Q&A with Olga Livshin: A Life Replaced (Poets and Traitors Press, 2019)

Today on Punctured Lines, our Q&A with Olga Livshin, author of the recently released A Life Replaced: Poems with translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman. We announced the book’s arrival here and you can listen to a podcast discussing it here. She and Olga Zilberbourg will be reading from their collections at an upcoming event in Rochester, NY on November 9, 2019. Olga answered our questions by email.

You wrote a book in which you both translated Akhmatova’s and Gandelsman’s work and wrote original poems that are, directly or indirectly, in dialogue with them. Describe, briefly, your writing process. 

I like the idea of going beyond the one voice–the idea of poetry as a play, and of a book as a porous object, absorbing other energies. There are three characters here: I translated two modernist Russian poets, and then I wrote responses to their work, some of which are imitations. Poets & Traitors Press has this format that fit what I was doing really well. They publish poems based on translations, poems that speak to these translations. So rather than publish a typical poetry collection, which, if you think about it, is this continuous solo for something like 50 or 80 pages, these Poets & Traitors books are a bit like jazz. They’re inclusive. They invent and improvise. Their dynamics are pluralistic and lively.

What were the differences in how you approached writing vs. translating poetry? 

It’s pretty seamless. When I translate, it’s a bit like giving a voice, and it’s also implicit dialogue, of course, since translation is interpretation–it’s full of choices. And when I write back, or talk back, the dialogue goes further. All of this, though, is part of the same kind of play: where the characters depend on one another and echo each other.  

What about translating/“talking to” Akhmatova? 

Yeah, “talking to,” for sure! Akhmatova is an author that a lot of mothers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s quoted to their daughters–my mom quoted her to me. And I think a lot of people thought–still think–of her as a symbol of stoicism and of grieving wisdom, a model for how to live with dignity and defend fellow others under repressive regimes. In our family, she was like this Lilith, great mother, forever strong and even raging. It was rather difficult: you know, she was someone you could quote, but never be, right? Then I went to grad school to get my PhD in Slavic Studies, and I learned that some prominent literary scholars had showed that she was no angel, she was a full human with flaws, and–they wished to show–that she was rather a monster. I think both of these extremes are kind of silly. In my book I don’t so much aim to dethrone as to discover.  There’s a different Akhmatova than the one people know: brazen and humorous behind all that mighty moral raging. She’s a perpetual child, even in her later work, trusting love for love’s sake, no matter what life did to her. “To me, in poetry, everything should be out of line,” she writes, “Not how these things are done. / I wish you knew what garbage sprouts poems….” I want to know about this bold, hidden girl, and I want people to know her.

How about translating/“talking to” Gandelsman?

He is closer to me and thus less hidden. Vladimir Gandelsman was born in 1948 and came of age in Leningrad before it turned into St. Petersburg and before he left for the United States, where he lives now. He’s an immigrant like me, and he has similar instances of alienation. So when it comes to his work, I’m basically a devotee. I aim to push this writer forward and amplify his voice. Gandelsman’s work has such a unique way of balancing human emotions such as irritation and anxiety with this amazing appreciation of small joyful moments, which are just sublime in his work. Gandelsman, to my eye, transcends what so many poets and writers in Russia had: this hatred of byt, the everyday.  There was a bunch of visionary philosophers a hundred years ago, they all wished to go beyond our biological and biographical limitations. Beyond the body, beyond the home. On the other hand, Gandelsman is the supreme discoverer of light in the dust of the domestic. And in nature, which he paints in some beautifully minimalist ways. And in one’s own family, even in some difficult moments. He is a very generous poet. Where I write in parallel are poems of small joy: he has a small bird in the sky, I have little mushrooms; he has a hallowed moment of immigrant recognition of oneself in an American-grown boy, I have recognition of a Syrian immigrant’s stories in our own tales of self. I want to help this voice be in the world and take on new forms, in English, and in my little sprouts off it.

Other than Gandelsman, what is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature in general?

I enjoy some voices. Maria Stepanova. Vassia Borodin. Polina Barskova, in the US. And then in Ukraine, so much great and heartbreaking poetry in Russian is coming out from people writing about the war. Boris Khersonsky and Lyudmyla Khersonska. I really like Anastasia Afanasieva’s work. Iya Kiva’s poetry. There is an incredible urgency to these voices, and they’re profoundly intertextual, in dialogue with other language about war and violence, going all the way back to the Bible and all the way forward to how Russian and Ukrainian TV talks about war.

In addition to the two in your book, who are some of the writers that inspire you?

There is a flowering of immigrant and first-generation American poetry now. So many rich voices. From the better known, such as Chen Chen and Ocean Vuong, to those that should be better known. Ahmad Almallah’s recent book Bitter English addresses issues of writing in English as an immigrant. Jenna Le has gorgeous poems that capture the intersection of girlhood and growing up Vietnamese-American in Minnesota. Ananda Lima has made fine, strange, surrealist prose as well as poetry that looks at issues of home and motherhood in the context of being an immigrant. I love how these poets echo certain ruins of their cultural past with not-quite utopias of their American present. 

Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?

Ha! I have carried so much shame about these for so many years. It’s kind of gone, but of course you can’t quite get rid of it. But that’s what writing is for–finding a voice that is more complicated than these stereotypes and insisting on maintaining that voice. Both in your writing and also, once you find it, the beautiful thing is, you can take it wherever you find it relevant. 

As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

I like Boris Fishman’s prose. Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is one of my favorite Russian American poets. A fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew, she just published a fiery poetry collection called The Many Names for Mother. It’s such a bittersweet exploration of motherhood and the infinite in the context of her origins, both feminine and Soviet/ Ukrainian/Jewish. It’s so, so good.

How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

So I got pretty lucky: I grew up with a mother who has a strong personality and who worked at this beautiful glorious music school in Moscow, where we lived from when I was 7 to when I was 14 and we moved to the US. To me, she channeled powerful feminist thought, although that’s not language she used. Yes, we dressed up, but it was to strut our stuff and have fun, not in order to please a man. I also grew up in a family where everyone had worked: both grandmas, my mom, all her female ancestors were peasants. So there was a version of Soviet and Russian homespun feminism that may be problematic and all, it wasn’t perfect, the guys didn’t necessarily help out, but at least there’s that gender modeling of strong women. There is this concept of the matriarchy, and also of women working for generations. 

I find it more irksome to navigate some situations with expectations for women from white Anglo-American upper middle class and upper class backgrounds. There’s an awful lot of stuff that I have trouble relating to, not only helicopter parenting or beautiful thin appearances in beautiful thin yoga pants, but also stay-at-home motherhood. That stuff is hard! It’s really a terrible thing when you know people who live according to those expectations–fraught with depression and with not being recognized as a human being. And when I was a stay-at-home–uh, poet–in our rather affluent suburb, I didn’t wear that identity, but the expectations were quite definite. But I think that the Russian strong woman, not unlike one that Akhmatova wanted people to think she was, wanted people to believe she could be, it’s an ideal and all, but it’s really a fantastic thing to embody. It’s a bigger expectation than the “little woman” that’s stuck around in our America. The resilient, powerful Russian lady–that’s a tall expectation, and it calls on us to stand tall, and I’m proud of that idea.

Q&A with Masha Rumer: Parenting with an Accent (forthcoming from Beacon Press)

Today on Punctured Lines, we have a Q&A with Masha Rumer, author of Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting, whose arrival we previously announced here and are very excited about. Masha answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Describe, briefly, your process in writing this book.

Masha Rumer: My decision to write the book was pretty simple: I wished there was something like that when I became a parent, and since there wasn’t, I figured I’d write it. I was born in Russia and my partner was born in the U.S., so in addition to navigating differences common to a multicultural relationship, having a baby brought up questions, nostalgia and my awareness of straddling multiple cultural identities. How do I teach my kids Russian, without forcing it?  How do I connect with other parents, even if I lack certain shared childhood experiences? Is a peanut butter sandwich an acceptable meal? How much borscht is too much? The more I spoke to others, parents or not, the more I realized that these concerns are very much shared, but people don’t always feel comfortable discussing it.

Surprisingly, I found no nonfiction book about the contemporary immigrant parenting experience, even though there is a record high of 43 million immigrants in America today and over 18 million kids with at least one foreign-born parent.

I realized there needs to be a research-driven, accessible look at what it’s like for immigrants to raise kids in the U.S., not a “how-to” parenting manual, but a realistic portrait of sorts. The book will have a bit of everything: candid conversations with families across the U.S., personal narrative and interviews with experts in psychology, language development and sociology. And beets. Lots of beets.

PL: What is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature? Who are some of the writers that inspire you?

MR: I really wish I’d read more contemporary Russian literature, but a significant chunk of my reading is in English (unless we’re talking news or kid lit – I try to read Russian books with my children daily). That said, I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Dina Rubina and of the investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, and have been getting into translation more (just finished a delightful Russian translation of A Man Called Ove [PL: This Swedish title by Fredrik Backman has also been translated into English]).

PL: Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?

MR: Sometimes I find myself dodging jokes about being a spy, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (I’m not a spy). I’ve also been questioned whether I came to the U.S. “on my own” and “with papers” or if my husband ordered me via a catalog. The people who ask are demure and almost apologetic, but they want to know. Recently, though, a job recruiter was pretty explicit about questioning my immigration status and any political connections. And something many female-identifying Russian speakers have probably experienced – there’s often an assumption that our closets have this secret compartment where we stash sable fur coats and leather outfits from a James Bond movie.

PL: As a writer who addresses stories of immigrant families, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

MR: I definitely find myself connecting with other diaspora writers. It’s probably due to the shared immigrant experiences of reinventing and translating yourself and the trauma of having been uprooted. I love the work of Lara Vapnyar and Dinaw Mengestu; they both write so incisively and honestly about diaspora realities. Eva Hoffman and Jhumpa Lahiri were among the first contemporary immigrant authors I read, and it felt so validating. Then there’s the work of Edwidge Danticat, Anya Ulinich and Natalia Sylvester, particularly her recent essay on being bilingual, and the Foreignish blog, run by Yaldaz Sadakova. I’m also excited to read the new collection Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg. It’s thrilling to see that the contemporary immigrant narratives are no longer othered as “niche,” but are becoming a part of the “mainstream” literary canon. 

Upcoming Book: Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

I came across Maria Reva’s short story “Unsound” in a copy of McSweeney’s, catching up on my reading over the holidays. It’s a striking piece of fiction that’s set in a fictional orphanage in the Soviet Union, where infants are rated according to a disability scale and judged accordingly. Notwithstanding, the orphan who emerges as a protagonist of the story, Zaya, has a lot going for her–a certain resilience of the spirit that makes her narrative particularly endearing.

Judging by quality of Reva’s previous publications and the reception this particular story has received–it was listed in a major magazine award that McSweetney recently won–this book has a very big future ahead of it. The pub date is March 10, 2020, and it’s already available on pre-order.

A bureaucratic glitch omits an entire building, along with its residents, from municipal records. So begins Reva’s ingeniously intertwined narratives, nine stories that span the chaotic years leading up to and immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. But even as the benighted denizens of 1933 Ivansk Street weather the official neglect of the increasingly powerless authorities, they devise ingenious ways to survive.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609447/good-citizens-need-not-fear-by-maria-reva/

A bonus: Reva’s story “Novostroika” was published in the Atlantic. This looks to be a section from the upcoming novel.

Publisher: Doubleday

Pub date: March 10, 2020

British Library hosts English-language presentation of Kazakh literature

The British Library held an event last month to promote literature from Kazakhstan as part of the project “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World.” It was the launch of two anthologies, one of prose and another of poetry, that were translated into English. The “anthologies, which are 500 pages each and include works by 60 Kazakh poets and writers, are being translated into the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.” Cambridge University Press is the publisher of the English translations. 

According to the article, the “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World project is part of the Ruhani Zhangyru (Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) programme, which seeks to preserve and popularise the country’s historical and cultural heritage.”

Promoting lesser-known literatures is a laudable goal and something sorely needed in the West. But as with all projects that seek to project an image of a particular country, we need to be asking what type of image is being projected and for what reason(s), which voices are included and which left out. Of course, it is impossible to answer these questions until these anthologies become available. A project to keep an eye out for.

https://astanatimes.com/2019/09/british-library-hosts-english-language-presentation-of-kazakh-literature/

An early reader’s review of Hamid Ismailov’s Of Strangers and Bees in Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s translation

David Chaffetz writes for Asian Review of Books:

“One could characterize the overall effect as Master and Margarita comes to the Uzbek Cultural Center of Queens, NY. The poet’s profusion of words underscores his passion for his experience as a child growing up in the fields of Transoxiana, the insouciance of being a state-sponsored intellectual, the desperation of being a stateless person in rigidly bourgeois Europe.”

Upcoming Book: Cold War Casual

Anna Krushelnitskaya’s book, Cold War Casual/Простая холодная война is a bilingual work that collects oral testimony and interviews about the ways the events of the Cold War and the government propaganda affected people in the US and in the USSR. This seems of tremendous interest to all of us who have lived through that epoch and/or write about it.

Krushelnitskaya has translated the testimony and interviews so that each piece is available in both Russian and English. The announcement reads: “The interviews were conducted in the native languages of the respondents in a casual, friendly format to record the subjective evaluations of the Cold War period in an attempt to establish whether, and how, the lived experiences and memories of the respondents influenced their sense of national pride, instilled a fear of war or the enemy, invited cultural openness or isolation and participated in forming personal long-term ideological stances.”

This books is available for pre-order.

Pub date: October 22, 2019

Publisher: Front Edge Publishing, LLC

Upcoming Book: Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero

I’m thrilled to report that Tin House is publishing Lara Vapnyar’s new novel. It’s available on pre-order, and I recommend that you pre-order it now to make sure to reserve your copy!

As a reformed math school student (Leningrad, 239 shkola), I can never get enough of math stories in fiction. The publisher’s description makes this book sound delicious:

As a young girl, Katya Geller learned from her mother that math was the answer to everything. Now, approaching forty, she finds this wisdom tested: she has lost the love of her life, she is in the middle of a divorce, and has just found out that her mother is dying. Half-mad with grief, Katya turns to the unfinished notes for her mother’s last textbook, hoping to find guidance in mathematical concepts.

With humor, intelligence, and unfailing honesty, Katya traces back her life’s journey: her childhood in Soviet Russia, her parents’ great love, the death of her father, her mother’s career as a renowned mathematician, and their immigration to the United States. She is, by turns, an adrift newlywed, an ESL teacher in an office occupied by witches and mediums, a restless wife, an accomplished writer, a flailing mother of two, a grieving daughter, and, all the while, a woman in love haunted by a question: how to parse the wild, unfathomable passion she feels through the cool logic of mathematics?

Upcoming Book Announcement: Alex Halberstadt’s Young Heroes of the Soviet Union

From the publisher: “In Young Heroes of the Soviet Union, Russian-American author and journalist Alex Halberstadt sets out on a quest to name and acknowledge a legacy of familial trauma, and to end a cycle of estrangement that afflicts his family. This journey leads him to track down his grandfather–one of the last living bodyguards of Joseph Stalin–and to examine the ways in which The Great Terror and decades of Soviet totalitarianism indelibly shaped three generations of his family. He goes back to Lithuania, where his Jewish mother’s family was from, to revisit the trauma of the Holocaust and a pernicious legacy of anti-Semitism that has yet to be reckoned with. And he explores his own story, as a fatherless immigrant who arrived in America–to a housing project in Queens–as a twelve-year-old boy and struggled with feelings of rootlessness, identity, and yearning for home.”

Publisher: Random House

Agent: The Wylie Agency

Pub date: March 10, 2020

Forthcoming Book Announcement: Masha Rumer, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting

From Masha Rumer comes the following announcement:

“Very excited to share that my nonfiction book, Parenting with an Accent, will be published by Beacon Press and distributed by Penguin Random House. There’s no better time for this book, which will explore the everyday stories and challenges of immigrant families as they raise kids in their adopted American home. (And yes, there will be beets.)”

Agent Katelyn Hales, Robin Straus Agency

We’re very excited too. Having read Masha’s work before, we know this will be an insightful and engagingly written book. If you haven’t read her yet, you can do so here:

https://www.kveller.com/what-do-you-do-when-your-beloved-childhood-books-scare-the-crap-out-of-your-kids/