“Writing Fiction Allows Us to Build Bridges”: Ian Ross Singleton and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry in Conversation

Punctured Lines is happy to host a conversation between Ian Ross Singleton, author of Two Big Differences (M-Graphics Publishing, 2021) and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, author of The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022). The novels’ synopses are below, and you can listen to the writers read excerpts here. Both of these works feature post-/late Soviet space, Ukraine in Two Big Differences and late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia in The Orchard. To support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, you can donate here and here, as well as to several other organizations doing work on the ground. If in addition you would like to support Russian protesters, you can donate for legal help here.

Ian Ross Singleton, Two Big Differences: In Two Big Differences, Zinaida is returning to Odesa, Ukraine, after having lived in the U.S., where she met her traveling companion, Valya, a native of Detroit. Having grown up in Odesa, Zina has a sharp sense of humor. Returning home during the 2014 Ukrainian Spring (Euromaidan), she relies on humor as a tool for survival, as she and Valya navigate their way through the confusing and violent conflict. In Odesa, they meet Zina’s father, Oleg, and other characters from her past and present, and each must decide on which side they stand.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, The Orchard: Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening to Queen songs, and fantasizing about trips abroad and the lives of American teenagers. By the time the girls are fifteen, the Soviet Empire is on the verge of collapse, and the fleeting time they have together is cut short by a sudden tragedy. Years later, Anya returns to Russia from America, where she has chosen a different kind of life, far from her family and childhood friends. Haunted by the ghosts of her youth, Anya comes to the stark realization that memory does not fade or disappear; rather, it moves across time, connecting our past to our future, joys to sorrows.  

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry interviews Ian Ross Singleton about Two Big Differences.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: What are the origins and inspirations for Two Big Differences? How long did it take you to write it?

Ian Ross Singleton: I have been a student (although not through any university) of the Russian language since 2006, when I met my partner, the poet and teacher Natalya Sukhonos, who is from Odesa, Ukraine. Eventually, we ended up traveling there for part of our honeymoon in 2010 and then again in 2012 to visit a family friend who was dying. As a child, Natalya used to talk to the trees of Odesa. At the dacha of this family friend who was dying of cancer, there were two twin trees in the yard. I suppose the trees told me something back. I stayed a little longer than Natalya that summer in Odesa. When I made the long journey home to San Francisco, where we were living at the time, one early morning I put my jet lag to good use and started writing this novel. It was based on something my father-in-law, also from Odesa, said about two twins, like those trees. One immigrated, and one remained in the post-Soviet world. Since my relationship with Natalya began, my life has more or less become spread across two linguistic modes: American English and Ukrainian Russian.

So, similar to The Orchard, it all starts at a dacha. And it took nine years to publish, which meant a lot of editing and polishing.

KGN: There are many wonderful анекдоты throughout the novel. They remind me of that peculiar “Odesa” humor. Where do those jokes come from? Why are they so important to the story? And if you had to pick a favorite, which one would it be?

IRS: During the last fourteen years since I met Natalya, I also became a student of Odesan humor, which I would identify as a specific category of gallows humor. Jokes often belie inner trauma, of course. They often come from a desperate need to smile, maybe even laugh. On the other hand, constant sarcasm can be identified as a kind of hidden hostility, and I wanted to get this aspect of humor into Two Big Differences as well, such as when Valya first meets Oleg. Humor can harm, and humor can heal. Look at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense twitter account. They use humor and trolling to counter Russian trolling, which is hostile. The Ministry of Defense’s response can be powerful, and it can perhaps be healing. Humor can diminish but also lift up a person in a vulnerable place, such as in a foreign country speaking a language different from the one they’ve spoken their whole life. I had to get the two sides of humor into the novel.

If I have to pick a favorite анекдот, it would be the one about traveling to Yalta at the beginning of Chapter Two. I hope I don’t ruin it in my translation: “Two travelers are on a boat. One asks, ‘Where are we headed?’ ‘Yalta,’ says the other. The first says, ‘You said we’re headed to Yalta because you thought I would think we’re not headed to Yalta. But we’re definitely headed to Yalta. Why are you lying?’”

KGN: I write in a foreign language about my native culture; you write in your mother tongue about a foreign land. Do you find it captivating, rewarding, challenging? Did you have to do any research? Brush up on history?

IRS: I found it very captivating to write about this foreign land that certainly captured me the last time I was there, in 2012, when it was Odessa with a double “s” under Viktor Yanukovych, a place that is now gone in so many ways. I find it very rewarding if a reader enjoys what I have to say about this place that is foreign to me. I find it very rewarding if anybody reads anything I wrote about any place. Many people, including some from Eastern Europe, have said some very kind things about my novel. That is the greatest reward.

Challenging? It’s easier to say what wasn’t challenging: describing Valya’s (and Zina’s when she was in the U.S.) feelings of alienation and isolation. My native culture is that of the U.S., of course. But I’ve lived all over this country, and I have never not felt foreign or like an outsider in any place other than Detroit, where I was born, even though I don’t necessarily feel at home there either. Detroit is unlike most of the other places I’ve lived, like San Francisco or New York City. People, like those in my extended family, are not as transient there. But the fact that I’ve lived elsewhere, even within the same country, has made me foreign even to my home.

I did do research, both formal and informal. It helped to be able to speak Russian and talk to people in Ukraine and the U.S. And it helped to be able to read novels like those of Valentin Kataev and others. I had to brush up on the history of May 2, 2014, when supporters of the Euromaidan Movement clashed with those who wanted to maintain the subaltern status of Ukraine in relation to Russia. This history is still being written and rewritten—like most histories, I suppose. I watched freely available documentaries on YouTube, talked to people from that part of the world. As with so many things Odesan, people have different opinions and are vehemently sure of them, even within the same family. However, differences of opinion about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia ceased on February 24, 2022, of course, when Russia invaded Ukraine and escalated the war from the Donbas to all of Ukraine. Coincidentally, that was the night I did a reading from Two Big Differences in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. Many of the audience members asked me whether there would be an invasion. It didn’t seem believable then.

KGN: What was the hardest thing to write? What was the easiest? Do you personally identify with any of the characters?

Odesa, Ukraine; Google images

IRS: The hardest thing to write was probably Oleg, Zina’s father who lives in Odesa and speaks Russian, with almost no English. So his thinking happens only in the Russian language. While I can think in Russian, it’s very difficult to imagine not being able to think in English. And I believe that my thoughts in English affect my character and, were they absent, would make me a different person. Oleg doesn’t have much English at all; Russian completely forms his personality. There’s one person I can think of in my life who hardly spoke any English. But she was very different from Oleg and spoke Surzhyk, a hybrid language that mixes Ukrainian and Russian words, types of which can vary based on the region of Ukraine from which a speaker comes. So I took different inspiration from her. Now that I’m learning Ukrainian, I’m able to understand more about Surzhyk. And in my family, we speak a kind of Russian-English Surzhyk, or hybrid language, that is now starting to reincorporate some of the Ukrainian of Natalya’s childhood and that is new to me.

The easiest character to write was probably Valya. Of course, I can identify with him most of all. But I often found I had to check myself with him. Any similarities between us shouldn’t have let me not treat him as objectively as any other character. But I like him less than Zina. Zina is me deep down. I love her so deeply, more deeply than Valya, so deeply that I wrote a worse fate for her than I ever did for Valya. The more love I have for a character, the worse I arrange their fate, it would seem. I don’t know what that says about me as a person…

I could also use my identity as a father to help with Oleg. I think that I identify with all of my characters. I’m not sure I could write them without that. Such an idea can be frightening when you have somebody who’s truly horrible (like Anton, a minor character from Zina’s past). But I think that writers must do that, no matter how dark the character’s inner maps.

KGN: You write about Ukraine; I write about Russia. Two big differences! And yet, I couldn’t help thinking that both our novels grew out of love and that writing fiction allows us to build bridges, connect cultures and generations. Despite the horrors of this war, we must find a way to communicate. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D says to Sethe: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” What will you write next? What kind of books will be birthed in the future? Will there be a future?

IRS: I’m learning Ukrainian as a small bridge, a way of resisting the culture war that Putin’s Russia is waging against Ukraine. My novel was supposed to bridge English and Russian, America and Ukraine (or the Russian-speaking world as represented by Ukraine). I never saw a need to bridge Russia and Ukraine coming. I’m working on something now that comes very much from what I think and feel about the war. And I hope that Two Big Differences can be some kind of bridge. I’m not sure if it can be a tomorrow since it’s so much about the past, at this point the very distant past, because so much has changed since the Russian invasion and had already been changing since 2014. I’ll always be an outsider. But this position gives me an advantage. I don’t have any personal hang-ups about defending Russian culture or the Russian language from criticisms and from those who have abandoned it because of the war. I understand such an attitude of refusing Russian culture, of course. But I don’t share it.

Of places in the world where Russian is spoken widely, I’ve spent most time in Ukraine, not Russia. I was only in Russia for a week in 2008. And I don’t know if I’ll ever go there again. But I’m sure I’ll go to Ukraine again. So my some kind of tomorrow is in Ukraine.

***

Ian Ross Singleton interviews Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry about The Orchard.

Ian Ross Singleton: In your author’s note, you write a lot about loss. Can you talk about how The Orchard is about loss?

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: As a writer, all I ever want to do is to tell a story the best way I know how. The Orchard is a commemorative tale about a childhood friendship. It is also my attempt at remembering those who died fighting for Russia’s newly fledged democracy in the early 1990s, and who I lost without being able to say goodbye. The novel grew out of that loss, the inability to mourn someone other than through a narrative act. I wanted the readers to feel that loss, wanted to make it as real or palpable to them as it has always been to me. And it took me many years and much heartache to be able to write The Orchard, but I regarded it as my duty, my moral obligation to let the world know what had happened to my generation during perestroika, as well as to our country that no longer exists.

IRS: You write, “I was always amazed how bodies could convey [knowledge], how they could exchange information without words or much sound, how they could protect, nurture, and sustain, the bare tremble of someone’s skin against your own.” You also write about women victims of the gulag: “Most women talked about their bodies existing separately from their minds, as though their heads had been cut off, their limbs numb and distant.” Anya’s reaction to hearing the whole truth about Milka is so visceral and includes no abstraction at all. And there is this: “Sometimes a parent could become a mountain in flat land; other times a mountain could be washed down to a mound of sand.” Finally, there’s: “I remembered my grandmother saying how the earth could make invisible the deepest wounds, hide the thickest scars.” I think you get what I’m pointing out: how does The Orchard interact with embodiment?

KGN: Thank you for singling out some of my very favorite lines, although my answer to your question might not be entirely satisfying. To me, a novel is a live being. As long as people keep reading the book, they keep experiencing all that is happening with/to the characters, and the story keeps on living. I want my readers to be involved, active, paying attention to the use of language and to all the minute details of the story—the landscape, the atmosphere, the food, the drinks, the music, the movies, the clothes, the homes, the feelings of love, lust, pain, grief, longing—so at some point, the readers become part of the narrative and embody the characters. For that experience to take place, all the senses must be present on the page. The readers must know how things look, smell, taste, or feel while being transported into a foreign world, so different from their own. And as a writer, that’s my task—to give birth to that imaginary (but also very real) world, in all its ugliness and beauty, agony and bliss, heartache and loveliness.

IRS: In The Orchard, if individual bodies carry suffering, does the territory where a culture resides experience that too? What does this idea mean in relation to Ukraine today?

KGN: I think the “territory” suffers just as much as its inhabitants. It absorbs everything, all the woes and crimes committed against its citizens or the rest of the world. If you abuse your homeland, it grows hostile, barren, cold, ostracized. It dies, both spiritually and physically. I don’t know what it means in regards to Ukraine, but I do know that Ukraine will survive and prosper, as it has done for centuries. It’s a mighty country populated by mighty people, who’ll spare no effort defending and rebuilding their home.

IRS: In The Orchard, you mention a “rule” that a Soviet woman should have three children, “one for herself; one for her husband; and one for those who’d perished in the war.” Can you talk about this “rule” and Soviet womanhood in particular and how you’ve depicted Soviet womanhood and/or womanhood in general in your novel?

Propaganda poster for heroine-mothers, USSR; Google images

KGN: Twenty-seven million Soviet people died in World War II. To revive the nation, it had to be repopulated. This principle was widely preached, especially to the post-war generation. My mother was born right after the war, but even during her younger years, the same principle applied. To answer the second part of your question: There always existed wonderful camaraderie between women in Soviet Russia, where I grew up. A woman’s world seemed to be very different from a man’s. Womanhood in the Soviet Union was burdened with incessant duties and responsibilities—for your work, your family, your children, your home, your garden. A Soviet woman was also expected to excel in everything she did, including her appearance and education. She had to be well-read, culture-savvy, fashionable, and worldly, which is funny because most Soviet people couldn’t travel outside the country; they weren’t allowed. However, a lot of Soviet women I know are resilient and resourceful, smart, ambitious, fearless, and restless. They carry mountains on their shoulders. It never ceases to amaze me how much they’ve accomplished and how much they’ve endured. Their sense of place, friendship, love, loyalty is astounding. On top of having spectacular careers, they are some of the best mothers and wives/partners I know. The novel’s protagonist, Anya, her mother, and grandmother are those women: righteous, hard-working, selfless, the embodiment of great spirit and care. But there’s also Milka’s mother, who neglected and abused her only daughter, and that’s why I had to write The Orchard—not to revel in Anya’s family, which is the opposite of Milka’s, but to show the difference and what that difference does to a child and her self-awareness, her survival in the world. If a daughter can’t trust her parents, who will that daughter become as an adult? How can one grow into a healthy, confident self when one has been betrayed by the very person who was supposed to love her most? I wanted to explore the lovelessness of Milka’s home, her reality, her everyday life and how it was transformed by her friendship with Anya, its tender intimacy and tragic circumstances.

IRS: What would you say to a reader who might say to you, “That’s not how it was!”?

KGN: No, of course not, but that’s how I imagined it. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction—we get second chances at first things. First love. First friendship. First marriage. We get to do it all over again, only better, with more compassion and understanding, and more humanity too.

Ian Ross Singleton was born in Detroit and has lived in Alabama, Munich, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. He is the Nonfiction Editor of Asymptote and teaches Writing and Critical Inquiry at the University at Albany. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in Saint Ann’s Review, Cafe Review, New Madrid, Fiddleblack, Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Writers Review. The novel Two Big Differences, published in October 2021, is his debut.

A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry moved to the U.S. in 1995, after having witnessed perestroika and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Writing in English, her second language, she published fifty stories and received nine Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Zoetrope: All Story, Joyland, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Gorcheva-Newberry is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the 2020 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her first collection of stories, What Isn’t Remembered, long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize. Her debut novel, The Orchard, was published by Ballantine Books in March 2022. The paperback edition will be a Penguin Random House Book Club title, forthcoming in March 2023.