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.

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.

Yevgenia Nayberg’s I Hate Borsch! (Eerdmans, 2022): A Way to Benefit Ukraine

Yevgenia Nayberg is the author and illustrator of several imaginative and visually stunning children’s books. In Anya’s Secret Society, a Russian immigrant girl who loves to draw discovers that, unlike where she came from, being left-handed is perfectly acceptable in America (left-handedness was considered in need of pointed correction in the Soviet Union, as my maternal grandfather could have attested to). Typewriter is the story of, well, a Russian typewriter brought to America and then abandoned by its owner, that finds a new home in the end. I particularly appreciate these children’s books because as far as I know, they’re the only ones that feature immigrant protagonists from the former Soviet Union. Nayberg’s latest book is I Hate Borsch! (what?! Who can possibly hate borsch?!), about a girl who, indeed, can’t stand the stuff but has a change of heart after emigrating from Ukraine to the U.S. The book includes Nayberg’s recipe for the (absolutely delicious) dish. And given several recent Twitter threads in which native Russian speakers expressed dismay at being told that they don’t spell its name correctly in English, I Hate Borsch! spells it exactly as it should be (for fans of Library of Congress transliteration, “borshch” is also acceptable, and no other spellings are).

Until June 30th, part of the proceeds from the book’s sales go to benefit Ukraine. Support Ukraine, support immigrant writers, support borsch. You can also donate here and here to help bring food to those who need it in Ukraine.

Yevgenia Nayberg is an award-winning illustrator, painter, and set and costume designer. Her illustrations have appeared in magazines and picture books, and on theatre posters, music albums, and book covers; her paintings, drawings, and illustrations are held in private collections worldwide. As a set and costume designer, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Endowment for the Arts/TCG Fellowship for Theatre Designers, the Independent Theatre Award, and the Arlin Meyer Award. She has received multiple awards for her picture book illustrations, including three Sydney Taylor Medals. Her debut author/illustrator picture book, Anya’s Secret Society, came out in 2019 and received a Junior Library Guild Gold Selection Award. She’s an author/illustrator of Typewriter and Mona Lisa In New York.  Her latest book, I Hate Borsch! was published this year. Born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, she now lives in New York City.

Secrets: An Excerpt from Nataliya Meshchaninova’s Stories of a Life, translated by Fiona Bell

Nataliya Meshchaninova is Russian filmmaker. In 2017, she published a book of autobiographical short stories that resonated with her audience, in part, because they supported the Russian #metoo movement. In February 2022, Deep Vellum brought out Fiona Bell’s translation of Meshchaninova’s book under the title Stories of a Life. We are honored to share with you an excerpt from this book, a section from the fourth chapter, “Secrets.”

The book centers on Meshchaninova’s complex relationship with her mother and her mother’s lovers and includes troubling depictions of abuse. Punctured Lines asked Fiona Bell to tell us about her experiences translating this book, and she generously responded:

The breezy, tongue-in-cheek style that Meshchaninova uses to narrate the horrifying events of her childhood [was the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this translation project]. To translate someone else’s trauma is hard enough—adopting the survivor’s “I” when none of this had happened to me—but to do it in a joking tone was even more complicated. But this is the incredible appeal of Stories of a Life. Although we don’t associate trauma narratives and humor, Meshchaninova gives us both. She is somehow swaggering in her vulnerability.

Please enjoy the excerpt and buy this book to read the full, gripping story of one remarkable woman’s childhood.

Secrets

by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell

My parents got divorced when I was five. That’s why I remember my father as a father only very hazily. I have a few memories. The first: I’m standing in the mudroom dressed in my winter clothes, ready to go outside, and I see my mom screaming hysterically, her arms raised, my two older sisters clinging to her like branches to a tree. My father’s standing in the doorway, saying something like, “Oh, come on, Katya!” That was a weird moment. The second: my father is sitting on the couch, munching on sunflower seeds, and I’m on the floor by his legs, waiting for him to split some open and stick a handful of shelled kernels into my mouth. The third: my father asks me to bring him his slippers, and I say, “No, no, a nightingale never sings for a pig, ask a crow instead!” The fourth: I watch in horror as my father covers the kitchen floor with plucked chicken carcasses. The whole kitchen—the entire floor: carcasses. Nowhere to stand. As soon as he turns his back, I start frantically throwing the carcasses out the window, hoping I could still save them.

There you have it, all my memories. I’m not even sure they’re real, they might just be imaginings based on my mom’s stories.

Anyway, when I turned five, they got divorced, and I wasn’t too upset because my mom, in celebration of her freedom, planned a nice trip to Taman and took me along. Sometimes I’d ask, “Mom, where’s Dad?”

“What do we need Dad for?” she’d say cheerfully, bobbing in the sea, “We’re having fun all by ourselves!”

I agreed—it wasn’t bad without him around—and I stopped asking.

My father started living with another family pretty quickly, and soon there was a new girl calling him “Dad” without a twinge of conscience. None of it made sense anymore, and I stopped thinking of him as my father. I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job, that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.

My father loved my older sisters, but me, not so much. Probably because they were already wise and grown-up. They visited him a lot, but whenever I went, I just got fed and then sent home. They always had the best chicken at his place.

After the divorce, we never had chicken at my house. Clearly, my father considered it his sacred duty to feed me once a week. Soon, his new wife got sick of these feedings, and I could tell, so I stopped coming over for chicken. That’s pretty much the whole story of our relationship, me and my father’s. I didn’t know him, never really had the chance.

My mom loved to sit me on her lap and ask, “Natashenka, what’s your relationship like with Vitka?” That’s what she called my father, short for Viktor. I’d say, “Well, what kind of relationship could I have with Vitka, since he got stingy with the chicken and gave me second-hand underwear for my birthday?”

“There,” my mom finally said, satisfied, “you see! He’s a pig! He’s always been a pig! Now, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone . . .”

Then she’d tell me some secret from their married life. My father had always been a horrible pig, he’d done some really awful things.

“Once,” my mother said tragically, “Vitka lost some money to Polikarpych in a game of dominoes. To pay the debt, he said, ‘Go to my place, Katerina will give you . . . well, she’ll sleep with you.’ So, Polikarpych came over, and I’m thinking, Whoa whoa whoa, whats he doing here? And he starts coming on to me! Right in front of you guys. But you weren’t born yet. So, in front of Lena and Oksana. He started grabbing my breasts! I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? Vitka will kill you!’ But he said, ‘Vitka’s the one who sent me!’ Well, I grabbed you kids and locked us all in the bathroom. He tried to force his way in but gave up after a while and, out of spite, locked us in from the outside. So we spent an entire day locked in the bathroom, hungry, with only tap water to drink. Then Vitka got home, unlocked the door, and told me to laugh it off!”

Wide-eyed with horror, I looked at my mom and thought to myself, My father isnt just a pig, hes the ringleader of all the pigs in the world.

God, Mom, no one asked for your fucking secrets!

But I understand how important it was for you to tell these stories. You needed an ally in that war. My older sisters were a lost cause—they loved their father. But I hadn’t had the chance. That’s how I became the Louise to my mom’s Thelma. Even to this day. That’s how intense and enduring these secrets have been.

Although now I realize how hard that senseless marriage was on both of them.

Here’s the story: My father had a girlfriend he was head over heels in love with. She cheated on him, or planned to, so he lost his mind and decided to teach her a lesson by marrying another woman. That other woman was my mother. That’s it. When I asked my mom why she married him, she said, “Vitka was tall and handsome and, besides, I wasn’t getting any younger.”

The night before the wedding, my father’s girlfriend called him in tears and begged him not to get married, to forgive her. But, like I said, my father had lost his mind. That’s where stupidity gets you: married.

To continue reading, please buy the book.

Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russian literature who is committed to sharing the voices of contemporary female and nonbinary Russian writers with anglophone audiences. Bell’s essays have appeared in Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida, but currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.

Triple Axel by Yelena Furman, The Willesden Herald’s Story of the Month

Whether or not you watched figure skating at the Olympics this year, or are closely related to somebody suffering from arrhythmia, if you have read Aleksander Pushkin’s The Belkin Tales, this recently published story by our co-founder Yelena Furman is for you. And if you haven’t read Pushkin’s stories yet, you might want to read them, too!

Congratulations Yelena with your new fiction publication!

Revealing Poetry from Within: An Interview with Alla Gorbunova, by Alexandra Tkacheva

Alla Gorbunova is a Russian poet, prose writer, translator, and critic. She has published six books of poetry and four books of prose, and her work regularly appears in major literary journals, including Znamia, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Vozdukh, TextOnly, and others. Gorbunova’s poems and prose have been translated into many languages. She has taken part in Russian and international festivals of poetry and prose, and in 2012 participated in poetry readings in New York and Chicago. English-language translations of her poems and prose have appeared in Poetry, Words Without Borders, Columbia Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, and Nashville Review.

The English translation of her book of prose It’s the End of the World, My Love by Elina Alter is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Press in 2022. Gorbunova is a laureate of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Andrei Bely Prize, the NOS Literary Prize, and the Debut Prize. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University.

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated to English by the interviewer. The Russian-language edition of Gorbunova’s collection It’s the End of the World, My Love is available for purchase from the publisher, NLO Books.

Alla Gorbunova

Alexandra Tkacheva: When did you start writing? How did you come to think of yourself as a poet? Some of your lines, such as “Дом сверчка в золе и саже / За окном его горит / Чёрной башни карандашик / С чёрной тучей говорит” [The cricket’s house in the soot and ash / Outside his window / A pencil of the black tower is lit / It is talking to a black cloud] can be read as ars poetica. Is this a common and/or deliberate effect in your work?

Alla Gorbunova: In her “Young Mother’s Diary,” kept by my mom, she notes that I started composing poems when I was a year and nine months old. But these poems did not have words yet. My mom describes them as combinations of sounds with a strong rhythm. Since then, I’ve been composing verse, which gradually acquired words.

In childhood, I had a favorite game. I took books (preferably but not necessarily with pictures), sat down and ran my finger over the pages until the paper became threadbare. I muttered to myself, made up a story, sometimes relying on the pictures, and imagined that it was printed on those pages. Reading other people’s texts also encouraged me to play this game. When I liked what I’d read, I took the book and began declaiming my own words in the same spirit and style. I kept up this practice for many years, having felt a deep need for such creative expression. It seemed vitally necessary, a true inspiration. 

As for ars poetica, yes, in my poetry you can often encounter a reflection on the poetic experience itself. A form of autoreferentiality. In that moment of unfolding, poetry poses a question about itself, about the foundations and possibilities of poetic speech. I feel that we lack the language capable of revealing what poetry is from within. When I’m writing a poem, regardless of its subject, there is always a revelation of poetry itself, poetry turned not only outward but also towards itself.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Tell us about your creative process. How are your poems written? What about prose? Where does the work on yourself end and the work on the text begin for you? Is the material world (the nighttime, a table, a cup of tea) important for creativity? Do you edit yourself? Does your “mental controller” (a character in Gorbunova’s short story “На правах рекламы [Advertisement]”) intervene? What is the most difficult part of writing?

Alla Gorbunova: Usually, a target appears (sometimes I catch it, like a hunter), a point-like and precise note, a condensed whole, a pure creative possibility, a certain intensity, a call for me. It can be said that I “see” this intensity, this target. However, a more accurate metaphor here is perhaps recognizing the smell. Indeed, not only a word or an image can carry meaning, but also a smell – in a more primordial way. There is something from hunting prey by its smell in the creative process for me.

The distinction between poetry and prose is not critical to my process. Both are about seeing for me. Sometimes I see something, and it’s clear that this is poetry. Or that this is prose. I mean, it’s clear that this particular intensity is meant to unfold as poetry, while that one – as prose. And sometimes, I see that it can be unfolded both ways and I can put it down as either poetry or prose.

Working on a text, when it’s taken out of the context of working on one’s own self, is a purely technical handicraft. In my case, it would be more correct to say “work within the text” instead of working on it. Someone working on the text creates an object, cultivates it.  I don’t work on the text but within it. I have to work so that the text can work. Creativity, writing, poetry, and prose are all a work of consciousness. Here, the quality of visual and mental attention plays a more important role than craft. 

The material world is important. The transcendental can permeate things. Things can accumulate memory and time. They can speak and think. Sometimes I get to hear their thoughts. Strictly speaking, these are not thoughts in our habitual understanding, but a certain murmur, noise, movement, tension – something happening inside the matter, though nothing semantically meaningful. Things are restless on the inside.

Actually, all things are foam—quantum foam, which has been theorized to be the basis for all matter. Things accumulate memory, they are not stable inside, they consist of this foam and can hunt people and steal our consciousness. Things constantly invite a body: eat me, take me, touch me, play with me. Inside our consciousness there is a selective mechanism determining which invitations to accept and which to reject. This selective mechanism can function poorly or even be broken, and then things do whatever they want to a person.

I edit myself very little. The evaluative function that judges the text as though from an external critical perspective works automatically and usually at the moment of writing. I constantly want to be writing something new. I simply don’t have time to write down everything I want, so I’m unable to focus on things already written, because, otherwise, that new thing that I urgently need to put down will slip away. By the way, it wasn’t always like this for me in terms of editing. When I was younger, in high school, I worked on form a lot. Back then, I felt that I needed this, constantly gave myself assignments, polished my craft, forced myself to write poetry in all the complex ancient meters, and so on. I wanted to know many words and forced myself to read the dictionary. This is how it was before, and now I usually write the final version right away and rarely revisit it. I don’t have multiple drafts.

The hardest part of writing is also the easiest. To be alive, not just physically, but in the actual sense, to keep your heart alive. Is it difficult or easy? On the one hand, it is extremely easy, and on the other hand – impossible. I feel I need to balance on that single point at which a person is alive. That point at which there is no yesterday or tomorrow, where you part from yourself and reach that something you were created for – life. The creative act happens at that single point – where there’s no past or future, where you yourself cease to exist. When you create within that point and not here, in this world – it becomes clear in the text written here. There’s life in the work.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What role does the reader play for you? What life do you imagine for your words once they become available to the reader?

Alla Gorbunova: I think the poet writes not for the reader but for the perfect addressee – a certain absolute instance that cannot be embodied in any concrete reader. And the reader can come and live in this text if they can and want to. The work is, like Nietzsche puts it, for everyone and no one.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Which of your predecessors or contemporaries have influenced your work? Is there a point in tracing Platonov, Gogol, or Kafka, who you once said were your favorite writers? After reading your essay on Elena Shvarts, I’ve started noticing the overlaps in imagery and tone between your and Shvarts’s poetry. How do you feel about such attempts to establish a literary genealogy? 

Alla Gorbunova: In my view, the search for influences and overlaps is often an attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Or worse than that: to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. As a result of this attempt (regardless of the validity of these influences and overlaps), the seeker is left with the familiar piece of art and fails to recognize the unfamiliar.

In any case, I leave the search for contexts, connections, and overlaps to the critics.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your take on criticism? How do you combine creative and critical practices? What are your guiding principles for analyzing texts written by others?

Alla Gorbunova: In Russia, we have some absolutely wonderful, subtle, and insightful critics and I’m grateful for their reviews of my books. I cannot complain really, I have seen a lot of interesting texts from critics and bloggers about my work and these have brought me great joy. But generally, it seems that many people who undertake the task of writing about books and even have authority in certain circles, do it superficially. They briefly describe the work and provide their assessment. They don’t want to analyze and work with the text, fail to see its context or perceive what lies outside the scope of their expectations and ideas. Most importantly, their hearts are not open or ready to try to understand and hear the other. Even the way they write carries a surprisingly revolting, brash intonation, as if they have seen all things in the world and know everything about everyone. This intonation is full of fatigue, smugness, depreciation, and contempt. These critics do not presume the author innocent: the fact of publication means for them that the latter wants to sell them something, foist it on them, while they consider it as consumers and say: “alright, this will do” or “ugh, I don’t wanna buy this.” There is no understanding that the author writes their book not because they expect something from the critics or society but for no reason, because they cannot behave otherwise. These people often have a consumerist attitude to books, it’s like a food cycle for them: consuming and then producing an evaluative review. And they think everything exists just for this purpose. I’m reminded of the time when I taught philosophy to first-year physics majors. We were supposed to discuss the philosophical texts and try to understand them, but often the students simply expressed their value judgements and opinions. I found this practice strange. “Opinion” is actually a cunning thing, a lot has been written on it in the philosophical tradition. Opinion and thought are widely distinct.

Criticism, for me, is definitely not about opinions or judgments. It’s rather a possibility of thought. A possibility of understanding or misunderstanding, where the latter can also be valuable. When I engage in criticism, I combine the analytical and the hermeneutic approaches, trying to understand and shed light on how the text is organized on different levels and what stands behind it. In a way, I explore the author’s artistic mind. Tracing the links and contexts, I primarily draw on my own encounter with this text, analyze the interaction that happened between us. Hence, my criticism is not only about the author I’m writing about, but also about me, I also open up in it. I can be biased but I try to see and acknowledge my bias. Fundamentally, I try to withhold my own taste and ideas about literature from my analysis of the work under review, but instead look for its inner law, read it according to the rules that are most applicable. And my own plasticity is important here. Not judging the text based on the primitive procedure of correlating it to my idea of good and bad but seeing it on the atomic level. For example, when you write about different poets, you can see very clearly that they understand poetry and poetic utterance differently on the atomic level. You have to change your optics accordingly. You have to be extremely flexible but cannot lose yourself. And here’s how I combine poetic and critical practices: I try not to write criticism at all. And if I write it, I try to do it in a way that enriches me as a poet. So that I get something out of exploring another poet’s thinking and their poetic world, or clarify my relationship with this author, or understand something I was trying to understand. That is to say, for me, criticism is a work of the conscious mind just like poetry and prose.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Your poems and short stories have been translated into many languages, including English. Is it important for you to participate in the translation process, and maybe affect how a prospective readers’ community that doesn’t speak Russian receives your work?

Alla Gorbunova: I prefer to meet a good translator – a professional and a fellow thinker – and entrust my work to them. In the case of English, I try to check translations for obvious semantic misunderstandings, which can happen with the best translators. In the case of other languages that I don’t speak, I cannot do this for the obvious reason. But I’m always open to participating in the translation process and ready to answer in detail any questions from the translator.

Russian cover of It’s the End of the World, My Love (NLO Press, 2020)

Alexandra Tkacheva: It’s the End of the World, My Love was categorized as autofiction. How did you come to this genre? What kind of relationships exist between the author and the heroines in your texts?

Alla Gorbunova: No one knows what genre this is. You may categorize it as autofiction or not. Honestly, I have discovered this word “autofiction” only recently after the release of It’s the End of the World, My Love. I saw it in the reviews and then googled the definition. Current interest in autofiction was news to me: I didn’t aim for any trends and just wrote the book that felt organic to me at that moment. However, I think that the fact that different writers in various countries choose this genre or, to maybe put it better, create it, is not because of a fad but rather because they independently exhibit the desire for this kind of writing. Most likely, this desire is caused by certain underlying changes in our perception of literature and the demands we make on it, by the cultural shifts and the changing forms of our sensibility. Probably, there is an ongoing search for new ways of building a narrative and assembling a text, and autofiction is a possible direction of this search.

But when you talk about autofiction in contemporary Russian literature – here everything instantly turns into a trend, a movement that seeks to capture, expand, and mark the symbolic field. I can’t stand all this hustle. I like it better when my books are described as “fuck knows what this is.”

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your literary-artistic world built upon? Your childhood memories, the books you have devoured, dreams, the collective unconscious? Is it a single Wonderland with multiple entry points, the three worlds you mention in “Пред вратами [Before the Gates],” a folding shelf at your mom’s bed-foot? Who are your guides here?   

Alla Gorbunova: I cannot answer this question, you see. Because if I do, we will end up with another blueprint or outline. My books speak for themselves; everything is visible there. I generally think the world has no foundation. Not only the world created by a work of art, but also our common world is founded on the lack of foundation. And artistic possibility emerges from this lack of foundation as well. However huge and total the world created by a work of art is, there must be an empty space, a blind spot. That empty space is a pledge of openness that enables the world, including the world of a work of art, and prevents it from turning into an enclosed structure. The world cannot be captured by a net.

Alexandra Tkacheva: You write about your experience of growing up, female friendship, sexuality, and motherhood. Are you embracing a woman’s perspective? Does your work have a feminist agenda?

Alla Gorbunova: I never had a female identity as such, I don’t identify myself through the traditional gender binaries. I just write about human experience and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a female experience or not. Some regions of this experience are considered female, while others are not. There’s nothing deliberately feminist in my writing but there’s something else that might also work to benefit women. My internally free heroine can also liberate, and annoy certain kinds of men, those who believe that a woman should know her place and that thinking, art, self-knowledge, extreme freedom, and radical experiments are not for women. My heroine, in my view, dramatically illustrates that this is not the case.

Alexandra Tkacheva: In your poems we often observe metamorphoses, the borders between opposites are erased, and the human lyrical subject dissolves, while animals, plants, and objects acquire agency. How do you feel about a posthumanist reading of your poetry?

Alla Gorbunova: It’s true, in my poems, everyone and everything is alive, animals speak, and there is no clear distinction between the living and the dead. The borders between opposites are being erased and everything turns into everything else. Some people can interpret this as posthumanism, others, in contrast, as a return to archaic mythical consciousness (maybe these approaches are not mutually exclusive). But the connections in this world are poetic, amorous, and existential and not based on technical rationality. I still understand posthumanism as a technological utopia (using technologies to transform bodies, seeking physical immortality, merging human consciousness and the computer). And I don’t really trust technological utopias.

In my view, the main poles of attraction that determine the direction in which we reflect on technicity today are Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon. Heidegger’s philosophy treats technology with caution and focuses on revealing its threatening side. And Simondon analyzed technical objects from another side, offering a strange inhuman optics. The possibility of intersection of digital and human lives, the possibility of a not quite human perspective on our everyday life, unusual, bold ideas and futuristic forecasts ushering in anthropotechnic hybrids and affecting our existence as humans scare and fascinate me at the same time. They always make me question whether, in our mixing of human and technical, we are starting to schematize the unschematizeable, universalize the unique, count the uncountable – apply our calculating thinking to the things that cannot be calculated.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Do you identify as a Russian poet? Is your writing grounded in time and space of contemporary Russia? Do you feel the need or responsibility to make sense of the ongoing events for your readers?

Alla Gorbunova: I perceive my poems as a part of the Russian poetic tradition as well as a part of world poetry. For me, these two things are not contradictory, and I think that contemporary Russophone poetry can, on one hand, be deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and, on the other hand, be completely open, future-oriented, and welcoming to the experience of other cultures and languages.

Actually, I have my own take on tradition. For me, tradition isn’t an “inheritance.” I cannot say I need any inheritance. It feels like creation always happens from the ashes, in conditions of an original catastrophe. There is no default “cultural heritage” or “tradition” at all, it’s a fiction we’re taught in school. The continuity of a poetic tradition is established by every poet anew. Every poet assembles this tradition themselves: it’s a shadow cast into the past, and a searchlight directed towards the future. A poetic tradition needs to be obtained, assembled from the initial ruin. Every creator started from the ashes: in the 19th and in the 18th centuries, as well as today. For me, as a poet, this beam through the past illuminates names that are very different from each other. My favorite poets from the first part of the 20th century are Velimir Khlebnikov and Osip Mandelstam, and from the second – the poets of the Leningrad Underground: Leonid Aronzon, Elena Shvarts, Aleksandr Mironov, Sergei Stratanovskii. 

I think it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the local and global events without being a hypocrite today. There are two kinds of danger: the first comes from following the headlines too closely and turning art into a front page, and the second – from building an ivory tower and treating your art as detached from reality, so it becomes a decorative embroidery. I think we need to seek some living, non-trivial ways of letting social reality into the text.

There are things around us that you can hardly ignore because if you pretend you don’t relate to them or don’t see them or they don’t exist, this is also a certain position, a way of relating. There are things you simply cannot stay away from because it equals betrayal. And there are more and more things like that every day.

But we should not forget that art has an autonomous capacity to produce its own differences: it creates its own space and time so it cannot live simply as a socially mediated phenomenon or be reduced to certain conventions. (Which does not contradict the critical potential of art: the creation of space and time itself is an act of radical social critique as it creates an opportunity to change our point of view and highlight things and ideas that had previously gone unnoticed.)

After all, contemporaneity does not contain things but is created by them. Time doesn’t act as a container for things, but things themselves create, produce time. An object of art does not merely satisfy the requirements of some conventionally established contemporaneity, but creates its moment in time. The so-called contemporary moment is always being created by writers, artists, among others. A work of art defines and forms time.

Alexandra Tkacheva is a PhD student in the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include modern and contemporary periods in Russian literature and culture. As a graduate student, Alexandra applies feminist and posthumanist critique to the works of canonical and lesser-known Russian-speaking authors. She graduated from Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan) with a BA in World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in 2019. When not deconstructing patriarchy, she rides her bike, learns about the human mind, or wanders through the local coffee shops.