Cultivating the Habit of Looking: A Q&A with Julia Zarankin

Julia Zarankin is the author of a memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (Douglas & McIntyre, 2020) that was warmly welcomed by both the birding and the literary communities. She was born in the Soviet Union and as a child immigrated to Canada with her family as part of the Jewish refugee movement. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught in the US before returning to Canada. She lives in Toronto and publishes essays and short fiction in English-language magazines both in Canada and in the United States.

Punctured Lines: Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder combines elements of an immigrant’s memoir with a love story with a self-help guide to finding a perfect hobby, and last but not least is filled with information about birds and stories of bird sightings—and the different genres brilliantly mesh together to create a page-turner. How did you come up with the structure for this book and did it change during the writing process?

Female spotted towhee. Photo source: Wikipedia

Julia Zarankin: Thank you so much for calling my book a page-turner, that is so kind of you to say and is the greatest compliment. Writing process: before the book, there was a humorous blog called Birds & Words, which I started writing immediately after seeing my first bird and realizing that I had plunged head-first into a bizarre and unlikely subculture. Starting my blog was the only way I could make sense of birds and birding. I wrote about all my adventures in misidentification, I pontificated about avian coiffures. But slowly, I noticed that my posts were growing beyond the length of a jocular blog post. I remember a specific turning point: after chasing (and finding) a spotted towhee that had flown way off course, I started wondering whether the bird felt lost or displaced in this unfamiliar landscape. And suddenly I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the bird; thinking about the spotted towhee led me to contemplate all of my own peregrinations—some more successful than others—and the migratory journeys undertaken by my own family. This moment of seeing myself in birds—a wholly unscientific endeavor by the way; one isn’t supposed to anthropomorphize!—was a sign that I had to take my writing about birds more seriously and that I was probably writing something more meaningful than a series of blog posts. That’s when I started working on the book in earnest; I always envisioned it as a series of essays, and the more I wrote, the more I started seeing connections between my life and the lives/experiences of birds. I played with the order of the essays as I started to envision the book as a whole, with a solid narrative arc.

Punctured Lines: You place your personal story in the context of the migratory urge of certain birds, normalizing, to some extent, human desire to change our circumstances. Are you making a distinction here between immigration that stemmed from political tensions and the general human desire to be in motion?

Julia Zarankin: I think I’m fascinated by both of these desires. As a person, I’m wildly afflicted by wanderlust. Falling in love with birds gave me a sense of home that I hadn’t experienced before; now that I know where birds can be found in Toronto, I feel much more at home in the city and feel less of an urge to escape and run away at every opportunity. In a sense, birds have really taught me how to be present, stay put, and enjoy it! When I started volunteering at a migration monitoring station and began reading about bird migration, I came across this fantastic German word Zugunruhe, coined by natural historian Johann Andreas Naumann, to describe the migratory restlessness of caged songbirds. I realized that the word itself applied not just to birds, but also to my own life and the trajectory of my family’s history. Suddenly I felt that there might be an explanation for my own near-constant feeling of migratory restlessness. Migratory birds are hardwired to live a life in constant motion, and their journeys are perilous! Their lives are dictated largely by a quest for food and a desire (biological imperative) to reproduce. My personal migratory restlessness is of a different nature. Initially politically motivated (my family fled several political regimes), my desire to be in motion could also be summarized by a quest to find a home and to escape the familial curse (or gift?) of being forever displaced.

Punctured Lines: You have devoted much of your professional life to the study of Russian literature. In the book, you mention how after you became a birdwatcher, you started noticing references to birds everywhere, including the chickens in Uncle Vanya:

“I had always focused on the play’s larger message and hadn’t ever paid much attention to the chickens. Yet there they were. And rereading the play, I saw that the chickens [. . .] depicted continuity, the small, mundane actions that we cannot live without, the ones that give contour to our lives.” 

Do you find that, as a birdwatcher, you approach books differently, bringing a different quality of attention to the pages in front of you? 

Julia Zarankin: I’ve certainly started reading Chekhov and Tolstoy differently now that I’m a mad birder! I used to skip over nature scenes and snipe hunts (shh! don’t tell anybody) because I found them lacking in action, but now those scenes come alive for me in new ways. They are so often a locus of epiphany. I feel like birds have also helped me get to know Chekhov differently—as more of a prescient environmentalist. Birds have definitely taught me to slow down in almost everything I do, including how I read: to attend to words, scenes, details differently and more deliberately. The connections between birds and Russian literature are surprising (and plentiful). I’m fascinated by the fact that Velimir Khlebnikov is the son of a really famous Russian ornithologist, Vladimir Khlebnikov (not only that, but he accompanied his father on ornithological expeditions). All of this now makes sense to me, because it feels like in Khlebnikov’s futurist verse words are literally taking flight, often away from sense, toward a new way of experiencing language and poetry.

Punctured Lines: The narratives about human relationships with animals have a long history. One book that came to mind in relation to yours and that had enjoyed an enormous popularity in the USSR was Gerald Durrell’s My Life and Other Animals, a humorous account of a young boy transplanted with his family from Britain to the island of Corfu. What were the books that were influential for you during your writing process?

Julia Zarankin: Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “My Bird Problem,” was the piece that made me want to try my hand at birdwatching. Franzen writes about how falling in love with birds made him less cynical, and I think I read that essay at the right time—I was going through a career transition, auditioning hobbies, searching for something that would give me inner peace and improve my patience (without having to do yoga and spend time in the downward dog position). I’m very much indebted to Kenn Kaufman’s work (especially Kingbird Highway), and also Simon Barnes’ curious little book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Barnes gave me permission to make (sometimes egregious) mistakes and taught me that there is no right way to be a birder; as long as one cultivates the habit of looking, one is doing it right. I reread Chekhov often, both for his attention to detail and narrative craft, and also for his reminder not to take oneself too seriously because at its core life is fundamentally absurd.

Punctured Lines: You write about growing up in a family of professional musicians and, being trained as a musician yourself in childhood, having to participate in music competitions. As a musician, a writer, and an academic, one must learn to bear the extremely competitive nature of these fields. Though birdwatching, too, as you say, can be a very competitive pursuit, it seems that for you it has been an opportunity to transform your relationship with competition itself. I was fascinated by your suggestion that birds teach you how to deal with disappointment in other areas of life. Do you find that birdwatching helps by teaching you how to reframe your ambitions, or that the sheer unpredictability of the birds’ behavior habituates you to waiting and helps you to avoid blaming yourself for everything that doesn’t go as planned? Or?

Julia Zarankin with a black and white warbler

Julia Zarankin: I really believe that birding is the perfect antidote to smugness. Whether you like it or not, birds force you to take a Humility 101 masterclass (over and over again). Birding helped me undergo an apprenticeship in failure, because so much about birdwatching is learning to become comfortable with your (constant) mistakes. It only dawned on me much later that one cannot learn to identify birds without simultaneously learning to misidentify them (and recognizing what your mistakes are). Whereas I used to be ashamed of my mistakes and tried to hide them, birding showed me how mistakes are part of the learning process. Unsurprisingly, this also really helped me as a writer!

Punctured Lines: An important thread of this memoir has to do with the question of having children, with you trying to balance your desire to become a parent with factors that preclude you from doing so. This aspect of the book seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary writing by women on the difficult set of decisions that they face around motherhood. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood). Do you see your book in dialogue with the books that problematize the notion of traditional motherhood?   

Julia Zarankin: Thanks so much for asking this question. I wrote this book as I was also coming to terms with the fact that I would never become a parent. In a sense, the book is also about learning to find meaning in midlife when one’s life doesn’t go as planned (or as one expected). I’m the first woman in five generations of my family (at least!) not to have a baby by age 21, and although my parents and grandmothers were kind and never mentioned that fact (at least not directly), I felt the weight of it on my shoulders and felt like I was failing or disappointing my entire family line. The book traces my journey of coming to terms with the fact that there are many ways to live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I really credit birds and birding for helping me see that.

Punctured Lines: Because I know that you hate this question yet ask it of everyone else: What is your favorite bird at the moment?

Female American kestrel. Photo source: Wikipedia

Julia Zarankin: I’m answering these questions from a farm in the Eastern Townships, in rural Quebec (this was as close as we could get to a trip to Vermont, since the land border is still closed to Canadians), and every morning this week I’ve been waking up to three American kestrels sitting in a bare tree outside my window. They’re gorgeous birds, with bright orange and blue and a wild, zebra-like face pattern. How nature came up with this bird, I do not know, but it’s magical. Too bad they terrorize (read: eat) the tiny songbirds, but hey—nobody ever said that nature was for the faint of heart. Yes, kestrels are definitely my favorite bird at the moment.

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