Elena Gorokhova’sA 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.
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, ColumbiaJournal, 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.
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.
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.
Julia Zarankin is the author of a memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder(Douglas & McIntyre, 2020) that was warmly welcomed by both the birding and the literary communities. She was born in the Soviet Union and as a child immigrated to Canada with her family as part of the Jewish refugee movement. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught in the US before returning to Canada. She lives in Toronto and publishes essays and short fiction in English-language magazines both in Canada and in the United States.
Punctured Lines:Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder combines elements of an immigrant’s memoir with a love story with a self-help guide to finding a perfect hobby, and last but not least is filled with information about birds and stories of bird sightings—and the different genres brilliantly mesh together to create a page-turner. How did you come up with the structure for this book and did it change during the writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Thank you so much for calling my book a page-turner, that is so kind of you to say and is the greatest compliment. Writing process: before the book, there was a humorous blog called Birds & Words, which I started writing immediately after seeing my first bird and realizing that I had plunged head-first into a bizarre and unlikely subculture. Starting my blog was the only way I could make sense of birds and birding. I wrote about all my adventures in misidentification, I pontificated about avian coiffures. But slowly, I noticed that my posts were growing beyond the length of a jocular blog post. I remember a specific turning point: after chasing (and finding) a spotted towhee that had flown way off course, I started wondering whether the bird felt lost or displaced in this unfamiliar landscape. And suddenly I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the bird; thinking about the spotted towhee led me to contemplate all of my own peregrinations—some more successful than others—and the migratory journeys undertaken by my own family. This moment of seeing myself in birds—a wholly unscientific endeavor by the way; one isn’t supposed to anthropomorphize!—was a sign that I had to take my writing about birds more seriously and that I was probably writing something more meaningful than a series of blog posts. That’s when I started working on the book in earnest; I always envisioned it as a series of essays, and the more I wrote, the more I started seeing connections between my life and the lives/experiences of birds. I played with the order of the essays as I started to envision the book as a whole, with a solid narrative arc.
Punctured Lines: You place your personal story in the context of the migratory urge of certain birds, normalizing, to some extent, human desire to change our circumstances. Are you making a distinction here between immigration that stemmed from political tensions and the general human desire to be in motion?
Julia Zarankin: I think I’m fascinated by both of these desires. As a person, I’m wildly afflicted by wanderlust. Falling in love with birds gave me a sense of home that I hadn’t experienced before; now that I know where birds can be found in Toronto, I feel much more at home in the city and feel less of an urge to escape and run away at every opportunity. In a sense, birds have really taught me how to be present, stay put, and enjoy it! When I started volunteering at a migration monitoring station and began reading about bird migration, I came across this fantastic German word Zugunruhe, coined by natural historian Johann Andreas Naumann, to describe the migratory restlessness of caged songbirds. I realized that the word itself applied not just to birds, but also to my own life and the trajectory of my family’s history. Suddenly I felt that there might be an explanation for my own near-constant feeling of migratory restlessness. Migratory birds are hardwired to live a life in constant motion, and their journeys are perilous! Their lives are dictated largely by a quest for food and a desire (biological imperative) to reproduce. My personal migratory restlessness is of a different nature. Initially politically motivated (my family fled several political regimes), my desire to be in motion could also be summarized by a quest to find a home and to escape the familial curse (or gift?) of being forever displaced.
Punctured Lines: You have devoted much of your professional life to the study of Russian literature. In the book, you mention how after you became a birdwatcher, you started noticing references to birds everywhere, including the chickens in Uncle Vanya:
“I had always focused on the play’s larger message and hadn’t ever paid much attention to the chickens. Yet there they were. And rereading the play, I saw that the chickens [. . .] depicted continuity, the small, mundane actions that we cannot live without, the ones that give contour to our lives.”
Do you find that, as a birdwatcher, you approach books differently, bringing a different quality of attention to the pages in front of you?
Julia Zarankin: I’ve certainly started reading Chekhov and Tolstoy differently now that I’m a mad birder! I used to skip over nature scenes and snipe hunts (shh! don’t tell anybody) because I found them lacking in action, but now those scenes come alive for me in new ways. They are so often a locus of epiphany. I feel like birds have also helped me get to know Chekhov differently—as more of a prescient environmentalist. Birds have definitely taught me to slow down in almost everything I do, including how I read: to attend to words, scenes, details differently and more deliberately. The connections between birds and Russian literature are surprising (and plentiful). I’m fascinated by the fact that Velimir Khlebnikov is the son of a really famous Russian ornithologist, Vladimir Khlebnikov (not only that, but he accompanied his father on ornithological expeditions). All of this now makes sense to me, because it feels like in Khlebnikov’s futurist verse words are literally taking flight, often away from sense, toward a new way of experiencing language and poetry.
Punctured Lines: The narratives about human relationships with animals have a long history. One book that came to mind in relation to yours and that had enjoyed an enormous popularity in the USSR was Gerald Durrell’s My Life and Other Animals, a humorous account of a young boy transplanted with his family from Britain to the island of Corfu. What were the books that were influential for you during your writing process?
Julia Zarankin: Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “My Bird Problem,” was the piece that made me want to try my hand at birdwatching. Franzen writes about how falling in love with birds made him less cynical, and I think I read that essay at the right time—I was going through a career transition, auditioning hobbies, searching for something that would give me inner peace and improve my patience (without having to do yoga and spend time in the downward dog position). I’m very much indebted to Kenn Kaufman’s work (especially Kingbird Highway), and also Simon Barnes’ curious little book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Barnes gave me permission to make (sometimes egregious) mistakes and taught me that there is no right way to be a birder; as long as one cultivates the habit of looking, one is doing it right. I reread Chekhov often, both for his attention to detail and narrative craft, and also for his reminder not to take oneself too seriously because at its core life is fundamentally absurd.
Punctured Lines: You write about growing up in a family of professional musicians and, being trained as a musician yourself in childhood, having to participate in music competitions. As a musician, a writer, and an academic, one must learn to bear the extremely competitive nature of these fields. Though birdwatching, too, as you say, can be a very competitive pursuit, it seems that for you it has been an opportunity to transform your relationship with competition itself. I was fascinated by your suggestion that birds teach you how to deal with disappointment in other areas of life. Do you find that birdwatching helps by teaching you how to reframe your ambitions, or that the sheer unpredictability of the birds’ behavior habituates you to waiting and helps you to avoid blaming yourself for everything that doesn’t go as planned? Or?
Julia Zarankin: I really believe that birding is the perfect antidote to smugness. Whether you like it or not, birds force you to take a Humility 101 masterclass (over and over again). Birding helped me undergo an apprenticeship in failure, because so much about birdwatching is learning to become comfortable with your (constant) mistakes. It only dawned on me much later that one cannot learn to identify birds without simultaneously learning to misidentify them (and recognizing what your mistakes are). Whereas I used to be ashamed of my mistakes and tried to hide them, birding showed me how mistakes are part of the learning process. Unsurprisingly, this also really helped me as a writer!
Punctured Lines: An important thread of this memoir has to do with the question of having children, with you trying to balance your desire to become a parent with factors that preclude you from doing so. This aspect of the book seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary writing by women on the difficult set of decisions that they face around motherhood. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood). Do you see your book in dialogue with the books that problematize the notion of traditional motherhood?
Julia Zarankin: Thanks so much for asking this question. I wrote this book as I was also coming to terms with the fact that I would never become a parent. In a sense, the book is also about learning to find meaning in midlife when one’s life doesn’t go as planned (or as one expected). I’m the first woman in five generations of my family (at least!) not to have a baby by age 21, and although my parents and grandmothers were kind and never mentioned that fact (at least not directly), I felt the weight of it on my shoulders and felt like I was failing or disappointing my entire family line. The book traces my journey of coming to terms with the fact that there are many ways to live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I really credit birds and birding for helping me see that.
Punctured Lines: Because I know that you hate this question yet ask it of everyone else: What is your favorite bird at the moment?
Julia Zarankin: I’m answering these questions from a farm in the Eastern Townships, in rural Quebec (this was as close as we could get to a trip to Vermont, since the land border is still closed to Canadians), and every morning this week I’ve been waking up to three American kestrels sitting in a bare tree outside my window. They’re gorgeous birds, with bright orange and blue and a wild, zebra-like face pattern. How nature came up with this bird, I do not know, but it’s magical. Too bad they terrorize (read: eat) the tiny songbirds, but hey—nobody ever said that nature was for the faint of heart. Yes, kestrels are definitely my favorite bird at the moment.
We are delighted to present a conversation between Alina Adams and Maria Kuznetsova, whose recent critically acclaimed novels make significant contributions to the body of Russian-American literature. Both Adams and Kuznetsova were born in the USSR and immigrated to the US with their families as children, though some years apart. In their novels, the authors turn to USSR’s history to tell their stories. Adams is a professional writer on topics from figure skating to parenthood and a New York Times bestselling author of soap-opera tie-ins. In The Nesting Dolls(Harper, 2020), she focuses on three generations of Soviet-Jewish women in a story that moves from Odessa to Siberian exile to the Brighton Beach immigrant community. Kuznetsova is a writer, an academic, and a literary editor. In her second novel, Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021), she alternates between the perspectives of a grandmother and a granddaughter: between the story of a WWII-era escape from the Nazis taking over Kiev and the experiences of a contemporary New Yorker adjusting to new motherhood.
Alina Adams: How much of Something Unbelievable is autobiographical, or based on the experiences of your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents? How did you tackle writing historical fiction—was it based on anecdotal stories, research, or a mixture of both? What was the process of envisioning the past in your book like for you?
Maria Kuznetsova: When my grandmother was five, her family did indeed evacuate to the Ural Mountains like Larissa’s did in Something Unbelievable—and some moments from the book, like her having to hide under a train to avoid being bombed by Nazis, or starving so badly that the meat started to sink off her arms, really did happen. So I used her story, as well as some research into the time period, as a way to establish the background and set pieces of Larissa’s arc, while knowing that I’d have to make up most of the drama—a love triangle, jealousy between sisters, and so on—to carry her story forward. As for the story of her granddaughter, the contemporary actress who put on a play based on her story while being a new mom, I made all of that up, though of course I drew on my own experience of being a new mom while trying—unsuccessfully—to still be an “artist” and not lose my mind.
How about you with The Nesting Dolls? While my novel navigated two time periods, World War II and the present, yours actually had multiple time periods in Odessa and beyond (like nesting dolls themselves!), following Daria in the 1930s and Natasha in the 1970s, and finally, Zoe in 2019. Did you have a different relationship to each of these characters and periods in your writing? Did you feel closer to Natasha because her story was more recent? And how about Zoe?
Alina Adams: My research for The Nesting Dolls consisted of equal parts reading first-hand historical accounts and eavesdropping. I was that kid who always tried to make myself as small as possible at the corner of the kitchen table so the adults wouldn’t notice I was listening. But I was listening, and many of the stories I heard ended up making it into the book. The 1930s section is my grandparents’ generation. My grandfather was from a tiny village outside of Odessa. At age 13, he moved to the city alone to live in a boarding house, work in a factory during the day, and go to school at night. His father, who spoke no Russian, wrote a letter to Comrade Stalin—in Yiddish!—thanking him for his generosity in allowing a Jewish boy to get an education. That incident is referenced in The Nesting Dolls.
The 1970s, on the other hand, are my parents’ generation. My parents are the ones who told me how difficult it was for a Jew to pass a university entrance exam (though I already knew about The Jewish Problems). My father was the one who was told that he couldn’t study to be a doctor because he wore glasses and doctors couldn’t have less than perfect vision… by a doctor who wore glasses. Both my parents told me about working in a kolkhoz, how public baths worked, and communal apartment living, where neighbors might pour your soup down the drain or throw your clean laundry out the window. My father is the one who, once upon a time, jerry-rigged a shower by rerouting a pipe from under the sink. But, I am proud to say, I was the one who remembered about public fountains which dispersed soda water for one kopeyka, and sugar-flavored for three—and everyone lined up to drink from the same glass!
For the third section, the one taking place in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it was extremely important to me to present Soviet-Jewish immigrants the way I knew them, and not the way they were usually portrayed in popular media. Growing up, if I saw Russian Jews in movies or on TV, they were the “Fiddler on the Roof” generation or “An American Tail,” basically huddled masses yearning to breathe free… while wearing kerchiefs and being precious. Modern day Jews, on the other hand, were either “The Nanny” or something by Phillip Roth. I couldn’t relate to either of them. (I kind of still can’t; the TV family we relate to most these days is actually the Asian one from “Fresh off the Boat.” For some reason, my kids find the immigrant mother on that show, strangely familiar!) What kind of images of Russian immigrants did you see growing up, Maria? How did you relate to them, and did they affect the characters you created in your books?
Maria Kuznetsova: Honestly, most of the depictions of people in the USSR or who emigrated from there that I saw were kind of what Natasha, the actress in my book, auditioned to be—either prostitutes or spies. In any Blockbuster-type movie, like the the Rocky movies or “Air Force One,” they were always the villains, whether as athletes or terrorists, and I vaguely remember Boris and Natasha in the cartoons when I was a kid. So this definitely did not speak to my experience, though it perhaps explained why the kids in my new American schools would call me a “Commie” and make fun of me! I came to America when I was five, so I was obviously not aware of how Americans viewed Soviet immigrants or the Cold War or the way Russians were depicted in the media, but as an adult, I can look back on moving to America in the early 90s and understand why I was so confused by my classmates’ ideas of who I was.
Alina Adams: Yes, me too! I came in the late 1970s and heard, “You’re a Communist! Why don’t you go back to Russia?” For some reason, second graders had a difficult time grasping the nuance that, if you left Russia, you were likely not a Communist. (And let’s not get started on, “I’m not from Russia, I’m from Ukraine…”) No wonder you didn’t engage!
Maria Kuznetsova: Indeed! Five-year-old me didn’t quite have the sophistication to say, “We fled the country as Jewish refugees—so we could escape the Communists! And we can’t exactly go back because we gave up our passports into the country, duh!”
Anyway, until probably late into college, I mostly read the classics, rarely anything written after Catcher in the Rye or Lolita (though there’s a nuanced, complicated, and flawed immigrant for a protagonist!), and it was only in my early twenties that I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, and even USSR immigrants like Gary Shteyngart and David Bezmozgis, and realized that I could write about immigrant characters, too! Until I read these books and a college professor asked why all my characters were American, I didn’t really realize that my fiction could draw a little more from my own childhood experiences—and the very colorful experiences of my parents and grandparents, too—even though that seems so obvious now.
Alina Adams: I grew up watching soap operas and reading the glitz and glamour books of the 1980s, so when I first started trying to get a book published, I also wrote about white, Christian Americans. Ironically enough, the first book I sold, to Avon in 1994, The Fictitious Marquis, was a Regency romance novel set in England between 1795 to 1837 à la Jane Austen—can you get more white and Anglican than that? But I managed to sneak a whole Jewish family into it. Twenty years later, the Romance Writers of America named it the first Our Own Voices Jewish historical. So I was apparently being a trailblazer without even knowing it! Because, like you, I assumed the way to go mainstream was to write about the mainstream. It didn’t occur to me to, like you said, draw from my family experiences, until my agent said, about four years ago, “Russia is so hot right now!” (I wonder why?) When I started thinking about the story I wanted to tell, I decided to set it in Odessa, where my family is from, and to populate it with the types of people I knew, many of whom I wanted to see in popular culture, but rarely did.
On that note of identification, both of our books touch upon the topics of being (grand)daughters of Soviet (grand)mothers, and the mothers of American children. What has that dual experience been like for you? How does it come out in your latest novel?
Maria Kuznetsova: As my American husband once told his friends, “You won’t realize how Russian Maria really is until you meet her parents.” I’ve always had this split identity—the “Russian” (which is what we considered ourselves when we emigrated from the USSR, though we came from Ukraine) part of me that comes out around my family, but where I also actually feel the most American, since my pronunciation of most things is inaccurate, I miss a lot of Soviet references, and get teased for my “American” accent, and so on. And then there’s the American part where I’m around Americans and seem American, but often find myself feeling like this outsider because I missed out on many cultural references, grew up eating different foods, had many superstitions people teased me for, and so on (heaven forbid someone tried to step over me at a sleepover—I would be terrified I wouldn’t grow!). Having a three-year-old with an American husband, and having lost all of my grandparents at this point, and therefore having no close relative in my life with whom I’m “forced” to only speak Russian regularly, has definitely made me feel like the Russian part of myself is getting more and more diluted.
I beg my parents to speak Russian to my daughter, and I do think she understands them still, but they switch to English because they say she doesn’t understand them. My novel felt a lot more Russian than I am—not only because of the historical parts, but because Natasha, who is married to a Russian and auditioning for mostly Russian parts and living in New York, is a lot more Russian than I feel right now. I live in Alabama, and the only time I heard a woman speaking to her kids in Russian, I ran over to her immediately like I had witnessed some kind of miracle. So I guess my writing is this space where I can return to sometimes connect with my Russian heritage, even if sadly I feel like I could be better about doing it in real life!
In The Nesting Dolls, you’ve got Zoe, contemplating what her life would be like if she married either a Russian man her family loves, or his African-American friend and co-worker, whom she seems to like a lot more. What was it like to explore those ideas about finding a man who shares your background vs. following your heart in your novel, and perhaps in your real life too?
Alina Adams: A reviewer on Goodreads called The Nesting Dolls ending, where Zoe’s Soviet-born family accepts her African-American boyfriend without threatening to throw themselves out of a window “unrealistic.” My husband of almost 23 years is African-American. (Though, as our oldest son said, “Gideon grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then CalTech. Dad grew up in Harlem, went to private school, and then MIT. So they are totally different people!” My 14-year old daughter, on the other hand, said that the Gideon and Zoe section was her favorite: “I just imagined you and Daddy. Both so adorably nerdy.”) No one in my family threatened to throw themselves out of a window. (As my husband said, “I live in New York, and I’m an engineer. I’m basically Jewish.”)
To me, the relevant thing is that we are raising our children in two non-majority American cultures. They identify as Jewish and African-American. How I see the world is heavily influenced by my being a Soviet-Jewish immigrant. But it’s also influenced by my husband’s perspective as an African-American, and our children’s navigation of both. In a nutshell, I think marrying a man from a culture different from my own, and raising children in multiple different cultures added more depth to how I portrayed America in The Nesting Dolls.
Maria Kuznetsova: I love how your children are old enough to read your books and to respond to your fictionalized version of you and your husband—it makes me excited and terrified for the time when my daughter might read my books! Though even in Oksana, Behave!, the husband is portrayed as a Russian guy, not as the Californian my husband really is. Though he’s white and not an immigrant, I think the way we also unite as feeling a bit like outsiders is by being nomadic academics—first living in Iowa and now Alabama can definitely make us feel like we don’t quite fit in anywhere, which is a healthy perspective for writing complicated fiction.
Anyway, both The Nesting Dolls and Something Unbelievable feature parents, grandparents, children, and love interests, but the same character might be a child in one section, a lover in another, and a parent in the third. How did you keep track of all the characters and make it so readers could keep track, too? In my writing workshops, I always heard the critique that I had too much going on, and one of the reasons was that I had so many characters I was always managing, which reflected my upbringing: though I had a pretty small family, there were millions of family friends and “ghosts” of past family in the room, always reflected in stories, so my life felt very crowded. Did you have a similar experience, and how did you transform this into fiction? Your book has a framing device, so readers know they’ll be coming back to the opening. How did you keep the timelines from getting confusing?
Alina Adams: “Ghosts”—that’s such an interesting way to put it! In addition to family stories, I also added stories I’d heard from other people (all that surreptitious listening at the kitchen table). I even asked my mother if people recognized themselves after they read it. As for “too much going on,” as you said, I worked in soap operas for decades (as my father said, “We didn’t realize all those years you spent watching soaps was actually professional training!”), and I am used to and pretty much require “too much going on.” Also, as a historical family saga reader myself, I love seeing the same character at different stages of their lives. Just like one of my characters says, there is no such thing as the right man, only the right man at the right time; there is no such thing as one personality. We all change in response to our situations.
The funniest part is, in the original draft that went to the editor, the story was told in alternating chapters. After the prologue set in present day, Chapter One was Daria, Chapter Two was Natasha, Chapter Three was Zoe, then back to Daria and so on until the end. I liked seeing the echoes among the generations closer together, but my editor convinced me it worked better read straight. Did anything similar happen to you? Did you ever have to change major plot/structural things to accommodate everything “going on?”
Maria Kuznetsova: My book was first told only from Larissa’s perspective, and once I finished her story, I realized it was missing something because there was no contemporary character really receiving the story—Natasha was just kind of a listener then, without a rich inner life. So then I added her perspective, but of course with that came complications, because now she had parents, exes, friends, two lovers, acting frenemies, etc. to keep track of, and so I expanded both her and Larissa’s stories to include all the possible characters they could, and gave those characters depth, and then cut, cut, cut ruthlessly until I had what the story needed to move forward. The list of characters at the front wasn’t just there for my readers, it was honestly there for me, too! One of my professors, Lynn Freed, talked about getting everyone on stage and letting the audience clearly see who belonged at the front of the stage and who was more in the background, so part of my writing and revising process was about making it clear that the women in the book were at the front, while the men who hovered around them were more in the background.
Alina Adams: That’s such an interesting way to look at it. I just assume readers will figure out that the character talking the most is the most important one (it’s also kind of how I live my life). But since we’re discussing imagery and what readers “see,” let’s talk about book covers. My book, The Nesting Dolls, was obviously asking for a nesting doll on its cover. But with your first one, Oksana, Behave! it wasn’t as obvious, yet that’s what the editor went with anyway. How did you feel about that representation, since it’s such an overused short-hand which screams “Russian!” and pigeonholes both the novel and the writer?
Maria Kuznetsova: At first, I felt kind of torn about it, because I felt like it was this Russian kitsch image of our culture, kind of like the Boris and Natasha cartoons instead of reality, except we all really do have these around the house. So it took me a minute to see that it was cool and funny to have it on my first book cover (since it’s on a middle finger), because it presents this mix of “serious culture” and a more American flipping off of it—Russians don’t give the middle finger using this gesture, of course. How about you? How do you feel about having this image on your book cover, and as the title for your book?
Alina Adams: While I was writing the manuscript, it’s working title was Love Is Not a Potato, an expression I heard all my life. (Why is love not a potato? Because, when it goes bad, you can’t throw it out the window. Trust me, it rhymes in Russian.) But my agent thought it sounded like a children’s book. So the title under which we submitted it was Mother Tongue. A major theme of the book is communication between generations. Children growing up in America just can’t fathom why their parents and grandparents don’t see the importance of being “authentic,” of “being yourself.” They don’t understand what it meant to live in a country where what you said was always being monitored so closely that the idea that what you uttered in public and what you thought in private should be the same thing just made no sense. “Mother tongue” refers to your first language, and I thought it was evocative of the communication differences all the parents and children had in the story. My editor, on the other hand, thought it sounded like a non-fiction title. She wanted something that was evocative of Russia, the Old Country, family, etc…. None of us could think of anything. Eventually, I turned to Facebook, and it was a friend who came up with The Nesting Dolls, which seemed to hit all the right beats. In fact, the cover turned out so well, they ended up using it on the Italian edition, and on the paperback. How about you, Maria, how did your title and cover for Something Unbelievable come about?
Maria Kuznetsova: The two main choices I had for this new cover was of a frying pan killing a rabbit to echo Larissa’s opening monologue about killing Natasha’s injured animals out of mercy, or the one I chose, which was the slightly more subtle image of a train in the mountains. Honestly, I was torn—I thought the pan and rabbit was funny, weird, and bold, like the cover of Oksana, Behave!—but I decided I wanted to try something more open-ended to appeal to people who might be interested in historical fiction more generally who could be put off by the dead rabbit—even if that’s the cover I might have been more inclined to pick up myself!
As for the title, the phrase came to me fairly late in the editing process. The original title was The Station, because so many things happened around a train station in the book, but I realized that was kind of plain and forgettable. Then it struck me that the phrase “something unbelievable,” which Larissa—and my grandmother—says when something is truly astounding, was the perfect phrase to show my wonder at the trajectory my life has taken, and it also reflects how Larissa was this World War II evacuee who lived long enough to see her granddaughter be an actress in New York, playing stereotypically Russian parts to make ends meet. How did I get here, a Soviet refugee from Kiev, teaching in Alabama with a three-year-old with a Southern accent? I wonder at it still!
Alina Adams: I periodically wonder what my life would have been like if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate when they did. Like I say in The Nesting Dolls, different life situations create different people, so I know I’d have been different if they’d left a decade later, like your family, and certainly if they’d never left at all. In that sense, I think both of our books aren’t just products of who we are, but of who our parents and grandparents were and the choices they made.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and came to the United States as a child. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable. She is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of the Southern Humanities Review and The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. You can follow her @mashawrites or learn more about her at www.mariakuznetsova.com.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure skating mysteries. She’s worked as a writer and producer for ABC, NBC, TNT, CBS, E! and ESPN. She immigrated to the US with her family from Odessa, USSR in 1977, and currently lives in New York City with her husband and three children. Her first historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, follows three generations of a Russian-Jewish family from Odessa in the 1930s, Odessa in the 1970, and present day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Her website is: www.AlinaAdams.com.
We’re delighted to publish our conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin, an author and literary and film critic who reviews LGBT books and movies, as well as trends in Russian culture. Kropotkin’s novels and collections of short stories centering queer lives are available on Amazon, in Russian. His commentary on queer culture appears daily on his Telegram blog “Sodom i umora,” and he contributes full-form critical essays to top Russian-language publications. Kropotkin lives in Germany and this conversation was conducted in English and Russian over email, and subsequently translated by the interviewer.
Olga Zilberbourg: Much of your fiction has been focused on portraying the lives of gay men, and as a critic you pay particular attention to LGBT literature and film. Your popular Telegram blog “Sodom i umora” is dedicated to queer books and movies in Russian or in translation to Russian. Despite the retrograde homophobic laws that Russia has passed in recent years, and horrific persecution of gay people in Chechnya, you have shown that Russophone queer literature is a vibrant field. In your blog you seem to strive for balance: you write about various forms of homophobia and also about the many creators that are participating in Russophone queer culture. How would you describe your cultural project as a critic? Does this project change in any way when you turn to fiction?
Konstantin Kropotkin: To get through to the mind, you need to pave the way to the heart. I have arrived at this principle in the early 2000s, when I began to write queer prose, and today I continue to uphold this principle. In 2018, I launched my project #содомиумора where I illustrate the idea that queer literature and queer film, on the one hand, follow their own conventions, and on the other, speak to universal values and can be of interest to a very wide audience. I’m trying to squelch the prejudice that LGBTIQ themes are exotic, incomprehensible, far away, alien. Using examples from books and movies, I’m trying to make the case that these themes are socially significant, have artistic value, are entertaining, familiar, and accessible to anyone.
In other words, I’m working on the same problems as the LGBTIQ rights organizations, though unlike them I’m addressing not only queer people, but an audience of potential allies (“Here, mom, if you want to understand me better, read this!”). This is why I welcome opportunities to write for publications that don’t position themselves as queer. These publications allow my essays, book and film criticism to reach people who are not familiar with LGBTIQ issues. These publications are also a means of habituating queer content within the professional communities, in this case, of film and literary critics.
In the same vein, my Telegram channel #содомиумора is deeply valuable to me as it allows me to deliver a service to my subscribers: everyone, no matter whether they are affiliated with the LGBTIQ community or not, can come here to find a movie or a book to enjoy. Then, the fiction itself does the work of enlightenment, providing readers or viewers with role models, stock phrases useful in everyday life, typical situations, vocabulary for articulating experiences that previously had been taboo.
I also showcase foreign books that would be good to have in Russian translation. I know that publishers and editors read my columns, and my recommendations can be of use to them. I should note that, unlike books, foreign queer movies are translated to Russian almost instantly. This is a paradox of a country where it’s difficult to make money on LGBTIQ content. Queer movies are pirated and translated by the pirates, and nobody represents the interests of the copyright holders in Russia. Russian distributors often steer clear of queer movies, especially indie productions: these movies are rarely profitable even in the West, and the distributors prefer to avoid the risk, given the hostile legal environment.
The work of education that I provide in my reviews, as well as the information provided by the books and movies themselves, is particularly crucial in the country whose government backs homophobia. Adopted in 2013, the “gay propaganda” law endangers the lives of queer people and has had a damaging effect on the Russian cultural landscape. The law is vaguely written and has been used selectively—as an instrument of repressions. I set out to illustrate, with examples, why homophobia causes harm in every way: both in people’s lives, and in the sphere of cultural production.
Olga Zilberbourg: I first came across your work in Gorky, and the essay that grabbed my attention, “Waiting for Boring Men,” was dedicated to the vibrancy of LGBT literature from Georgia. Invited as a guest of honor to the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgia made LGBT literature one of the central themes of its program. In this piece, you pointed out that Georgian literature has been able to address the traumas that Russian literature still dismisses as imaginary. I want to pause for a moment on the traumas you allude to: I assume you’re talking about the homophobic policies of the USSR and the near total silencing of the existence of LGBT people during the late Soviet era. What do you think have been some of the difficulties that Russophone writers experience in approaching these traumas? Conversely, do you believe it’s possible to sidestep the Soviet legacy altogether and to focus on contemporary issues without delving into the past?
Konstantin Kropotkin: The example of Georgia, a fellow post-Soviet state, shows the way contemporary Russian literature could develop if Russia’s homophobia wasn’t a government-level enterprise. (I use the word “homophobia” in an old-fashioned way that includes trans- and bi- and queer-phobia.) Both Russia and Georgia share history as republics of the Soviet Union, but today Georgia is pursuing a democratic route, while Russia is set on the reconstruction of the Soviet monstrous form of government. This difference shows up, among other things, in the literary production of the two countries. Notably, Georgia is a much smaller country than Russia, with less than 4 million citizens, and a relatively poor one. Its literary community is correspondingly smaller, and trends within it are more noticeable. It’s also more flexible in its response to the demands of the times, and to social change. What we observe as true for Georgian literature might well become true for Russian literature at a much later date. It’s important to consider how Georgia is addressing prejudices against queer people. There, LGBTIQ books are published with governmental support, which serves the advancement of their national literature overall and increases the visibility of queer experiences. This is crucial knowledge for Russian knowledge makers.
The Soviet Union’s LGBTIQ history demands a comprehensive, expert reflection, and I think, sooner or later, this will become obvious to people in Russia as well. Unfortunately, much of this history has already become inaccessible: most of the people who’d borne the Soviet queer experience have silently passed away, and so many important stories have been buried with them, unrecorded.
Olga Zilberbourg: You have thought deeply and argued for the importance of genre in the world of literary production. You have written about the slowly emerging genre of LGBT literature in Russia—and about the refusal of some writers who do center LGBT characters in their books to accept the label of “LGBT book” as though it were a diminishment of their accomplishment, wishing their books to be treated as literary fiction because it is a more desirable category. Something analogous happens, I think to women writers, who often refuse the label of “woman” writer believing that to be a diminishment. How do you explain the reluctance to use these terms? To what extent, do you think, is this a reflection on the state of literary criticism in Russia today?
Konstantin Kropotkin: Yes, in Russia, there’s still a strong prejudice against the marker “LGBT literature” (the term “queer fiction” is still in its nascent phase); people feel that it’s a marker of second-rate literature, that it signifies something overly sexualized, scandalous. The reason for this, likely, lies with the Soviet tradition of literary studies that treated sexuality as a taboo subject. Another explanation might be in the hierarchical structure of thought—at its heart, an imperial quality. An empire cannot accommodate the world’s multipolarity; the value of an individual, the significance of each unique “point of view,” is outside of its purview.
This state of affairs is slowly changing, thanks, to a great extent, to the escalating prominence of women’s voices (including the voices of queer women). Both within literature written originally in Russian and within literature published in translation to Russian, women writers are gaining more attention and significance. Dismantling the outmoded status quo with the help of “the female gaze” is useful for queer literature—it clarifies the value of diversity in literary spheres. I believe the cumulative effect of incremental cultural change will play its part, too: for queer work to achieve visibility within the professional community, we need to see commercially successful publications of queer books, large print runs, and dynamic, publicly out queer authors. We’re bound to see all of these things in the next few years—provided that the government will not launch a new homophobic campaign.
Olga Zilberbourg: Your own novel Sodom i umora (2007) is a delightful romp about three gay men who share an apartment in the middle of Moscow in the early 2000s, getting into situations that make me think you set out to write a version of the American sitcom “Will and Grace” set in Moscow. Do you agree with this assessment? What I particularly enjoyed about this novel is that you’re both reproducing lovable stereotypes about gay men (i.e. fashion sense and gaydar) and complicating them, including with the specificities of everyday life in Moscow. The guys are for instance not out to their families and neighbors, which creates a number of situations that are funny in a way deep trauma can be sometimes processed as laughter. Did you have a sense of a particular audience you were writing this book for? How did your book resonate with readers in Russia?
Konstantin Kropotkin: My novel Sodom i umora was written spontaneously, without an outline; it didn’t go through a professional revision and editing process. It was a new form for me at the time and, as such, from where I stand now, has a number of shortcomings. (Artistically, my later queer books Dnevnik odnogo g and Zhivut takie parni are far more successful.) Overall, however, Sodom i umora is an original, for Russian literature, attempt to write about “gays with a human face” (in the words of one of my readers). I wanted to show gay men as approachable, likeable, and moving, and to achieve this I relied on certain devices that are rather cinematic in nature. This is a sitcom novel: I wrote it, imagining a TV series. I’ve never seen “Will and Grace,” but I was thinking about situational comedy as a genre, as an idea. (At the time I studied playwriting, and a few of my plays were later published.)
One other source for this book, I should say, was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. It had a great effect on me. This American classic of gay literature is yet to be translated to Russian; I’d read Maupin’s novels in German translation. I was attracted to the idea of home as a safe space, particularly important for a queer person in a hostile environment. Truly, my novel is an embodiment of such a “safe space”—the very book is a place that a reader can inhabit without getting hurt. Later, I used the genre of autofiction in my book Zhivut takie parni to talk about the everyday happiness of a partnership between gay men (I chose selected chapters of that book for the definitive collection Takie parni): this is a story about a German-Russian gay family living in contemporary Germany.
The novel Sodom i umora has had a happy life. Right upon the publication of the first chapters online, the characters immediately found a warm reception from the online audience; later, the book was published in print by the now defunct Kvir Press. Soon afterwards, it was picked up by a German publisher. The German translation, Russen WG, showed good sales numbers. For a German-speaking audience there wasn’t anything particularly new in the plot and the everyday events described in the book, while within the body of Russian-language prose, Sodom i umora remains to this day a unique phenomenon: tragicomic fiction about queer people is yet to materialize as a Russian-language genre.
At the beginning of 2010s, I wrote a sequel. Sozhiteli, a mystery and a comedy of manners, took up the story of my characters ten years later. As a result of the “gay propaganda” law, the book’s only chance for publication was self-publishing. It’s available on Ridero. Perhaps, in another ten years, I will write the final chapter of this story.
Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve particularly enjoyed your end of the year columns where you summarize not only the important LGBT books that have come out but also devote some time to highlighting the trends in publishing, promotion, and reception of queer literature. You’ve concluded your 2020 post with a very hopeful outlook: LGBT books are coming out, the scandals they cause are few and far between, and the spectrum of LGBT literature in Russian is starting to resemble what’s been happening across Western Europe. It seems that translation is playing a large role in this process: many books on your list are translations of American and West European authors. What role do you think capitalism is playing in this process and in Russia’s ability to participate in this global marketplace—not only of ideas, but of books as physical objects that have certain sales numbers attached to them?
Konstantin Kropotkin: The strictness of Russian laws is matched only by the laxity of their enforcement. Today, the book industry treats the “gay propaganda” law mostly as a fiction. Government representatives pretend that they enforce the law; publishers that they obey it (in fact, both merely fulfill the required formalities). Publishers attach a sticker “18+” on the covers of queer books, and in most cases, that’s all there is to it. Queer books for teenagers do reach their target audience. However, the homophobic “norm” does increase self-censorship, both among the authors and the publishers. Telling the stories of queer people remains challenging, and the themes of homo- trans- and bisexuality are largely absent in print. The very existence of the homophobic law hangs over literary authors as the sword of Damocles, threatening the development of queer voices and movements.
That said, the number of LGBTIQ books is increasing. It’s becoming obvious that queer books can be money-makers. High-profile queer fiction is translated to Russian at an increasing rate (and the quality is improving). Simultaneously, publishers are looking to create their own queer stars. One example of such publishing success is Mikita Franko, who writes as a “trans-guy” (in his own words). He published two novels in 2020: one, a story about a family with two dads, Dni nashei zhizni, and another, about a family where one of the parents is a trans person. The first of these novels has been a great commercial success, and the second was warmly received by the critics. I was happy to have been asked by the publishers to contribute a blurb to Franko’s first book: my praise was displayed on the back cover of Dni nashei zhizni alongside contributions from the representatives of “conventional” literature. I expect that this novel will soon be translated into foreign languages, and I’ve heard that TV-series rights are in negotiations.
As long as the government doesn’t impose homophobic censorship, capitalism performs miracles. In Russia, there are at least two small presses that openly mention the significance of queer literature in their promotional materials—Popcorn Books and No Kidding Press. Large publishing houses are producing queer books ever more readily, though they try not to attract too much attention to the LGBT aspects of these books. I don’t think this is a partisan war against a homophobic government. More likely, they want to turn a profit with minimum risk. One recent example is the novel Moy beliy, a bildungsroman about a heterosexual young woman, a Muscovite, who is growing up with two mothers. This semi-autobiographical novel by Kseniya Burzhskaya was published by Inspiria, an imprint of the giant publishing house Eksmo.
Some books that are emerging today are of exceptional artistic quality. Katya Chistyakova’s novel Tam, na perimetre tells the story of a relationship between a homeless gay man and a volunteer of a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless; it can be compared, in part, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Chistyakova’s novel received a small print run from a large publishing house, and though it’s a superb portrait of a queer person, the book was not marketed as a queer novel. (I see my job as a queer critic to point out the inequity of this approach.)
Notably, most authors don’t like to have the term “queer” attached to their work. Some go quite far in their desire to distance themselves from the LGBTIQ community. To a Westerner, Mikita Franko’s first interviews might appear as straight homophobia (I believe the young author had been insufficiently informed about queer history and theory). Kseniya Burzhskaya, who penned the novel about a lesbian family and had lived in France for a few years, protested in an interview against the usage of the word “queer” to define her book. According to her, queer desire is not differentiated from other forms of desire, it doesn’t have its own specificity. These words, I believe, were dictated by the wish to be perceived as an author conforming to the conventions of Russian-language literature. In both of these cases, the books speak more progressively than their authors. A writer doesn’t need to be a literary scholar, but my task as a queer critic is to point out convincingly the areas where the writer has made a bad call; this method of trial and error is the only way to formulate a new social consensus, appropriate for the contemporary moment.
Olga Zilberbourg: What role do you think diaspora authors, authors who live outside of Russia, are playing in the Russophone LGBT literary space?
Konstantin Kropotkin: Personally, I have the opportunity to dedicate myself to queer literature as an author and a critic only because I reside outside of Russia. Nobody censures me; I lead an active social life as a gay man, and I can publicize this experience in Russian without fear. I think my experience is an emblematic one. There are other queer authors who write in Russian and live outside of Russia, and they bridge two world views, the Western and the Russian, and among other things, this reveals new opportunities for Russian literature. Lida Yusupova, who lived in Canada and Belize, published lesbian prose and now has become a prominent representative of the new Russian poetry. Evgeny Shtorn, in Ireland, wrote a good autofiction, Khroniki bezhenstva, where he voiced his experiences as a gay refugee. Anatoly Vishevsky, a writer from Ukraine, who has taught at a U.S. university and now lives in Prague, wrote an excellent Russian-language novel, Khrupkie fantazii oberbossierera Loisa, which can be read in the vein of and developing the ideas of English-language canonical queer fiction from Edmund White to Alan Hollinghurst to Michael Cunningham. This novel was published in Russia last year, and I was glad that my support had contributed to making this publication possible.
Olga Zilberbourg: Contemporary Russophone LGBT authors emerge from across Russia — though homophobia is, reportedly, stronger outside of Moscow’s city center, there is plenty of talent outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg and young people are finding creative ways to share their writing. Do you see a trend in LGBT literature coming from Russian regions, or are the books that are becoming visible still important outliers (I’m thinking, for instance, about Mikita Franko)?
Konstantin Kropotkin: I’m confident that there are noteworthy writers in Russia outside of the metropolises. So many unique queer experiences have been left in the darkness, so many stories could become wonderful books. Considering current global literary trends, there might be a lot of interest in the voices of queer people from minority ethnic backgrounds—Chukchi, Evenki, Tatar. Indeed, Russia is a multiethnic state.
Today, queer authors from the provinces produce exclusively self-published writing, using fanfic websites, often anonymously. The example of Mikita Franko coming from the provinces, however, demonstrates that a queer person is able to become a successful author in Russia. Publishers claim that they are ready to publish homegrown, Russian LGBT literature. The demand for queer voices is growing.
Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve been using the moniker “LGBT” literature in this Q&A, and I want to pause on the fact that terminology remains a hotly debated topic. In your blog and elsewhere you’ve used terms “gay literature” (гей-литература) and “queer literature” (квир-литература). My question at the moment is about the comparative visibility of the books and authors representing the entire spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities in Russia. What identities do you see represented in Russophone literature most vibrantly and what identities do you think still remain underrepresented?
Konstantin Kropotkin: I persistently use the term “queer literature” (квир-литература) because it describes the entire spectrum of identities. This general term sounds better in Russian than “LGBTIQ+” (ЛГБТИК+). I also allow myself to use the shortened term “LGBT prose” (ЛГБТ-проза). The euphonic, pleasing sounds of the terminology are important to me, because I want my work to be received by a wide audience. I need to use language that’s not overly complex and isn’t marked as fundamentally, radically new. This is why I allow myself to use the somewhat old-fashioned synonyms—for instance, “gay prose” (гей-проза), a term that doesn’t describe the rainbow spectrum. I introduce new terms with caution—readers of my blog, my articles, my books must feel that I want to be understood. The measured, unintrusive introduction of the new vocabulary naturalizes these words in everyday parlance.
It’s clear that the Russian language lacks words to describe queer people. The case of agender, nonbinary people is particularly revealing. We are yet to arrive at a consensus about how to mark nonbinary identity in Russian, how to appropriately describe it. The arguments among linguists have been gaining notice. Some translators, including Tatiana Zborovskaya, attempt to translate Western agender books, books free from gender categories. The results of these attempts are quite interesting. It turns out that Russian grammar is capable of representing a gender-neutral character. Zborovskaya is translating the novel by a Swiss author Anna Stern, das alles hier, jetzt, in which the protagonists are not marked as “men” or “women.” According to the first published fragments from this work, Russian language is able to match the capabilities of German in this regard. (The translator has written a scholarly article about this.)
Olga Zilberbourg: Is it even productive to ask a question that centers the Western notion of “identity” in the Russian context? After all, coming out as anything still feels dangerous in Russia, and authors often prefer to obscure their personal identity.
Konstantin Kropotkin: It’s particularly important to manifest one’s queerness in the country where the laws against “gay propaganda” are in force. Though, of course, one ought to do this only when not in danger for one’s life. In the large Russian cities, there are opportunities for this. Things are different in smaller cities and in the regions where patriarchal traditions dominate—in Chechnya, for instance, where people die if their affiliation with the LGBTIQ community is discovered. An author is free to provide as much information about themselves as they consider necessary. I don’t think a single, universal strategy of queer self-representation could exist in such a large country as Russia. My rule is: if you are able to speak out, do so, but take care of yourself first; you only have one life—don’t take unnecessary risks.
Olga Zilberbourg: Last but not least, “Sodom i umora” is the title of your current Telegram blog, and your novel from 2007. I’ve also come across a text from 2003, where you used it as a title for a fictional medicine. I’ve been thinking of how to translate it to English, and the best I can come up with is “Sodom and raw humor” — to preserve the similarity with Gomorrah, though Russian “umora” is one of those untranslatable words that I think most closely describe this notion of laughter from deep trauma. Where did the phrase “Sodom i umora” come from and what does it mean to you?
Konstantin Kropotkin: “Sodom i umora” is word play and a callback to that tale about the sad fate of Sodom and Gomorrah that religious moralists love to use as a threat. The protagonists of my debut novel call their house “Sodom i umora.” To explain my method in this novel, I came up with the “safety instructions,” as they do for drugs. I don’t want to “cure” people from homophobia. Using entertainment literature as a placebo, I am asking people to cure themselves. I want them to use their own reason to arrive at the conclusion that homophobia is a hindrance for all of us.
In 2009, as I was arranging my novel for the German publisher, I proposed the title Sodom and Humorrha for it. (The publisher decided that it was too unwieldy and the book was published under the title Russen WG.) The version “Sodom and raw humor” sounds, perhaps, even better, it’s more precise and rhythmically closer to the original. Yes, laughter, even when it’s bitter, tragic laughter, is curative. That first book was a kind of therapy for me. It helped me to heal (or accept) my own psychic traumas—in Russia, I had been a victim of homophobia more than once. My funniest stories come out during the moments of the greatest emotional upheaval, when I feel exceptionally awful. Laughter is a step on the way back up, toward recovery. It’s only the very first step.
Noncommercial project #содомиумора with informational content about queer culture can be accessed on a variety of platforms:
Telegram (new content daily; is particularly important in Russia as a space protected from government censorship): https://t.me/gaybooksfilms
To mark National Poetry Month in the United States, Punctured Lines asked two poets with recently published collections to interview one another. Both poets have strong personal and professional connections to the larger Russophone world. Natalya Sukhonos’sA Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press) explores themes of the mother-daughter connection, grief and loss, and finding someone and something to love in locales ranging from Odessa to San Francisco. Katherine E. Young’sWoman Drinking Absinthe (Alan Squire Publishing) concerns itself with transgressions, examined through a series of masks, including Greek drama, folk tales, Japonisme, post-Impressionism, opera, geometry, and planetary geology. In addition to their written comments, Sukhonos and Young have also produced a short video conversation highlighting several poems from each collection.
Katherine E. Young: Your book is set in so many places: San Francisco, Odessa, Rome, New York City. And yet the theme of leaving old places and finding new ones, finding “home,” seemingly plays only a minor role in the book. This book doesn’t dwell on typical themes of emigration / immigration; instead, there are the constants of familial love, amorous love, and putting down roots wherever the earth will accept them. Even the ghosts in your book travel with the speaker and seem at home in multiple cultures. In that context, please talk a little about the line “Home. A dreamscape we flee until it consumes all others” from “The Red Farmhouse.”
Natalya Sukhonos: Thanks for this interesting question, Kate. I think that home is a very fraught concept for me. I’ve moved around a lot—from Odessa to New York, then to Boston and San Francisco, with Turkey and Rio de Janeiro as short sweet sojourns in between, and then back to New York. Each of these places romanced me, intrigued me, made me want to stay there forever—until it didn’t. San Francisco, for instance, was enchanting but forbidding in terms of living expenses, though I still find it very beautiful and have good friends there. And Naomi was born there, which makes it forever special. Why is home a “dreamscape we flee”? I guess I’ve always had that desire to flee, to carve my own path. I’m grateful to my family, but like many families, it imposed its own vision of me which I often longed to tweak or even contradict. But I ended up returning to New York—returning home with my own family, creating my own home, a kind of mise-en-abyme, if you will. Though “The Red Farmhouse” was written before the pandemic, you can see how home and family have become all-consuming entities especially now, for better or for worse.
Katherine E. Young:Mothers and daughters inhabit almost all of these poems, and sometimes the connection is fraught, as in “My Personal Vampire.” Other poems such as “Nadia” celebrate “the wild grasses of love.” The second section of the book contains poems that grieve the loss of a mother. Talk a little about the importance of the mother-daughter connection in these poems.
Natalya Sukhonos: We moved to New York City from San Francisco after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This collection came out of the process of grieving for her and remembering her. My mother read Gogol’s Dead Souls to me and recited Russian poetry, which she knew inside out—Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, you name it. She was dramatic, a smart dresser, and had an easy laugh. My mother and I were really close, and four years later, I’m still grieving. The poems in this collection try to ask “why,” but they also try to remember. Simone Weil once said that attention is the purest form of prayer, and this resonates with me even though I’m agnostic. I wanted to pay attention to the little details about her life—her love of gardening, for instance—and also record the process of losing her. When she was gone, I felt really unmoored, as if I didn’t know who I was. But as I was writing the collection, I also had to mother my two-and-a-half year-old daughter Naomi, who is now six. In “Theater of Bones” and “The Lioness and the Wolf, or Words as Prehistoric Shells” I tried to record how she was processing death and grief through questions and magical thinking. And I wanted to be honest about how damn difficult it is to be a mother. Motherhood is often romanticized, but not enough attention is paid (especially by men) to the loneliness, the self-doubt, the very physical burdens that motherhood places on you (hence the comparison of a baby to a vampire). Almost two years ago, I had another baby, Nadia, who bears my mother’s name (Tamara) as a middle name. It’s been delightful to watch the beginning of another life, to do it all over again. And I felt like having this new baby and also reflecting on mothering Naomi has made me reclaim motherhood in a way that wasn’t painful or grieving. At the same time, motherhood made my connection to my mother stronger.
Katherine E. Young: Several of your poems speak of the body as a map, and the poems often feel as if bones, stones, shells, forests, and especially stars are of much more importance and permanence than human constructs of geography and cartography. Talk about the stars and other natural phenomena that inhabit so many of your poems.
Natalya Sukhonos: When I lived in the Bay Area, I was really awakened to the beauty and power of nature because it was everywhere: step seconds away from your house and be surrounded by a giant mountain and giant eucalyptus trees! And the cold sublime of the Pacific! I think that as someone who has lived in cities all her life, I’m puzzled by the natural world, and that gives me comfort—the fact that the ocean just IS, that it doesn’t have to fit into a human story. It has its own story, which we may or may not understand. Maybe this sounds too mystical or vague, but for me what can’t be put into language can provide a source of relief. There’s something important about the fact that my mother loved to garden, and I don’t practice this at all. Or that we witnessed the Pacific Ocean roaring on a remote beach together. Why is this significant? Well, only poems can tell.
Also, the poem where I am a lioness and my husband is a wolf speaks to the way children construct mini-narratives around everything they see, and those stories are often filled with magical, dangerous forests and nature that’s comprised of signs only they could decipher, a sort of Baudelairean forêt des symboles. I think Naomi has taught me a lot about seeing nature this way.
Katherine E. Young:Your poems often reference classical myths, as well as modern literature. In one of my favorite poems, the ekphrastic “Night Sky #16 by Vija Celmins,” the speaker remembers her mother reading from The Little Prince, interleaving references to Saint-Exupéry’s book with lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy 1.” You have a PhD in comparative literature. What is the importance of literature, both classical and modern, to your poems?
Natalya Sukhonos: Believe it or not, literature has always had a sensory or sensual appeal for me. When I was eight years old, I had a sudden epiphany that every book, every author has their own flavor. Since then, literature has always been a huge part of my life: the first time I met my husband, I recited Rilke’s first elegy on the street, for instance. Given that the book revolves around my mother’s life and her legacy, literature plays a vital role in this, too. My mother loved The Little Princewith a passion, and staged it at Camp “Idea” where she was the director and where I worked. The love of literature is something that she and I shared in a way that was rhapsodic and visceral. When I started to write seriously, I couldn’t help but interweave little strands of whichever author I was reading—Borges, Elena Ferrante, Baudelaire—into my poetry. I do this in ordinary conversation, and poetry is another such conversation. For me, literature poses essential questions about identity, existence, good and evil in a way that is liberating because it inspires you to look further. The Master and Margarita, which I’m teaching in the Fall for Stanford Continuing Studies, is one such book, so key to me that I reread it every five years or so. One of my favorite lines by Emily Dickinson is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In The Master and Margarita, Woland does this by asking what the Earth would look like if it were stripped of its shadows. In a “slant,” indirect way, Bulgakov is talking to us about the interconnectedness of good and evil, and for me, this idea is interesting precisely because of the way in which it is conveyed—through slant, poetic meaning.
Katherine E. Young: While free verse is a part of contemporary Russian poetry, it’s a relatively recent formal development, and plenty of Russian poets still write in rhyme and meter—many more than do so in contemporary American poetry. Can you tell me about the formal choices you made in writing these poems and how you came to make them?
Natalya Sukhonos: Even though I grew up reading Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Khlebnikov, when I came of age as a poet writing in English, I was more captivated by the free verse of Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens. That said, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and their mosaic of mythologies and truth-seeking has always fascinated me, and Eliot plays around with rhyme and meter quite a bit.
In my own writing I try to be cognizant of the length of my lines and stanzas, the end words on each line, and the “volume” of words on a page. This all contributes to the way I see sound as vital to any poem’s meaning. So in “Parachute” I play around with the length of the lines to imitate the falling parachute of the poem’s title. I let the form carry the tension of my grandfather jumping off a parachute exactly 94 times during World War II. But “Aphrodite,” for instance, is composed of tercets because it’s a love poem, and I’m harkening back to tercets in Romantic poetry.
I do have some poems in here that experiment with form. “Pantoum of Grief and Birth” is a pantoum because I wanted to get at the repetitive, obsessive nature of grieving my mother while giving birth to my youngest daughter. “Protect Me, Lord” came out of an assignment in a poetry class where I had to put a Shakespearean sonnet into Google Translate twice, choose the best lines from what resulted, and also incorporate several colors, animals, and trees of our own choosing into the poem. And “Lost Souls—After Rilke” is actually a golden shovel, spelling out the first stanza of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy in the ending words of its stanzas. I like to be playful with form, so “In Failing Light” has alternating couplets that are formatted differently and interweave the event of remembering my mother while cooking potatoes and ramps with the actual memory of visiting the Pacific Ocean with her in San Francisco.
Natalya Sukhonos: Especially in “Birdsong,” “The Bear,” and “Nakhla,” I noticed your interest in animals and animal imagery. Can you comment on the way that animals are linked to the theme of freedom vs. unfreedom in your poetry? On the one hand, they’re images of otherness, an alternate perspective, but on the other hand, they’re confined to particular places and spaces by their human subjects…
Katherine E. Young: Hm. I hadn’t thought about this at all before your question, but there are two main groups of animals in these poems. The first group includes birds, cats, the prehistoric sea creatures of “Nakhla,” snakes, a dissected frog, lizards, cicadas, monkeys, bats, the fig wasp, and an actual, historical dog who had an unfortunate encounter with an achondrite (a kind of meteorite). But with the possible exception of the fig wasp, these animals are mostly part of the background flora and fauna of the poems. The other group of animals is quite different: they’re talking animals, and they may not be animals at all. There’s the wish-granting fish of “The Golden Fish,” a tale I first read in Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book (where the fish is an enchanted prince); I read Alexander Pushkin’s version of the tale much later. The enigmatic talking bear of “The Bear” is, of course, the performing bear of countless European folk tales, alternately menacing and pathetic, also possibly enchanted. For me, these creatures aren’t all that different from Bluebeard, the ogre who murders his wives, or the succuba who haunts a man’s waking hours, both of whom also appear in these poems. It’s these talking animals and monsters (or are they humans who have lost their essential human-ness?) who are truly unfree, trapped in enchantments, forced to perform for their supper, or condemned to fulfill various gruesome fates over and over again—they and the humans who become trapped in their tragic, endlessly repeating dramatic arcs.
Natalya Sukhonos: In “Nakhla” and “Euclidean Geometry” I was fascinated with your link between the macroscopic and the microscopic: cataclysmic events like the fall of a gigantic rock and human, intimate events such as a singular act of love. Please comment on this link in your poetry.
Katherine E. Young: Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We go running around the world, eating, reproducing, defecating, dying, and from the biological perspective we’re doing just the same thing as ants. I don’t know what distinguishes one ant from another (although I’m told they sing to one another), and from a bird’s-eye perspective you can’t distinguish one human being from another, either. But when we write, when we make any kind of art, we’re saying “Stop! Look at me! I’m here!” Same for when we fall in love, which is also a kind of art. “Nakhla” started during a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where they have a fragment of this amazing achondrite from Mars that fell rather spectacularly in Egypt in 1911 (and apparently did kill a farmer’s dog). A run-of-the-mill igneous rock on Mars, 1.3 billion years old—the only thing unusual about it is that it got blasted off the Martian surface and ended up here on Earth. You can touch it! I was just charmed by the notion of this anonymous and yet singular rock—as anonymous and as singular as other such interplanetary travelers that brought things, including perhaps some of the elements of life, to Earth. Same for “Euclidean Geometry”: an act of love is both anonymous and singular, seemingly governed by laws and rules as ancient as the universe. Sometimes we mistakenly interpret those laws and rules, though—hence, logical fallacies such as circular logic.
Natalya Sukhonos: In “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” as well as “Place of Peace,” where you describe love as “bursting riotously into bloom,” you write beautifully about love as fruit. There is so much sensuality in your fruit metaphors! The poem “Fig” is a whole extended metaphor of love as a bloom as well, and it is stunning! And in “Succuba,” as well as “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” and “A Receipt to Cure Mad Dogs,” you connect love to herbs and their various flavors. Please say something about the ways in which the “tastes of love” resonate in your poetry through imagery of herbs and fruit.
Katherine E. Young: As I was writing these poems, just about everyone in my close circle, including me, was undergoing really big and often traumatic life changes. So, I was very much coming to the poems asking the hard questions: Who am I? Where am I in life? Am I the person I wanted to be, and if not, what can and should I do about that? The basic idea that one can more or less cultivate oneself as one cultivates a garden speaks to a certain kind of urgency one gets in midlife to take stock and make adjustments, sometimes radical ones. During that period, I was lucky enough to have some choices—not always easy ones, not always good ones, but real ones. To some degree, then, the notion of flowering in these poems is aspirational—what I hoped would happen if I took better, more conscious care of my garden, both for myself and for those I love. Also, I just really, really love figs!
Natalya Sukhonos: What’s the link between the mathematical and the erotic in your poetry? I’ve noticed many poems touching on math, and this was fascinating, maybe not least because I just finished Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero.
Katherine E. Young: Excellent question! I don’t really have an answer, except to say that as a young person I wanted to be an astronaut—that’s also the reason I started studying Russian, by the way—and I felt very comfortable with math and science, at least until I ran afoul of a college calculus class. Much later, when I was getting my MFA, I took a wonderful course on the rhetoric of science, and I spent more time than I care to admit reading the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. I was fascinated by the mental steps that natural philosophers in the early nineteenth century had to take to be able to conceptualize dinosaurs out of a bunch of bone fragments stuck in rock. And you already know that I find odd bits of space debris decidedly erotic… Maybe I was seeking a system of beliefs and practices in math and science that might inspire me with more confidence than the beliefs and practices in human relationships that I had found simultaneously confining and unreliable—although true mathematicians and scientists would probably say that their laws and beliefs can be just as confining and unreliable…
Natalya Sukhonos: You are a professional literary translator who has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for translation. How does the work of translation inform your poetry (and I’m using “translation” here both in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical process of translation)? Comment on the process of cultural translation, as your poetry includes intertextual references to Mrs. Pinkerton, the Golden Fish, Manet, Euclid, and so many other rich and unexpected sources.
Katherine E. Young: Honestly, I don’t really see much difference between writing “original” poetry and translating it. In both cases, making a poem starts with “translating” the impulse for that poem into words. Translating someone else’s impulse—as opposed to your own—is essentially the same process, although there are a few more steps involved. But I’m always trying to make music with words, whether the poem started in my own head or in someone else’s. There are particular benefits to being a translator, though: recently I was asked to translate a selection of poems by Boris Pasternak, and I found that every single one of Pasternak’s lines taught me something important about writing my own poetry in English.
As far as cultural translation, all the cultural flotsam and jetsam in this book comes from things I’ve squirreled away, from the mating habits of ancient sea creatures to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I first saw in London as a teenager. A lot of my references come from the former Soviet Union, where I first traveled as a student. I didn’t really get serious about writing poetry until I lived in Russia in the 1990s, though—while there, I was lucky enough to read the entire canon of Russian poetry with a scholar who spoke no English. It was that immersion in Russian that helped me to hear my own language, English, with fresh ears—and it certainly helped make me a better poet. I like to joke that I’m the only American-born poet I know who owes more to Pushkin than to Walt Whitman—if that’s not cultural translation, what is?
Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of Poetry, The Saint Ann’s Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Mama, Middle Gray Magazine, Really System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press. natalyasukhonos.com.
Alex Karsavin: Can you briefly give me the origin story of Pocket Samovar? How did a project that began as a localized conversation between two students at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School end up involving so many international actors? How did you go about establishing these lines of communication? And finally: how has Pocket Samovar been able to, in a remarkably short spate of time, reach such a dispersed and disparate audience?
Konstantin Kulakov: It started in fall 2019, in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School. It was Kate Shylo, who’s from Yalta, Crimea, me from Russia, and Ryan Onders, who’s from Ohio. Late in the summer, Ryan and I struck a relationship over poetry performance, especially our obsession with Yevtushenko and the orality of Soviet poetry. Shortly, the three of us got together over borscht and spoke about a magazine dedicated specifically to diasporic communities. At first, the word we used was “Eurasia.” Later we realized that “post-Soviet” would be a more accurate term, and we brought it up to Jeffrey Pethybridge, who connected us with Matvei Yankelevich. Matvei was brilliant; he put us in contact with Boris Dralyuk and Eugene Ostashevsky, which ultimately led to the establishment of an advisory board. We didn’t just want this to be a trendy journal that’s translating East European writing. We wanted to highlight underrepresented writers of the post-Soviet space: queer, LGBTQ, Muslim, writers of color, including writers from Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and so on. The hardest part, of course, was to establish these links across time zones, languages, and cultures. Our advisory board proved extremely useful in finding people like Paata Shamugia and Hamid Ismailov. I myself found people like Evgeniy Abdullaev, whose pen-name is Suhbat Aflatuni; he’s based out of Tashkent. It is important to emphasize, for us, the diasporic part of our mission does not center writers in the west; instead, the magazine aspires to be rhizomatic, bridging the gap between North American and Eurasian literary communities.
Alex Karsavin: I was struck by the claim on your site that Pocket Samovar was influenced but not necessarily determined by its editors’ relationship to “Soviet cultural memory.” This is a very rich and arguably fraught territory. Before we go into the particulars, would you mind delving into your (or your colleagues’) relationship to the region at large (be it personal, literary, or academic)?
Konstantin Kulakov: I can only confidently speak for myself. I left Russia when I was 10 years old: a kind of identity rupture or separation at a formative time. And that longing for homeland is really what it’s about for me. The only way I could connect to Russian contemporary literature was online or books. And there was something missing in that, like: Oh, here’s a poem. Here’s an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry by Dalkey ArchivePress. And that’s it. I opened the book, and I never felt that it offered me an opportunity to improve my Russian, or to meet Russian people. (Before the pandemic hit we had hopes of actually having events and things of that nature.) So for Kate and me, it really was founded around diasporic longing for a connection to the post-Soviet space, and specifically the kind of literary culture where people can stand up and recite a poem by heart. Living and going to school in Russia as a kid, I hated recitation, because it was required and I wasn’t good at it. In my early childhood, I was moved between Russia, England, and America. I was bilingual and confused, often wonderstruck by language, and maybe that’s why I’m a poet. In many ways, for me, editing this magazine is a return to the language at a time when I feel ready to appreciate it. In Kate’s case, she was born in Yalta and also traveled; she has this nomadic sensibility. I think what interested her was the emphasis on publishing underrepresented voices (particularly feminist and queer). Ryan, of course, came to us via Yevtushenko and translation.
Alex Karsavin: Could you say a bit more about your personal relationship to Soviet cultural memory specifically (given the prominent role it plays in the site’s call for submissions)?
Konstantin Kulakov: Soviet cultural memory. Hmm. I mean, I was born in 1989 in Zaoksky, a town outside of Moscow.
Alex Karsavin: Right at the tipping point …
Konstantin Kulakov: Yeah. I entered a world of collapse, in a state of flux. My memory of that time is mostly of things falling apart and being built up. I actually grew up during the construction of the first Protestant seminary co-founded by my father. So there’s this idea of: “Look! Democracy, religious liberty, international dialogue, etc. are finally coming to Russia!” But at the same time, having been in the United States for 20 years (I’m 31), having experienced individualistic consumerism, there’s now this longing for the samovar, for the communal aspect of poetic memorization and recitation, a longing for something as immense as the stadium poetry of Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. The longing was also in part a reaction to this feeling among some exiles that Russia is authoritarian, that the arts are neglected or backwards, etc. And something in me always knew the latter was false. I thought: “I know there are poets in Russia and all over the post-Soviet space.”
Alex Karsavin: Why Pocket Samovar for the title? To my mind, the samovar draws obvious connotations to the Tsarist Empire, and nationalism more broadly. Yet, and correct me if I’m off mark, there seems to be a dislocation happening here (even in the simple reimagining of this bulky static object as something miniature and mobile). Am I wrong to interpret this as a sort of queering?
Konstantin Kulakov: There are some things to unpack here. In fact, the mission statement used to be a history of the samovar. It actually emerged in Azerbaijan. The samovar finds archeological origin in the tea drinking devices of Azerbaijan, not Russia. So we were not trying to center the Russian space but rather the region as a whole, its complex, boundary-crossing geography and culture. The communal aspect is also very important. The samovar is circular and presents a spatial situation that is meant to be enjoyed among friends, conversing as equals in a non-hierarchical, free, and spontaneous manner. In the end, we’re trying to be more like a tea room than just a competitive journal that publishes the best of post-Soviet writing. So, if the samovar, something bulky, fits in the pocket, you can definitely say this is a queering; in many ways, the situation of the diasporic writer demands an understanding of fluidity. For us, national identity can change overnight, and language, when queered, affords that fluidity.
Alex Karsavin: Pocket Samovar appears to be the newest in a series of recent publications which take this particular region as their focus (Mumber Mag, Alephi,to some degree Homintern). The magazine is unique, however, in its attempt to put the stateside literary diaspora in communication with its FSU (former Soviet Union — PL) roots. Why is this emphasis on dialogue so important for Pocket Samovar? How does it relate to the magazine’s stated desire (to paraphrase Madina Tlostanova) to reimagine the post-Soviet condition not as a lamentation of lost paradise, but as a way to re-existence?
Konstantin Kulakov: We emerged in Boulder, Colorado, although we are expanding now. One of our editors is in Brooklyn; I might be moving to Brooklyn soon, actually. And then two of our editors are based in Europe, specifically in Luxembourg and in Basel, Switzerland. Daily operation and editorial decisions present new limits and opportunities. So the idea behind Tlostanova’s quote is that we’ve already opened Pandora’s box, so to speak. We can’t go back. Globalization is everywhere. And I think the name “pocket samovar” speaks to that question very concretely. Being in this globalized, fast-paced world, everything is now pocket-sized, everything is mobile, it’s almost like you have to be that way to survive. Ryan Onders, our managing editor, asked me one day: How would the magazine exist physically as a print edition? And I said: It’s a diasporic thing. It’s nomadic. So it has to fit in the pocket, right? That’s when I realized it had to be Pocket Samovar.
The thing is, we can’t go back in time, nor can we escape the Soviet legacy. The “re-existence” Tlostanova speaks of is the ability to create something new and necessary, something that’s based around community in an individualistic and competitive globalized world. For this reason, our new issue emphasized the virtual tea room recordings (of which Stanislava Mogileva‘s was my favorite). We strategically decided to put the video at the top of the page to make it central, and the text secondary. So when you click the link and open the video, there’s this feeling that we’re still honoring that tradition of orality and community, a re-existence of sorts.
Alex Karsavin: Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but what kind of international reception has Pocket Samovar had so far? Also, I want to dive a little deeper into the question of inter-scene dialogue. Given that your contributors represent such disparate literary (and feminist) movements, what kind of exchange (intellectual or affective) have you noticed cropping up in your virtual tea room? Do you think the formal arsenal and thematic concerns of the writers featured in the first issue coalesce into some sort of recognizable whole? Particularly I’m interested in the way writers deal with the theme of dislocation (for example, Stanislava Mogileva appears to recoup the folk song and oral epic genre in the service of Russian feminism, while Elena Georgievskaya queers the biblical language of Revelation).
Konstantin Kulakov: It’s interesting. International communication is definitely happening, even as we speak, on social media. That’s where I’m seeing it and I can’t really talk about the nature of the dialogue yet because we first need to have more events. But it’s generally a sense of excitement that I’m seeing. To borrow a term from Durkheim, it was something of a collective effervescence, albeit virtual. At first, there was this fear among the editors that in calling ourselves post-Soviet, people would freak out and not want to be affiliated with that authoritarian, violent legacy to which we all have our own complicated relationship. However, I think the nature of the post-Soviet space is integrated in such weird ways that there is always literal and discursive travel occurring between the various republics and Russia. For example, Evgeniy Abdullaev is based in Tashkent and has a manifesto called “Tashkent Poets,” but he writes in Russian (not dissimilar to the Soviet-era poet, Bulat Okudzhava, who was of Georgian and Armenian descent). So there’s always this traversing of borders going on. In terms of the response to Pocket Samovar (going off the website traffic), it’s clear that it went completely international. It hit every continent. Because some of the contributors shared it in Azerbaijan, it ended up going all over Central Asia, Transcaucasia, and even to parts of the Middle East, like Afghanistan and Iraq. That, to me, was really encouraging.
It is important to emphasize how literature of the post-Soviet space and literature of the post-Soviet diaspora define the issue. In regards to writing from the region, I would like to highlight Stanislava Mogileva, Elena Georgievskya, Vitaliy Yukhimenko. They are all queer/non-binary poets. Although they have differences, they are united by the similar role sociality, orality, and free verse plays in their work. Learning from these writers and movements–through their work, talks, essays, interviews– is exactly what future issues of Pocket Samovar will be devoted to.
The post-Soviet diasporic writer, on the other hand, finds themselves in a contrasting position to homeland. The post-Soviet diasporic writer may reject their homeland, share an ambivalent attitude to it, adopt a hyphenated identity, or alternate between all of these. Alina Stefanescu’s poetry definitely does not shy away from the brutality of the Soviet experience, but nor does she reject it. “Pickled Plums” celebrates familial traditions illustrating how a planted sapling or thimble of tuica can impart her diasporic life with a sense of safety or vitality of speech. Anatoly Molotkov’s “Poison in the DNA” is aware of the powerful role of the past, but the speaker firmly resists identification with his Russian roots because the roots are “rotten.” However, after reading his poem, “Letting the Past In,” we see Molotkov’s more positive kinship to another Soviet artist: Andrei Tarkovsky. Nonetheless, given the complexities of nationality, our magazine conceives of diaspora very broadly. For example, Steve Nickman’s poetry concerns itself not with land, but with the lives of post-Soviets in the United States. It is too soon to tell, but I can only expect that such literary encounters will continue to demonstrate the need for further exchange and connection, especially given the global challenges we face.
Alex Karsavin: What’s the long-term vision for the magazine?
Konstantin Kulakov: We eventually want to turn the magazine into a nonprofit similar in format to that of Brooklyn Poets. We of course want to grow in funding. We imagine ourselves as a platform for the diasporic community that features poetry and translation workshops, reading events, and conferences. We want to serve as our own social platform, where poets can comment on each other’s published poems. We want to optimize interaction and user experience. The fact is that everything nowadays is becoming more mobile; for example, 60% of the people visiting the website are using phones. At the same time, we don’t want to lose the physicality of a print magazine, of literary evenings (to use a Russian term), which is why our current emphasis is on raising funds for the print issue.
Konstantin Kulakov is a Russian-American poet, educator, and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. His debut chapbook, Excavating the Sky, was published by Dialogue Foundation Books (2015). Kulakov is the recipient of the Greg Grummer Poetry Award judged by Brian Teare and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. His poems and translations have appeared in Spillway, Phoebe, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and Loch Raven Review, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado and co-founding editor of Pocket Samovar magazine.
Alex Karsavin is a Russian-American literary translator, with translations and writing published in the F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology, PEN America, Columbia Journal, New Inquiry, Sreda, and HOMINTERN magazine. Ilya Danishevsky’s hybrid prose-poetry novel Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains) forms Alex’s main translation project, a collaboration with veteran Russian-English translator Anne Fisher, funded by the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC. They are a 2020 ALTA travel fellow.
Maria Stepanova is a Moscow-based poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s also the editor-in-chief of Colta, a crowdfunded online publication that she created eight years ago and that has become a major outlet for long-form think pieces on contemporary Russian culture. Stepanova published ten books of poetry and three essay collections and has received numerous literary awards. In 2017, she wrote her first book of prose, In Memory of Memory. It’s a documentary novel that tells the story of the narrator who, after the death of her aunt, goes through the archive the aunt left behind, discovering her family’s history. In parts of this book, there’s no narration – just excerpts from diaries and letters written by Stepanova’s relatives; its other parts engage directly with other authors who wrote about memory – Osip Mandelstam, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag. Despite or, maybe, because of the book’s non-traditional form, it gained a wide readership and won two major Russian literary prizes. On February 9, In Memory of Memory comes out in English from New Directions, translated by Sasha Dugdale, a British poet and playwright. This interview was conducted in Russian and subsequently translated to English by the interviewer.
In your novel, you quote someone saying that quite a lot of books have been written in English by people investigating their family histories. In Russian, though, your book is the only one of its kind.
Actually, it’s not the only one, which makes me very happy. To me, this is a discovery of sorts – that things we usually consider private and insignificant are turning out to be the most interesting not only for me, but also for a large number of people. And the stories they tend to tell sometimes are quite unexpected in their scope and variety. In some of them the twentieth century shows up in all its terrible glory, with all of its tragedies and disasters, but in a number of cases these are just regular domestic stories of how somebody’s grandmother arrived, or how someone left to work in the north, or how three sisters lived in a distant Hungarian village, but then decided to leave for the big city. And yet one can’t get enough of these stories. I think that this is a very important shift, this interest in familial memory. There’s an increasingly palpable hunger for contact with the past which grows stronger as the present becomes less acceptable to us. A couple of years ago, I worked in Berlin for a year, teaching memory writing in Humboldt University. I had large groups made up of different kinds of people, all of them hooked on this search for the past despite it sometimes being painful – because traveling to the past isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, this interest in memory is a global, international phenomenon, which is now shaping the outlines of a new community and works as a link between generations because it attracts people regardless of their age.
Do you have any idea why you became the first person to write about these things in Russian?
I wasn’t really the first one – writing one’s family history is something fairly normal in Russia, as elsewhere, and there is a good number books devoted to the legacy of the twentieth century and the traces it left in private lives…. Maybe the genre is something that makes a difference in my case: I was most interested in trying to shape a new territory between fiction and nonfiction: in my book, a novel, an essay, and a research project meet one another. I guess no one else wrote books like that at the time.
Do you think there isn’t a lot of experimentation happening in the Russian literary space?
This is how it works: since the beginning of the nineties, when literary awards appeared in Russia, the way contemporary fiction works has been largely determined by their existence. Winning one of them is the only opportunity for a prose writer in Russia to receive a substantial amount of money that can greatly improve their life. These awards, in one way or another, are geared towards finding the great Russian novel that is very similar to the great American novel. It’s a long, philosophical narrative without any stylistic nonsense – because it should be easy to read and digest – shaped within the mold of a nineteenth century novel. That is, the writer is forced to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time.
In other words, you didn’t expect that your book would become successful and would win two of these very same awards – NOS and Big Book?
I didn’t think about those things at all. I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and it always seemed to me that prose was the medium that wasn’t required of me, that if I wanted to write prose, I could easily write it in verse. And I did: I’ve written long narrative poems and all manner of ballads. At the same time, I always knew that someday I would write a book about my family, even though I didn’t know how I would go about it. I’d been meaning to write it from the age of ten, but I was taking a long time, endlessly getting distracted, looking for a chance to procrastinate a little while more. There came a point, however, when I realized that I had to do it. I set out to write a text that would be convincing to me, and there was one more goal that was even more important. You know, Brodsky has this essay called “To Please a Shadow.” This was what I wanted – to please my dead. I constructed my book in such a way that they would feel good in it. Maybe I could’ve written it in a completely different way, without all those historical and cultural references that work as a large structure into which my own stories then fit. I could’ve written a story about my family and nothing else, but I had in mind something that would belong to the realm of contemporary art. I wanted to create a space in which I could arrange the few remaining photographs, letters, and testimonies, and to make it so that they would feel good in this space, so that they would be seen and understood in the right way. This is how you work when curating an exhibition – you start with the space. I really didn’t think about anything else, and the fact that my book wound up being widely read was a shock both for me and for my publisher, who didn’t hope to sell more than three thousand copies, I think.
How did you arrive at this particular form for your book?
The book is about inconspicuous people, people whose lives resembled those of everyone else: they loved, they fell out of love, someone died, someone was born. As a family, they managed to survive many times, perhaps because they deliberately stayed on the sidelines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they tried to be actors of history, but later they moved to its margins and spent almost a hundred years there. So, what worried me was the question of how to tell the story of people who didn’t really want to be noticed – and how to talk about people whose fates had nothing extraordinary about them.
I found the story of Lyodik who went to the front and died at the age of nineteen absolutely heartbreaking.
Lyodik’s letters have been in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my mother told me about him sometimes and read his letters out loud. But it’s impossible to surmise from his letters what was actually happening to him and around him – he kept silent about that. In order to look beyond and understand what he kept silent about, I had to read a lot of historical literature on the blockade of Leningrad and the Leningrad front. A documentary novel is a genre in which there are a lot of gradations, that is, there’s a toggle switch that can be moved to the left, towards the documentary, or to the right, towards fiction. I’m probably keeping to the left of this spectrum. I have serious problems with the type of novel writing that uses people who are no longer alive as glove puppets to convey the writer’s own thoughts and emotions. I think and write a lot about the ethics and the etiquette of writing about the dead, about what is allowed and what isn’t, and at what point it turns into the exploitation of people who can no longer object to this treatment.
Have you come across books that dealt with the dead in a way that you liked?
There are a number of books that are great examples of how one can write about the dead without trying to make the story “interesting,” without trying to deceive, and at the same time doing this miraculous work of resurrection. First of all, I should mention W. G. Sebald because he balances on the border of fiction and essay writing in such a way that there’s a constant flicker. We want to, but we cannot ask: was this all real or not? Is this narrator Sebald or someone else with his mustache and his last name? It seems to me that a new type of literature is emerging which still doesn’t have a name, but it no longer fully belongs to either fiction or essay writing. The books I love most belong exactly to this type of writing that is gradually becoming more and more important.
You’ve mentioned in various interviews that fiction is becoming less and less interesting than documentary writing. Why, do you think?
Remember Mandelstam’s article “The End of the Novel”? It was written in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. He says in it that everything has changed, that the man of the nineteenth century had an individual fate and was therefore interested in the individual fate and its trajectories – hence the success and the significance of the novel as a genre in the nineteenth century and beyond, due to some kind of inertia. But we all know how the twentieth century dealt with these trajectories: it took these individual fates, collected them in a bundle, and broke them over its knee. Later, when the smoke cleared, it turned out that the individual survived, though not in the place where we kept looking. It’s no longer where the typical hero appears in the proposed circumstances and carries on their shoulders the novel construction. In the century in which people die in millions, one person isn’t quite the measure. An error, a detail, a very small thing – oddly enough, that’s the measure.
What kind of thing?
For example, a button that I saw at the Museum of the International Memorial in Moscow where they keep the belongings of the prisoners of Soviet camps. They have many remarkable things there, including an archive of drawings made by the prisoners. It amazed me – and I want to write about it sometime – because there are no scenes we remember so well from the Russian camp prose: no barbed wire, or German shepherds, or security officers on the watchtowers. But there’s a huge number of still lives with flowers as well as landscapes and portraits. For some reason, it was important to those people to create beauty rather than to give a realistic depiction of their circumstances. In this museum, I saw a button in which one of the prisoners had sent a note to his wife. This is a striking detail: they were horribly tortured, but they could give their overcoats to their wives for cleaning. This officer handed his overcoat to his wife, and from one of its buttons a corner of this note was sticking out slightly. On tissue paper, he wrote in microscopic letters about how he was arrested and beaten, and he added that he probably wouldn’t come back. The twentieth century is the time when life turns out to be so inhuman that people become speechless and can speak only for all of humanity, while objects do the speaking for them.
You’re fluent in English, and I assume that you’ve read Sasha Dugdale’s translation of your book. How did you like it?
I think it’s brilliant. Sasha is a wonderful poet and a close friend; she translated and still translates my poems – but my book is maybe the largest piece of prose she had ever translated. And what she did with this huge volume is, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. The Russian type of writing involves endless subordinate clauses that circle around the principal meaning until they finally find their way to it. The Russian syntax imitates the confusing, complex work of human thought, while English, it seems to me, entails a completely different logic and a completely different language etiquette. If you translate a Russian text aiming to convey mainly its syntactic features, it won’t deliver the intended message. What Sasha did was amazing: she found a balance between these two things. She delivered the message that is still the main objective of my work, and at the same time she created this English Russian that isn’t a literal reflection of the original, but somehow gives the reader an idea of how it works.
Your book has a subtitle – romance. In addition to its other meanings, this word designates a certain kind of song in Russian.
In the book, there are several definitions of the subtitle, and the reader can choose the explanation that they like best. To me, the English meaning of this word is the most important. I feel that this book is a love story, only it’s facing backward rather than forward, as is usually the case with love stories because love is always looking for some kind of completion in the future. Here, love is addressed to people who are no longer alive, so, on the one hand, my love is happy because I love them and I feel that they love me, but on the other hand, I can’t talk to them anymore, and this love is doomed in a sense.
Your book makes clear that your ancestors had to stifle their literary ambitions. Why was that?
When I began to sort through my archive, it struck me: they were all in one way or another people of the written word, even those of them who never intended to study literature. Therefore, there are parts in my book in which I don’t speak at all: I publish excerpts from letters or diaries to give my ancestors the opportunity to speak in their own voices. It seemed wrong and inappropriate to me to invent a voice for my great-grandmother where she had her own. On the contrary, I wanted them to say once again what they already said once, to get a final chance to be heard. My grandfather wrote poetry all his life, mostly comical, but when his daughter – my mother – began to write poetry too, he strictly forbade it, saying, “You’re Jewish, so you must have a profession.” My mother worked as an engineer all her life and never wrote poetry after that.
Was it the same way with you? Were you told not to write poetry?
In a sense, I’m the result of this half-century of their non-writing, because the first thing my mother taught me was to read and write. She was too shy to sing, so at night, instead of singing lullabies, she recited poetry to me. I turned out to be the completion of my family’s hope that someone could write and speak for everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s like dragging around a suitcase full of family stories that haven’t been told, and I’m the knot in which they converge. I have to decide whether to talk about them or not, and what exactly to tell. On the other hand, I was infinitely happy, writing this book and doing almost nothing else for several years. I traveled to all the places where my ancestors once lived, and it was very strange and exciting. For example, I went to this microscopic village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod, and there was no train there, only a bus that went there once a week, there was no hotel, no cafes, no nothing. And I looked at all of that and realized that there was some thread that connected me to that place.
Since nonfiction is more interesting to you than fiction, does this mean that you don’t read mainstream novels?
I have a very special reading routine: I read a book a day. This means that I constantly have to throw new texts into the furnace. I really love genre literature: for example, detective stories that have clear rules upon which the author agreed with me. It’s a game the author and I are playing. I also read complicated, experimental texts, and academic stuff. I do sometimes read mainstream psychological novels, but they don’t make up the bulk of my diet. If someone I love comes running and says, “Grab this new novel immediately and read it,” then, of course, I’ll grab it and read it. But when I’m in a bookstore, the shelf with freshly published novels isn’t the first one I’ll be looking at.
You don’t hide your political views: you oppose Putin’s regime. You must’ve had opportunities to leave Russia. Why have you stayed?
This is one of those questions that I have to ask myself every five years or so. When my parents left for Germany in the early nineties, I didn’t go with them. I stayed because I was fascinated by what was happening in Russia. It seemed odd to me to leave when the most interesting things began to happen. And now, I feel that someone has to love this place – with its monstrous situation into which we have driven ourselves, with Putin, with these comic-opera poisoners, with this “insane printer” [in colloquial Russian, this is what the Duma, or the state legislative body, is called – Punctured Lines] that passes these insane laws. Someone has to live here and to treat this space as their home, to make it meaningful. Which isn’t to say that I’ll grip this earth with my teeth and stay here under any circumstance. But as long as it’s possible to live here somehow, I would try to stay here. Because the worse it gets here, the more this place needs our love.
Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her most recent novel People and Birds came out from Moscow-based Eksmo Press to popular and critical acclaim.
This fall, Svetlana Satchkova, a writer, journalist, editor, and a contributor to Punctured Lines, has published her third novel. Released in Russian by Moscow-based Eksmo Press, People and Birds has been welcomed by critics and received popular acclaim. According to critic Alexander Chantsev, “The main thing is that this book is very much about Moscow. Not about the Moscow that God sent us, but about the one we deserve.” Curiously, Satchkova currently resides in New York and is attending an MFA program at Brooklyn College, aiming to publish her future work in English.
Satchkova’s path as a writer is both unique and representative of a generation born in the USSR and coming of age in its wake. It includes complicated geographies (she spent several years in Syria as a child, studied in New York, and lived in Moscow before returning to New York), a secret marriage, and quirky jobs. Her biography itself reads like a novel. To give our English-language readers a glimpse, we asked Svetlana to translate an interview she had given to Egor Mikhaylov of Afisha Daily. Please enjoy!
When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
As a writer and a journalist. I had to work on myself a lot to be able to say that. My dad dreamed of me becoming a successful lawyer or a businesswoman (though we didn’t know this word at the time, I think). The humanities, even though no one said so directly, weren’t appreciated in my family. Despite all that, I started writing quite early: at the age of eleven I already produced my first novel. I would’ve never voluntarily shown it to my parents, but I had to. The thing was, we lived in Syria at the time: my father worked as a representative of the Soviet merchant fleet in the port city of Latakia. Terrible things were happening at the Soviet customs then: the officers believed that people who worked abroad were all trying to smuggle illegal goods into the USSR, and they went so far as to squeeze toothpaste out of tubes, looking for diamonds. Once, when we came to Moscow on our vacation, they confiscated my collection of chewing gum inserts with Japanese cartoon robots, claiming that those pictures promoted a cult of violence.
My point is, my dad couldn’t take a work of fiction across the border, even if it had been produced by a child, not knowing what was actually written in it. What if there was something anti-Soviet in it? We were all very careful then. I remember asking him, “Can I use the word отель?” (“hotel” in Russian; this word sounded foreign because it had an English origin). It seemed to me that it was an ideologically questionable word. Dad thought about it and said, “I have no idea. Write гостиница (a Russian-sounding synonym) just in case.” Anyway, my dad read the novel and was impressed. He still remembers it sometimes and comments, “I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel like that even when I was forty!” But I was more critical of myself and burned the manuscript because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of writing. It’s a pity, of course: it would be so interesting to read it now.
At first, it didn’t even occur to me that writing could be a profession. My parents didn’t socialize with people who could be identified as intellectuals even if you stretched your imagination: everyone they knew did something very practical for a living. If I’d had role models, I would’ve probably looked in that direction, but it seemed to me that writing could only be a hobby, and not very much encouraged at that. Apparently, I got used to thinking along those lines. Only now, when my third book came out, I started calling myself a writer. Who was holding me back before, I have no idea.
Tell me about your first two books.
Both of them came out in such a way that they seemed to not have come out at all. My first novel was published in 2000, when the Russian book market was in its infancy, and only one person reviewed it – Slava Kuritsyn. It was a short review, literally one paragraph long, but a very nice one. And something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Turning on the TV one evening, I saw that Cultural Revolution was on; I didn’t even have time to grasp what was being discussed when Lyudmila Ulitskaya got hold of the microphone and said, “You know, there’s this young writer named Svetlana Satchkova, and in her novel she reinterpreted Dostoevsky’s theme, the murder of an old woman, in a very interesting way.” I almost collapsed with happiness at that moment. But everything was over before it even began: the readers never found out about this young writer.
If we go back to the imaginary party from your first question, in America, when you introduce yourself as a writer, you could be asked, “What do you write? Anything I might have read?” The same goes for film directors and musicians. I’ve read interviews with very accomplished people, some of them award-winning professionals, and they said they wanted to fall through the floor and disappear upon hearing this question because it usually implies: if a regular person hasn’t heard about you, you’re not worthy of their attention. That’s how I used to think of myself, too, but now I believe that we have to be more generous both to others and to ourselves. I know people who don’t even need to publish in order to think of themselves as writers, and I can only applaud them.
And what about your second book?
I wrote a novel called Vadim, showed it to different publishers, but all of them rejected it, saying the same thing, “This is neformat” (in Russian, this means “not fitting any of the existing categories”). Then I found out that the very same Slava Kuritsyn, whom I didn’t know personally, was curating a book series called Neformat at AST publishing house with the purpose of printing misfits – in other words, people like me. I found his email address and wrote to him, “Hello, Vyacheslav. Five years ago, I had a book out, and you seemed to like it. I’ve written another novel.” And he said, “I’ll take a look at it.” He published my novel, but after a month or two, the project was canceled, and books were removed from stores: readers didn’t show any interest in the series. This time, two people wrote about my book: Maya Kucherskaya, who didn’t like it, and Galina Yuzefovich, who half-liked it.
I tracked her down myself, and she told me to come to where she lived and to slip the book into her mailbox. Then we spoke on the phone, and she said, “You know, your novel made a strange impression on me. I even discussed it with my dad.” I thought, oh God, with Leonid Yuzefovich himself! And then she added, “You know, you have to rewrite it.” – “What do you mean, rewrite it? It’s been published already! I’m holding it in my hands.” In short, I didn’t understand what she meant. Many years later, I saw this book of mine on the shelf, leafed through it, and everything suddenly became clear. I realized that, at the time, I simply needed a good editor, someone who would have said, “Sveta, this part isn’t working, you have to revise it.” Some parts of my novel were very well written – I was even surprised that I was the one who had actually written them! – while others were monstrously bad.
And now, when you were working on your third book, did you have the editor you needed so badly then?
I didn’t. As far as I understand, having an actual editor is an extremely rare occurrence in the Russian publishing business. I’m familiar with a few American writers, and I know from them how things work in the American book industry. First, the publishing cycle is very long here. I’ll tell you how my book was published at Eksmo. In the spring, they informed me that they were taking my novel, and we began to work on the contract; in September, the book was already in stores.
In the United States, the cycle usually takes one and a half to two years. Here, your literary agent is your first editor. A writer can’t send their manuscript directly to a publisher – no one will read it – so you have to find yourself an agent first. This is very difficult; various writers’ manuals advise you to make a list of the best four hundred agents who work with the kind of prose you write, and then to send them your manuscript. An acquaintance of mine told me that five agents agreed to work with him, and that he chose the one who was the most critical of his novel. Consequently, he had to rewrite it three times before it was even sent out to publishers. He rewrote it from beginning to end, can you imagine? Then, when a publisher signs a contract with you, you start working on your manuscript with an editor, and they, too, can make you revise everything. It takes a colossal amount of time, but the end result is usually a high-quality product.
Do you think the American approach is better?
I can’t say that I’m all for it – who wants to revise a novel a hundred times? On the other hand, this approach rules out what happened with my second book – I open it and feel terribly ashamed because some parts are so weak. I think that now I don’t need an editor as much, since I’ve worked as an editor for many years, albeit in magazines, and I can look at my own text with a professional eye.
So, at some point after the release of Vadim, you thought that you needed something else and decided to venture into journalism?
I didn’t have to choose between literature and journalism because you couldn’t make a living writing fiction – I had to work somewhere where I’d be paid. I actually became a journalist thanks to my first book, One Giraffe’s Life, or A Woman of Childbearing Age.
How do you feel about this title now?
Now, of course, it seems funny and cringeworthy, as a friend of mine says. But this just goes to show that an author must have an editor. Anyway, when my first book came out, one of my acquaintances read it and said, “I’m friends with the editor of Marie Claire magazine. Do you want me to introduce you to her so that you could write for them?” I have this trait that has served me well in life: I almost never say no – I’m up for anything because I want to find out what will come of it. So, I met the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and began writing for them. The assignments they gave me were unusual – perhaps those no one else wanted to take.
For example, they sent me to a clinic where women went to have their virginity restored, and I had to pretend to be one of the patients: in all seriousness, I discussed the restoration of my hymen after the doctor had examined me in the gynecological chair. Then I confessed that I was a journalist, and she told me about her patients who came to get the procedure done and gave me the statistics.
At Marie Claire, they called this type of article a “social”: I had to write about modern life and social mores. After a while, I stopped working for this magazine because of another article. At that time, I was a young divorcee with a small child, and, for my next assignment, I had to meet single men on the Internet and write a report that was also meant to be a “social.” I began to meet men through dating sites, through newspaper advertisements, through a marriage agency, and even through a matchmaker who later turned out to be a scam artist. In the end, I wrote a very entertaining article – or so it seemed to me. At the time, I worshipped Sergei Mostovshchikov who was editor-in-chief of the famous Bolshoy Gorod newspaper, and I wanted to write in the style his journalists wrote in. I brought this text to Marie Claire, and they said, “This isn’t what we want. All of the men you describe have to represent common types.” But everyone I’d met was a freak; I tried to artificially fit them into some categories, but the result wasn’t very good.
I really liked the text, though, and besides, I’d spent a huge amount of time working on it. I asked them to pay me a penalty. At Marie Claire, they had this system: if they asked you to write a text, but didn’t publish it, they had to pay you half of your regular fee. But they didn’t pay me anything, so I took the article to Bolshoy Gorod. I came to see Mostovshchikov’s deputy, the legendary journalist Valery Drannikov. He read the article, looked at me carefully, and said, “At first, we let young journalists write one sentence, then two. Then, after a year, maybe half a page. But you’re very lucky: we just had to pull out an article that was six pages long.” So, they printed this text of mine on six pages, and I, as they say, woke up famous. Marie Claire editors wrote to me immediately and said, “Sveta, please give us back the hundred dollars that we’d given you for the matchmaker.”
The one who ran away with the money?
Yes, that one. I replied, “I’ll gladly return the one hundred dollars if you pay me my half of my fee.” They said, “Fine, we’ll call it even.” After that, I began to write for Bolshoy Gorod a lot, then started to spill out into other publications. And in 2004, I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor.
You said that you wrote your first novel in Syria, and now you live and write in America. And this is actually the second time you came to the United States to live. How did that happen?
After finishing high school in 1992, I enrolled at New York University and, in four years, graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy. I could stay in America by getting a job or a master’s degree, but, to everybody’s astonishment, I returned to Moscow. It seemed to me that all the exciting things were happening in Moscow, that life was in full swing there. In addition, while I was still a student at NYU, I came to Moscow and fell in love with a guy there and secretly married him. Secretly – because he was a punk rocker, worked in a shop that made metal doors, and drank quite a lot, so my parents would never have approved of him. When I returned to America after my secret wedding, it turned out that I was pregnant. So you see, it’s a young girl’s romantic story. I gave birth to a son and came to live with my husband in Moscow, but our marriage fell apart quickly. I didn’t even think of returning to America and began to build my new adult life where I was. But four years ago, I came to New York, and now I live here.
So you wrote this third novel, People and Birds, after having moved to the USA?
I completed it here, but I started it much earlier. Did you notice that it’s not entirely clear when the novel’s action takes place – is it the early 2000s or is it present time? The thing is, I wrote it in chunks, taking long breaks between them, and it sort of stretched out in time. When I was finishing it, I asked myself whether I wanted to bring all of this to any one specific time period. But I realized that I didn’t, because, in my opinion, nothing changes in Russia except for external things like the appearance of various apps for getting a cab. In general, the feeling of being in Russia remains the same – at least for me. Deciding that I would make this into a literary device, I was very happy with myself, but then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to use it. I know several people now who are working on novels set in Moscow, and they deliberately mix different eras in them.
Between novels, did you write any fiction?
I had this grandiose failure that traumatized me so much that I stopped writing fiction for several years. Now, I tell this story as a very amusing one, but back then it didn’t make me laugh. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories about teenagers which turned out to be very lively and dramatic: there were betrayals, intrigues, love, sex, fights with parents, and violence in it, and also a lot of teenage slang that I learned by spending hours on internet forums where high school kids hung out. When I completed it, I found the literary agent Julia Goumen on Facebook – I work with her to this day. She really liked the collection and said, “Sveta, this is very cool, and I’ll sell it very quickly. I just need you to add a couple of more stories – about a gay boy and a migrant boy.” She thought that these two stories were necessary to round out the collection, and she was absolutely right. Believe it or not, on the day that I sent her the finished manuscript, I turned on the TV and saw the first episode of Valeria Guy Germanica’s series School. My collection was also called School. I immediately realized that no one would publish my collection because it was the same thing, essentially, even though the names and the characters were different. I was right: Julia went around all the publishing houses with my manuscript, but everyone said, “Well, Guy Germanica has already covered this topic.” I must add that I didn’t know anything about the series while I was writing the collection, and Guy Germanica didn’t know anything about me either – it just happened that the same idea came to two different people at the same time.
Now, you live in America and write in Russian. Do you have any ambitions for writing in English?
Actually, I do. I must say that Russian-American writers of approximately my generation – Shteyngart, Litman, Vapnyar – have a gigantic head start in the sense that they all came to the United States at a young age and stayed here, that is, all this time they’ve been living in an English-speaking environment. I returned to Moscow after university and didn’t speak or write in English for twenty years – and, of course, I lost this language to some extent. Now I have to catch up, and in order for this to happen faster, I enrolled in a master’s program in fiction.
Is it easy to get accepted into one of these programs?
If it’s prestigious, one of the top 25, it’s very difficult. Among other things, you need professional recommendations, and that’s why I spent the whole of last summer workshopping with established writers. They liked my fiction and wrote letters of recommendation for me. It makes no sense to apply to only one program – you may not get accepted, and I applied to twelve or thirteen universities across the country, all of them from the top 25 list. To be honest, I absolutely didn’t want to move to another state, and it so happened that I was accepted into three master’s programs in New York. I was very happy. When you get admitted to several places, you then have to choose where to go, and the programs begin to court you, as it were: they introduce you to students, invite you to parties and to classes as an observer. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic these parties didn’t happen, but I met a lot of people through Zoom. And I really liked the program at Brooklyn College: I got the feeling that those were not just wonderful people and professionals, but my family.
And when I had made my decision to choose that particular program, I suddenly got an email informing me that I would receive a scholarship from the Truman Capote Foundation, which would cover the cost of my education. At that moment, I had no idea what this scholarship was – I thought it was simply named after one of my favorite writers. Then I googled it and found out that Truman Capote bequeathed his wealth to aspiring writers like me. Realizing that I would study with the help of Truman Capote’s own money, I lay down on my bed and lay there for a long time, trying to absorb this information.
Did they give you this scholarship based on the stories you wrote in English?
In my application, I provided a writing sample that included one of the stories I wrote last summer and a chapter of my new novel.
Wait a second, what novel?
I have an interesting story to tell about it. When I completed People and Birds, I started writing a novel about a dentist who was a narcissist and a highly toxic person – in Russian. It’s just that I had no idea at all about what would interest an English-speaking audience. At one of the writing workshops I attended, in the beautiful city of Provincetown, I was randomly assigned to a group of people who worked on novels. I thought, fine, I’ll just translate a couple of chapters about the dentist, and the workshop might still be useful. Unexpectedly, it turned out that the American readers were interested in both the novel and the main character. They told me that the novel should be published in America and that they couldn’t wait until I finished it.
Are you finishing it in English?
I finished it in Russian and started translating it into English. The people who read the first two chapters said that they felt a trace of Russian in the text, and that that was one of the reasons they liked it so much. They were quite familiar with the Russian classics which they read in translation, and my text reminded them of Dostoevsky and someone else. When I write in English, I have a different mentality: I choose different words and a different intonation, and the result is a different text. So the work is progressing, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. After all, I’m translating from my native language into a non-native one, and this, of course, isn’t easy.
Today, we’re thrilled to present a Q&A with Boris Dralyuk — renowned translator, writer, LARB‘s Executive Editor (thank you for fine-tuning my reviews), former colleague, and old and dear friend. Based in Los Angeles, Boris has been instrumental in promoting Russian and Russophone literature in translation both in the United States and abroad. His recent poetry cycle can be found here. Boris answered our questions by email.
Punctured Lines: Your family emigrated from Odessa to Los Angeles when you were eight. In an interview with Melissa Beck on The Book Binder’s Daughter, you’ve told the story about turning to translation at the age of 14 in the hope of sharing a Pasternak poem with an English-speaking friend. You felt that translation was something of a calling for you. And yet there’s often a long path between that first desire to translate and professional translation. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered at the beginning? What resources (mental, emotional, literary, etc.) did you draw on to keep going?
Boris Dralyuk: First, let me thank you both for inviting to review the path I’ve traveled. It seems, from here, to be longer and more winding than I usually imagine it to be. I tend to focus not on the path itself but on the small number of items I’ve picked up along the way. It’s these items – discrete memories, some pleasant and inspiring, others disappointing and embarrassing – that offer comfort and refine my perspective when I run into new challenges. A large part of professionalization is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much?
One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.
I can’t imagine coming to any of these realizations earlier than I did – it all takes as long as it takes. What has helped me through every stumble, setback, and paralyzing fit of regret was the sympathy and encouragement of my mentors, who had cleared these hurdles before. The smartest thing I did in my early years as a translator was to seek out such mentors, and they all became dear friends – Mike Heim, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and others.
PL: Some of us were lucky enough to study with Michael Heim at UCLA, but you also worked with him in terms of translation. You touched on this experience in your very poignant tribute when he passed away. Can you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with him?
BD: As I wrote in my little piece, it was the time Mike devoted to my infantile efforts – the interest he showed, when he could well have shown me the door – that proved decisive. I wish I could say that I didn’t need encouragement, or that I don’t need it now, but I very much did and do. Yet I want to stress that Mike didn’t give me encouragement because he felt I needed it, he did it because he believed in translation itself, believed that it was an important art, that it was possible to improve one’s skills, and that I was dedicated to the work. His purity of intention was unmistakable. It was precisely what I was looking for in a teacher and reader, what I look for still, and what I try to manifest whenever I’m asked for feedback or advice. When Mike sat down with a student to go over a text, it isn’t that the world outside the text would disappear, it’s that the text would become the world’s center. And you’d leave his office with the sense that your work had, in its own small way, restored order to the world – had shaken it out as if it were a bedspread, revealing its true design. I feel that way every time I discuss a translation with Robert, Irina, Maria, and my wife, Jenny. Their tastes and sensibilities are even closer to my own than Mike’s were, but they all share the same world-shaking, order-restoring purity of intention.
PL: You’ve translated a range of writers from Russian, from Tolstoy to Babel and Zoshchenko to contemporary prose and poetry by Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya (here, your translations of poetry are to be commended for often keeping the original meter and rhyme scheme, which is extraordinarily difficult in English but is precisely what lets these poems come through, as opposed to being rendered unrecognizable, in translation). What draws you to a particular author or project? What are the differences, and/or similarities, in the way you approach translating the various genres and sensibilities of the writers?
BD: The greatest training ground and door-opener of my career was the invitation, extended by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, to coedit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. The correspondence we conducted over the nearly four years of work on that project led me to discover the range of voices inside me, voices capable of resonating with those of Vasily Zhukovsky, Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Petrovykh, Georgy Ivanov, Anna Prismanova, and other poets. I learned what I could and couldn’t do, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways, from every angle. Of course, when translating Isaac Babel, I don’t need to strain my ears – his Odessan language is the language of my family, of my childhood; and Zoshchenko’s tragic gags are also like mother’s milk. What I need to do, in both cases, is to find Anglophone equivalents for their voices, and, luckily, American literature is full of them. In the case of Babel, I was aided by Daniel Fuchs, Samuel Ornitz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and, for good measure, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. When Zoshchenko came knocking, Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley opened the door, with Damon Runyon peeking over their shoulders. In the case of Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya, something rather different happened. The voices I use in my translations of their work are often versions of my everyday voice. Better versions, because they always have more important things to say than I myself do. I loved what Anna Aslanyan said in her TLS review of Maxim’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, which I co-translated with the brilliant Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson: “Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.” We all make use of what we have inside us, of what we acquire from our reading and from our colleagues – the key is to make the very best use of it.
PL: In addition to translating, you also work with books in another way: as a frequent reviewer, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and of course as the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is thanks to you that this publication has come to amplify coverage of translations from the former Soviet countries, as well as diaspora literatures and scholarly works about the region. What do you look for in terms of the books/writers you feature in LARB?
BD: My editorial goal is, first and foremost, to empower and encourage the editors of our sections – which represent over a dozen genres – to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re covering a diverse array of books and uplifting the voices of critics and reviewers who may not have access to other major venues. We love giving authors their first break. I’m not interested in boilerplate reviews of the latest bestsellers or political exposés. I want our pieces to dig deeper, to be deeply informed but also deeply felt, and to come at books from unexpected angles. A good number of our reviewers are associated with colleges and universities, and their first drafts often bear the telltale signs of academic discourse: lots of jargon, sentences that are far more convoluted than they need to be, etc. The jargon may have its place, but one must remember that many readers are encountering these specialized terms for the first time. We always remind our contributors that they’re writing for a general audience of curious non-specialists; the goal is to welcome people into the discussion, not to stupefy them with a display of one’s erudition. The good news is that academics usually learn quickly – that’s why they’re academics.
PL: We talk a lot on Punctured Lines, and elsewhere, both about how to promote translations from Russian in general and of women writers in particular. In your essay “The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation” for Translation Review you name the stellar translators and publishers that have made translation from Russian an incredibly vibrant field. What are your thoughts on how we as a community – of translators, scholars, publishers, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, etc. – can work toward greater visibility of female authors within Russian-to-English translation overall?
PL: Soviet and post-Soviet lives don’t always fit neatly into the contemporary American classification of identities. For instance, in conversation with Katya Michaels at Odessa Review, you described Babel as a Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian-Soviet writer. This sounds about right and yet in American parlance this often gets shortened to “Russian writer” or “Soviet writer.” How do you approach this work of identity constructions that critics and translators are often asked to do?
BD: Yes, this is always a challenge. I suppose the first and most important step is to determine how these authors see – or saw – themselves in their own time and within a given tradition or set of traditions. But once you establish that, what do you do with it? If your press allows you to supply the text with an introduction, or even a brief translator’s note, that’s an opportunity to enrich a reader’s understanding of an author’s identity. And there are, of course, decisions to be made within the text itself. Is it appropriate for Yiddishisms, both syntactic and lexical, to color a Russian text in English translation? If you ask me, Babel wouldn’t be Babel without them. And would Lev Ozerov, a Soviet Jewish poet who, although he wrote in Russian, was raised in Ukraine, counted Ukrainian intellectuals among his closest friends, and translated scores of Ukrainian poems object to our using the spelling “Kyiv” in our rendering of his work? I think he’d heartily approve. Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and that’s the beauty of it.
PL: What are you working on now? What project(s) is/are on your wish list?
BD: Right now I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees – a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. (Talk about Ukrainian place names!) Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me, and I’m always on the lookout for little treasures to share on my blog – like this delightful poem by Sofiya Pregel.