Svetlana Satchkova: “I almost never say no,” an Interview with a Russian-American Novelist

This fall, Svetlana Satchkova, a writer, journalist, editor, and a contributor to Punctured Lines, has published her third novel. Released in Russian by Moscow-based Eksmo Press, People and Birds has been welcomed by critics and received popular acclaim. According to critic Alexander Chantsev, “The main thing is that this book is very much about Moscow. Not about the Moscow that God sent us, but about the one we deserve.” Curiously, Satchkova currently resides in New York and is attending an MFA program at Brooklyn College, aiming to publish her future work in English.

Satchkova’s path as a writer is both unique and representative of a generation born in the USSR and coming of age in its wake. It includes complicated geographies (she spent several years in Syria as a child, studied in New York, and lived in Moscow before returning to New York), a secret marriage, and quirky jobs. Her biography itself reads like a novel. To give our English-language readers a glimpse, we asked Svetlana to translate an interview she had given to Egor Mikhaylov of Afisha Daily. Please enjoy!

For Russian-language readers: you can purchase Svetlana Satchkova’s Люди и птицы on Eksmo’s website, among others.

When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
© Alena Adamson

As a writer and a journalist. I had to work on myself a lot to be able to say that. My dad dreamed of me becoming a successful lawyer or a businesswoman (though we didn’t know this word at the time, I think). The humanities, even though no one said so directly, weren’t appreciated in my family. Despite all that, I started writing quite early: at the age of eleven I already produced my first novel. I would’ve never voluntarily shown it to my parents, but I had to. The thing was, we lived in Syria at the time: my father worked as a representative of the Soviet merchant fleet in the port city of Latakia. Terrible things were happening at the Soviet customs then: the officers believed that people who worked abroad were all trying to smuggle illegal goods into the USSR, and they went so far as to squeeze toothpaste out of tubes, looking for diamonds. Once, when we came to Moscow on our vacation, they confiscated my collection of chewing gum inserts with Japanese cartoon robots, claiming that those pictures promoted a cult of violence.

My point is, my dad couldn’t take a work of fiction across the border, even if it had been produced by a child, not knowing what was actually written in it. What if there was something anti-Soviet in it? We were all very careful then. I remember asking him, “Can I use the word отель?” (“hotel” in Russian; this word sounded foreign because it had an English origin). It seemed to me that it was an ideologically questionable word. Dad thought about it and said, “I have no idea. Write гостиница (a Russian-sounding synonym) just in case.” Anyway, my dad read the novel and was impressed. He still remembers it sometimes and comments, “I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel like that even when I was forty!” But I was more critical of myself and burned the manuscript because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of writing. It’s a pity, of course: it would be so interesting to read it now.

At first, it didn’t even occur to me that writing could be a profession. My parents didn’t socialize with people who could be identified as intellectuals even if you stretched your imagination: everyone they knew did something very practical for a living. If I’d had role models, I would’ve probably looked in that direction, but it seemed to me that writing could only be a hobby, and not very much encouraged at that. Apparently, I got used to thinking along those lines. Only now, when my third book came out, I started calling myself a writer. Who was holding me back before, I have no idea.

Tell me about your first two books.

Both of them came out in such a way that they seemed to not have come out at all. My first novel was published in 2000, when the Russian book market was in its infancy, and only one person reviewed it – Slava Kuritsyn. It was a short review, literally one paragraph long, but a very nice one. And something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Turning on the TV one evening, I saw that Cultural Revolution was on; I didn’t even have time to grasp what was being discussed when Lyudmila Ulitskaya got hold of the microphone and said, “You know, there’s this young writer named Svetlana Satchkova, and in her novel she reinterpreted Dostoevsky’s theme, the murder of an old woman, in a very interesting way.” I almost collapsed with happiness at that moment. But everything was over before it even began: the readers never found out about this young writer.

If we go back to the imaginary party from your first question, in America, when you introduce yourself as a writer, you could be asked, “What do you write? Anything I might have read?” The same goes for film directors and musicians. I’ve read interviews with very accomplished people, some of them award-winning professionals, and they said they wanted to fall through the floor and disappear upon hearing this question because it usually implies: if a regular person hasn’t heard about you, you’re not worthy of their attention. That’s how I used to think of myself, too, but now I believe that we have to be more generous both to others and to ourselves. I know people who don’t even need to publish in order to think of themselves as writers, and I can only applaud them.

And what about your second book?

I wrote a novel called Vadim, showed it to different publishers, but all of them rejected it, saying the same thing, “This is neformat” (in Russian, this means “not fitting any of the existing categories”). Then I found out that the very same Slava Kuritsyn, whom I didn’t know personally, was curating a book series called Neformat at AST publishing house with the purpose of printing misfits – in other words, people like me. I found his email address and wrote to him, “Hello, Vyacheslav. Five years ago, I had a book out, and you seemed to like it. I’ve written another novel.” And he said, “I’ll take a look at it.” He published my novel, but after a month or two, the project was canceled, and books were removed from stores: readers didn’t show any interest in the series. This time, two people wrote about my book: Maya Kucherskaya, who didn’t like it, and Galina Yuzefovich, who half-liked it.

How’s that?

I tracked her down myself, and she told me to come to where she lived and to slip the book into her mailbox. Then we spoke on the phone, and she said, “You know, your novel made a strange impression on me. I even discussed it with my dad.” I thought, oh God, with Leonid Yuzefovich himself! And then she added, “You know, you have to rewrite it.” – “What do you mean, rewrite it? It’s been published already! I’m holding it in my hands.” In short, I didn’t understand what she meant. Many years later, I saw this book of mine on the shelf, leafed through it, and everything suddenly became clear. I realized that, at the time, I simply needed a good editor, someone who would have said, “Sveta, this part isn’t working, you have to revise it.” Some parts of my novel were very well written – I was even surprised that I was the one who had actually written them! – while others were monstrously bad.

And now, when you were working on your third book, did you have the editor you needed so badly then?

I didn’t. As far as I understand, having an actual editor is an extremely rare occurrence in the Russian publishing business. I’m familiar with a few American writers, and I know from them how things work in the American book industry. First, the publishing cycle is very long here. I’ll tell you how my book was published at Eksmo. In the spring, they informed me that they were taking my novel, and we began to work on the contract; in September, the book was already in stores.

In the United States, the cycle usually takes one and a half to two years. Here, your literary agent is your first editor. A writer can’t send their manuscript directly to a publisher – no one will read it – so you have to find yourself an agent first. This is very difficult; various writers’ manuals advise you to make a list of the best four hundred agents who work with the kind of prose you write, and then to send them your manuscript. An acquaintance of mine told me that five agents agreed to work with him, and that he chose the one who was the most critical of his novel. Consequently, he had to rewrite it three times before it was even sent out to publishers. He rewrote it from beginning to end, can you imagine? Then, when a publisher signs a contract with you, you start working on your manuscript with an editor, and they, too, can make you revise everything. It takes a colossal amount of time, but the end result is usually a high-quality product.

Do you think the American approach is better?

I can’t say that I’m all for it – who wants to revise a novel a hundred times? On the other hand, this approach rules out what happened with my second book – I open it and feel terribly ashamed because some parts are so weak. I think that now I don’t need an editor as much, since I’ve worked as an editor for many years, albeit in magazines, and I can look at my own text with a professional eye.

So, at some point after the release of Vadim, you thought that you needed something else and decided to venture into journalism?

I didn’t have to choose between literature and journalism because you couldn’t make a living writing fiction – I had to work somewhere where I’d be paid. I actually became a journalist thanks to my first book, One Giraffe’s Life, or A Woman of Childbearing Age.

How do you feel about this title now?

Now, of course, it seems funny and cringeworthy, as a friend of mine says. But this just goes to show that an author must have an editor. Anyway, when my first book came out, one of my acquaintances read it and said, “I’m friends with the editor of Marie Claire magazine. Do you want me to introduce you to her so that you could write for them?” I have this trait that has served me well in life: I almost never say no – I’m up for anything because I want to find out what will come of it. So, I met the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and began writing for them. The assignments they gave me were unusual – perhaps those no one else wanted to take.

For example, they sent me to a clinic where women went to have their virginity restored, and I had to pretend to be one of the patients: in all seriousness, I discussed the restoration of my hymen after the doctor had examined me in the gynecological chair. Then I confessed that I was a journalist, and she told me about her patients who came to get the procedure done and gave me the statistics.

At Marie Claire, they called this type of article a “social”: I had to write about modern life and social mores. After a while, I stopped working for this magazine because of another article. At that time, I was a young divorcee with a small child, and, for my next assignment, I had to meet single men on the Internet and write a report that was also meant to be a “social.” I began to meet men through dating sites, through newspaper advertisements, through a marriage agency, and even through a matchmaker who later turned out to be a scam artist. In the end, I wrote a very entertaining article – or so it seemed to me. At the time, I worshipped Sergei Mostovshchikov who was editor-in-chief of the famous Bolshoy Gorod newspaper, and I wanted to write in the style his journalists wrote in. I brought this text to Marie Claire, and they said, “This isn’t what we want. All of the men you describe have to represent common types.” But everyone I’d met was a freak; I tried to artificially fit them into some categories, but the result wasn’t very good.

I really liked the text, though, and besides, I’d spent a huge amount of time working on it. I asked them to pay me a penalty. At Marie Claire, they had this system: if they asked you to write a text, but didn’t publish it, they had to pay you half of your regular fee. But they didn’t pay me anything, so I took the article to Bolshoy Gorod. I came to see Mostovshchikov’s deputy, the legendary journalist Valery Drannikov. He read the article, looked at me carefully, and said, “At first, we let young journalists write one sentence, then two. Then, after a year, maybe half a page. But you’re very lucky: we just had to pull out an article that was six pages long.” So, they printed this text of mine on six pages, and I, as they say, woke up famous. Marie Claire editors wrote to me immediately and said, “Sveta, please give us back the hundred dollars that we’d given you for the matchmaker.”

The one who ran away with the money?

Yes, that one. I replied, “I’ll gladly return the one hundred dollars if you pay me my half of my fee.” They said, “Fine, we’ll call it even.” After that, I began to write for Bolshoy Gorod a lot, then started to spill out into other publications. And in 2004, I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor.

You said that you wrote your first novel in Syria, and now you live and write in America. And this is actually the second time you came to the United States to live. How did that happen?

After finishing high school in 1992, I enrolled at New York University and, in four years, graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy. I could stay in America by getting a job or a master’s degree, but, to everybody’s astonishment, I returned to Moscow. It seemed to me that all the exciting things were happening in Moscow, that life was in full swing there. In addition, while I was still a student at NYU, I came to Moscow and fell in love with a guy there and secretly married him. Secretly – because he was a punk rocker, worked in a shop that made metal doors, and drank quite a lot, so my parents would never have approved of him. When I returned to America after my secret wedding, it turned out that I was pregnant. So you see, it’s a young girl’s romantic story. I gave birth to a son and came to live with my husband in Moscow, but our marriage fell apart quickly. I didn’t even think of returning to America and began to build my new adult life where I was. But four years ago, I came to New York, and now I live here.

So you wrote this third novel, People and Birds, after having moved to the USA?

I completed it here, but I started it much earlier. Did you notice that it’s not entirely clear when the novel’s action takes place – is it the early 2000s or is it present time? The thing is, I wrote it in chunks, taking long breaks between them, and it sort of stretched out in time. When I was finishing it, I asked myself whether I wanted to bring all of this to any one specific time period. But I realized that I didn’t, because, in my opinion, nothing changes in Russia except for external things like the appearance of various apps for getting a cab. In general, the feeling of being in Russia remains the same – at least for me. Deciding that I would make this into a literary device, I was very happy with myself, but then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to use it. I know several people now who are working on novels set in Moscow, and they deliberately mix different eras in them.

Between novels, did you write any fiction?

I had this grandiose failure that traumatized me so much that I stopped writing fiction for several years. Now, I tell this story as a very amusing one, but back then it didn’t make me laugh. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories about teenagers which turned out to be very lively and dramatic: there were betrayals, intrigues, love, sex, fights with parents, and violence in it, and also a lot of teenage slang that I learned by spending hours on internet forums where high school kids hung out. When I completed it, I found the literary agent Julia Goumen on Facebook – I work with her to this day. She really liked the collection and said, “Sveta, this is very cool, and I’ll sell it very quickly. I just need you to add a couple of more stories – about a gay boy and a migrant boy.” She thought that these two stories were necessary to round out the collection, and she was absolutely right. Believe it or not, on the day that I sent her the finished manuscript, I turned on the TV and saw the first episode of Valeria Guy Germanica’s series School. My collection was also called School. I immediately realized that no one would publish my collection because it was the same thing, essentially, even though the names and the characters were different. I was right: Julia went around all the publishing houses with my manuscript, but everyone said, “Well, Guy Germanica has already covered this topic.” I must add that I didn’t know anything about the series while I was writing the collection, and Guy Germanica didn’t know anything about me either – it just happened that the same idea came to two different people at the same time.

Now, you live in America and write in Russian. Do you have any ambitions for writing in English?

Actually, I do. I must say that Russian-American writers of approximately my generation – Shteyngart, Litman, Vapnyar – have a gigantic head start in the sense that they all came to the United States at a young age and stayed here, that is, all this time they’ve been living in an English-speaking environment. I returned to Moscow after university and didn’t speak or write in English for twenty years – and, of course, I lost this language to some extent. Now I have to catch up, and in order for this to happen faster, I enrolled in a master’s program in fiction.

Is it easy to get accepted into one of these programs?
© Vladimir Badikov

If it’s prestigious, one of the top 25, it’s very difficult. Among other things, you need professional recommendations, and that’s why I spent the whole of last summer workshopping with established writers. They liked my fiction and wrote letters of recommendation for me. It makes no sense to apply to only one program – you may not get accepted, and I applied to twelve or thirteen universities across the country, all of them from the top 25 list. To be honest, I absolutely didn’t want to move to another state, and it so happened that I was accepted into three master’s programs in New York. I was very happy. When you get admitted to several places, you then have to choose where to go, and the programs begin to court you, as it were: they introduce you to students, invite you to parties and to classes as an observer. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic these parties didn’t happen, but I met a lot of people through Zoom. And I really liked the program at Brooklyn College: I got the feeling that those were not just wonderful people and professionals, but my family.

And when I had made my decision to choose that particular program, I suddenly got an email informing me that I would receive a scholarship from the Truman Capote Foundation, which would cover the cost of my education. At that moment, I had no idea what this scholarship was – I thought it was simply named after one of my favorite writers. Then I googled it and found out that Truman Capote bequeathed his wealth to aspiring writers like me. Realizing that I would study with the help of Truman Capote’s own money, I lay down on my bed and lay there for a long time, trying to absorb this information.

Did they give you this scholarship based on the stories you wrote in English?

In my application, I provided a writing sample that included one of the stories I wrote last summer and a chapter of my new novel.

Wait a second, what novel?

I have an interesting story to tell about it. When I completed People and Birds, I started writing a novel about a dentist who was a narcissist and a highly toxic person – in Russian. It’s just that I had no idea at all about what would interest an English-speaking audience. At one of the writing workshops I attended, in the beautiful city of Provincetown, I was randomly assigned to a group of people who worked on novels. I thought, fine, I’ll just translate a couple of chapters about the dentist, and the workshop might still be useful. Unexpectedly, it turned out that the American readers were interested in both the novel and the main character. They told me that the novel should be published in America and that they couldn’t wait until I finished it.

Are you finishing it in English?

I finished it in Russian and started translating it into English. The people who read the first two chapters said that they felt a trace of Russian in the text, and that that was one of the reasons they liked it so much. They were quite familiar with the Russian classics which they read in translation, and my text reminded them of Dostoevsky and someone else. When I write in English, I have a different mentality: I choose different words and a different intonation, and the result is a different text. So the work is progressing, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. After all, I’m translating from my native language into a non-native one, and this, of course, isn’t easy.

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The best way to support authors is by purchasing their books. Readers in the US can buy Svetlana Satchkova’s novel here.

The Russian-language original of this interview appeared in Afisha Daily. Thanks to Afisha Daily and to Egor Mikhaylov for allowing us to publish a translation of this material.

Take a look at Svetlana Satchkova’s gorgeous and informative website.

RusTrans Award Winners for Russian-to- English Translations of Contemporary Fiction, 2020

Exciting news from the exciting RusTrans project. As its website explains, “’The Dark Side of Translation: 20th and 21st Century Translation from Russian as a Political Phenomenon in the UK, Ireland, and the USA’ (RusTrans for short) is a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 802437), and located at the University of Exeter. The project is led by Dr Muireann Maguire (Principal Investigator) and Dr Cathy McAteer (Post-doctoral Fellow).

What is the dark side of translation? Most of us think of translation as a universal good. Translation is valued, taught, and often funded as a deterrent to monolingual nationalism and cultural parochialism. Yet the praxis of translation – the actual processes of selecting and translating literary texts, and of publishing and publicizing translations – is highly politicized, often subverted by ideological prejudice or state interference. Translators necessarily have a personal agenda, as do editors, publishers, and other agents.  Every translation is an act of cultural appropriation, reinventing the thoughts of one language in the words of another.

[…] RusTrans investigates how individuals, and governments, exploit this ‘dark side’ of translation to reap cultural capital by translating lesser-known literature into global languages (and the reverse).

[…] The project’s main aim is to research why translators, publishers, and funding bodies support the translation of certain texts, and not others.” 

Ealier this year, RusTrans held a competition for funding English translations of contemporary literary fiction written in Russian and have just announced the twelve winning projects by fourteen translators (two are co-translations). The conditions for these awards, which will fund excerpts of larger works, are rather unique. RusTrans is asking the translators to keep them posted over the next two years about the process to secure publication for the works in their entirety: as they explain, “we plan to follow selected translators through the process of pitching and/or submitting a new translation to publishers in real time” to gain a fuller understanding of the “dark side” of translation, driven by politics, economics, and personal biases.

One of RusTrans’ stated criteria for picking the projects was diversity, and the final list has a number of women writers, a queer writer, writers from non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union, as well as those who now live outside of the post-Soviet space. Punctured Lines joins RusTrans in congratulating the winners below (as listed on the RusTrans website) and looks forward to following this fantastic endeavor:

  1. William Barclay, with Bulat Khanov’s novel about an angry academic, Gnev.
  2. Michele Berdy, with various stories and a novella by Tasha Karlyuka.
  3. Huw Davies, with Dmitry Bykov’s historical novel June.
  4. Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with short fiction  “Aslan’s Bride” by Nadezhda Chernova and “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar.
  5. Annie Fisher and Alex Karsavin, co-translating Ilya Danishevsky’s queer modernist experimental novel Mannelig in Chains.
  6. Polly Gannon, with Sana Valiulina’s Soviet-Estonian historical novel, I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard.
  7. Lisa Hayden, with Alexei Salnikov’s debut novel The Department.
  8. Alex Shvartsman, with K.A. Teryna’s science fiction novella The Factory.
  9. Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik, co-translating Viktor Pelevin’s novel iPhuck 10.
  10. Sian Valvis, with Narine Abgaryan’s semi-autobiographical novel of an Armenian childhood, Manunia.
  11. Sarah Vitali, with Figgle-Miggle (Ekaterina Chebotaryova)’s novel You Love These Films So Much. 
  12. Lucy Webster, with Andrei Astvatsaturov’s satirical novel on Russian academia, People in Nude.

The new canon of Russophone women-authors, according to the editors of Polka

Two years ago, a prominent journalist and editor Yury Saprykin asked a number of Russian authors, editors, critics, educators, and so on, to nominate the works that they considered key in the Russian literary canon. On April 2, 2018, Saprykin’s launched the website, polka.academy with the resulting list of 108 books. It’s a gorgeous website, unfortunately available only in Russian. Another unfortunate part is that this list included only three books by women-authors: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Petrushevksaya.

Two years later, the editors addressed this problem. A team of writers created a new list that they call “Women’s Canon” of over 70 authors who deserve to be remembered. (This list, too, is unfortunately only available in Russian.) The authors include a thoughtful note that this list isn’t complete and promise to return to this work in the future. We’re delighted to welcome this list and look forward to seeing this work continued.

On a personal note from the creators of Punctured Lines, we’re particularly pleased to see a listing of Aleksandra Brushtein’s delightful young adult novel with a title that’s difficult to translate and that means something like “The road that will lead you to an unknown future.” This book was deeply influential to both of us, and on Twitter we’ve been actively advocating for its re-translation to English. Of the unfortunate omissions, we can point to Julia Voznesenskaya’s novel Women’s Decameron from 1985.

Rus­sophone Science Fic­tion and Uto­pias in the Mar­gins, an essay by Sanna Tuorma in Aleksanteri Insight

This article published in December just before the holidays, seems worth highlighting. The topic is dear to me: I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am particularly fond of contemporary feminist science fiction. But first, I want to highlight the books that Tuorma mentions in her essay.

Tuorma begins with a review of a scholarly volume, The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, Sept. 19, 2019), edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. As always with scholarly publications, this book is insanely expensive. Amazon, however, does have a decent preview of it that includes the introduction and gives us a good sense of the various threads of inquiry in this book.

Summarizing the volume’s findings, Tuorma writes, “Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction.” She suggests, following the advice of a Finnish-language publication Voima “to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead.”

She offers one recent anthology of Russian-language feminist and LGBT science fiction that comes from outside of the imperial center. This book, Совсем другие, is available in full from Academia.edu–in the Russian language. An English translation of its opening story, “Element 174,” penned by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva, recently appeared in The Calvert Journal, translated by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff.

I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.

https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9831/being-lgbtq-element-174-syinat-sultanalieva-shtab

I’m incredibly grateful to Tuorma for pointing out what looks to be a very exciting read.

Looking over the articles that comprise the scholarly volume, I do find it unfortunate that the names of whom I think first in the list of post-Soviet science fiction and fantasy authors had not been taken up for consideration. My personal anthology of writers in this genre begins with the names of Max Frei, Lena Eltang, Linor Goralik, Elena Pervushina–that’s off the top of my head…

7 Russian Booker Prize winners and their must-read novels

There has been a lot of talk, including on this blog, about literary prizes, translation, and gender imbalance. The Russian Booker Prize is one of the country’s most prestigious awards. The writers in the title have had their winning novels translated into English, and there is also a list of other winners whose novels haven’t been translated but with links to their translated shorter works. Of the seven writers in the title, three are women: Ludmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Enigma (2001, trans. Diane Nemec Ignashev); Olga Slavnikova, 2017 (2006, trans. Marian Schwartz); and Elena Chizhova,The Time of Women (2009, trans. Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas; my review here). But no prizes for guessing whether this relative gender balance holds true for the Russian Booker overall.

https://www.rbth.com/arts/331193-russian-booker-prize-winners

The NOS(E) Award’s 2019 Longlist

Thank you, as always, to Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf for keeping us all up to date on prize-related announcements. We are happy to share the list here, particularly as it contains her very helpful, and entertaining, descriptions of the nominated works. Less happy is the subject we’ve talked about previously on this blog (and which, in the wake of the Nobel, some of us have debated in a – let’s go with “spirited” – manner on Twitter): of the sixteen titles, only three are by women. While no one in their right mind would suggest that gender should be the sole criterion for anything, really, there is a real issue with Russian literary prizes being overwhelmingly skewed toward male writers (googling the major award winners will confirm this in short order). This is not meant as a slight to any of the men on the list, but it is a question that needs to be asked, over and over, until we arrive at a workable solution: how do we honor good writing whoever the writer may be while at the same time ensure more balanced representation in terms of nominations and winners? Suggestions welcome; perhaps someone can forward them to the Russian prize committees.

http://lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/2019/10/the-nose-awards-2019-longlist.html

A Soviet YA Classic: Aleksandra Brushtein’s Дорога уходит в даль (The Road Goes off into the Distance)

It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children. At a time when I have completely forgotten plots of books I read much later, I can still recall various episodes from this one. A copy of the book, which my family took with us when we left the Soviet Union, is one of my prized possessions. My mom loved this book so much she wanted to name me Sasha (an attempt ended by my great-grandmother Aleksandra’s announcement post my birth that Ashkenazi Jews cannot name children after living relatives). A remarkable thing about this novel is that it has a Jewish protagonist and depicts Jewish life but still became so popular in a country as anti-Semitic as the Soviet Union. Its popularity has endured in contemporary Russia, where “since 2005, a new printing of the book by different publishers has appeared almost every two years,” including an annotated edition.

Yet as Liza Rozovsky’s article notes, Brushtein “is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world.” To date, there is no English translation. If there is a translator out there who could take on this project, many in the diaspora would be eternally grateful on behalf of their children and their English-speaking friends’ children. In any case, it’s great to see this book being written about at length and we — and our inner younger selves — are thrilled to highlight it on Punctured Lines.

“The book that is imprinted in my memory as a moral and political compass, and the book I would like my children to know, is a Soviet-era work for children and juveniles titled “The Road Slips Away into the Distance.” It’s an autobiographical trilogy by the Jewish children’s playwright and memoirist Aleksandra Brushtein, who is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. The first volume of the work was translated into Hebrew in the 1980s, but Brushtein (1884-1968) remains unknown in Israel, too. In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”

The Novel That Introduced Soviet Jews to Their Forgotten History

Lizok’s Bookshelf: Yasnaya Polyana Finalists, 2019

Previously, we posted Lisa Hayden’s blog post about the longlist for this prize, noting the gender disparity in terms of who is nominated for and, especially, awarded Russia’s literary prizes. The shortlist just came out and out of the six nominees, one is a woman. Of course, no one is suggesting nominations and/or awards should be based on gender alone nor is this meant to disparage the quality of the other nominated titles in any way. But it is important to note the imbalance, and even more so, to keep asking what can be done about it.

http://lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/2019/09/yasnaya-polyana-finalists-2019.html

My Lucky Day: The 2019 Yasnaya Polyana Longlist

Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf does a round-up of the longlist nominees for Russia’s Yasnaya Polyana award. There are several women on the longlist, including Alisa Ganieva and Guzel Yakhina. Russia’s literary prizes tend to disproportionately go to male writers. We’ll have to keep an eye on the shortlist, and the final result, of course, to see if this holds true here.

http://lizoksbooks.blogspot.com/2019/09/my-lucky-day-2019-yasnaya-polyana.html

Klavdia Smola’s: Reinventing the Tradition. Contemporary Russian-Jewish Literature.

This book comes to us from Germany, with the promise of the Russian-language edition in the next year (thanks to the always wonderful NLO Press). Klavdia Smola (PhD from Technischen Universität Dresden) examines Soviet-era Jewish underground literature from the 1960s and 1970s to the beginning of the 21st Century, and studies the way this literature relates to the tradition of Jewish literature and to the official literature of the Soviet Union.

The book is available from Vandenhoek & Ruprecht Verlage.

Der Kampf sowjetischer Juden um das Recht der Emigration nach Israel führte seit der zweiten Hälfte der 1960er Jahre zu einer jüdischen Kulturrenaissance im Raum des Inoffiziellen. Literatur, die aus der Feder nonkonformer jüdischer Intellektueller in Russland, Israel, Amerika und Deutschland entstand, schöpfte nun erneut aus den jüdischen und judaistischen Kulturquellen und nahm so den jüdischen “cultural revival” der postsowjetischen Periode bis in die Gegenwart vorweg. Diese Rückkehr förderte jedoch nicht nur Poetiken der Erinnerung und Rekonstruktion, sondern auch der imaginativen Subversion und des performativen Bruchs. Diese Studie erschließt das Phänomen der wiedererfundenen Tradition in der russisch-jüdischen Literatur seit den 1960er Jahren im Dialog mit aktuellen Kultur- und Literaturtheorien.

Or, in Russian,

В монографии прослеживается, как в русско-еврейской литературе после долгого периода ассимиляции, Холокоста и десятилетий официального (полу-)запрета на еврейство заново «изобреталась» еврейская традиция. Процесс «переизобретения традиции» (Хобсбаум) начался в контркультуре еврейских диссидентов-отказников, в среде позднесоветского андерграунда 1960-1970-ых годов, и продолжается, как показывает проза 2000-2010-ых, до настоящего момента. Он обусловлен тем фактом, что еврейская литература создается для читателя «постгуманной» эпохи, когда знание о еврействе и иудаизме передается и принимается уже не от живых носителей традиции ‒ из семейного и коллективного окружения, но из книг, картин, фильмов, музеев и популярной культуры. Такое «постисторическое» знание, однако, результат не только социальных катастроф, официального забвения и диктатуры, но и секуляризации, культурного ресайклинга традиций, свойственного эпохе (пост-)модерна. Оно соединяет реконструкцию с мифотворчеством, культурный перевод с практиками создания вторичного – культурно опосредованного – коллективного «воспоминания», ученый комментарий с фольклоризацией. Когда «естественная» преемственность уже невозможна, а традиционная герменевтика (прошлого) натыкается на лакуны, следы и фрагменты, литература сама становится тропом памяти, восполняющим потерю своими собственными символическими средствами.
Бóльшая часть монографии посвящена советскому еврейскому андерграунду и вышедшей из него прозе эксодуса (еврейского исхода). Автор показывает, как в процессе возвращения ассимилированных позднесоветских евреев к своим корням в литературе возникала альтернатива соцреалистическому канону (подобно множеству других альтернатив периода позднего коммунизма, например, деревенской прозе или ре-этнизации литератур советских республик) и в то же время во многом его зеркальное отражение. Телеологию прозы алии/исхода «пересекает» скептический, антисионистский литературный нарратив тех же лет ‒ и она же отдается поздним эхом в новом консерватизме и почвенничестве еврейской литературы 2010-х годов.
В этой же главе изучается возрождение идишского сказа и восточноеврейского фольклора в 1970-1980-ые годы.
Вторая большая глава монографии посвящена постсоветской и новейшей русско-еврейской литературе: с одной стороны, постмемориальной поэтике культурной памяти и «придуманных воспоминаний», с другой, поэтике дискурсивной деконструкции языка и идеологии советской империи.
В целом автор показывает, как современная русско-еврейская литература, не будучи продуктом живой преемственности, обращается к традициям еврейской письменности, начиная с библейского и средневекового иудаизма и кончая раннесоветскими (анти-)сионистскими романами, и «переписывает» например сатиру маскилов, хассидский мидраш или идишские травелоги. Исследуются как совсем или почти неизвестные, так и уже отмеченные критикой тексты еврейских авторов, перформативно «изобретающих» еврейскую традицию. Таким образом переосмысливается сама история русской литературы, ставится под вопрос ее монокультурный (славянский) контекст.
Помещая русско-еврейскую литературу в общие макрокультурные рамки эпохи, автор обращается к теории гуманитарной мысли последних десятилетий: культурной семиотике Юрия Лотмана и Бориса Успенского, работам о мифе Мирсеи Элиаде, геопоэтике Кеннета Уайта, теориям культурной памяти Алеиды и Яна Ассманов и постпамяти Марианне Хирш, постколониальным и постимпериальным исследованиям, а также наследию постструктурализма.