor to war and revolution. In such circumstances, writers would do well to remember that all art is political, and we owe allegiance—above all—to the truth.

Punctured Lines: This novel was such a wonderful read, and I can’t wait to see where your writing takes us next. If you care to share what you’re working on now, I would love to hear about it!

Dewaine Farria: I’ve been hard at work on a dystopic short story collection that stitches together myriad points of view and overlapping timeframes to de-familiarize the brutality of America’s criminal justice system, highlighting the connections between the marginalized and disaffected the world over. The project focuses on the central premise of both militarized policing and mass incarceration: the view of certain communities as outside the social contract, subject to the state’s authority, but without the full protections of citizenship. It has been a slog. As Oklahoman Ralph Ellison put it, “the writing of novels is the damnedest thing that I ever got into, and I’ve been into some damnable things.”

Please donate to help people fleeing from violence in Ukraine. Dewaine Farria says: “As a former UN staff member, I know that UNHCR and UNICEF are doing good work in Ukraine now.” 

Dewaine Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, War on the Rocks, the Rumpus, Literary Hub, and the anthology Our Best War Stories: Prize-winning Poetry and Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Award. Tobias Wolff selected Farria’s debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, as the winner of Syracuse University’s 2019 Veterans Writing Contest. Farria holds an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma and an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has received fellowships from the National Security Education Program, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. As a U.S. Marine, he served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Farria spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. You can find more of his writing at dewainefarria.com.

Books for Review, 2022

Punctured Lines is looking for reviews of the following recent and upcoming titles. Reviewers should have some expertise in terms of their chosen work, engaging substantively with its themes, structure, and techniques and using direct citation to back up claims. Each piece we receive for review undergoes a rigorous editing process, and we will provide potential reviewers with the guidelines. If you are interested in reviewing a work not on the list but that fits our overall themes of feminism, LGBT, diaspora, decolonialism, etc., please let us know. Thank you, and we look forward to working with you. Email us at PuncturedLines [at] gmail [dot] com.

We especially welcome reviews of Ukrainian titles.

Fiction:

Alina Adams, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region (History Through Fiction, 2022)***

Mark Andryczyk, editor, Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 (Penguin, 2022)***

Claude Anet, Ariane, A Young Russian Girl, translated by Mitchell Abidor (NYRB, 2023)

Ivan Baidak, (In)visible (Guernica World Editions, 2022)

Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, editors and translators, Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan (Gaudy Boy, 2022)***

Yevgenia Belorusets, Lucky Breaks, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky (New Directions, 2022)***

Darya Bobyleva, The Village at the Edge of Noon, translated by Ilona Chavasse (Angry Robot, 2023)

Liliana Corobca, The Censor’s Notebook, translated by Monica Cure (Seven Stories Press, 2022)

Tetyana Denford, The Child of Ukraine (Bookouture, 2022)

Tamara Duda, Daughter, translated by Daisy Gibbons (Mosaic Press, 2022)

Alisa Ganieva, Offended Sensibilities, translated by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum, 2022)

Alla Gorbunova, It’s the End of the World, My Love, translated by Elina Alter (Deep Vellum, 2022)

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, What Isn’t Remembered (The University of Nebraska Press, 2021) and The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022)

Elena Gorokhova, A Train to Moscow (Lake Union Publishing, 2022)

Maylis de Kerangal, Eastbound, translated by Jessica Moore (Archipelago, 2023)

Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Seagull Books, 2022)

Ali Kinsella, Zenia Tompkins, and Ross Ufberg, editors, Love in Defiance of Pain: Ukrainian Stories (Deep Vellum, 2022)

Lana Kortchik, The Countess of the Revolution (HQ Digital, 2023)

Mary Kuryla, Away to Stay (Regal House Publishing, 2022)

Maja Lunde, The Last Wild Horses, translated by Diane Oatley (HarperVia, 2023)

Ruth Madievsky, All-Night Pharmacy (Catapult, 2023)***

Rae Meadows, Winterland (Henry Holt and Co, 2022)

Nataliya Meshchaninova, Stories of a Life, translated by Fiona Bell (Deep Vellum, 2022)

Irène Némirovsky, Master of Souls, translated by Sandra Smith (Kales Press, 2022)

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Kidnapped: A Story in Crimes, translated by Marian Schwartz (Deep Vellum 2023)***

Natasha Pulley, The Half Life of Valery K (Bloomsbury, 2022)

Gabriella Saab, Daughters of Victory (William Morrow, 2023)

Zanna Sloniowska, The House with the Stained-Glass Window, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Quercus Publishing, 2022)

Zhanna Slor, At the End of the World, Turn Left (Agora Books, 2021)

Yana Vagner, To the Lake, translated by Maria Wiltshire (Deep Vellum, 2023)

Yuliya Yakovleva, Punishment of a Hunter, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Pushkin Vertigo, 2021)***

Kira Yarmysh, The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3, translated by Arch Tait (Grove Press, 2023)***

Nonfiction:

Rustam Alexander, Red Closet: The Untold Story of Gay Oppression in the USSR (Manchester UP, 2023)***

Charlotte Arpadi Baum, Hate Vanquished, Lives Remembered: A Survivor’s Story (Library of the Holocaust, 2022)

Victoria Belim, The Rooster House: My Ukrainian Family Story (Abrams Press, 2023)

Paula J. Birnbaum, Sculpting a Life: Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel Aviv (Brandeis UP, 2023)

Rosalind P. Blakesley, Women Artists in the Reign of Catherine the Great (Lund Humphries, 2023)

Lisa Brahin, Tears Over Russia: A Search for Family and the Legacy of Ukraine’s Pogroms (Pegasus Books, 2022)

Judith Chazin-Bennahum, Ida Rubinstein: Revolutionary Dancer, Actress, and Impresario (SUNY Press, 2022)

Donna Chmara, Surviving Genocide: Personal Recollections (Winged Hussar Publishing, 2022)

Verena Dohrn, The Kahans from Baku: A Family Saga (Academic Studies Press, 2022)

Suzanna Eibuszyc, Memory Is Our Home: Loss and Remembering: Three generations in Poland and Russia 1917-1960s (ibidem Press, 2022)

Inna Faliks, Weight in the Fingertips (Backbeat 2023)

Maksim Goldenshteyn, So They Remember: A Jewish Family’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust in Soviet Ukraine (OUP, 2021)

Lars Horn, Voice of the Fish (Graywolf Press, 2022)

Marina Jarre, Return to Latvia, translated by Ann Goldstein (New Vessel Press, 2023)***

Andrew D. Kaufman, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky (Riverhead Books, 2021)

Olesya Khromeychuk, A Loss: The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister (Columbia UP, 2021)***

Naira Kuzmich, In Everything I See Your Hand (University of New Orleans Press, 2022)

Risa Levitt, Memory Identity Encounter: Ukrainian Jewish Journey (Hirmer Publishers, 2023)

Katrina Maloney and Patricia M. Maloney (editors), Dearest Ones at Home and With A Heart Full of Love: Clara Taylor’s Letters from Russia (She Writes Press, 2014 and 2022)

Oksana Masters, The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph, with contributions by Cassidy Randall (Scribner, 2023)

Shane O’Rourke, Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, Princess Isabel and the Ending of Servile Labour in Russia and Brazil (Anthem Press, 2023)

Sara Raza, Punk Orientalism: The Art of Rebellion (Black Dog Press, 2022)***

Natasha Lance Rogoff, Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022)***

Sofia Samatar, The White Mosque (Catapult, 2022)

Samira Saramo, Building That Bright Future: Soviet Karelia in the Life Writing of Finnish North Americans (University of Toronto Press, 2022)

Mary Seacole, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (HarperPress, 2022)

Yeva Skalietska, You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine (Union Square & Co, 2022)***

Iroida Wynnyckyj, compiler and editor, The Extraordinary Lives of Ukrainian-Canadian Women: Oral Histories of the Twentieth Century (University of Alberta Press, 2022)

Poetry:

Polina Barskova, editor, Verses on the Vanguard: Poetry & Dialogue from Contemporary Russia (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2021)***

Natalka Bilotserkivets, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow, translated by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky (Lost Horse Press, 2021)

Julia Cimafiejeva, Motherfield: Poems & Belarusian Protest Diary, translated by Valzhyna Mort and Hanif Abdurraqib (Phoneme Media, 2022)

Sarah Coolidge, editor, This Is Us Losing Count: Eight Russian Poets (Two Lines Press, 2022)***

Boris Dralyuk, My Hollywood & Other Poems (Paul Dry Books, 2022)

Annie Finch, coordinator, An Exaltation of Goddesses, includes a long poem by Anna Halberstadt (Poetry Witch Press, 2021)

Zuzanna Ginczanka, Firebird, translated by Alissa Valles (NYRB Poets, 2022)

Ostap Kin and John Hennessy, editors, Babyn Yar: Ukranian Poets Respond (Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature, 2023)

Ludmila and Boris Khersonsky, The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear, translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky (Lost Horse Press, 2022)

Marianna Kiyanovska, The Voices of Babyn Yar, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (Harvard Library of Ukrainian Literature, 2022)***

Mikhail Kuzmin, New Hull, translated by Simona Schneider (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022)

Irina Mashinski, The Naked World (MadHat Press, 2022)

Ksenia Rychtycka, A Sky Full of Wings (Finishing Line Press, 2021)

Maria Stepanova, The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, edited by Irina Shevelenko (Columbia UP, 2021)***

Marina Tsvetaeva, After Life, translated by Mary Jane White (Adelaide Books, 2021)

Lyuba Yakimchuk, Apricots of Donbas, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky, and Svetlana Lavochkina (Lost Horse Press, 2021)

Scholarship:

Anna Aydinyan, Formalists against Imperialism: The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar and Russian Orientalism (University of Toronto Press, 2022)

Katerina Capková and Kamil Kijek, editors, Jewish Lives Under Communism: New Perspectives (Rutgers UP, 2022)

Diana Cucuz, Winning Women’s Hearts and Minds: Selling Cold War Culture in the US and the USSR (University of Toronto Press, 2022)***

David Featherstone and Christian Høgsbjerg, editors, The Red and the Black: The Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic (Racism, Resistance and Social Change) (Manchester UP, 2021)

Claire P. Kaiser, Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood and the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus (Cornell UP, 2023)

Peter J. Kalliney, The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and Global Literature (Princeton UP, 2022)

Katya Hokanson, A Woman’s Empire: Russian Women and Imperial Expansion in Asia (University of Toronto Press, 2023)

Alessandro Iandolo, Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955-1968 (Cornell UP, 2022)

Krista G. Goff, Nested Nationalism: Making and Unmaking Nations in the Soviet Caucasus (Cornell UP, 2021)

Marina Mogilner, A Race for the Future: Scientific Visions of Modern Russian Jewishness (Harvard UP, 2022)

Sasha Senderovich, How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Harvard UP, 2022)

Tricia Starks, Cigarettes and Soviets: Smoking in the USSR (Northern Illinois UP, 2022)

Kristina Stoeckl, Dmitry Uzlaner, The Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars (Fordham UP, 2022)

Oleksandra Tarkhanova, Compulsory Motherhood, Paternalistic State?: Ukrainian Gender Politics and the Subject of Woman (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

Natalia Telepneva, Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975 (University of North Carolina Press, 2022)

Hélène Thibault and Jean-François Caron, editors, Uyat and the Culture of Shame in Central Asia, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022)

Stephen Velychenko, Joseph Ruane, and Ludmilla Hrynevych, editors, Ireland and Ukraine: Studies in Comparative Imperial and National History (ibidem Press, 2022)

*** Indicates a reviewer has expressed interest in the book.

To Fairyland: An Excerpt from Yelena Lembersky and Galina Lembersky’s Memoir Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour

Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Academic Studies Press, 2022) is a rare dual memoir co-written by Yelena Lembersky and her mother Galina. Born and raised in the USSR, following the death of her prominent painter father in 1970, Galina decides to emigrate with her young daughter and aging mother. In anticipation of her departure, Galina quits her job and becomes a refusenik. Yet, once her immigration papers go through, instead of boarding an airplane, she finds herself behind bars of a Leningrad prison on a criminal charge. Her mother has already left for the United States. Her young daughter Yelena–nicknamed Alëna in the book–is left in the care of friends, in danger of finding herself in an orphanage.

The chapter below is narrated by Yelena, eleven years old at the time of these events. We are deeply grateful to the author and publisher for permission to excerpt a chapter from this revealing and touching memoir. To continue reading, please buy the book from Academic Studies Press.

To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky

Mama begins to sort our belongings. She needs to get special permission for the remainder of Grandfather’s sketches and a roll of dark Babi Yar paintings that Grandma didn’t want to take with her when she left. We have to give away much of what we own because it is banned from being taken abroad—old books, cut glass, amber, antique objects, rugs, and archival documents. Every day, friends come to say goodbye and they leave with a piece of my childhood. Aunt Kira takes away Grandma’s hand-cranked Singer that we used together, I cranking the wheel, Grandma guiding the seam. Someone takes our pot-bellied black-and-white TV. The pressure cooker is heading off to a neighbor, good riddance. Our cookbook, with food stains and Grandma’s handwritten notes, goes to Bélochka. All of my picture books and Grandfather’s art catalogues, which he collected by saving money on food and clothes, end up in the used bookstore. Mama’s favorite white-and-blue vase goes to Kiera Ivanovna, a ceramic artist, who had designed it for my grandparents back in the ’60s. It held every rose and carna­tion ever brought to our home, and Grandfather painted it in Mama’s portrait.

By and by, our home becomes empty. Suitcases huddle in the corner. Dust bunnies gather along the walls and when the draft prods at them, they slowly float from place to place. Every day, Mama goes downtown to shop for gifts for people she will meet in America—Russian wooden crafts, tins, trays, enamel brooches, and shawls with bright flowers and mottled fringes, which Russians wear on cold winter days and Amer­icans don’t, but might drape over cupboards holding some forsaken old country samovar they will have purchased at a yard sale in Brooklyn or, years later, on eBay from immigrants’ descendants. She brings souvenir playing cards with pictures of harlequins, theater binoculars that are mostly useless, but she can’t find, let alone afford, the military ones so valued in Rome. And a brown teddy bear, a mascot of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. “These are collectibles,” she says emphati­cally. “You may get top dollar for them one day.” Then she brings home a spear gun, an accident in the making.

“Going fishing, Mama? There is no sea in Ann Arbor.”

“There are five lakes nearby—learn your geography. And the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Okay? Fine. A sales­woman set it aside for me at Gostinniy Dvor, I couldn’t say no. Maybe we’ll sell it at a flea market and have some money to travel. Do you want to see Venice? Can you believe we will soon see the world?”

I don’t know why Mama puts off our departure and why she goes to the center of Leningrad every day.

“Look what I found, Alëna,” she says as she puts down a painted rooster and a horse on the table. “See here, this is the year of the Rooster and it’s our sign in the Chinese horoscope! You take this happy guy with flowers, and I’ll take that sad little horse.”

“Why are you sad, Mama?”

“Who said I am sad? I am just joking, Alën’. Why do you take everything for a silver coin?”

May arrives. I want to go to the May Day parade. Mama says no. The day after, there is a trail of ripped balloons, flags, and candy wrappers trampled in the mud, where the parade had passed.

“I don’t like May,” Mama says. “May is unlucky. We won’t travel in May.”

A subpoena arrives in the mail, a request to make a witness statement for some ongoing and unspecified investigation. No signature required. Sent by the OBKhSS, the state law-enforcement agency for combating economic crimes.

“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.

“Get on the next flight out of the country.”

“What should I be afraid of? I have never broken the law. No, I’ll go and answer their questions. This might be about Kosmétika, and maybe I’ll help exonerate someone.”

I remember coming home from school on the day she went there, to find three men scouring our nearly empty apartment, flipping over what’s left of our things—our bedsheets, pillows, our clothes, bedding, books, crafts, and suitcases. Mama stood in our tiny hallway, leaning against a door jamb, looking as if she were not present in the moment. Movers? But these men were not picking up but scattering. Burglars?

“Who are these people, Mama?”

“Go for a walk, Alëna.”

One of the men overheard her and said to his crew, “We are almost done here. Let’s go.”

Another man walks out of the bedroom, carrying a dusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of small mani­cure sets that I used to trim my Olympic teddy bear’s toes.

“Mama, are these men from your work?”

The men leave. She sits down, lights a cigarette, and stays silent.

“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”

“They took our visas.”

The Mediterranean. Rome. Ann Arbor. Grandma. A cold feeling of collapse sets in. An ugly double extracts herself from my chest, turns toward me, and points her finger, cack­ling, “You thought you could dream of all that? A loser! You deserve nothing.”

Our empty kitchen shimmers, the walls pixelate and dissolve into white. Mama stays as still as an ancient sphinx, swaddled in a quivering smoke. Her lungs contract and expand, contract and expand, taking in the poison. I keep my eyes wide open, unblinking, fixed on her. She is safe while she stays in the frame of my view. In my eyes, she grows large, the curve of her nape and shoulders become the ridge of a mountain. Then she contracts—a child, whom I failed to protect. My child-Mama. I don’t yet know what is happening, except that disaster is coming. This feeling will never leave me. It will grow with the years and take over my happiest moments—our family holidays, the birth of my children.

“When will they give back our visas, Mama? Let’s go right away.”

“They’ve brought criminal charges against me. We can’t leave, Alëna.”

Yelena Lembersky’s first book, Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, was devoted to the art of a prominent Leningrad artist with roots in Poland and Ukraine; her grandfather is now best known for his Execution: Babi Yar canvases and his non-figurative work created in the 1960s. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, a memoir, co-written with her mother, Galina, is her first work of creative non-fiction. Her short pieces have appeared in World Literature TodayThe ForwardCardinal Points Literary Journal, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in 1987. She holds degrees in art and architecture from the University of Michigan and MIT.

No One Is Guilty, Everyone Is Guilty: An Interview with Elena Gorokhova, by Sasha Vasilyuk

Elena Gorokhova’s A Train to Moscow (Lake Union Publishing) came out earlier this year to praise by J.M. Coetzee, Lara Prescott, and Kate Quinn, among others. Gorokhova was born and raised in Leningrad, Soviet Union, now St. Petersburg, Russia. After graduating from Leningrad State University, she moved to the United States, carrying one suitcase with twenty kilograms of what used to be her life. Elena is the author of two memoirs published by Simon & Schuster: A Mountain of Crumbs (2011) and Russian Tattoo (2015). A Train to Moscow is her first novel. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, New Jersey Monthly, and The Daily Telegraph, on NPR and BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines. She lives and teaches English as a Second Language in New Jersey.

Sasha Vasilyuk: A Train to Moscow is the story of Sasha, who cannot wait to escape the small town of Ivanovo for a chance to become an actress in Moscow. The story, as I understand, is partly based on the life of your sister Marina and carries parallels to your memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs. What drew you to turn her story into a novel and how much of it is biographical?

Elena Gorokhova: After writing two memoirs, A Mountain of Crumbs and Russian Tattoo, I felt I’d exposed every detail of my Russian and, subsequently, American life and there was nothing left for me to examine on the page. At that point, two feelings converged: I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to write about acting.

My older sister was a prominent actress in Russia in the 1960s and 1970s, and the background of the narrator of A Train to Moscow is based on her story. My sister grew up in Ivanovo and was trained in the best drama school in Moscow, just like Sasha. Upon graduation, she also acted at a repertory theater in Leningrad. The plot of the novel, however, is all fiction.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Like every Soviet family of the post-war years, Sasha’s family is plagued by the ghosts of the Great Patriotic War, which is presented through the stunningly written war journal of a missing uncle. Why was it important to you to have the shadow of war woven into the fabric of Sasha’s story?

Elena Gorokhova: In World War II (known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War), one in every seven Russians was killed by the enemy. Because of such immense loss of life, the war was the glue that has held the country together. There is no family in Russia that didn’t lose someone in the maw of battle, and mine was no exception. My two uncles never came back from the war: one was mortally wounded and died at his home in Ivanovo; the other was stationed on the border between the Soviet Union and Poland and is still listed as missing in action. The first uncle was an artist, educated at the Leningrad Academy of Arts, just like Sasha’s uncle in the book. In the novel, the two switched places. The artist became the soldier missing in action, and all those What if questions sprang to my mind, laying the groundwork for his story. What if he hadn’t been killed and made it all the way to Berlin? What if he, unlike his communist father, had questioned the infallibility of his righteous motherland and the façade of lies erected and safeguarded by its leaders?

Sasha Vasilyuk: Sasha grows up to believe that Soviet society is built on lies that are propagated not just by the government, but by individuals. As I read that, I viscerally felt not just Sasha’s anger, but the author’s as well. Why is that theme important to you?

Elena Gorokhova: I first explored the theme of lies in my memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. In Soviet Russia, there existed two entirely parallel realities. In one reality, there were best ever harvests, happy citizens marched in civil parades and thanked the Party for their welfare, and life was a paradise that every capitalist country envied. In the other reality, there were empty store shelves and communal apartments where several families shared a kitchen and a toilet; there were closed borders, banned books, and censored plays. The first, a made-up reality, was a huge state-sponsored lie. This split defined my life in the 1960s and 1970s, the same way it defines the lives of every character in A Train to Moscow.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Everyone in the book has a secret. What do you think about the price of secrets? And do you think there is something especially Soviet about secrecy and silence?

Elena Gorokhova: I think all people have secrets, no matter where they live. But there is something especially Soviet about secrecy because it was elevated to the state level in that society, and there was something especially Soviet about silence because it was the silence and complicity of Russians that oiled the Stalin slaughter machine and later, after Stalin’s death, allowed the Soviet state to creak on as long as it did.

Sasha Vasilyuk: Toward the end of the book, Andrei, Sasha’s love interest who works for the Party, has this brilliant line: “Our system is pure genius: executioners and victims are the same people. The engine of death has been in motion for decades, and no one is guilty, because everyone is guilty.” As the war in Ukraine began, I’ve been watching Russian society face issues of complicity and I’ve been thinking that the Soviet system never taught us how to feel guilty, how it absolved us just like Andrei said. What do you think, are we Russians capable of feeling our responsibility for past and present traumas?

Elena Gorokhova: Unlike other societies, Russia has never looked into the face of its grim history and never examined the causes and effects of its Soviet atrocities. (Khrushchev tried, after Stalin’s death, but was quickly removed from power. Gorbachev also tried, but those efforts, regrettably, didn’t lead to a democratic society or a better understanding by Russians of their own history). I think those Russians who are capable of feeling their responsibility for past and present traumas have either left the country or have been taken hostage by Putin’s war and imperial ambitions.

Sasha Vasilyuk: What has it been like to have A Train to Moscow come out right at the onset of the war in Ukraine?

Elena Gorokhova: A Train to Moscow came out on March 1, five days after the war began. In retrospect, I should have thought of a better title because the word “Moscow” has been poisoned since February 24, 2022. One thing never occurred to me as I was writing this novel: I had no idea how closely the country depicted in the book would resemble Putin’s Russia today. Putin has sent history in reverse, and my former motherland is back to where it used to be when the country was called the USSR: a totalitarian society based on lies where life moves along the tracks of two entirely different realities.

Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-Ukrainian-American writer and journalist who grew up between Moscow and San Francisco with annual visits to Donbas, Ukraine. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Your Presence is Mandatory about a Soviet Ukrainian prisoner of war and his family (Bloomsbury, 2024). Sasha has an MA in Journalism from New York University and has written about Eastern Europe for The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BBC, The Telegraph, NBC, Narrative, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. Sasha can be found on social @sashavasilyuk and at www.sashavasilyuk.com.

The Everyday and Invisible Histories of Women: A Review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

We at Punctured Lines are grateful to Emma Pratt for her review of Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray and others). This review was planned before the war broke out and was delayed, among other things, by my inability to focus on much when it did. I am thankful to Emma for her patience with this process and for bringing Zabuzhko’s work to the attention of our readers. Please donate here to support Ukrainian translators and here to support evacuation and relief efforts.

Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here by Emma Pratt

Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko’s third book in English, Your Ad Could Go Here (trans. Nina Murray et al., Amazon Crossing, 2020), is a collection of short stories, some of which were previously published in various English-language journals and anthologies. The collection is edited by Nina Murray, the translator of Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, and features translations by Murray, Halyna Hryn (the translator of Zabuzhko’s first novel, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex), Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, and Marta Horban. The book includes eight stories and is divided into three parts.

The first two stories in Part I, “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “Girls,” feature Darka and recount her Soviet Ukrainian childhood. “Oh Sister, My Sister,” told in the second person, narrates an incident from Darka’s childhood when the KGB raided her apartment, and the aftermath for her and her family, in particular her mother, Natalia, and her sister, who was never born as a result. The story delves into the effects of this trauma on interfamilial relationships, particularly that between Darka and Natalia. Natalia has an abortion because she chooses to protect Darka at the expense of her unborn sister:

It was perhaps at that very moment, when she rushed to take you into her arms, to embrace and shield you with her whole body, that a realization flashed through your mother’s mind, an obscure, alarming truth: she would not be able to shield the both of you. She had no room for two. Thus you, by virtue of your fully realized, irrevocable presence in this world, edged your sister out of it.

Darka and Natalia are only freed from their memories of the unborn baby when Anton, Darka’s father and Natalia’s husband, passes away and is reunited with the little girl in the afterlife.

In “Girls,” an adult Darka attends her school reunion and reflects on her complicated childhood relationship with her friend, Effie. The sophisticated Effie filled the void of Darka’s “sisterlessness.” The two experimented sexually together, but following Effie’s scandalous sexual encounter with an older boy and accusations that she traded in smuggled goods, Darka denounced her at the Pioneer Council, which she remains ashamed of as an adult.  Her nervousness about the reunion comes to naught, as no one else remembers Darka’s denunciation and Effie herself doesn’t attend. The class gossip says she is now overweight and suffering from mental health issues. Darka goes home with another classmate, regrets the fling, and concludes that she needs to be more supportive of the people she loves.  

The third story in Part I, “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,” is a full version of the fairytale Darka reads in “Oh Sister, My Sister.” This story occurs at an unspecified point in the mythical past in a rural village, where sisters Hannusia and Olenka come of age and look for love. After Olenka gets engaged to Dmytro, the most eligible bachelor in the village whom Hannusia herself rejected, Hannusia becomes the bride of the devil. Her entanglement with evil ends in tragedy for Olenka, whose spirit helps catch her sister when visiting traders come to their home and play the flute. “Oh Sister, My Sister” and “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute” are connected by the themes of sisterhood, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. Reading the fairytale, Darka takes its message personally, feeling that the flute song accuses her of being the cause of her sister being aborted: “Gently, gently, my sister, play, do not stab my heart today; it was you, sister, who drove us apart, plunged a knife into my heart.” In “The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,”  Olenka’s voice comes from the flute and sings a slightly different version describing how Hannusia murdered her: “Gently, gently, young carter, play, do not startle my heart today; it is my sister who made me depart, plunged a knife into my heart.” While Hannusia was directly responsible for her sister’s death, Darka was not, though she feels guilt for it.

Part II takes place in independent Ukraine in the early 21st century. The title character in “I, Milena” is a TV journalist who hosts a talk show featuring betrayed women, in whose own marriage the television set functions as the third member. When Milena’s mother calls her saying she looks pregnant on her latest show, Milena rewatches the broadcast and rushes to the studio, where she stumbles upon a surreal version of her life and encounters the other Milena, who she fears is trying to kill her. Milena and the reader become increasingly confused as Zabuzhko plays with the narrative point of view, and Milena becomes more and more frightened as she tries to understand what is happening to her.

The 2004 Orange Revolution features in “An Album for Gustav” and the title story, “Your Ad Could Go Here.” “An Album for Gustav” refutes West European stereotypes of Ukraine as cold and autocratic and scrutinizes foreign journalists’ work in the country. The unnamed first-person storytellers, a couple consisting of “She,” a historian, and “He,” a photographer, the only male narrator in the book, describe their experiences in the Orange Revolution while showing “his” photographs to the Dutchman Gustav, who is putting together a book about the protests. In addition to the explanations of Ukrainian politics, history, and culture, the story offers a glimpse into the couple’s relationship, tender though punctuated with frustrations and omissions, and Zabuzhko’s view of male-female relations. The “She” narrator says, “All men of the world are our children. Except during wars, of course. Or popular uprisings. Also, revolutions. Then they are different. All visible history belongs to them, to men—they know how to band together.” The stories in Zabuzhko’s collection, on the other hand, shed light on the everyday and invisible histories of women.

“Your Ad Could Go Here” describes the magical fairytale-like experience of buying bespoke, possibly enchanted, gloves, which see the narrator through the Orange Revolution. The gloves seem to choose other garments and

[i]n the fall of 2004 they suddenly fell in love with a flamboyant fiery scarf, which I then wore throughout the entire Orange Revolution—never mind that the scarf did not come from a fashion designer and cost a third of what the gloves had. They were perfect together, and press photographers all to the man wanted my picture in that orange scarf and my sunshine gloves.

Upon losing one of the gloves, she tries to replace it on a trip to Vienna only to find that the glove maker has passed away and the shop replaced by a chain. This incident leads to musings on consumer culture, the death of craft and tradition, and the impermanence of even the written word, which should be more reliable than an easily lost glove.

Part III moves to present-day Ukraine. “The Tennis Instructor” depicts a budding affair between Mrs. Martha, a writer, and the titular sports coach. Mrs. Martha’s husband, Oleh, enrolls her in the tennis lessons after she gives him a tennis racket “because I [Mrs. Martha] was feeling guilty about something I no longer remember, which has been happening more and more recently.” Her idea that when she learns to play she can partner with him to strengthen their marriage turns out to be ironic. While practicing serves, Mrs. Martha ruminates on her relationship with Oleh and her discomfort with learning new physical activities, stemming from a traumatic childhood bicycle lesson: “I will never be able to [play tennis], you can point a gun at me and I still won’t be able to move like that. Any situation that requires me to go through the process of acquiring a physical skill in public instantly throws me thirty years back, to that same little bike—I go deaf, blind, enter a stupor, and wait for it all to end so that I can be set free again.” Despite her struggles, Mrs. Martha ultimately serves correctly and has the epiphany that she will one day surpass Oleh’s skill. Her emotions all come to the surface and the instructor hugs her to comfort her, starting their romance and putting into question her future with Oleh.

The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine plays a role in the final story of the collection, “No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell.” It features Olha, a singer going through menopause and navigating the trials of explaining the loss she is feeling as well as the death of her abusive ex-boyfriend, who “was working for the Russians,” to her 17-year-old daughter, Ulyanka, whom she is beginning to see as a rival in femininity. Ultimately she realizes that because of the war, Ulyanka already understands loss. Olha muses, “She’ll go through everything I went through, but in her own way. My experience is of no help to her. I can’t help her. She simply won’t recognize it, she won’t see when she is walking in my steps—at least not until she reaches my age. Until she catches up to me at precisely this point—but I’ll no longer be there.” With this realization, Olha extends an olive branch to Ulyanka and treats her as a grown woman.

One commonality among the stories is Zabuzhko’s bringing to life interesting and realistic characters, overwhelmingly female, who are simultaneously successful and flawed. The book is unabashedly women-centered and probes themes such as relationships, love, marriage, sex, sisterhood, pregnancy, motherhood, and menopause. Her themes and characters have a lot in common with the much-maligned “chick lit,” but the collection is written in a more literary way for those who, like Mrs. Martha of “The Tennis Instructor,” would rather read a book than ride a bike. Part of what distinguishes the stories in this collection is the variety of narrative points of view: Zabuzhko employs first-, second-, and third-person narration. Although the stories have been translated by a number of translators, Nina Murray’s editing unifies them. Unlike Zabuzhko’s novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which has stream-of-consciousness narration, the short stories in Your Ad Could Go Here are written in more traditional prose and are therefore easier to read, while being full of interesting digressions and parenthetical remarks. This book is an excellent introduction to Zabuzhko’s writing and contemporary Ukraine. The buzz around her is well-deserved, and her work merits a wider audience in English, particularly as Ukraine tragically fills the headlines.

Emma Pratt is an Invited Lecturer in English at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. She holds a BA in Political Science and Russian Area Studies from Wellesley College and an MA in Slavic and East European Studies from the Ohio State University. Though most of her coursework and research focused on politics, she enjoyed the fact that her degrees also allowed her to study literature.