Olga Krauze, a profile by Sonja Franeta

“Обстрел прекратился в 11:30. Пока всё тихо. У нас в квартире тепло, работает водопровод и центральное отопление. Нет электричества, но светит солнце и на улице тает снег.” [The shelling stopped at 11:30. For now everything is quiet. Our apartment is warm, and there’s running water and central heating. No electricity, but the sun is shining and the snow is melting outside.]

—my friend Olga Krauze writes from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. I was interviewing her on Zoom for this profile and we got interrupted. Olga is a poet and singer and I’ve known her since 1991. She has lived in Kharkiv for 12 years with her partner Elina, who is Ukrainian.

Image from Sonja Franeta’s archive

I first saw Olga Krauze standing in front of the Leningrad Cultural House of Vocational Education Workers on a warm sunny day in July of 1991. She had a modest, unassuming look about her, brown medium length hair, about 5’4” and dressed in a light colored shirt and dark pants. I was there as a part of a delegation of 65 North Americans, just arrived and ready to have the first International Gay and Lesbian Symposium in Leningrad, followed by a queer film festival and conference in Moscow. We were armed with cameras and English books and magazines and other gay paraphernalia. No, we were not missionaries. Lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transgender people already existed in Russia. After decades of hiding, this was the first significant encounter Olga and other Russian queers would have with Western queers who were open about their sexuality. Apparently, the “Dvorets” or Palace of Culture had no idea who they had rented their space to, as Olga later found out. According to them, the event was scandalous.

Image from Sonja Franeta’s archive

After that turning point, Olga Krauze continued to write and sing but grew bolder. She added queer activism to her work, first by helping to lead an organization with gay men called Wings and then by creating a support group for women, namely lesbians, called the Club of Independent Women. This queer activism was revolutionary for Russia, but it was perestroika and suddenly there were a lot of possibilities for lesbians and gays to come out of their closets.

Photo by Patsy Lynch

Shortly after I met her, I did a profile of Olga Krauze in the December 1991 issue of The Advocate. She has since published seven books, appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, and given numerous concerts. In fact, she is still very much in demand but, of course, the war has curtailed concerts.

Olga Krauze’s prose ranges from memoir Исповедь авантюристки [Confessions of an Adventurer]; to fantasy Где-то под Питером [Somewhere Around Petersburg], Свободный полёт [Free Flight], Пока они спят [While They Sleep]; to historical fiction За фасадом того сада [Behind the Facade of that Garden], Слобожанские пасторали [Slobozhanshchina Pastoral]; and fiction Катькин сад [Katya’s Garden]. She is currently writing a novel about the war which has not yet been finished but contains some of her best writing to date.

I love her poetry and songs very much. We are fortunate to have her collection of poetry Харьковская тетрадь. Стихи 2011–2018 гг. [The Kharkiv Notebook. Poems 2011–2018] about her time in Kharkiv, where she still lives. It deserves to be translated, especially now that people want to know more about Ukraine. Deeply personal, her reflections are full of natural imagery, people’s struggles, and her heartfelt realizations. Here is one poem from the collection:

Memoriale

Окно, в которое я ныряла,
вскарабкавшись через все этажи,
чтобы в твоей постели, в подушке хмельной задыхаться
от неутолимой жажды,
пока ты, гуляя с кем-то,
встречаешь утреннюю зарю.

Окно то, оно в том доме,
двор которого наглухо заперт
высокой стальной решеткой.
Двор давно уже не проходной.

А ты на далеком погосте,
куда твои внуки доехать
могут разве что раз в году.
Живу, вспоминаю многих.
Все чаще мне снишься ты.

02.09.2019

Memoriale, by Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta

The window I dove into
After clambering up through all
The floors to get into your bed
To breathe in your intoxicating pillow
With my unquenchable thirst
While you walk with someone
In the dawn of early morning.

That window, the one in that house
Where the yard is tightly shut
With a high steel gate.
That yard has long been blocked.

And you, in a distant graveyard
Where your grandchildren can go
Only once a year.
I live and remember so many.
More and more I dream of you.

Olga Krauze sang one of her lesbian poems called “Курила, курила, курила” [“Smoked, smoked, smoked”] in her apartment in Kharkiv and sent it to me for a talk I recently did on Zoom. My translation follows:

By Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta

I smoke, smoke, smoke way down to the filter.
Wiping tears from my cheeks, I go out
But I leave with a smile. Much better like this—with laughter.
And a silly, stupid joke for everyone’s amusement.

I order wine and get drunk to honor such merriment.
Walking on, walking on!  And a hangover tomorrow.
But I know I’ll be shaking in the train, remembering
 All the things no one else will ever know.

No one can find out about my resentment and anger.
No one can know my tears—“What a fool, good for her.”
No one can know what you told me then
As I smoked, smoked, smoked, smoked.

Where I’m going, everything will be completely different.
Where the train is taking me will be better than home.
I’ll sell my suitcase. It’s shabby and messed up.
I could quit smoking and buy myself a new hat.

A beautiful hat, with a shiny copper buckle.
With this hat on I would visit your city by chance.
And in our café sit down to sip Turkish coffee.
You’d look at me curiously but not like a child.

Then you’d call me over to have a smoke with you outside.
And I’ll be cool and say “I don’t smoke anymore, sorry.”
You’ll never remember what you once told me there,
Once long ago when I smoked, smoked, smoked.

Besides her lesbian activism, Olga has always been very political. She supports the Ukrainian cause without reservation. Olga was born in Leningrad in 1953 to parents who were railroad engineers, yet her heritage was quite mixed—of Jewish, Latvian, and Austrian background.

This kind of multinationalism was common in Russia and it has been characteristic of people in Ukraine too. In the 1930s and 1940s, during Stalin’s reign, people were forcibly moved around because of their ethnicities, as well as sent to the Gulag. The Soviet Union went from internationalism to Russification—the forced adoption of the Russian language throughout the Soviet republics. Many of the ethnic nationalities lost their connection to their own languages, including in Ukraine.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was one of the first republics to declare independence. Olga supports the Ukrainian nation because she knows how necessary it is for Ukrainians not only to recover their land and country but to own their language and culture. She and her partner have stayed in and around Kharkiv with their cat throughout the war. The difficulties are hard for those not in Ukraine to imagine. An excerpt from Olga’s recent poem:

Опять был взрыв, или это
хлопнула дверь у соседа?
Надо сходить за хлебом.
Надо, но там нет света.
Отсутствие света не та утрата,
когда работает генератор.
Но там, где работает генератор,
хлеба нашего любимого нет.
Значит жди, когда будет свет
и благодари судьбу,
что ты не в Купянске и не в Волчанске,
и уж тем более не в Бахмуте…

By Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta

An explosion again? Or was it
the slam of our neighbor’s door?
I must get some bread.
I must, but there is no light.
The absence of light does not mean it’s out
If the generator is running
But wherever there is one running
Our favorite bread is no longer.
So let’s wait for the light to come
Thank the stars we’re not
In Kupyansk or Volchansk,
And especially not in Bakhmut…

Donations are appreciated and can be sent directly to Olga. Contact me at sfraneta at yahoo and I will send you her information. [PL: link to Sonja’s email withheld to avoid bots; we’re happy to assist in making the connection.]

On her website are links to all of her published books in Russian. Olga’s prose has not appeared in English yet, and she is very open to working with interested translators. Her work is rife with humor and keen observations of fellow human beings and it has a lot to give to English-language readers.

Olga Krauze’s website: https://olgakrause.com/

Olga’s writings on проза.ру: https://proza.ru/avtor/krauzeolg

Links in Engish: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/from-shadows-into-light-and-back-again/

gay.ru (not active right now but there are links to sites about Olga): ttp://az.xgayru.info/authors/russian/olga_krauze.htm

https://www.svoboda.org/a/28053527.html (Radio Free Europe)

Sonja Franeta is a writer, educator, translator, and activist born in the Bronx to an immigrant Yugoslav family. In 2004, she published ten interviews of Siberian queers, Rozovye Flamingo, in the original Russian, in collaboration with friends at the LGBT Archives in Moscow. In 2017, Sonja Franeta’s translation became available in English—Pink Flamingos: 10 Siberian Interviews. Her collection, My Pink Road to Russia: Tales of Amazons, Peasants and Queers, came out in 2015 and is now translated into Russian as well. She has translated her favorite writers: Marina Tsvetaeva, Sofia Parnok, and others and worked in Moscow and Novosibirsk in the 1990s. Now she divides her time between St. Petersburg, Florida and northern Spain with her partner Sue and two cats.

Aikanush: An Excerpt from Akram Aylisli’s Stone Dreams, translated by Katherine E. Young

On February 9, 2013, Akram Aylisli’s books were burned in his native village. For more than six decades, Azerbaijan’s most prominent writer has written fiction about the mountain village of Aylis, from which he took his pen name; Aylisli called the day of the burning “the most terrible day of my life.” Why were his books burned? Aylisli had published a novella, Stone Dreams, that challenged official propaganda erasing the role played by Armenians in the history of Azerbaijan, a country currently dominated by ethnic Azeris (Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia have engaged in military hostilities since before the collapse of the Soviet Union). Stone Dreams is among the first fictional works in the greater Turkic-speaking world to depict both historical and contemporary violence against ethnic Armenians, and it includes sympathetic portrayals of Armenian villagers residing in Azerbaijan. The novella also portrays the corruption and authoritarianism of modern-day Azerbaijan. In the uproar that greeted the novella’s publication, Aylisli was stripped of his presidential honors and pension. An empty coffin was paraded around the courtyard of his residence, and a bounty—later rescinded under international pressure—was offered to anyone who would cut off the writer’s ear. In 2014, international supporters nominated Aylisli for the Nobel Peace Prize for “his efforts to reconcile Azerbaijani and Armenian people.” In 2016, trumped-up legal charges were filed against Aylisli by the Azerbaijani government, a case that is still pending. Ten years after his books were burned, Akram Aylisli continues to live under de facto house arrest in Azerbaijan, unable to leave the city of Baku. He is 85.

Stone Dreams begins as Sadai Sadygly, the middle-aged protagonist, is wheeled into a hospital emergency room in Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s late December of 1989. An Azeri Muslim himself, Sadai was raised in an Azerbaijani mountain village alongside a few elderly Armenians who survived the anti-Armenian violence of the early twentieth century. Though he has long lived in Baku, Sadai remembers his former Armenian neighbors with affection and respect; he has been savagely beaten because he came to the aid of an elderly Armenian man being attacked by a gang of Azeri youth in the Azerbaijani capital. The second chapter of Stone Dreams, from which this excerpt is taken, is written mostly in flashback, as Sadai wanders in and out of consciousness.

—Katherine E. Young

Aikanush, an Excerpt

Aikanush, the former mistress of the lemon trees, was one of two Armenian women whom Sadai had often seen and known more or less well in childhood. In Aylis there were also a few more Armenian women. However, they didn’t differ at all from the Azerbaijani women and for that reason weren’t preserved in Sadai’s childhood memories.

The first summer when Sadai came home for summer break after studying in Baku, Aikanush was still living in Aylis. She was already stooped from old age and eternally working the earth, but she still had the ability to manage her household. With her own hands she hoed the earth in the little yard right by the river, growing her own beans, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and greens there. She herself tended her lemon trees, the fame of which spread throughout Aylis. She even sent pears, peaches, dried fruit, and sujug—fruit sausage stuffed with nuts—to her son Zhora in Yerevan. On Armenian holy days she walked around the Vang Church, prayed for hours, and made the sign of the cross over herself. Tired out from work, she sat by her gates and conversed with her closest neighbor and longtime friend, Zohra arvad.

Aikanush’s house stood a good distance from the Vang Church in a low-lying area on the bank of the river closer to the Muslim part of the village. In spite of that, the church became a second home for old Aikanush. Coming through the high, strong gates that no cannon had ever breached, each time she saw the church it was as if she’d lost her reason. Like a crazy person, she began making circles around the church. Then she kissed its stone walls almost stone by stone, making the sign of the cross over herself. Finally old Aikanush went up to the doors and stopped before them. There she crossed herself several times before the stone image of the woman holding a baby whom the Aylis Muslims nicknamed “Turbaned Woman with a Babe in Arms.” With that, she ended her pilgrimage, which looked like an amusing performance when seen from a distance.

Stone church in Aylis. Image from an archived fan website.

As a child Sadai saw Aikanush’s son Zhora—who lived in Yerevan—several times in Aylis. And when Zhora’s daughter Lyusik came from Yerevan to Aylis, Sadai was already eleven or twelve and was one of three inseparable schoolmate-friends: Sary (Light-Haired) Sadai, Bomb Babash, and Jambul Jamal. They were always together when they went to collect stray spikelets of grain from the field after the grain harvest. Together they clambered over the mountains and cliffs in search of partridge eggs. And when there was no school, no work on the threshing floor, and they were tired of playing babki in the street, they started in on the churches. Using river stones heavy from moisture, they tried to break off a nose or ear of the marble statues in the yard of the Stone Church and smash the stone crosses carved on the Vang walls. They climbed onto the high Vuragyrd roof and loudly cat-called the village from above. They ran roughshod over the peas, beans, and corn planted by Mirali kishi in the yard of the Vang Church and the bright flowers planted by Anykh-Aniko. Or else they inscribed their names on the walls of the church with the sharp-edged stones found at the bottom of the river, which they always carried in their pockets: Sary Sadai! Bomb Babash! Jambul Jamal!

Light-colored hair had been passed to “Sary” Sadai as the legacy of his ancestors—their family members were all blonds. Babash had received the nickname “Bomb” because of his proud disposition, endless agility, and his iron health and strength. The nickname that Jamal bore, “Jambul,” had a special and sad history.

They belonged to the prewar generation, having been born a couple of years before the start of the war that took away their fathers. However, three or four years after the end of the war, news suddenly arrived that Jamal’s father Bony Safi was alive. His wife Dilruba received a letter from Safi in which he simply announced that he hadn’t perished in the war, that he was alive and healthy and lived now in a land called Kazakhstan in the city of Jambul. He wrote that he’d married again and that his new wife had given birth to a son. He announced that he’d never come back to Aylis, but if his son Jamal wanted, he could come join him in the city of Jambul.

After that ill-starred letter, the wailing of Jamal’s grandmother Azra brought the whole village to their feet in the dead of night: her daughter Dilruba had poured a can of kerosene over her head and tried to burn herself to death.

After that, Jamal’s mother simply couldn’t right herself. She didn’t eat or drink, didn’t sleep at night, stopped doing the simplest tasks, and completely abandoned the house. Finally losing possession of her wits, she tramped around the mountains at night like a wild animal; she was searching for her husband to punish him, but she didn’t know the road to Jambul. They found the body of Jamal’s mother at the edge of the highway some twenty to twenty-five miles from Aylis. That’s how that idiotic nickname stuck to Jamal—“Jambul.”

Living in Baku, Sadai remembered Jamal almost every day. And each time he remembered Jamal, he also remembered the Vang Church: its yard, the tall and shapely cherry tree, and old Aikanush with a shawl invariably hanging down her back. Sleeves rolled up above her elbows, almost crying from stupefaction, she was diligently washing Jamal’s lice-ridden head.

That morning the three of them had climbed the tall cherry tree in the churchyard. That year the weather had already been very hot for a long time, but all the same Jamal hadn’t taken off the dirty cloth cap for which he’d been made to sit all winter at the last desk in class. Right up until the summer holidays, their faculty advisor Myleila muallima had dedicated the majority of the lessons to discussing that cap. As if she didn’t know that after Grandmother Azra had gone blind during the winter, no one had washed Jamal’s hair once, and Jamal himself, depressed by the sudden death of his mother, hadn’t found the strength to wash even once.

It turns out that old Aikanush knew this better than any of the others. Moreover, somehow old Aikanush found out that on that morning Jambul Jamal was going to be there in the churchyard. While the boys sat in the tree, she started a fire right under the cherry tree; heated water in a large copper pot; and brought soap, a towel, a pitcher, and some sort of mud-like mass—black, like tar, with which she planned to grease Jamal’s head afterwards—in a pint-sized jar from home.

Hardly had old Aikanush removed the cap from Jamal’s head than Babash vomited up the cherries they’d been stuffing into their stomachs. Sadai simply closed his eyes and turned away. Aikanush shrieked “Vai!” as if she’d been stung and grabbed her head with both hands. There were as many lice on Jamal’s head as ants in an anthill.

Old Aikanush sat Jamal by the fire on a flat river rock. Sadai filled the pitcher with warm water and poured it on Jamal’s head, and Aikanush rubbed that lice-ridden head with soap, combing with her fingernails until it bled. Then she again soaped and washed it, saying in a quiet, mournful voice, “My child. Poor boy. Poor orphan!”

And lying unconscious now on a bed in the Baku hospital, Sadai Sadygly heard that voice so clearly, so close by, that even if old Aikanush had turned out to be right next to him in the room, that mournful voice wouldn’t have sounded so distinctly.

And Sadai Sadygly heard equally clearly the shouts of the women hurrying from their homes to the churchyard when old Aikanush, having already washed and smeared Jamal’s head with medicine, bandaged his head with gauze.

“We call ourselves Muslims and yet didn’t have enough sense to wash the boy’s head.”

“Look, she washed it, so what if she’s not Muslim. You know Aikanush didn’t fall from the sky! She’s also from our village.”

“May God be with you in times of trouble, Aikanush baji! You’ve always been known by your kindness towards us Muslims.”

“Who wouldn’t wash the head of an orphan? How were we to know that the poor boy had lice?”

“What, you didn’t see that he never took the cap off his head? If he didn’t have lice, would he have gone around in a cap in this heat?”

“May Allah protect your only son in Yerevan, Aikanush. You’re the most merciful of our Aylis women.”

“You, Aikanush, love Allah, so what if you’re Armenian!”

After washing her hands thoroughly with soap and rubbing the small of her back draped with the shawl, Aikanush could barely manage to straighten up. One by one the women dispersed. And as soon as their voices ceased, Aikanush stretched out her hands and moved towards the church with such fervor that it seemed that small, frail woman would now clasp that whole, huge stone thing to her breast like a baby.

When old Aikanush made the sign of the cross before the “Turbaned Woman,” Jamal, white gauze on his head, sat silently by the wall in front of the entrance to the church. And Lyusik, who up until now had squeezed herself into a corner of the gate, observing with fear and horror how her grandmother washed Jamal’s head, now stood up, leaning against the trunk of the cherry tree and, it seemed, crying quietly. And tears also shone in Jamal’s eyes. He gazed with amazement on the world, as if he were seeing it for the first time. Babash stood next to him, hanging his head low; he was embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to control himself just now and thrown up so shamefully.

And Aikanush, as usual, stood by the church entrance and prayed furiously…

This is an excerpt from Stone Dreams by Akram Aylisli, translated by Katherine E. Young. The book is available for purchase from Academic Studies Press.

Portrait by Samantha H. Collins

Katherine E. Young is the author of the poetry collections Woman Drinking Absinthe and Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist). She has translated Russophone prose by Anna Starobinets and Akram Aylisli and poetry from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Awards include the 2022 Granum Foundation Translation Prize, the 2022 Pushkin House Translation Residency, and a National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship. From 2016-2018 she served as the inaugural Poet Laureate for Arlington, VA.

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. 

A profile of Ilya Kaminsky

The Guardian has published a lovely profile of Ilya Kaminsky, related to Deaf Republic, his second collection of poetry.

Odessa was a cosmopolitan place, a “city of laughter” in which poetry was revered, and from an early age Kaminsky wrote and learned it by heart. When he was 12 his prose writing was published in the local newspaper, after he answered a call-out to schoolchildren to contribute, because the paper had no money to pay journalists. At 15, though he thought of poetry as “a private thing”, he produced his first chapbook. He had graduated from school by the time the family was forced into exile.

Peter Pomerantsev’s New Book

An excerpt in the Guardian of Peter Pomerantsev’s new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.

It was 1976, in Odessa, Soviet Ukraine, and my father, Igor, a writer and poet, had been detained for “distributing copies of harmful literature to friends and acquaintances”: books censored for telling the truth about the Soviet Gulag (Solzhenitsyn) or for being written by exiles (Nabokov). He was threatened with seven years’ prison and five in exile. One after another, his friends were called in to confess whether he had ever spoken “anti-Soviet fabrications of a defamatory nature, such as that creative people cannot realise their potential in the USSR”.

The book comes out on August 6, 2019, from PublicAffairs.