A Forum of Reflections on Audre Lorde’s Notes from a Trip to Russia

Audre Lorde’s name and work is familiar to many of us who have studied feminist movements in high school and college. Some of her seminal essays, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” are commonly included in syllabuses of literature classes and used as entry points into the conversation about the politics of literature and how combinations of race, gender, and sexuality affect one’s construction of self and point of view on the world.

Less well known is Lorde’s essay “Notes from a Trip to Russia” that opens her book Sister Outsider. A footnote to this essay explains that Lorde spent two weeks in the Soviet Union in 1976 as an American observer to the African-Asian Writers Conference sponsored by the Union of Soviet Writers. Having returned from that trip, she finds herself haunted by it in her dreams, including a particular image of “making love to a woman behind a stack of clothing in Gumm’s Department Store in Moscow.” In Lorde’s dream, the woman falls ill and Lorde needs to seek medical help for her, and is floored by the realization that in Soviet Russia, medical treatment is free and available to all.

I read this essay just a few years ago and at first struggled with how to react to it. To me, everything starting from that opening image seemed both familiar and bizarre. It took me a moment, for instance, to recognize that Lorde is talking about GUM–an acronym for Gosudarstvennuiy Universalniy Magazin, a State Department Store–which in her version acquires an almost poetic personal quality, related to somebody named Gumm. I was born in 1979, three years after Lorde took this trip, and I had a personal mythology of GUM. As a child growing up in Leningrad, I had read about it in books and newspapers–as far as State Department Stores went, this one was well written about. I imagined it as a toy palace–I had an idea that that’s where most of the world’s toys were hidden from us kids. The keepers of the toys were, in my mind, not unlike the angry guards at the museums of the world or the tired, worn-out women working behind the counters of Leningrad’s stores: their job was to keep desirable items away from unworthy hands. To imagine a Soviet prodavshchitsa take part in a sex dream seemed unthinkable.

But then, I thought, why not? This is what it’s like to see the world I grew up in from a stranger’s eyes–it’s an opportunity to examine my premises. There must’ve been lesbians in the Soviet Union, even if I didn’t know anything about that until I was seventeen and living in the United States. So, my first approach to Lorde’s book took me into a completely unexpected direction: it sent me rethinking my relationships to all the women I had known growing up, imagining them as heroines of sexually charged international lesbian love stories. (I even started plotting a novel along these lines, thank you very much, Audre.)

During her trip to the Soviet Union, Lorde visited Moscow and from there traveled to Uzbekistan, the location of the Conference–she went to two towns there, Tashkent and Samarkand. The essay is very much a travelogue, the best of the genre, in which the writer is keenly aware of being a stranger to the places she’s moving through and as she’s documenting her experiences, she’s writing about her own thoughts and feelings and provides a window into her assumptions and biases. Reading the piece all of these years later, it feels like a gift of a guide into the study of Russian and Soviet literature and the field’s lingering struggle to include people of color and women into the conversation.

This essay champions the kind of work that we hope to do with Punctured Lines: bringing together unexpected voices and stories from and about the (post) Soviet space. Unfortunately, for rights reasons, we are unable to reprint the essay online, so to encourage a cross-cultural dialogue, we asked our Twitter followers to submit personal responses to this essay. We also reached out to a few scholars and writers who we expected might have unique insights into the issues that Lorde addresses. Below are responses we received from Emily Couch, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Elena Gapova, and Maggie Levantovskaya. If you want to join this conversation, please comment below or reach out to puncturedlines [at] gmail.com.

We have been planning this post for several months, and are finishing it under conditions of quarantine. As I’m writing this, the world is struggling with the mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases and many of us have had to severely curb our activities–so the very nature of a travelogue feels radical at the moment. Universal medical care that, in Lorde’s notes of her trip to the Soviet Union, appeared too good to be true, today remains our most urgent need. Yet, as Levantovskaya mentions in her piece, the Soviet Union is a poor guide for a functional medical system–the conditions of care there were often inhumane and bribes were exchanged as a matter of course. We also want to acknowledge and honor the invisible, unpaid and low-paid women’s labor that goes into allowing each family and each hospital and each business and each state to keep going. We urgently need to change this situation so that the burden of this invisible labor does not disproportionately fall to women.

(Continued)

Inheritance, an essay by Mariya Deykute from The Seventh Wave

The Great Patriotic War is now nearly eighty years old, and yet it still resonates in the lives of the grandchildren of the surviving generation. This essay by Mariya Deykute attests to its power over our imaginations. Some of us continue to make decisions with that war in mind. I particularly admire how Deykute both personalizes the war and portrays her family’s lived experience of the war, touching on her grandmother’s and her mother’s stories. This war is both the environment in which people have lived and a character of our nightmares.

With gratitude to Olga Livshin for sharing this piece. Please click through to read the essay in full.

The Great Patriotic War came to visit me again today. I was throwing out wild raspberries. A week ago I had scrambled up the treacherous rocks of Narbona Pass to fetch a cupful. “Eat them,” my husband said. “Later,” I replied. The cup sat in the car on the trip back, full of small red not-spheres. They sat in the fridge for a week. “Should I toss them?” my husband asked. “No, I’ll make something with them,” I said. But today I found that white mold had claimed them, fuzzy rotting snowflakes…..

http://theseventhwave.co/inheritance-mariya-deykute/

Central Asian feminists are carving out their space in gender studies, by Aizada Arystanbek

Part of Open Democracy’s “new series on activism, academia and equality in Central Asia,” this piece is by Aizada Arystanbek, “a Central Asian graduate student of gender studies in Europe” (links to the other pieces in the series are included). As she writes, “along with the thrill of being able to study what I am passionate about comes a certain violence of erasure, as I am left constantly searching for my identity in feminist academia.

As I think about Russia’s colonisation of Central Asia and the process of Russification my mother had to undergo in her school in Tselinograd (the former name of the current capital of Kazakhstan), I feel deeply for Latina, black and indigenous women who write about their ancestors being colonised, their land being stolen, and them being perceived as backward simply because they lacked culture in the western conception of the word.

But I am always caught in between these various identities and almost never am I seen for my own very distinguishable one, a Central Asian woman. I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself, learning little-by-little from other feminist scholars of colour, hoping that I understand their experiences correctly and that their words will represent my struggle accurately when I use them in my essays.”

Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union and now comprising independent nations, is not particularly well known in the West. In the U.S., academic study of the region has traditionally come out of Slavic departments, where it has only recently begun to garner more attention, although not necessarily about issues of gender and feminism. This series looks to be an important and much-needed step in this direction.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/central-asian-feminists-are-carving-out-their-space-gender-studies/

Emily Couch on The Ethnic Avant-Garde and Diversity in Russia Studies

By Emily Couch

In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past. 

WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?

Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a  “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.”  The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”

Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism.  Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.

REVIEW OF THE BOOK 

The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience.  Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”

This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings.  The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency.  The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality.  While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.

WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?

Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language.  Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands.  For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work.  Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.  

Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism.  Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period.  However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL 

The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States.  He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.

Emily Couch is a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). She has just returned from a year living in Russia where, in addition to her degree, she interned with the independent Russian pollster, The Levada Center.  Earlier this year, she defended her thesis entitled The Inter-regional Diffusion of Russian Protest Repertoires in a Trans-National Context, 2008 – Present.  Her articles have been published by news outlets including The Moscow Times and The Calvert Journal.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

Looking Back on Our First Event: Participatory Reading in Post-Soviet Literatures, in Pictures

On November 25th, Punctured Lines hosted our first literary event in San Francisco. Thanks to a conference that brought to San Francisco scholars, translators, and writers in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, we were able to gather a star list of participants. A few of the readers have appeared in Punctured Lines, and we certainly hope to feature more of their work. Following the scheduled portion of the event, we hosted an open mic that turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser. Below are the pictures we captured that night and brief descriptions of everyone’s contributions.

Shelley Fairthweather-Vega opened with an excerpt from her recently published translation of Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life at Noonavailable for purchase here. A story about a musician growing up in Soviet Kazakhastan and learning his art form from his father.

Yelena Furman read the opening from her short story “Naming,” recently published in Narrative Magazine, and available in full online (free, with free registration required).

Wayne Goodman read a few brief excerpts from his historical novel Borimir: Serving the Tsars that re-imagines gay romance in Imperial Russia. There’s lots of awkward flirting! This book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Maggie Levantovskaya read from her essay about a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp “To Conjure Up the Dead,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. The bizarreness of Holocaust tourism with the post-Soviet twist. An excerpt from this essay appears online.

Dmitri Manin wore the T-shirt with Genrikh Sapgir’s poem on the back, and read to us his translations from Sapgir’s “Poems on Shirts” book. We have published three of these translations in an earlier post.

Masha Rumer shared an essay about exposing an unsuspecting date to the delights of pickled herring-and-boiled beet salad, aka “Seledka pod shuboj.” He lived long enough to propose. We’re hoping to read the follow up on this story in her upcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting. More about Masha and her book in the Q&A she gave Punctured Lines.

Sasha Vasilyuk followed with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress about a Soviet prisoner of war. We will be following the development of this project closely.

Mary Jane White delighted us with her translations from Marina Tsvetaeva — her delivery of the “Ode to the Rich” landed particularly well with our audience. Mary Jane’s book of her own poetry and translations from Tsvetaeva Starry Sky to Starry Sky is available online. We will be following up with news of her upcoming book of translations from Tsvetaeva’s Berlin and Prague years, Poems of an Emigrant: After Russia, Poem of the Hill, Poem of the End, and New Year’s.

I read the opening of “Rubicon,” a short story from my collection Like Water and Other Stories.

Josie von Zitzewitz followed up on the thread of discussion about the lack of visibility of contemporary Russian literature in the United States, and introduced a project that she’s developing with Marian Schwartz and Hilah Cohen, soliciting work from young Russophone writers to create a feature publication in an American magazine (possibly more than one).

Joining us for the open mic portion of the show, we had Maxim Matusevich, a writer and a historian of USSR intersections with African countries. He delivered an excerpt from his hilarious short story about cultural encounters between American students going to study abroad in St. Petersburg.

Christopher Fort closed the evening with a poem that he read in both Uzbek and English, bringing our attention to a particular rhyming pattern of Turkic languages. We have previously linked to Christopher’s interview about translating Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon novel Night and Day. This novel is now available for purchase online.



An encounter with Svetlana Alexievich through the eyes of her Spanish translator: an essay in World Literature Today

Jorge Ferrer and his English translator Jacqueline Loss, writing for World Literature Today, offer us an interesting glimpse of Svetlana Alexievich’s reception in Spain. Ferrer was born in Havana and now lives in Barcelona and translates Russian-language writers, including Svetlana Alexievich, into Spanish. I love knowing that a character from Secondhand Time has a life of her own on the stage of a Barcelona theatre.

I’m just going to simplify the problem for us to understand: (1) A Belarusian writer who operates by means of a method usually called “novel of voices” includes in a book a woman’s testimony; (2) An actress reads that testimony in Spanish translation, falls in love with the witness, takes that text to the theater, and constructs, in a parallel manner, a life in the real and digital worlds; (3) The actress asks the translator of the original text into the language in which she represents the character to write a new monologue for the witness, that is, to take her out of the realm of reality and transport her into fiction—from being a person, to turn her into a character and, instead of translating the life transcribed for her, write a future life for her.

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2019/autumn/date-svetlana-alexievich-berlin-or-smuggling-bugs-soviet-moscow-jorge-ferrer

Beyond the encounter with Alexievich herself, Ferrer takes us on several delightful tangents in this essay. This piece feels particularly appropriate this week, when we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.

Lara Vapnyar’s Essay: On Being a Cool Parent

*Post updated to include a second excerpt from Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero.

In a Facebook post, Lara Vapnyar mentioned that she adapted this touching, lyrical essay into a chapter in her new book, Divide Me by Zero. Read the piece and use Powells.com to order the novel.

Shortly after my mother died, the kids and I established the routine of taking long beach walks about an hour before sundown. We lived on Staten Island then, the long beautiful stretch of Great Kills beach was only seven minutes away by car. My husband and I had separated just a few months before my mother’s death, and all three of us were still reeling from these two blows. David was almost 18 then, Stephanie had just turned 15; I would look at our shadows and see that they were about the same lengths. We looked like three orphaned siblings rather than a mother and her kids.

https://www.powells.com/post/original-essays/on-being-a-cool-parent

An excerpt from a different chapter of Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero appears in Lit Hub:

One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar. I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents. I never thought of it as extravagant or a romantic delicacy. My mother would offer me some before important tests in school, because it was chock-full of phosphorus that supposedly stimulated brain cells. I remember eating caviar before school, at seven am, still in my pajamas, shivering from the morning cold, seated in the untidy kitchen of our Moscow apartment, yawning and dangling my legs, bumping my knees against the boards of our folding table, holding that piece of bread spread with a thin layer of butter and thinner layer of caviar.

https://lithub.com/divide-me-by-zero/

On a personal note, this observation about caviar did hold up in my family, in part. When my grandmother was dying, my mother fed her caviar sandwiches. (Before the tests, though, I got a chocolate bar.) I’ve never seen this detail about caviar captured in prose before–it resonates so deeply.

Olga Zilberbourg: To Understand Russia’s Complexities, Turn to Its Contemporary Literature

“A FRIEND’S TEN-YEAR-OLD SON son recently came up to me at a party to ask, ‘You’re from Russia, right?’ Sensing caution in my assent, the boy hesitated before asking the next question, clearly trying to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t cause offense but would express his curiosity. He finally came up with, ‘It’s a very violent place, isn’t it?'”

http://epiphanyzine.com/features/understand-russias-complexities?fbclid=IwAR35rzgR1U6dFXsYJM6ueL6nid8S9R6BR0Qr44elOeHnU2HwPtyzVpxJ0RY

Matter | A (somewhat) monthly journal of political poetry and commentary

Guest-edited by Larissa Shmailo and Philip Nikolaev, Issue 26 is dedicated to political poetry and prose in translation from Russian and written originally in English by writers with Russian affiliations.

In the spirit of 2019, at least two poets (Anna Halberstadt and Katia Kapovich) write about Stalin: “O motherland. O motherfuckerland,” sighs-screams Kapovich.

Olga Livshin and Polina Barskova (translated by Philip Nikolaev) are in conversation with Akhmatova.

Katherine E. Young translates Inna Kabysh:

O, Moscow, Tatar sack of gold:
obedient and cunning,
boyar’s beard, son-of-a-bitch,
matchmaker, drunk in the morning

More treasures here: