“Обстрел прекратился в 11:30. Пока всё тихо. У нас в квартире тепло, работает водопровод и центральное отопление. Нет электричества, но светит солнце и на улице тает снег.” [The shelling stopped at 11:30. For now everything is quiet. Our apartment is warm, and there’s running water and central heating. No electricity, but the sun is shining and the snow is melting outside.]
—my friend Olga Krauze writes from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. I was interviewing her on Zoom for this profile and we got interrupted. Olga is a poet and singer and I’ve known her since 1991. She has lived in Kharkiv for 12 years with her partner Elina, who is Ukrainian.
I first saw Olga Krauze standing in front of the Leningrad Cultural House of Vocational Education Workers on a warm sunny day in July of 1991. She had a modest, unassuming look about her, brown medium length hair, about 5’4” and dressed in a light colored shirt and dark pants. I was there as a part of a delegation of 65 North Americans, just arrived and ready to have the first International Gay and Lesbian Symposium in Leningrad, followed by a queer film festival and conference in Moscow. We were armed with cameras and English books and magazines and other gay paraphernalia. No, we were not missionaries. Lesbians and gays, bisexuals and transgender people already existed in Russia. After decades of hiding, this was the first significant encounter Olga and other Russian queers would have with Western queers who were open about their sexuality. Apparently, the “Dvorets” or Palace of Culture had no idea who they had rented their space to, as Olga later found out. According to them, the event was scandalous.
After that turning point, Olga Krauze continued to write and sing but grew bolder. She added queer activism to her work, first by helping to lead an organization with gay men called Wings and then by creating a support group for women, namely lesbians, called the Club of Independent Women. This queer activism was revolutionary for Russia, but it was perestroikaand suddenly there were a lot of possibilities for lesbians and gays to come out of their closets.
Shortly after I met her, I did a profile of Olga Krauze in the December 1991 issue of The Advocate. She has since published seven books, appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, and given numerous concerts. In fact, she is still very much in demand but, of course, the war has curtailed concerts.
I love her poetry and songs very much. We are fortunate to have her collection of poetry Харьковская тетрадь. Стихи 2011–2018 гг. [The Kharkiv Notebook. Poems 2011–2018] about her time in Kharkiv, where she still lives. It deserves to be translated, especially now that people want to know more about Ukraine. Deeply personal, her reflections are full of natural imagery, people’s struggles, and her heartfelt realizations. Here is one poem from the collection:
Окно, в которое я ныряла, вскарабкавшись через все этажи, чтобы в твоей постели, в подушке хмельной задыхаться от неутолимой жажды, пока ты, гуляя с кем-то, встречаешь утреннюю зарю.
Окно то, оно в том доме, двор которого наглухо заперт высокой стальной решеткой. Двор давно уже не проходной.
А ты на далеком погосте, куда твои внуки доехать могут разве что раз в году. Живу, вспоминаю многих. Все чаще мне снишься ты.
Memoriale, by Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta
The window I dove into After clambering up through all The floors to get into your bed To breathe in your intoxicating pillow With my unquenchable thirst While you walk with someone In the dawn of early morning.
That window, the one in that house Where the yard is tightly shut With a high steel gate. That yard has long been blocked.
And you, in a distant graveyard Where your grandchildren can go Only once a year. I live and remember so many. More and more I dream of you.
Olga Krauze sang one of her lesbian poems called “Курила, курила, курила” [“Smoked, smoked, smoked”] in her apartment in Kharkiv and sent it to me for a talk I recently did on Zoom. My translation follows:
By Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta
I smoke, smoke, smoke way down to the filter. Wiping tears from my cheeks, I go out But I leave with a smile. Much better like this—with laughter. And a silly, stupid joke for everyone’s amusement.
I order wine and get drunk to honor such merriment. Walking on, walking on! And a hangover tomorrow. But I know I’ll be shaking in the train, remembering All the things no one else will ever know.
No one can find out about my resentment and anger. No one can know my tears—“What a fool, good for her.” No one can know what you told me then As I smoked, smoked, smoked, smoked.
Where I’m going, everything will be completely different. Where the train is taking me will be better than home. I’ll sell my suitcase. It’s shabby and messed up. I could quit smoking and buy myself a new hat.
A beautiful hat, with a shiny copper buckle. With this hat on I would visit your city by chance. And in our café sit down to sip Turkish coffee. You’d look at me curiously but not like a child.
Then you’d call me over to have a smoke with you outside. And I’ll be cool and say “I don’t smoke anymore, sorry.” You’ll never remember what you once told me there, Once long ago when I smoked, smoked, smoked.
Besides her lesbian activism, Olga has always been very political. She supports the Ukrainian cause without reservation. Olga was born in Leningrad in 1953 to parents who were railroad engineers, yet her heritage was quite mixed—of Jewish, Latvian, and Austrian background.
This kind of multinationalism was common in Russia and it has been characteristic of people in Ukraine too. In the 1930s and 1940s, during Stalin’s reign, people were forcibly moved around because of their ethnicities, as well as sent to the Gulag. The Soviet Union went from internationalism to Russification—the forced adoption of the Russian language throughout the Soviet republics. Many of the ethnic nationalities lost their connection to their own languages, including in Ukraine.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was one of the first republics to declare independence. Olga supports the Ukrainian nation because she knows how necessary it is for Ukrainians not only to recover their land and country but to own their language and culture. She and her partner have stayed in and around Kharkiv with their cat throughout the war. The difficulties are hard for those not in Ukraine to imagine. An excerpt from Olga’s recent poem:
Опять был взрыв, или это хлопнула дверь у соседа? Надо сходить за хлебом. Надо, но там нет света. Отсутствие света не та утрата, когда работает генератор. Но там, где работает генератор, хлеба нашего любимого нет. Значит жди, когда будет свет и благодари судьбу, что ты не в Купянске и не в Волчанске, и уж тем более не в Бахмуте…
By Olga Krauze, translated by Sonja Franeta
An explosion again? Or was it the slam of our neighbor’s door? I must get some bread. I must, but there is no light. The absence of light does not mean it’s out If the generator is running But wherever there is one running Our favorite bread is no longer. So let’s wait for the light to come Thank the stars we’re not In Kupyansk or Volchansk, And especially not in Bakhmut…
Donations are appreciated and can be sent directly to Olga. Contact me at sfraneta at yahoo and I will send you her information. [PL: link to Sonja’s email withheld to avoid bots; we’re happy to assist in making the connection.]
On her website are links to all of her published books in Russian. Olga’s prose has not appeared in English yet, and she is very open to working with interested translators. Her work is rife with humor and keen observations of fellow human beings and it has a lot to give to English-language readers.
Sonja Franeta is a writer, educator, translator, and activist born in the Bronx to an immigrant Yugoslav family. In 2004, she published ten interviews of Siberian queers, Rozovye Flamingo, in the original Russian, in collaboration with friends at the LGBT Archives in Moscow. In 2017, Sonja Franeta’s translation became available in English—Pink Flamingos: 10 Siberian Interviews. Her collection, My Pink Road to Russia: Tales of Amazons, Peasants and Queers, came out in 2015 and is now translated into Russian as well. She has translated her favorite writers: Marina Tsvetaeva, Sofia Parnok, and others and worked in Moscow and Novosibirsk in the 1990s. Now she divides her time between St. Petersburg, Florida and northern Spain with her partner Sue and two cats.
Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish(Graywolf Press, 2022) is a collection of lyric essays in which the author enters into a dialogue with ancient writers and contemporary artists, contributing personal reflections on the elusiveness of the trans body. The book is made up of 23 sections that converge on the theme of water. Most sections are further broken up into short segments or sentences set off by Roman numerals. In the first section, “In Water Disjointed from Me,” the author describes the way in which a mysterious illness upended their life and their ability to communicate. Four pages later, in “Last Night, A Pike Swam Up the Stairs,” Horn speaks to the experience of their trans body through short segments. This is the opening page of this section:
I. Perch circled the skirting boards. Sticklebacks twitch at the foot of the bed.
II. As a child, I believed the body thrummed with fishes. I drew pictures: the body aqueous—ovular, amorphous—walled by cartilage, algae, silt. Eels coiled in the stomach. Anemones pulsed in the gut. And always a pike—lone, muscular—writhed up the throat.
III. When I matured physically and my body began not to fit, I always wondered whether it had nothing to do with biology or hormones. Whether it was because the fishes had stayed or left.
Within a single page, Horn is able to conjure and weave together the major forces reigning within their book: images of fish go in tandem with the aqueous, elusive body; an inability to speak overlaps with a discomfort with self-image; and a poetic sense of wonder makes all of this really unusual.
Indeed, the collection is a provocative collage of entries about species of fish, aquariums, and tattooing; a meditation on the author’s relationship with water; a travel log through Russia, France, Belgium, and Georgia; childhood memories involving modelling for their mother’s artworks; and a foray into illness and trauma.
At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make the writing itself embodied and textured, to speak through bodies of water. Poised neatly between the abstractions of literary theory and the concrete joys of poetic memoir, Horn’s writing is electrifying, aphoristic, restless, and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. The result is visceral and deeply moving, like a dream or the force of memory, leaving readers to meander through the different strands Horn offers and reflect upon our own relationship with our bodies and with language.
This interview was conducted over email and Zoom. Author’s idiom is preserved.
Natalya Sukhonos: What moved you to write this book?
Lars Horn: The book began from a place of fatigue, perhaps, even a certain despondency. For several years, I’d been doing shift work, starting in the early hours. I’d written a prose-poem novella and hadn’t gotten anywhere with it. I barely managed a single publication of any kind—and that after years of writing. It was midwinter. And I just thought: I can’t keep going with this. I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford clothing. I can’t afford healthcare, anything. I was seriously considering a job in HR, a nine-to-five that would pay the rent and the bills. Around the same time, I met Jaquira, who is now my wife. We talked, often into the early hours. One night, I mentioned modelling for my mother’s photography projects. She looked over: “You really should write this. You should write nonfiction.” I protested, and Jaquira replied something to the effect of: Stop making excuses and write. That January, I set my alarm at 4:00 AM and wrote before my morning shifts. I started from anecdotes I shared in conversation but had not previously brought to the page. In some sense, Jaquira moved me to write the book, her enthusiasm, her certainty—especially at a time when mine failed. But, most of all, the trigger of switching to nonfiction when I had only ever written poetry—that proved an opening, an opportunity.
Natalya Sukhonos: What do you think brings your essays into a single collection? They’re so fascinating and heterogeneous. How do you see them coming together in this particular book?
Lars Horn: When drafting Voice of the Fish, I received feedback that, though the individual essays were interesting, editors or agents couldn’t see how the book held together as a collection. Nor did the aquatic vignettes and themes of fish make themselves sufficiently understood. Reflecting upon this feedback, I realised that I had been purposefully withholding the resonance of the aquatic bodies insofar as they relate to my experience of transmasculinity and embodiment. Though I didn’t, myself, find the essays disparate—their unity residing in a shared memoirist arc or themes of faith and spirituality—I did see how they could appear so to another. I realised that unless I explained the meaning of these aquatic motifs, unless I allowed people access to their pertinence in terms of my gender or bodily experience, the book wasn’t going to make sense. This spurred me to write the final, threaded essay, which, in making these connections explicit, acts as a throughline. In this way, the threaded essay holds the collection together—on both craft and thematic level—as does the aquatic and its relationship to transmasculinity. That being said, I would also argue that questions of faith unite the collection. Especially when the writing examines moments of strange cohesion, understanding across elements, bodies, or lives. There is a consistent tension, a desire to ask how the spiritual might manifest in the physical.
Natalya Sukhonos: At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make your writing itself embodied and textured. Reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project—an unfinished body of writing centering a feature of 19th century Parisian architecture—your writing is restless and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. What’s the relationship between writing and the body, as you see it?
Lars Horn: When I think of writing, I don’t think of the more complex interplay of assigning meaning to words, but rather of tools—chisel, brush, pen, keyboard. Of scored stone, gouged velum, of paper or glowing screen. Writing has always been, in essence, a set of bodily gestures. From stone tablet to silk scroll to papyrus, page, or laptop, writing is deeply gestural. It exists as practices of chiselling, drawing, scribing, typing. It is intricate learnt gesture, repeated so as to become intuitive, innate.
In many ways, I cannot speak of a relationship between writing and my body. I can only collapse the two. Writing is my body. The movement—however refined, however minimal—of performing the line-work of an alphabet and language. There is a spatial element that I appreciate. A choreography—left to right, top to bottom, front to back. Or, in other languages, the inverse.
Yet, though I sense writing as physical craft—bodily capability, proximity—I also experience writing—in its more abstract sense of communicating meaning—as distance, disconnect. I do not think in words. Language hovers—peripheral, not quite of my body. Instead, thoughts come as image, movement, as gesture. I struggle to express myself linguistically. Growing up, my family were predominantly visual artists. To communicate in image, sculpture, in tone or texture, rooms of pigment, felt, fat, meat—this I understand. In these terms, what I feel or think finds material expression. I am not someone who writes to understand myself or to clarify my thoughts. Writing has an uncomfortable habit of confusing, meandering, or even disintegrating an impression that might be surfacing in collapsing images or shadowed understanding. Similarly, I find it difficult to word an emotion or to formulate a coherent counter-argument. I am slow to react to events—my feelings coming at a disjoint, sometimes by days, other times by years. And I am slow to find linguistic expression for those reactions.
As a writer, I feel both submerged in language and utterly at odds with it. I simultaneously don’t think about language at all—in that my thoughts are visual, spatial, tactile—and I think about it consistently in my daily craft: This word or sentence—what texture is required, what atmosphere. Does the line need to flow or rupture. At what speed. It’s a counter-intuitive career choice in many ways. I spend days reflecting on language instinctually, at the level of the sentence or paragraph, but very little time thinking about language—speaking, writing—as acts or phenomena that relate to consciousness or embodiment.
I come to language at the level of the sentence. One slow construction at a time. To approach writing otherwise overwhelms me. I also tend to write the concrete elements of my work—those parts that have colours or forms, a sequence of events or descriptive content—before I attempt to tease out the emotional truth of a piece. Usually, at the point where I need to examine what I think or feel, what is posing me difficulty in relation to the work—I falter. Completely and wholly. It is the moment where I walk a line of giving up writing altogether. Trying to put those kinds of thoughts or sensations—ones I would rather express visually, physically—into language exhausts me. But the tension I experience with language—written, spoken—might well be part of the dynamic tension that drives my work. I predominantly read poetry, ancient texts, and theology—these arenas where writing begins to question its own construction or its own ability to transmit meaning in the face of otherworldly concepts. I am always interested when language starts to rend, break towards the visceral. Abstract, under tension. Perhaps, ultimately, I understand writing and the body in terms of visceral, even violent tension. There is a perverseness to translating embodied experience into language. Why translate that which is. And yet, what strange experiment—consciousness, existing. To live this life embodied. Maybe writing affords, if not an antidote, at least a lens. Glass through which to warp and distance, watch oneself reflect. Strain at the confines of one’s flesh.
Natalya Sukhonos: I’d love to touch on your travels to Russia and Russophone countries. Do you feel like the estrangement you often write about actually gave you access to a deeper understanding of the places where you travelled? If so, how?
Lars Horn: I question whether my bodily estrangement could ever give me a better understanding of another country, simply because to understand a country is an impossible task. A place’s history, politics, the people and cultures it contains—they are all too vast for any single comprehension, especially that of an outsider. But, perhaps, more modestly, living at a disjoint from my own limbs destroys the illusion of knowing an unknowable quantity. Perhaps, more accustomed to estrangement, I expect to look from without. At my body. My own sense of self. At an environment. I expect distance. Am willing to stand in it. Know it as the only viable viewpoint. I am maybe more inclined, when travelling, to know that anything I experience will always remain just that: my perspective—singular, flawed, constrained by time and self—from where I stand in a place that isn’t mine.
Natalya Sukhonos: In the beginning of the section where you describe your travels to Russia and Georgia, you speak with a painful candor about Russia’s flagrant homophobia and transphobia; the phrase “the last time I spoke Russian” appears as a refrain to the oppression you and others experienced in that country. Then you reveal that when you went to Georgia you were openly queer and transmasculine. Can you speak to your decision to avoid speaking Russian in Georgia, and the few times you broke away from this?
Lars Horn: Russian, like my own native tongue, English, carries a history of violence. With the Soviet Union and the British Empire, Russian and English became the voice, the sound and articulation, for acts of incarceration, enslavement, and genocide. In Georgia, particularly at the Tbilisi Writers’ House, I met individuals fluent in Georgian, Russian, and English who specifically asked to converse in English. I found that this trend characterised Tbilisi’s younger generations, many of whom either spoke Russian and refrained from using it, or didn’t speak Russian at all. In this way, the central reason behind my not speaking Russian stemmed from a desire to respect the wishes of Georgians who chose not to communicate in a language that they associated with an oppressive Soviet regime. Moreover, after I fell ill and struggled to speak, write, and read even in English, I never recovered my former ability in Russian, meaning that Georgians invariably spoke better English than I did Russian. Communication, like water, has a tendency to flow along a path of least resistance. If English allowed myself and someone else to connect more quickly and authentically, I let English carry us both. Pragmatically, however, there were many times when I needed to communicate with individuals, often of an older generation, who spoke Georgian and Russian, but not English. Out of necessity, we spoke together in Russian—the immediate need to understand one another superseding wider questions of language politics. In those instances, each individual possessed a different feeling towards Russian, yet the conversations were, in fact, consistently warm, usually because Georgians had almost never heard a British national make an effort to speak anything other than English.
Besides questions of language politics or pragmatic necessity, there is, of course, a personal, even intimate difficulty I have with Russian. I do not necessarily associate Russian—as a language—with the explicit homophobia and transphobia in Russia. Or rather, Russian will never only represent that for me. It is undoubtedly a privilege to enjoy a language despite its echoes of violence—one that speaks to my not having lived under colonial or totalitarian regimes. To not have known people killed to the noise of another people’s tongue. Yet, I have an abiding appreciation of Russian—its acoustics, its case system, the winding migration of the Cyrillic alphabet from Greece. I associate it with writers, artists, musicians. With the time I spent in a country that allowed me, for a short space, to breathe beyond the confines of myself. But, also, it is a language that reaches far beyond the borders of Russia. I feel Russian deserves the richness that comes with being spoken by nations and cultures with distinct histories to Russia. Russian is not Russia’s alone. English is similar. I have a complicated relationship to my mother tongue. It carries histories of enslavement, of murder. Yet it is also the language I know best. It is my mother’s voice. The murmur of church. Bite of winter within woodsmoke.
In this way, my difficulty with Russian, though in part a reckoning with its legacy, also has a personal dimension. Speaking Russian now, I am acutely aware of how much I have lost my own linguistic faculties—the same is true of French, a language I once spoke and wrote fluently, but with which I now struggle. Unlike English, which, through years of necessity, I have slowly regained, French and Russian didn’t see me have to drag myself over sentences, re-learn spellings, or force my throat and mouth around words whose dimensions had become strange to me. Russian and French cast a shadow—of illness, loss, of a life that I look back upon and don’t recognise. Or, perhaps, in which I see how frequently I negated myself. Speaking Russian and French force me to grammatically gender myself, recall years of learning to sound myself in ways that didn’t fit. Russian and French force me, in some sense, to look at a former self that I find difficult to remember. Someone I do not necessarily like, even fully understand anymore. There is loss there. Echo of inadequacy. A sense that I have failed both languages and the people who spent such time and care gifting me their sound and structure. How did I, could I, allow them to be lost to me.
Natalya Sukhonos: I’m very curious about your relationship with Feodor, your St. Petersburg landlord who loved to while away the afternoon talking about species of fish over tea, and Ivano, the Georgian driver who insisted that you speak to him in Russian and wanted to set you up with his son. You write that “somehow, like Feodor, Ivano saw me, the pace and gesture of me.” Can you comment on how and why these men were able to truly see “the gesture of [you]” despite their transphobic background? What made you bond with them, and were there other instances of you connecting with people in Russia and Georgia despite their prejudices?
Lars Horn: I am unsure how or why Ivano and Feodor chose to meet me with generosity, with time and care. Nor do I know what drew us together. Perhaps, it comes down to the same elusive alchemy that sees us connect with certain people and not others. Strange mix of circumstance, character, and timing. Feodor had such a powerful gentleness to him. A slowness. He had a genuine appreciation for the simplicity of sunlight over skin, of winter turning into spring, of spending a day fishing. Ivano had humour and energy. Yet still that desire to enjoy what each day brought him. Both men had a sense—born of age and, in Feodor’s case, illness—that people deserve time, attention. That others require a certain breadth in which to be themselves, that we can only meet them in this nebulous space where selves connect and dislocate. Not knowing how or why we struck up an intuitive understanding drove the writing of the piece. But knowing that disparate individuals can find moments of communion in this world is something that brings me relief. Hope even. I wanted to bear testament to the possibility of human connection without necessarily understanding the mechanics of it. To treat it as one might the sacred or mystical.
As for connecting with others in Russia and Georgia despite differences of opinion—yes, I was drawn to and interested by more people than I could ever list. I still reflect on many of the conversations I had with people I met in Russia. Though we are not in contact, I carry them with me—their thoughts or actions, time spent in and out of conversation. Their memory is dear to me, surfaces at moments of isolation or uncertainty.
That anyone has escaped holding some form of prejudice, has entirely avoided committing violence, hurting another or living a smaller version of themselves—I doubt anyone can lay claim to such a life. And, because of that, connecting with people in Russia or Georgia is no different to meeting people in the UK or the USA or any other country. Transphobia and homophobia are worldwide phenomena. As is racism, ableism, misogyny, classicism. People are stigmatised, violated, are killed for who they are across the world. I only hope that, flawed and failing as I am, people might find some worth in talking with me, something that can comfort or uplift. So, I, likewise, endeavour to do unto them.
Natalya Sukhonos: As of my writing this, Putin has annexed several regions of Ukraine and escalated the war. In Voice of the Fish, you write powerfully of Georgia’s colonial history and oppression under Russia’s violent, imperialist power. Can you comment on what is unfolding in Ukraine right now, especially in light of your travels in Russia and Georgia?
Lars Horn: Any adequate response to this question would require significant length and research to capture the extent, nuance, and implications of this conflict—especially if one hopes to contextualise current events within a long history of Russia’s colonial oppression of Ukraine. Any less would be a disservice to Ukraine. In this sense, I think others—political scientists, historians—would be better placed and more qualified to speak on this topic. Similarly, I don’t want to speak in place of Ukrainians and Russians. But: I stand with Ukraine. I stand with Russians who do not want this war. I stand with Ukrainian trans women being allowed to leave the border and not being told they are men, detained, and sent to fight. And I stand with men who do not wish to be drafted having that wish respected. Ultimately, though, it is a deeply troubling and complex reality—one I cannot speak of with authority.
Natalya Sukhonos: You describe your relationship to your body as “custodial” and reveal that “the more [you] lived at a disjoint from [your] own body, the more [you] turned to theology… as a way to find rough peace with these limbs.” I’m very intrigued by your relationship with theology and religion, especially in the context of your travels in Russia and Georgia, where you often traveled for miles to visit a distant monastery or to locate a relic. Can you speak about the role of theology in your life and your writing?
Lars Horn: Linguistically, theology is an arena that strives to speak the ineffable, to word the unknowable. The entire exercise is one of allegory, poetry, rhetoric, and faith—faith in that which cannot be seen or known or voiced. Yet scripture persists. I am captivated by the enterprise of scripture—to deliver the words of gods unto Earth. What amplitude. What spectacular premise. But also—what sincerity. This desire to render that which exceeds terrestrial bounds—the devotion of such a gesture. The service. I appreciate the very workings, the poetry, rhythm and meter of scriptures from across times and cultures. How language reveals itself incantatory, hallucinatory confronted with the divine. And I appreciate the humility that such work requires, how it places a body, a life—short span of living and breathing—within greater breadth. This, far from desolating me, consoles me. To know the smallness of myself and life.
Transmasculine, I do not recognise my body as my own. To live with that inescapable estrangement, has brought me to beauty, to communion with landscape or the slow heartbeat of another animal. It has also brought me to pain, frustration, isolation. To understand the strangeness of living in dissociation from oneself, the why of that—not in a social, genetic, or biological way—but to imbue it with greater purpose or meaning. To consider oneself a soul that carries itself at a strange angle to the body it resonates within. To consider this state of being as a gift, God-given even. I draw strength from that. When much of the world seeks to medicalise, criminalise, or simply negate what, for me, is a visceral reality, I am ever more convinced of the need to understand myself within a metaphysical framework, to understand who I am as sacred, not defective. And, though religion is so frequently homophobic and transphobic in its institutional ministry, theology as well as religious rite and ritual have been a source of vitality in my understanding of who I am. Voice of the Fish can be read as an ongoing discussion of faith. Of how to reconcile to that which is complex, painful even. To that which others disdain. I am drawn to faith. To the world as mystical, mythical, as shimmering beyond human understanding. I would like to think there is meaning to our living. That, just maybe, I can bring this body to bear in ways that aid or reassure. To write something in which another can rest.
Natalya Sukhonos: I noticed that you used the words “slip,” “slippage,” “slippery,” and other derivatives seventeen times throughout the book. These instances have to do with water and fish, as well as writing and identity. At one point, you suggest that reading can be reconsidered as “sensing the slip of a body through this world,” at another, the body is cast as “speaker of a strange, slippery language.” Can you comment on the importance of slippage to your writing, especially the way in which it relates to writing and the body?
Lars Horn: As I mentioned, I experience a level of dislocation or “slippage” between language and my body—specifically the distance of language from how I think and engage with the world—as well as between my sense of self and the body I inhabit. Slipperiness, liminal space, the inability to grasp or locate—these qualities are central not only to my writing, but to how I exist in, and interact with, the world around me. I do not come to other people and other environments, I do not even come to my own body, with a sense of continuity or stasis. A haziness pervades how I approach selfhood, embodiment, and language. I am similarly hesitant in how I step through the world. Fixity, binaries, linearity, formulaic simplicity—they unnerve me. Perhaps, more simply, I do not recognise them as characteristic of my lived experience. I doubt many people do. I am drawn to the complicated, the contradictory. That which acts as a portal—transient, unstable. To bodies that multiply, morph, suddenly eclipse. To depth—especially that at which the world turns over, reveals itself—lightless, unfathomable; that moment of impenetrability before it shifts. I am interested in possibility. In slippage as potential energy, space in which contradictory realities can tensely exist. Slippage articulates something I recognise as fundamentally human. Our bodies, selves, this world—all exist in perpetual instability. Slippage seems truer to what it means to be human. To live.
Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about the publishing industry as a trans writer?
Lars Horn: I was incredibly lucky at Graywolf—they are a phenomenally kind, encouraging, and understanding press. But, looking at the publishing industry as a whole, there is a lack of diversity and equality when it comes to what is predominantly published and who is getting paid most fairly for their work. As with any industry that functions on a for-profit business model and that caters to majority groups, the publishing industry favours cis-white-heterosexual writers. It also pays more for narrative, often realist, work. Underrepresented groups face multiple challenges entering the publishing industry: systemic racism, particularly anti-Blackness, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia—all of which affect not only the money one earns or the publicity one receives, but also the stories that one is, tacitly, expected to “perform.” This is true of any underrepresented group in publishing. There are not enough native writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and trans writers being published. Historically, for trans writers, there has been a proclivity to publish transition stories. And—I want to stress here—these are rich stories. But they are not the only stories. You can be trans and want to write about astrophysics, for instance. If a publishing industry doesn’t make space for more writers, with different stories, or starts to systematically only publish certain kinds of stories from an underrepresented group—that, I feel, is where we get into serious problems of misrepresentation. It creates an expectation among readers—especially not from that community—of how to interpret and consume communities in which they play no part.
Personally, I am interested in the question of nonfiction in the publishing industry and how this might highlight the very question of industry expectation. As with all genres, it is impossible to define nonfiction. But, perhaps, one—even if erroneous assumption—is the idea of truth status. That nonfiction confers a truth status upon an object of study or enquiry. Even if it’s lyrical, speculative, or experimental, mythological or poetic—nonfiction and the essay still have their roots in a perceived truth status. In the last few centuries, however, the essay and nonfiction have become entangled with Enlightenment logic, with rationalism, the Sciences, and the University as academy. With, in short, a pervasive whiteness and Eurocentrism. It’s telling that you have poetry books like Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem,Jericho Brown’s New Testament, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereasor Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and, yet, all these works read in some sense like book-length essays. Nonfiction and the essay tend to be very white, cis, heteronormative genres. And if not heteronormative, at least very white and cis. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Nor do I think it solely a product of the publishing industry. Instead, I believe it is indicative of society-wide, systemic bias. A bias that encourages and makes space for certain individuals to speak within nonfiction, which is to say, to speak with truth status, and to favour others in spaces like poetry or fiction—in the realms of the mythological or literary, but with an implicit removal of “fact,” “reality,” or real-world “truth.” And, yet, all the poetry books I just mentioned provide societal and political truths. Truths with real-world implications. Truths born from and destined to affect lived experience. They hold all manner of truths—spiritual, mythological. Essentially, I’m interested in why they are categorised as poetry. Why can’t they be essay? What have we—as a culture, a society—decided eliminates them from a category of essay, even from a category of poetry/essay. Because nonfiction hasn’t always been white or Eurocentric or concerned with the scientifically factual—ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Maya, these all possess rich and radically different histories of nonfiction. Mystical, poetic, visual. I would like to see more interrogation of our expectations around contemporary nonfiction, especially in the publishing industry, as I would the expectations that are placed upon narratives from underrepresented groups.
Natalya Sukhonos: Poetry, you said, is one of the genres that you are continuing to read nowadays, and I was wondering why poetry, and also, if you can share some poems that you’ve been reading recently, or some texts that have been interesting to you.
Lars Horn: I do read a lot of poetry and ancient texts. I’m a primarily visual, tactile, and spatial thinker. Poetry plays into that, as do ancient texts in their unusual forms. Alongside poetry and ancient texts, I actually look at books a great deal: volumes of sculpture, installation art. I’ve always found Fine Art to work similarly to poetry, but within space and time. Artworks juxtapose strange textures, imagery, objects. They force specific movement: the winding through an installation, the confined space of tight looking. And so does poetry, only on the page, which is, perhaps, why I respond well to it. The strange connections, a more lateral or spatial association—it resonates with how I experience the world. I struggle with works that require narrative continuity.
Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about your next project?
Lars Horn: I’m working on a book of experimental lyric essays that explores gods, religion, and faith across different times, places, and people. It stemmed from an interrogation of faith in my own life. Having attended a Catholic school, I feel a lot of affinity with Catholicism—its rites, rituals. Yet, I am queer and trans—which is not welcomed in the way I wish it were within the Church. I am interested in this, in the tension between faith as belief and its manifestation as human-enacted doctrine. I am also interested in wider questions: Will we resurrect? Is there an afterlife? What are the ramifications of a yes or a no. Formally, I hope to bring the essay form nearer to poetry, taking cues from the hybrid forms of nonfiction that are prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These traditions in which medical texts combine with spells, harvest decisions with the movements of god or planet; traditions in which poetry, mythology, and fact blend.
Natalya Sukhonos: I just wanted to say that I really resonated with your idea of reading as a process that’s textual and gestural.
Lars Horn: I’m pleased. I do believe reading could be expanded to a form of inquisitive interaction with the world. That we can still see a kind of poetry in that.
Lars Horn is a writer and translator working in literary and experimental non-fiction. Their first book, VOICE OF THE FISH, won the 2020 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and was an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce Selection. Horn’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. They hold MAs from the University of Edinburgh, the École normale supérieure, Paris, and Concordia University, Montreal. They split their time between Miami, Colorado, and the UK with their wife, the writer Jaquira Díaz.
Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She is Assistant Professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University and has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of 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 in 2021.
Update: there has been a venue change. This event is now happening at Stage Werx Theatre, 446 Valencia Street.
Punctured Lines is co-hosting a Lit Crawl reading by six Bay Area writers born in Ukraine, Russia, and Moldova. Shaken by the horrific tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we will read pieces exploring our connections, direct and indirect, to the part of the world we associate with home and exile, and where many of our friends and relatives are suffering as a result of the war. We work in the genres of nonfiction, literary and historical fiction, YA, flash, and other literary forms to tell our stories, and will read excerpts from our published and new work.
This event will take place at 5 pm on October 22nd at Blondie’s BarStage Werx Theatre, 446 Valencia Street in San Francisco .
Maggie Levantovskaya is a writer and lecturer in the English department at Santa Clara University. She was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and grew up in San Francisco. She has a PhD in comparative literature from UC San Diego. Her creative nonfiction and journalism have appeared in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Catapult, The LA Times, Current Affairs, and Lithub. Twitter: @MLevantovskaya
Masha Rumer‘s nonfiction book about immigrant families, Parenting with an Accent, was published by Beacon Press in 2021, with a paperback coming out in October 2022. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Parents, and more, winning awards from the New York Press Association. Twitter: @MashaDC
Originally from Kishinev, Moldova, Tatyana Sundeyeva is a Russian-American writer living in San Francisco. She writes short fiction, travel writing, and Young Adult novels and has been published in Oyster River Pages, Cleaver, and Hadassah Magazine. Twitter: @TeaOnSundey
Vlada Teper is a writer and educator from Moldova. Her essays have been featured in Newsweek and on NPR. A former Fulbright Scholar in Russia, Teper is the founder of Inspiring Multicultural Understanding (IMU) Peace Club. With MAs in English and Education from Stanford University, Vlada is the recipient of the 826 Valencia Teacher of the Month Award. Twitter: @VladaTeper
Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist and author of forthcoming novel YOUR PRESENCE IS MANDATORY set between Ukraine and Nazi Germany (Bloomsbury, 2024). She has written about Eastern Europe for The New York Times, TIME, BBC, Harper’s Bazaar, NBC, USA Today, Narrative, and others. Twitter: @SashaVasilyuk
Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language story collections. She has published fiction and essays in Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Confrontation, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She co-edits Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures, and co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop. Twitter: @bowlga
Punctured Lines is looking for reviews of the following recent and upcoming titles. Reviewers should have some expertise in terms of their chosen work, engaging substantively with its themes, structure, and techniques and using direct citation to back up claims. Each piece we receive for review undergoes a rigorous editing process, and we will provide potential reviewers with the guidelines. If you are interested in reviewing a work not on the list but that fits our overall themes of feminism, LGBT, diaspora, decolonialism, etc., please let us know. Thank you, and we look forward to working with you. Email us at PuncturedLines [at] gmail [dot] com.
We especially welcome reviews of Ukrainian titles.
Alina Adams, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region (History Through Fiction, 2022)***
Mark Andryczyk, editor, Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 (Penguin, 2022)***
Claude Anet, Ariane, A Young Russian Girl, translated by Mitchell Abidor (NYRB, 2023)
Ivan Baidak, (In)visible (Guernica World Editions, 2022)
Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, editors and translators, Amanat: Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan (Gaudy Boy, 2022)***
Yevgenia Belorusets, Lucky Breaks, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky (New Directions, 2022)***
Darya Bobyleva, The Village at the Edge of Noon, translated by Ilona Chavasse (Angry Robot, 2023)
Liliana Corobca, The Censor’s Notebook, translated by Monica Cure (Seven Stories Press, 2022)
Tetyana Denford, The Child of Ukraine (Bookouture, 2022)
Tamara Duda, Daughter, translated by Daisy Gibbons (Mosaic Press, 2022)
Alisa Ganieva, Offended Sensibilities, translated by Carol Apollonio (Deep Vellum, 2022)
Alla Gorbunova, It’s the End of the World, My Love, translated by Elina Alter (Deep Vellum, 2022)
Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, What Isn’t Remembered (The University of Nebraska Press, 2021) and The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022)
Elena Gorokhova, A Train to Moscow (Lake Union Publishing, 2022)
Maylis de Kerangal, Eastbound, translated by Jessica Moore (Archipelago, 2023)
Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Academic Studies Press, 2022) is a rare dual memoir co-written by Yelena Lembersky and her mother Galina. Born and raised in the USSR, following the death of her prominent painter father in 1970, Galina decides to emigrate with her young daughter and aging mother. In anticipation of her departure, Galina quits her job and becomes a refusenik. Yet, once her immigration papers go through, instead of boarding an airplane, she finds herself behind bars of a Leningrad prison on a criminal charge. Her mother has already left for the United States. Her young daughter Yelena–nicknamed Alëna in the book–is left in the care of friends, in danger of finding herself in an orphanage.
The chapter below is narrated by Yelena, eleven years old at the time of these events. We are deeply grateful to the author and publisher for permission to excerpt a chapter from this revealing and touching memoir. To continue reading, please buy the book from Academic Studies Press.
To Fairyland, by Yelena Lembersky
Mama begins to sort our belongings. She needs to get special permission for the remainder of Grandfather’s sketches and a roll of dark Babi Yar paintings that Grandma didn’t want to take with her when she left. We have to give away much of what we own because it is banned from being taken abroad—old books, cut glass, amber, antique objects, rugs, and archival documents. Every day, friends come to say goodbye and they leave with a piece of my childhood. Aunt Kira takes away Grandma’s hand-cranked Singer that we used together, I cranking the wheel, Grandma guiding the seam. Someone takes our pot-bellied black-and-white TV. The pressure cooker is heading off to a neighbor, good riddance. Our cookbook, with food stains and Grandma’s handwritten notes, goes to Bélochka. All of my picture books and Grandfather’s art catalogues, which he collected by saving money on food and clothes, end up in the used bookstore. Mama’s favorite white-and-blue vase goes to Kiera Ivanovna, a ceramic artist, who had designed it for my grandparents back in the ’60s. It held every rose and carnation ever brought to our home, and Grandfather painted it in Mama’s portrait.
By and by, our home becomes empty. Suitcases huddle in the corner. Dust bunnies gather along the walls and when the draft prods at them, they slowly float from place to place. Every day, Mama goes downtown to shop for gifts for people she will meet in America—Russian wooden crafts, tins, trays, enamel brooches, and shawls with bright flowers and mottled fringes, which Russians wear on cold winter days and Americans don’t, but might drape over cupboards holding some forsaken old country samovar they will have purchased at a yard sale in Brooklyn or, years later, on eBay from immigrants’ descendants. She brings souvenir playing cards with pictures of harlequins, theater binoculars that are mostly useless, but she can’t find, let alone afford, the military ones so valued in Rome. And a brown teddy bear, a mascot of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games. “These are collectibles,” she says emphatically. “You may get top dollar for them one day.” Then she brings home a spear gun, an accident in the making.
“Going fishing, Mama? There is no sea in Ann Arbor.”
“There are five lakes nearby—learn your geography. And the Mediterranean Sea in Italy. Okay? Fine. A saleswoman set it aside for me at Gostinniy Dvor, I couldn’t say no. Maybe we’ll sell it at a flea market and have some money to travel. Do you want to see Venice? Can you believe we will soon see the world?”
I don’t know why Mama puts off our departure and why she goes to the center of Leningrad every day.
“Look what I found, Alëna,” she says as she puts down a painted rooster and a horse on the table. “See here, this is the year of the Rooster and it’s our sign in the Chinese horoscope! You take this happy guy with flowers, and I’ll take that sad little horse.”
“Why are you sad, Mama?”
“Who said I am sad? I am just joking, Alën’. Why do you take everything for a silver coin?”
May arrives. I want to go to the May Day parade. Mama says no. The day after, there is a trail of ripped balloons, flags, and candy wrappers trampled in the mud, where the parade had passed.
“I don’t like May,” Mama says. “May is unlucky. We won’t travel in May.”
A subpoena arrives in the mail, a request to make a witness statement for some ongoing and unspecified investigation. No signature required. Sent by the OBKhSS, the state law-enforcement agency for combating economic crimes.
“What should I do?” Mama asks Yuri.
“Get on the next flight out of the country.”
“What should I be afraid of? I have never broken the law. No, I’ll go and answer their questions. This might be about Kosmétika, and maybe I’ll help exonerate someone.”
I remember coming home from school on the day she went there, to find three men scouring our nearly empty apartment, flipping over what’s left of our things—our bedsheets, pillows, our clothes, bedding, books, crafts, and suitcases. Mama stood in our tiny hallway, leaning against a door jamb, looking as if she were not present in the moment. Movers? But these men were not picking up but scattering. Burglars?
“Who are these people, Mama?”
“Go for a walk, Alëna.”
One of the men overheard her and said to his crew, “We are almost done here. Let’s go.”
Another man walks out of the bedroom, carrying a dusty bottle of rubbing alcohol and a couple of small manicure sets that I used to trim my Olympic teddy bear’s toes.
“Mama, are these men from your work?”
The men leave. She sits down, lights a cigarette, and stays silent.
“Mama! Mam’ . . . Mam! Mama!”
“They took our visas.”
The Mediterranean. Rome. Ann Arbor. Grandma. A cold feeling of collapse sets in. An ugly double extracts herself from my chest, turns toward me, and points her finger, cackling, “You thought you could dream of all that? A loser! You deserve nothing.”
Our empty kitchen shimmers, the walls pixelate and dissolve into white. Mama stays as still as an ancient sphinx, swaddled in a quivering smoke. Her lungs contract and expand, contract and expand, taking in the poison. I keep my eyes wide open, unblinking, fixed on her. She is safe while she stays in the frame of my view. In my eyes, she grows large, the curve of her nape and shoulders become the ridge of a mountain. Then she contracts—a child, whom I failed to protect. My child-Mama. I don’t yet know what is happening, except that disaster is coming. This feeling will never leave me. It will grow with the years and take over my happiest moments—our family holidays, the birth of my children.
“When will they give back our visas, Mama? Let’s go right away.”
“They’ve brought criminal charges against me. We can’t leave, Alëna.”
Yelena Lembersky’s first book, Felix Lembersky: Paintings and Drawings, was devoted to the art of a prominent Leningrad artist with roots in Poland and Ukraine; her grandfather is now best known for his Execution: Babi Yarcanvases and his non-figurative work created in the 1960s. Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour, a memoir, co-written with her mother, Galina, is her first work of creative non-fiction. Her short pieces have appeared in World Literature Today, The Forward, Cardinal Points Literary Journal, and The New Yorker. She grew up in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in 1987. She holds degrees in art and architecture from the University of Michigan and MIT.
Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.
We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”
The End of an Era. November
All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.
We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.
The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.
During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.
On the Fall of the Tyrants
This night I got up and came out of the trailer. A strange sound woke me: as if statues were falling again and again.
The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away. Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly, —dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,
peeling bronze skin, toppled by crowds after 74 years— little dry mummies . . .
Oh how they used to watch, watch from above! Only birds painted them with their bold blue, white, green strokes of shit
(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste on the perfect grass by the brook), tried to enliven with their warm dung dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,
colliding with merciless bronze. Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of, falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.
“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never return, let them pass all the traps of soil and ores, straight, straight to the core of the naught.
On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.
We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.
For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.
Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.
Maria Bloshteyn,A Motherland of Books
Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.
The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others.
These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage.
The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase. It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was.
The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps.
And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.
Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.
Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.
The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.
The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use. I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.
The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”
Nataliya Meshchaninova is Russian filmmaker. In 2017, she published a book of autobiographical short stories that resonated with her audience, in part, because they supported the Russian #metoo movement. In February 2022, Deep Vellum brought out Fiona Bell’s translation of Meshchaninova’s book under the title Stories of a Life. We are honored to share with you an excerpt from this book, a section from the fourth chapter, “Secrets.”
The book centers on Meshchaninova’s complex relationship with her mother and her mother’s lovers and includes troubling depictions of abuse. Punctured Lines asked Fiona Bell to tell us about her experiences translating this book, and she generously responded:
The breezy, tongue-in-cheek style that Meshchaninova uses to narrate the horrifying events of her childhood [was the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this translation project]. To translate someone else’s trauma is hard enough—adopting the survivor’s “I” when none of this had happened to me—but to do it in a joking tone was even more complicated. But this is the incredible appeal of Stories of a Life. Although we don’t associate trauma narratives and humor, Meshchaninova gives us both. She is somehow swaggering in her vulnerability.
Please enjoy the excerpt and buy this book to read the full, gripping story of one remarkable woman’s childhood.
by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell
My parents got divorced when I was five. That’s why I remember my father as a father only very hazily. I have a few memories. The first: I’m standing in the mudroom dressed in my winter clothes, ready to go outside, and I see my mom screaming hysterically, her arms raised, my two older sisters clinging to her like branches to a tree. My father’s standing in the doorway, saying something like, “Oh, come on, Katya!” That was a weird moment. The second: my father is sitting on the couch, munching on sunflower seeds, and I’m on the floor by his legs, waiting for him to split some open and stick a handful of shelled kernels into my mouth. The third: my father asks me to bring him his slippers, and I say, “No, no, a nightingale never sings for a pig, ask a crow instead!” The fourth: I watch in horror as my father covers the kitchen floor with plucked chicken carcasses. The whole kitchen—the entire floor: carcasses. Nowhere to stand. As soon as he turns his back, I start frantically throwing the carcasses out the window, hoping I could still save them.
There you have it, all my memories. I’m not even sure they’re real, they might just be imaginings based on my mom’s stories.
Anyway, when I turned five, they got divorced, and I wasn’t too upset because my mom, in celebration of her freedom, planned a nice trip to Taman and took me along. Sometimes I’d ask, “Mom, where’s Dad?”
“What do we need Dad for?” she’d say cheerfully, bobbing in the sea, “We’re having fun all by ourselves!”
I agreed—it wasn’t bad without him around—and I stopped asking.
My father started living with another family pretty quickly, and soon there was a new girl calling him “Dad” without a twinge of conscience. None of it made sense anymore, and I stopped thinking of him as my father. I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job, that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.
My father loved my older sisters, but me, not so much. Probably because they were already wise and grown-up. They visited him a lot, but whenever I went, I just got fed and then sent home. They always had the best chicken at his place.
After the divorce, we never had chicken at my house. Clearly, my father considered it his sacred duty to feed me once a week. Soon, his new wife got sick of these feedings, and I could tell, so I stopped coming over for chicken. That’s pretty much the whole story of our relationship, me and my father’s. I didn’t know him, never really had the chance.
My mom loved to sit me on her lap and ask, “Natashenka, what’s your relationship like with Vitka?” That’s what she called my father, short for Viktor. I’d say, “Well, what kind of relationship could I have with Vitka, since he got stingy with the chicken and gave me second-hand underwear for my birthday?”
“There,” my mom finally said, satisfied, “you see! He’s a pig! He’s always been a pig! Now, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone . . .”
Then she’d tell me some secret from their married life. My father had always been a horrible pig, he’d done some really awful things.
“Once,” my mother said tragically, “Vitka lost some money to Polikarpych in a game of dominoes. To pay the debt, he said, ‘Go to my place, Katerina will give you . . . well, she’ll sleep with you.’ So, Polikarpych came over, and I’m thinking, Whoa whoa whoa, what’s he doing here? And he starts coming on to me! Right in front of you guys. But you weren’t born yet. So, in front of Lena and Oksana. He started grabbing my breasts! I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? Vitka will kill you!’ But he said, ‘Vitka’s the one who sent me!’ Well, I grabbed you kids and locked us all in the bathroom. He tried to force his way in but gave up after a while and, out of spite, locked us in from the outside. So we spent an entire day locked in the bathroom, hungry, with only tap water to drink. Then Vitka got home, unlocked the door, and told me to laugh it off!”
Wide-eyed with horror, I looked at my mom and thought to myself, My father isn’t just a pig, he’s the ringleader of all the pigs in the world.
God, Mom, no one asked for your fucking secrets!
But I understand how important it was for you to tell these stories. You needed an ally in that war. My older sisters were a lost cause—they loved their father. But I hadn’t had the chance. That’s how I became the Louise to my mom’s Thelma. Even to this day. That’s how intense and enduring these secrets have been.
Although now I realize how hard that senseless marriage was on both of them.
Here’s the story: My father had a girlfriend he was head over heels in love with. She cheated on him, or planned to, so he lost his mind and decided to teach her a lesson by marrying another woman. That other woman was my mother. That’s it. When I asked my mom why she married him, she said, “Vitka was tall and handsome and, besides, I wasn’t getting any younger.”
The night before the wedding, my father’s girlfriend called him in tears and begged him not to get married, to forgive her. But, like I said, my father had lost his mind. That’s where stupidity gets you: married.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russian literature who is committed to sharing the voices of contemporary female and nonbinary Russian writers with anglophone audiences. Bell’s essays have appeared in Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida, but currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.
Punctured Lines is grateful to Ivan Sokolov for the opportunity to publish his letter and a collection of links. Author’s idiom is preserved.
I am thankful to everyone who has reached out to me—I am safe and away from Russia at the moment. Let this post be an update for my anglophone contacts who have expressed concern about Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, possible sources of following the events and the lives, as well as means of giving aid.
I feel compelled to mention, however, just to be fair, that if I find myself displaced and unhinged in every sense of the word, it is far less so than the hundreds of thousands of other Russians evacuating these days to neighbouring countries—and doing so, unlike myself, without visas, academic affiliations, language skills or any experience of living abroad. I did not think I’d live to see (and run into!) my own acquaintances, mostly young, crowded in airports by random gates—the sheer extent of the exodus is mind-blowing. The fate of those who remain in Russia may look bleak—and even if a massive campaign of arrests and repressions does not ensue, the economic deterioration will hit everyone hard. But if we find our plans, ways of life and peace of mind disrupted and displaced, it is unthinkably more literal and cruel for the livelihoods of our friends within Ukraine and those that have managed to escape the war crimes being committed there.
These days, the hearts of many go out to our friends in Ukraine, such as Galina Rymbu, the recent UDP author and her partner Yanis Sinaiko (also an excellent Russian-language poet, in the Celanian tradition), who are sheltering from air strikes in Lviv, the gem of Western Ukraine and itself a site of gruesome WWII history. Meanwhile, the thoughts of some will also be with friends on the other side of the front lines, such as Igor Bobyrev, a notorious personage but a sublime poet working in Russian, who is sheltering from air raids and military duty in Donetsk. I could list dozens more friends or simply authors whose work I follow, many writing in Ukrainian, some from the still younger generation, some as endowed with stardom as the recent Kharkiv-based Nobel-nominee Serhiy Zhadan, who are all living this crisis ever more viscerally than any of us could imagine—not all of them sheltering in fear, some (including my peers) taking to the front lines or signing up for Territorial Defence units. Not all are writers either: the most important russophone composer living in Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov, has, thank God, just evacuated from Kyiv to Berlin (here’s an interview, auf Deutsch; Facebook users can listen to a bagatelle he wrote literally the other day).
I am writing this letter on 16 March, on the 130-th birthday of the great César Vallejo, a one-time convict and years-long exile. I am thinking on the life of this native of Santiago de Chuco, who had to flee Peru only to end up broke and sick in Paris. 2022 also happens to be the centennial year of Vallejo’s great poem Trilce. I don’t speak Spanish but last year I had to translate bits from the original, via other languages, when I was working on a poem by Clayton Eshleman, the Vallejo translator in the US, for an essay of mine on Eshleman & Vallejo (available in English). The poem is a cento, a pastiche from Eshleman’s version of Vallejo’s Trilce. It is called «Planet Trilce», as Eshleman reports to have understood at some point that Vallejo «was assembling in a kind of jump-cut cubistic way a world that operated with much different laws than we think ours does. It seemed as if he was envisioning a new planet». As houses are being torn apart in Ukraine, as discourses shatter globally and literal «meridians» in motion overwrite the poetic ones, it is hard not to wonder what that globe of Vallejo’s mind would be like. Well, it is a rather sombre planet:
<…> On Trilce, there is more than enough sweetness for the whole shroud. <…> Dead exist who have never lived. No two days ever touch each other. <…> When that which cannot burn does burn, pain doubles up its peak in laughter. <…> All retreats are made across exploded bridges. <…> On Trilce, all are cadavers of a life that never was.
And yet, it is also a planet of hope, as claims the fortissimo finale:
On Trilce, there is still hope of finding, for the saltatory power, an eternal entrance.
Because I’ve been asked by some, I thought I’d dedicate this message not to the «saltatory power» of russophone culture in English per se, but, first, to spreading some word of the ongoing disaster (one where «that which cannot burn does burn») through less formal a channel than the media outlets you must each be following. This and other essays by the Odesa-born US poet Ilya Kaminsky might already be on your radar. In such a case, please check out this piece by the Russian-American poet & translator Tatiana Retivov recounting her flight from the strikes raining on Kyiv. There’s also a riveting series of daily dispatches from photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets—straight from Kyiv (available in different languages, scroll for other translations). A selection of diary entries by others is available here; it includes a bit from the striking diary by Kyivan poet and translator Olga Bragina (available elsewhere in Swedish, Italian & Slovak). Here’s another, large set of such accounts written by young people, including some by Lviv-based russo&ukrainophone poet Danyil Zadorozhnyi, 2019 winner of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Young Poetry Award (in Russia), and his Minsk-born partner Yulia Charnyshova, a noteworthy long-lister of the same award from last year—both in their early twenties, now working as volunteers in Lviv. There’s also a short essay on and translations from the native of Donetsk, bilingual poet Iya Kiva who’s just fled from Kyiv (read more at this link).
Feel free to follow the writers above on Facebook: you can access many of their day-to-day posts in automatic translation, whatever the original language.
For a more official English-language coverage of the events from the russophone (and antiwar) angle, please follow Meduza.
Second, I thought I’d use this opportunity for sharing ways of giving aid to those who need it most now—for the «retreats across exploded bridges». I am far from the illusion that my writer friends have much monetary capital they could spare but I’m hoping that if you were to share these links further, perhaps someone who has the ability to donate will do so and make a difference. All of the links come from trusted friends.
I’d like to close here with two more poems that some of you may have seen but they are worth revisiting. One is the recent translation by John High and Matvei Yankelevich of the great 1937 requiem by Osip Mandel’shtam, «Verses on the Unknown Soldier»—one of those gripping poems from Russian modernism that so many of my friends and I felt to be beautiful and true but never in our nightmares did we have any inkling they might be this urgently relevant to the present day.
Another will be a poem by Aleksandr Skidan that deals with some «exploded bridges» of our own. Published on 1 March and translated within hours by Kevin Platt, it is a work of art that both documents the poisoned desperation of inhabiting, powerlessly, the aggressor country, and essentially sums up the entire thirty-year period of post-Soviet St Petersburg culture—a Weimar that has come to an end:
too late to scroll through news on facebook too late to write about personal and collective guilt
too late to read hannah arendt and carl schmitt in love with the schwarzwald too late to be provost of the state of emergency
too late to stand on the troitsky bridge and gaze at the loveliest city in the world too late to gaze at the ice of the loveliest river in the world
too late to go out on the ice of the loveliest river in the world and write fuck war on it too late to raise to disengage bridges
too late to cry over bridges too late to build bridges too late to say too late to loved ones too late to hug them
too late to rename the troitsky bridge as the trotsky bridge too late to say neither peace nor war
too late to say my grandma was born in poltava in 1909 too late to say her name was trepke von trepke
too late to say we are pissing our pants
too late to remember valery podoroga in 2001 after getting the bely prize in that café on liteiny and him saying who have we elected not only elected but with these very hands helped gleb pavlovsky and his media outlet
too late to say blockade patriotic war lydia ginzburg
too late to say i warned you in 2003 caution religion caution
too late to say genocide wwi turn the bayonets against imperialism as bakunin kropotkin taught and bruno shulz dreaming of maggots when he walked vinnytsia’s streets to drink with arkadii
too late to say dehumanization
it remains to be said
reread antigone return our dead
i want to lament them
this precedes the polis precedes its violence and the law the law as violence this is sister this is brother becoming a bottomless grave and a promise of love
and maybe it’s still not too late to stop the mobile crematoria
to bury our children
Let it be not too late for at least some other shard of life in this new world—for a hope «of finding… an eternal entrance», as says Vallejo/Eshleman.
P.S.: Update (5 April)
I’m sure some of you will have read the essay by one of Russia’s leading poets, Maria Stepanova, that was recently featured in the Financial Times. She is one of the few still to be able to tap into an essayist’s reservoir of figurative language and to investigate the ruins of ethics, the ruins of sociality—the very same that are depicted in Skidan’s “Too Late.”
To complement that panorama of the planet in ruins (“the whole shroud,” per Vallejo/Eshleman), I would like to add a few links to the digest above—these have become available in the days since I wrote the letter. Russia’s atrocities in Bucha and other towns render many speechless, but I want to keep sharing testimonies and leads for giving aid.
Masha Gessen’s podcast on the Russian exodus to CIS countries that I referred to has been reworked (and enriched) into an essay in The New Yorker.
Ostap Slyvynsky, a truly exceptional lyric poet from Lviv, has begun writing a serial work of docupoetry, “War’s Vocabulary,” registering the minute though visceral shifts in word usage that the war is imposing on people and their personal stories. Its first section is now available auf Deutsch.
Ilya Kaminsky has put out an essay in The Paris Review with a panorama overview of Odesa writers sharing testimonies of war-haunted existence.
The only poem here that I am going to share in my own English translation is one by Zakharkiv’s partner and an outstanding voice of Russian opposition—Dmitry Gerchikov. Addressing in many ways the same readers that were captured in Skidan’s “Too Late,” Gerchikov offers an explosive combination of self-irony and despair, where it is only rhyme and repetition that can make the new reality ever so bearable. The poem opens with an artistic reappraisal of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous question concerning poetry after Auschwitz; in the work’s grating gyres one can almost hear the philosopher’s own, less well known reply: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”:
It would be hard to overstate my love of both figure skating and detective fiction, which admittedly isn’t something one normally thinks of together. It is therefore beyond thrilling to feature this personal essay by Alina Adams, who has written a series of five figure skating murder mysteries (yes, really, and I plan to order every one of them). A prolific writer with several fiction and non-fiction titles, Alina’s most recent novel is The Nesting Dolls, which you can read about in the poignant and humor-filled conversation between her and Maria Kuznetsova that Olga recently organized on this blog. I loved reading the story Alina tells below about working as a Russian-speaking figure skating researcher (she must have had a hand in many of the broadcasts that I avidly watched), and I confess to losing, in the best possible way, some of my time to being nostalgically taken back to 1990s figure skating coverage through the two videos in the piece, one of which features Alina translating (for Irina Slutskaya! You all know who she is, right?! Right?!). Let yourself be transported to that marvelous skating era, get ready for all the figure skating at the Olympics next month . . . and watch out, there’s a murderer, or five, on the loose.
You Never Know When Speaking Russian Might Come in Handy…: An Essay by Alina Adams
I immigrated to the United States from Odessa, (then-) USSR in 1977. I was seven years old. I spoke no English, only Russian.
I was the sole Russian-speaker in my second grade class at Jewish Day School. When the other kids spoke to me in English, I responded in Russian. When the teacher gave us a writing assignment, I wrote it in Russian.
I was never, ever going to learn English!
And then I fell in love.
Television was where the happy children were. The ones who lived in a house with a big staircase to slide down, not an apartment where all the furniture looked exactly like the furniture of every other Russian-speaking family newly arrived in San Francisco (we assume Jewish Federation got a great deal on all the identical chairs, tables, and bedspreads). The ones who ate hamburgers instead of kotlety. The ones who drank bright red, cherry-flavored medicine with cartoon characters on the label when they had a cold instead of laying down to get banki applied to their backs, dry mustard applied to their front, and their feet dunked into boiling water.
I wanted to be like the happy children on television. So I learned English.
My parents still spoke to me in Russian. But what language I might deign to reply in was anybody’s guess.
My love for the happy children who lived inside the television extended to wanting to join them. Not as an actor. I knew I was too funny-looking for that. But I could be the person who wrote the words that the people inside the televisions said. That’s where the real power was.
And those words would be in English!
Who needed Russian?
Cut to: Me. Freshly out of college with a degree in Broadcast Communication Arts. And looking for a job.
Flashback: I have a younger brother. He was born in the United States. He was a competitive figure skater (1996 U.S. Open Novice Ice Dance Champion). My immigrant parents had better things to do — like, you know, earning a living — than drive him to daily practice or chaperone him at competitions. So that became my job.
I learned more about figure skating than I ever thought there was to know.
Which is why, when it came time to apply for a job as a researcher and writer with ABC Sports’ ice skating department, I knew quite a bit.
But, guess what — so did a lot of other people (many of them former skaters themselves).
Except those other people didn’t speak Russian.
And I did.
Suddenly, the language that once kept me from the happy people in the television was the one bringing me into it.
Thus began my years of traveling around the globe, from World Championships to international qualifiers to the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
And back to the former USSR.
By the time I returned with an ABC crew to shoot profile features on the country’s top athletes, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was Russia now. And Ukraine. And Belarus. And Armenia and three different Baltics and . . . (A fun game in the media truck was placing bets on which formerly Soviet skaters would declare themselves which ethnicity in order to ensure a place on the competitive team. For instance, the Ukrainian named Evgeni Plushenko and the Georgian-sounding Anton Sikharulidze competed for Russia, while the Russian-sounding Igor Pashkevitch represented Azerbaijan, as did Inga Rodionova. We’re not even counting Marina Anissina declaring herself French or Aljona Savchenko becoming German.)
My job as a skating researcher included interviewing the skaters and their coaches to get all those fun tidbits the announcers share on the air: “She began skating at the age of three because her grandmother called her a typhoon and needed to stop her from bouncing around their communal apartment!” or “He is the first athlete from Estonia to win a bronze medal at the European Championships since…” (What? You thought Dick Button and Peggy Fleming generated those fun factoids all on their own?)
It also included visiting the skaters in their homes, interviewing them in Russian on camera, translating their replies and, once in a while, even dubbing their answers into Russian-accented English for the television profile. (You can listen to me doing two versions of the same accent, here. I am playing both Irina Slutskaya and her mother. If you scroll through to the end, you can see me translating her championship interview live on the air, too. On a different note, about six minutes into this video is a profile of Misha Shmerkin, a former fellow Odessa resident now representing Israel. Though you can’t hear me in the piece, I’m the one who asked him all the questions that he is answering on camera.)
The experience was disquieting, to say the least. Not because I was forcing my brain to operate 24/7 in a language I had deliberately pushed to the back of my conscience for almost two decades (and had no one to check my stupidity if I screwed up; the English-speaking production staff assumed everything I told them was accurate). It was because, in returning to the former USSR and going from home to home, interviewing people my age and my parents’ age, I was being confronted with the life I might have lived.
Not as a competitive athlete. I didn’t have the talent or the drive for that. But as an ex-Soviet citizen, navigating a country that had collapsed around me, desperately trying to figure out what the new rules were while clinging to the old ones because they were the only ones I understood. I entered communal apartment after communal apartment. I ate the food they put out for us, understanding in a way my colleagues did not how hard it had been to get. I nodded as a skater’s mother whispered to me, “Don’t tell them my husband is Jewish,” and barely flinched when, while shooting inside a hospital for a piece on an injured skater, random cats wandered in and out of the wards.
I was getting a glimpse of the life I might have led if my parents hadn’t made the decision to emigrate in the 1970s, when no one had a clue that the empire had less than twenty years of life left in it, or that return visits would become commonplace. When my parents took the chance to leave, it was like jumping off the edge of the world into an abyss. Nobody knew what the West had to offer or how they might survive there. And everybody understood that there would be no going back. It might as well have been a one-way mission to Mars.
My trips to the former USSR were an ongoing exercise in, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
But I remembered what I’d seen there, and when, in 2002, following the (latest) Olympic judging scandal an editor at Berkley Prime Crime asked me to write a series of figure skating murder mysteries, I jumped at the chance.
The chance to not only reveal all the behind-the-scenes gossip I couldn’t publish using skaters’ real names, but also to include the observations I’d made about life in the former USSR through the unique lens of elite athletes who’d survived the Soviet days and were now trying to make sense of the present. I could write about those who triumphed and those who slipped through the cracks. I could write about what was, and about who I might have been.
There are five books in the Figure Skating Mystery series. The third installment, Axel of Evil, takes place in Moscow and incorporates everything I saw, everything I heard, and everything I suspected when I worked there.
The first one, Murder on Ice, was based on the aformentioned 2002 Olympic judging scandal, where the Pairs judge was accused of favoring the Russian team over the Canadian one. In Murder on Ice, a judge is accused of giving the Ladies’ gold to Russia’s dour ice queen over America’s perky ice princess. And then the judge ends up dead (that didn’t happen in 2002). Who will investigate the crime? Why, none other than the trusty skating researcher! (Clearly, I subscribe to the policy of: Write What You Know.)
In Murder on Ice, I take all of the clichés that Americans have about Russians and (hopefully) turn them on their heads. In Axel of Evil, I continue that objective, but I do it by putting the American researcher, my heroine, Bex Levy, out of her element and onto Russian soil. Here, people are making as many assumptions about her as she is making about them. Clichés work both ways. In retrospect, I guess I was working out issues of being a Soviet-born American — whose life would have been very different had my family stayed in the USSR — by writing from the point of view of an American digging into the lives of those who left, as well as of those who stayed. I get to be both an insider and an outsider. I get to be the native and the other. I get to play the role of someone born in the US, and someone who grew up in the USSR. Because, in real life, I’ll always be somebody who is stuck in-between.
And I get to prove what my parents said all along. You never know when speaking Russian might come in handy . . . .
Alina Adams was born in Odessa, USSR and moved to the United States with her family in 1977. She has worked as a figure skating researcher, writer, and producer for ABC Sports, ESPN, NBC, and TNT. She is the author of Inside Figure Skating, Sarah Hughes: Skating To the Stars, and the figure skating mystery series consisting of Murder on Ice, On Thin Ice, Axel of Evil, Death Drop, and Skate Crime. Her historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls, traces three generations of a Soviet-Jewish family from Odessa to Brooklyn. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com