Young’s latest project is the translation of Look at Him by Anna Starobinets (Slavica, forthcoming 2020), an open, unflinching account of her abortion that was controversial when it came out in Russia. As Young says, “Women don’t talk about these things, even with their partners, so to write a book in which you expose the most intimate details of your body and the choices you made medically is a violation of a lot of subtle taboos about women who are supposed to grin and bear their trials and tribulations.”
Young also talks about being a poet and how much Russian poetry has shaped her own: “I feel very much more informed by Russian poets than most American poets. I’ve read Walt Whitman, but I don’t identify with him the same way I might say Alexander Pushkin or Mikhail Lermontov or Anna Akhmatova.”
This week AWP, or Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is holding its annual conference in San Antonio, TX. Many of the attendees, however, have opted to stay home due to the increased risk of the corona virus outbreak. An important component of this conference is a massive book fair, at which hundreds of independent presses and literary journals sell their stock. To compensate for the losses of this already financially strained community, people are organizing several initiatives.
First of all, there’s #AWPVirtualBookfair Twitter hashtag, under which you will find links to lots of publishers who are offering significant discounts of their stock. Trevor Ketner started the #AWPVirtualBookfair Google Doc, where you can find a comprehensive list of participating publishers, and Natalie Eilbert creating the AWP Virtual Bookfair for Authors Doc. Justin Greene created a handy list of publishers on Entropy, that includes the discount codes. Point being: the best way to support literary arts and independent publishing is to buy our books.
One of my plans for this conference was to co-host a happy hour for writers and translators working on material related to the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, both my co-host Olga Livshin and I decided to cancel, as did most of the people we hoped would take part. I envisioned that this happy hour would help us, in part, to build a sense of community and help us brainstorm ways in which we can support each other’s work. So, in that spirit, here is an image gallery followed by a list of these titles with links, where you can buy the books.
You wrote a book in which you both translated Akhmatova’s and Gandelsman’s work and wrote original poems that are, directly or indirectly, in dialogue with them. Describe, briefly, your writing process.
I like the idea of going beyond the one voice–the idea of poetry as a play, and of a book as a porous object, absorbing other energies. There are three characters here: I translated two modernist Russian poets, and then I wrote responses to their work, some of which are imitations. Poets & Traitors Press has this format that fit what I was doing really well. They publish poems based on translations, poems that speak to these translations. So rather than publish a typical poetry collection, which, if you think about it, is this continuous solo for something like 50 or 80 pages, these Poets & Traitors books are a bit like jazz. They’re inclusive. They invent and improvise. Their dynamics are pluralistic and lively.
What were the differences in how you approached writing vs. translating poetry?
It’s pretty seamless. When I translate, it’s a bit like giving a voice, and it’s also implicit dialogue, of course, since translation is interpretation–it’s full of choices. And when I write back, or talk back, the dialogue goes further. All of this, though, is part of the same kind of play: where the characters depend on one another and echo each other.
What about translating/“talking to” Akhmatova?
Yeah, “talking to,” for sure! Akhmatova is an author that a lot of mothers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s quoted to their daughters–my mom quoted her to me. And I think a lot of people thought–still think–of her as a symbol of stoicism and of grieving wisdom, a model for how to live with dignity and defend fellow others under repressive regimes. In our family, she was like this Lilith, great mother, forever strong and even raging. It was rather difficult: you know, she was someone you could quote, but never be, right? Then I went to grad school to get my PhD in Slavic Studies, and I learned that some prominent literary scholars had showed that she was no angel, she was a full human with flaws, and–they wished to show–that she was rather a monster. I think both of these extremes are kind of silly. In my book I don’t so much aim to dethrone as to discover. There’s a different Akhmatova than the one people know: brazen and humorous behind all that mighty moral raging. She’s a perpetual child, even in her later work, trusting love for love’s sake, no matter what life did to her. “To me, in poetry, everything should be out of line,” she writes, “Not how these things are done. / I wish you knew what garbage sprouts poems….” I want to know about this bold, hidden girl, and I want people to know her.
How about translating/“talking to” Gandelsman?
He is closer to me and thus less hidden. Vladimir Gandelsman was born in 1948 and came of age in Leningrad before it turned into St. Petersburg and before he left for the United States, where he lives now. He’s an immigrant like me, and he has similar instances of alienation. So when it comes to his work, I’m basically a devotee. I aim to push this writer forward and amplify his voice. Gandelsman’s work has such a unique way of balancing human emotions such as irritation and anxiety with this amazing appreciation of small joyful moments, which are just sublime in his work. Gandelsman, to my eye, transcends what so many poets and writers in Russia had: this hatred of byt, the everyday. There was a bunch of visionary philosophers a hundred years ago, they all wished to go beyond our biological and biographical limitations. Beyond the body, beyond the home. On the other hand, Gandelsman is the supreme discoverer of light in the dust of the domestic. And in nature, which he paints in some beautifully minimalist ways. And in one’s own family, even in some difficult moments. He is a very generous poet. Where I write in parallel are poems of small joy: he has a small bird in the sky, I have little mushrooms; he has a hallowed moment of immigrant recognition of oneself in an American-grown boy, I have recognition of a Syrian immigrant’s stories in our own tales of self. I want to help this voice be in the world and take on new forms, in English, and in my little sprouts off it.
Other than Gandelsman, what is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature in general?
I enjoy some voices. Maria Stepanova. Vassia Borodin. Polina Barskova, in the US. And then in Ukraine, so much great and heartbreaking poetry in Russian is coming out from people writing about the war. Boris Khersonsky and Lyudmyla Khersonska. I really like Anastasia Afanasieva’s work. Iya Kiva’s poetry. There is an incredible urgency to these voices, and they’re profoundly intertextual, in dialogue with other language about war and violence, going all the way back to the Bible and all the way forward to how Russian and Ukrainian TV talks about war.
In addition to the two in your book, who are some of the writers that inspire you?
There is a flowering of immigrant and first-generation American poetry now. So many rich voices. From the better known, such as Chen Chen and Ocean Vuong, to those that should be better known. Ahmad Almallah’s recent book Bitter English addresses issues of writing in English as an immigrant. Jenna Le has gorgeous poems that capture the intersection of girlhood and growing up Vietnamese-American in Minnesota. Ananda Lima has made fine, strange, surrealist prose as well as poetry that looks at issues of home and motherhood in the context of being an immigrant. I love how these poets echo certain ruins of their cultural past with not-quite utopias of their American present.
Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?
Ha! I have carried so much shame about these for so many years. It’s kind of gone, but of course you can’t quite get rid of it. But that’s what writing is for–finding a voice that is more complicated than these stereotypes and insisting on maintaining that voice. Both in your writing and also, once you find it, the beautiful thing is, you can take it wherever you find it relevant.
As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?
I like Boris Fishman’s prose. Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is one of my favorite Russian American poets. A fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jew, she just published a fiery poetry collection called The Many Names for Mother. It’s such a bittersweet exploration of motherhood and the infinite in the context of her origins, both feminine and Soviet/ Ukrainian/Jewish. It’s so, so good.
How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?
So I got pretty lucky: I grew up with a mother who has a strong personality and who worked at this beautiful glorious music school in Moscow, where we lived from when I was 7 to when I was 14 and we moved to the US. To me, she channeled powerful feminist thought, although that’s not language she used. Yes, we dressed up, but it was to strut our stuff and have fun, not in order to please a man. I also grew up in a family where everyone had worked: both grandmas, my mom, all her female ancestors were peasants. So there was a version of Soviet and Russian homespun feminism that may be problematic and all, it wasn’t perfect, the guys didn’t necessarily help out, but at least there’s that gender modeling of strong women. There is this concept of the matriarchy, and also of women working for generations.
I find it more irksome to navigate some situations with expectations for women from white Anglo-American upper middle class and upper class backgrounds. There’s an awful lot of stuff that I have trouble relating to, not only helicopter parenting or beautiful thin appearances in beautiful thin yoga pants, but also stay-at-home motherhood. That stuff is hard! It’s really a terrible thing when you know people who live according to those expectations–fraught with depression and with not being recognized as a human being. And when I was a stay-at-home–uh, poet–in our rather affluent suburb, I didn’t wear that identity, but the expectations were quite definite. But I think that the Russian strong woman, not unlike one that Akhmatova wanted people to think she was, wanted people to believe she could be, it’s an ideal and all, but it’s really a fantastic thing to embody. It’s a bigger expectation than the “little woman” that’s stuck around in our America. The resilient, powerful Russian lady–that’s a tall expectation, and it calls on us to stand tall, and I’m proud of that idea.
The impetus for creating this post came from a recent Twitter discussion. We at Punctured Lines decided to accept a dare and came up with a list of notable Russian titles available in English translation from the last decade. This has been an opportunity to take stock of the years 2009-2019, both to remember the books we’ve read and to look back at those that we might have missed.
In this task, we relied heavily on Lisa Hayden’s blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, where Lisa keeps chronological track of the English translations – our deep gratitude for creating and maintaining this resource. Our methodology for choosing among all those works was based on several factors. Rather obviously, for our purposes we only considered works by women. We also wanted to highlight writers whose names may not be very familiar to English-speaking readers but whose work we feel deserves wider exposure and shows the range of contemporary Russian women’s literature.
One or both of us have read many of titles below, and we’re happy to report that the field is larger than our reading capacity. We included a few books we haven’t read because they sparked our curiosity and to encourage ourselves and our followers to return to these publications. An important factor for consideration was translators whose work we’re interested in. Here we would like to say a huge thank you to translators for their often unacknowledged efforts that allow English speakers to know Russian literature.
Our list has four categories: Contemporary Prose, Contemporary Poetry, Recent Translations of Earlier Prose Works, and a rather catch-all Drama, a Graphic Novel, and an Anthology. The titles in each category are given chronologically by year of the translation. This list reflects our personal opinions and is in no way meant to be comprehensive or conclusive. We welcome your comments and suggestions about these and other titles by Russian women who you think should be on this list. This is, hopefully, the beginning of that conversation.
Elena Chizhova, The Time of Women, translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas; Glagoslav, 2012.
The publisher calls the book “an unsung classic,” and I’m so pleased to see that this book is receiving the attention it deserves. In November, Talia Zax wrote a wonderful review of it for The Atlantic:
The slim mixed-genre novel . . . follows the 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn as her mother attempts to find her a husband. Cecily’s days, written in prose, are filled with the pleasures of a rotely feminine aristocratic life: romance, balls, and new dresses. But at night, her dreams are narrated in poetry, sensual verses with an intense pull toward the natural world. Pavlova constructed a strikingly prescient psychological vision: a mind responding to extreme social pressure by slowly and completely separating itself into parts, but giving few external indications of change.
On November 9th, 2019, Olga Livshin, Dmitri Manin, and I hosted an off-off-site at ALTA (American Literary Translators Conference) in Rochester, NY. Olga Livshin introduced A LIFE REPLACED, her hybrid collection combining own and translated poems; and I introduced LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, my English-language collection of fiction. Both books deal with issues around parent and children relationships, immigration, and processing the complex inheritance that we brought to the US from the Soviet Union.
To open the evening, we staged a brief performance of Dmitri Manin’s translations from the work of Genrikh Sapgir. A Soviet Jewish poet, Sapgir combines a whimsical imagination with the sharp eye for telling details. Watching this video a few weeks after the performance, I’m surprised to see how effectively Sapgir’s images and Dmitri Manin’s words helped us to recreate a certain spirit of the late Soviet Union, a kind of festive carnivalesque environment in the face of increasing challenges of everyday life and crumbling social structures. Obviously, none of us are trained actors, but we all reveled in the performative aspect of Sapgir’s work.
These poems come from Sapgir’s book “Sonnets on Shirts” that was first published outside of the Soviet Union, in Paris in 1978. Dmitri Manin is working on translating the complete manuscript, and we’re publishing these sonnets in English with his permission.
Thanks to Shelley Fairweather-Vega for recording the performance, and to our lovely and supportive audience! The sonnets below are reproduced in the order in which they appear in the video.
Sonnet of Things Gone Missing
To Ian Satunovsky
At times there is — no beef or ham or cheese Now hats are gone from store shelves everywhere But I have known calamities to spare No place to live. No health. No relatives
No happiness no moral sense no peace For one’s own labor no respect nor care No warm and comfy place to take a piss No prospects for a harvest come next year
But there are FISH-BASED MEATBALLS in a can And goals — both hazy and utopian Betrayal cosmos vodka boredom missiles
There’s forest, steppe, construction and ballet And even people — somewhere far away And God’s my witness! — though God’s also missing
Something — Nothing
A metaphysical sonnet
A sphere swings. Towards the sphere A sphere swings. Where they meet, they all Collapse: one — a pair, one — a pair, one — a pair We watch from a spherical mirror hall
Everything’s a reflection. A ball or a troll A thing or a cloudю It swells like a nightmare Then without a crash… a ball disappears a ball disappears a ball disappears Gobbled up by a ball
Streaking and splitting they fold and go — In the third — in the tenth — all the host to the faux Infinity: one after the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next etc.*
Stop it! Enough! I can’t stand this ordeal! A ball on a thread in an infinite reel — A universal game on a childish pretext
*The line stretches to a misconceived infinity.
Chart of Life
Three wise old men bent over to review A chart of life in their benevolent wisdom “He’ll be a poet… under socialism…” “A wretched fate, indeed” said Lao Tzu
So I was born here not without a reason… Wartime… cat scavenging the yard for cukes… Oppression by the bastards and the crooks… The tedium was stifling like a prison!
And suddenly — a trip to Singapore On this sweet break from the routine and chore I saw a mural in a Buddhist temple
On which among pagodas and bamboo Three wise old men bent over to review A chart of life and smiled around the table
In May, Zephyr Press and publisher and translator J. Kates brought to us a collection of poetry by Aigerim Tazhi, a writer who lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan and writes in Russian. According to the Press’s announcement, “Fish, insects, birds, the sea, the sky, humans seeking connection, and death figure frequently in these succinct poems, as do windows, mirrors, and eyes: these are poems of observation and deep reflection. Tazhi gently insists that we look at words and the world “in the eye,” as she seeks to create what translator J. Kates calls a “mystic community of communication.”
A beautiful bilingual book, produced with care and attention to white space around the poems, Paper-Thin Skin speaks to layers of loss–from personal and private to the loss of the country (I read these poems in the post-Soviet context) to climate change and the loss of habitats.
Translating Tazhi to English, Kates makes carefully weighted choices for clarity. In the example below, he changes the poet’s line “Чёрным вестям из нечёрного ящика” — literally “Black news from the not-black box” to read “At dark news from the bright box,” making sure that the English-speaking reader will understand the image of television. He makes this change with attention to the rhetoric device that the poet employs and finding an opportunity to create a sense of parallel and contrast in the image.
The British Library held an event last month to promote literature from Kazakhstan as part of the project “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World.” It was the launch of two anthologies, one of prose and another of poetry, that were translated into English. The “anthologies, which are 500 pages each and include works by 60 Kazakh poets and writers, are being translated into the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.” Cambridge University Press is the publisher of the English translations.
According to the article, the “Contemporary Kazakh Culture in The Global World project is part of the Ruhani Zhangyru (Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) programme, which seeks to preserve and popularise the country’s historical and cultural heritage.”
Promoting lesser-known literatures is a laudable goal and something sorely needed in the West. But as with all projects that seek to project an image of a particular country, we need to be asking what type of image is being projected and for what reason(s), which voices are included and which left out. Of course, it is impossible to answer these questions until these anthologies become available. A project to keep an eye out for.
Asymptote journal continues its discussion about translating and reviewing literature. The focus this time is on Korean poetry, but the issues raised are relevant to other translated literatures.
“To me, the most interesting aspect of reviewing a translation—above and beyond the accurate and thoughtful accounting of the book in question that all reviews require—is imagining how it will affect and be affected by its reception within the standards of specific reading communities. Or to put it another way: how the translation speaks to the context of a reading community and how that community speaks to the translation.”
Odessa was a cosmopolitan place, a “city of laughter” in which poetry was revered, and from an early age Kaminsky wrote and learned it by heart. When he was 12 his prose writing was published in the local newspaper, after he answered a call-out to schoolchildren to contribute, because the paper had no money to pay journalists. At 15, though he thought of poetry as “a private thing”, he produced his first chapbook. He had graduated from school by the time the family was forced into exile.