Nataliya Meshchaninova is Russian filmmaker. In 2017, she published a book of autobiographical short stories that resonated with her audience, in part, because they supported the Russian #metoo movement. In February 2022, Deep Vellum brought out Fiona Bell’s translation of Meshchaninova’s book under the title Stories of a Life. We are honored to share with you an excerpt from this book, a section from the fourth chapter, “Secrets.”
The book centers on Meshchaninova’s complex relationship with her mother and her mother’s lovers and includes troubling depictions of abuse. Punctured Lines asked Fiona Bell to tell us about her experiences translating this book, and she generously responded:
The breezy, tongue-in-cheek style that Meshchaninova uses to narrate the horrifying events of her childhood [was the most challenging and the most rewarding aspect of this translation project]. To translate someone else’s trauma is hard enough—adopting the survivor’s “I” when none of this had happened to me—but to do it in a joking tone was even more complicated. But this is the incredible appeal of Stories of a Life. Although we don’t associate trauma narratives and humor, Meshchaninova gives us both. She is somehow swaggering in her vulnerability.
Please enjoy the excerpt and buy this book to read the full, gripping story of one remarkable woman’s childhood.
by Nataliya Meshchaninova, translated by Fiona Bell
My parents got divorced when I was five. That’s why I remember my father as a father only very hazily. I have a few memories. The first: I’m standing in the mudroom dressed in my winter clothes, ready to go outside, and I see my mom screaming hysterically, her arms raised, my two older sisters clinging to her like branches to a tree. My father’s standing in the doorway, saying something like, “Oh, come on, Katya!” That was a weird moment. The second: my father is sitting on the couch, munching on sunflower seeds, and I’m on the floor by his legs, waiting for him to split some open and stick a handful of shelled kernels into my mouth. The third: my father asks me to bring him his slippers, and I say, “No, no, a nightingale never sings for a pig, ask a crow instead!” The fourth: I watch in horror as my father covers the kitchen floor with plucked chicken carcasses. The whole kitchen—the entire floor: carcasses. Nowhere to stand. As soon as he turns his back, I start frantically throwing the carcasses out the window, hoping I could still save them.
There you have it, all my memories. I’m not even sure they’re real, they might just be imaginings based on my mom’s stories.
Anyway, when I turned five, they got divorced, and I wasn’t too upset because my mom, in celebration of her freedom, planned a nice trip to Taman and took me along. Sometimes I’d ask, “Mom, where’s Dad?”
“What do we need Dad for?” she’d say cheerfully, bobbing in the sea, “We’re having fun all by ourselves!”
I agreed—it wasn’t bad without him around—and I stopped asking.
My father started living with another family pretty quickly, and soon there was a new girl calling him “Dad” without a twinge of conscience. None of it made sense anymore, and I stopped thinking of him as my father. I suddenly realized that being a dad was a bullshit temp job, that you could quit or pick a new daughter whenever you wanted.
My father loved my older sisters, but me, not so much. Probably because they were already wise and grown-up. They visited him a lot, but whenever I went, I just got fed and then sent home. They always had the best chicken at his place.
After the divorce, we never had chicken at my house. Clearly, my father considered it his sacred duty to feed me once a week. Soon, his new wife got sick of these feedings, and I could tell, so I stopped coming over for chicken. That’s pretty much the whole story of our relationship, me and my father’s. I didn’t know him, never really had the chance.
My mom loved to sit me on her lap and ask, “Natashenka, what’s your relationship like with Vitka?” That’s what she called my father, short for Viktor. I’d say, “Well, what kind of relationship could I have with Vitka, since he got stingy with the chicken and gave me second-hand underwear for my birthday?”
“There,” my mom finally said, satisfied, “you see! He’s a pig! He’s always been a pig! Now, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone . . .”
Then she’d tell me some secret from their married life. My father had always been a horrible pig, he’d done some really awful things.
“Once,” my mother said tragically, “Vitka lost some money to Polikarpych in a game of dominoes. To pay the debt, he said, ‘Go to my place, Katerina will give you . . . well, she’ll sleep with you.’ So, Polikarpych came over, and I’m thinking, Whoa whoa whoa, what’s he doing here? And he starts coming on to me! Right in front of you guys. But you weren’t born yet. So, in front of Lena and Oksana. He started grabbing my breasts! I said, ‘Have you lost your mind? Vitka will kill you!’ But he said, ‘Vitka’s the one who sent me!’ Well, I grabbed you kids and locked us all in the bathroom. He tried to force his way in but gave up after a while and, out of spite, locked us in from the outside. So we spent an entire day locked in the bathroom, hungry, with only tap water to drink. Then Vitka got home, unlocked the door, and told me to laugh it off!”
Wide-eyed with horror, I looked at my mom and thought to myself, My father isn’t just a pig, he’s the ringleader of all the pigs in the world.
God, Mom, no one asked for your fucking secrets!
But I understand how important it was for you to tell these stories. You needed an ally in that war. My older sisters were a lost cause—they loved their father. But I hadn’t had the chance. That’s how I became the Louise to my mom’s Thelma. Even to this day. That’s how intense and enduring these secrets have been.
Although now I realize how hard that senseless marriage was on both of them.
Here’s the story: My father had a girlfriend he was head over heels in love with. She cheated on him, or planned to, so he lost his mind and decided to teach her a lesson by marrying another woman. That other woman was my mother. That’s it. When I asked my mom why she married him, she said, “Vitka was tall and handsome and, besides, I wasn’t getting any younger.”
The night before the wedding, my father’s girlfriend called him in tears and begged him not to get married, to forgive her. But, like I said, my father had lost his mind. That’s where stupidity gets you: married.
Fiona Bell is a literary translator and scholar of Russian literature who is committed to sharing the voices of contemporary female and nonbinary Russian writers with anglophone audiences. Bell’s essays have appeared in Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is from St. Petersburg, Florida, but currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University.
Alla Gorbunova is a Russian poet, prose writer, translator, and critic. She has published six books of poetry and four books of prose, and her work regularly appears in major literary journals, including Znamia, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Vozdukh, TextOnly, and others. Gorbunova’s poems and prose have been translated into many languages. She has taken part in Russian and international festivals of poetry and prose, and in 2012 participated in poetry readings in New York and Chicago. English-language translations of her poems and prose have appeared in Poetry, Words Without Borders, ColumbiaJournal, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, and Nashville Review.
The English translation of her book of prose It’s the End of the World, My Love by Elina Alter is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Press in 2022. Gorbunova is a laureate of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Andrei Bely Prize, the NOS Literary Prize, and the Debut Prize. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University.
Alexandra Tkacheva: When did you start writing? How did you come to think of yourself as a poet? Some of your lines, such as “Дом сверчка в золе и саже / За окном его горит / Чёрной башни карандашик / С чёрной тучей говорит” [The cricket’s house in the soot and ash / Outside his window / A pencil of the black tower is lit / It is talking to a black cloud] can be read as ars poetica. Is this a common and/or deliberate effect in your work?
Alla Gorbunova: In her “Young Mother’s Diary,” kept by my mom, she notes that I started composing poems when I was a year and nine months old. But these poems did not have words yet. My mom describes them as combinations of sounds with a strong rhythm. Since then, I’ve been composing verse, which gradually acquired words.
In childhood, I had a favorite game. I took books (preferably but not necessarily with pictures), sat down and ran my finger over the pages until the paper became threadbare. I muttered to myself, made up a story, sometimes relying on the pictures, and imagined that it was printed on those pages. Reading other people’s texts also encouraged me to play this game. When I liked what I’d read, I took the book and began declaiming my own words in the same spirit and style. I kept up this practice for many years, having felt a deep need for such creative expression. It seemed vitally necessary, a true inspiration.
As for ars poetica, yes, in my poetry you can often encounter a reflection on the poetic experience itself. A form of autoreferentiality. In that moment of unfolding, poetry poses a question about itself, about the foundations and possibilities of poetic speech. I feel that we lack the language capable of revealing what poetry is from within. When I’m writing a poem, regardless of its subject, there is always a revelation of poetry itself, poetry turned not only outward but also towards itself.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Tell us about your creative process. How are your poems written? What about prose? Where does the work on yourself end and the work on the text begin for you? Is the material world (the nighttime, a table, a cup of tea) important for creativity? Do you edit yourself? Does your “mental controller” (a character in Gorbunova’s short story “На правах рекламы [Advertisement]”) intervene? What is the most difficult part of writing?
Alla Gorbunova: Usually, a target appears (sometimes I catch it, like a hunter), a point-like and precise note, a condensed whole, a pure creative possibility, a certain intensity, a call for me. It can be said that I “see” this intensity, this target. However, a more accurate metaphor here is perhaps recognizing the smell. Indeed, not only a word or an image can carry meaning, but also a smell – in a more primordial way. There is something from hunting prey by its smell in the creative process for me.
The distinction between poetry and prose is not critical to my process. Both are about seeing for me. Sometimes I see something, and it’s clear that this is poetry. Or that this is prose. I mean, it’s clear that this particular intensity is meant to unfold as poetry, while that one – as prose. And sometimes, I see that it can be unfolded both ways and I can put it down as either poetry or prose.
Working on a text, when it’s taken out of the context of working on one’s own self, is a purely technical handicraft. In my case, it would be more correct to say “work within the text” instead of working on it. Someone working on the text creates an object, cultivates it. I don’t work on the text but within it. I have to work so that the text can work. Creativity, writing, poetry, and prose are all a work of consciousness. Here, the quality of visual and mental attention plays a more important role than craft.
The material world is important. The transcendental can permeate things. Things can accumulate memory and time. They can speak and think. Sometimes I get to hear their thoughts. Strictly speaking, these are not thoughts in our habitual understanding, but a certain murmur, noise, movement, tension – something happening inside the matter, though nothing semantically meaningful. Things are restless on the inside.
Actually, all things are foam—quantum foam, which has been theorized to be the basis for all matter. Things accumulate memory, they are not stable inside, they consist of this foam and can hunt people and steal our consciousness. Things constantly invite a body: eat me, take me, touch me, play with me. Inside our consciousness there is a selective mechanism determining which invitations to accept and which to reject. This selective mechanism can function poorly or even be broken, and then things do whatever they want to a person.
I edit myself very little. The evaluative function that judges the text as though from an external critical perspective works automatically and usually at the moment of writing. I constantly want to be writing something new. I simply don’t have time to write down everything I want, so I’m unable to focus on things already written, because, otherwise, that new thing that I urgently need to put down will slip away. By the way, it wasn’t always like this for me in terms of editing. When I was younger, in high school, I worked on form a lot. Back then, I felt that I needed this, constantly gave myself assignments, polished my craft, forced myself to write poetry in all the complex ancient meters, and so on. I wanted to know many words and forced myself to read the dictionary. This is how it was before, and now I usually write the final version right away and rarely revisit it. I don’t have multiple drafts.
The hardest part of writing is also the easiest. To be alive, not just physically, but in the actual sense, to keep your heart alive. Is it difficult or easy? On the one hand, it is extremely easy, and on the other hand – impossible. I feel I need to balance on that single point at which a person is alive. That point at which there is no yesterday or tomorrow, where you part from yourself and reach that something you were created for – life. The creative act happens at that single point – where there’s no past or future, where you yourself cease to exist. When you create within that point and not here, in this world – it becomes clear in the text written here. There’s life in the work.
Alexandra Tkacheva: What role does the reader play for you? What life do you imagine for your words once they become available to the reader?
Alla Gorbunova: I think the poet writes not for the reader but for the perfect addressee – a certain absolute instance that cannot be embodied in any concrete reader. And the reader can come and live in this text if they can and want to. The work is, like Nietzsche puts it, for everyone and no one.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Which of your predecessors or contemporaries have influenced your work? Is there a point in tracing Platonov, Gogol, or Kafka, who you once said were your favorite writers? After reading your essay on Elena Shvarts, I’ve started noticing the overlaps in imagery and tone between your and Shvarts’s poetry. How do you feel about such attempts to establish a literary genealogy?
Alla Gorbunova: In my view, the search for influences and overlaps is often an attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Or worse than that: to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. As a result of this attempt (regardless of the validity of these influences and overlaps), the seeker is left with the familiar piece of art and fails to recognize the unfamiliar.
In any case, I leave the search for contexts, connections, and overlaps to the critics.
Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your take on criticism? How do you combine creative and critical practices? What are your guiding principles for analyzing texts written by others?
Alla Gorbunova: In Russia, we have some absolutely wonderful, subtle, and insightful critics and I’m grateful for their reviews of my books. I cannot complain really, I have seen a lot of interesting texts from critics and bloggers about my work and these have brought me great joy. But generally, it seems that many people who undertake the task of writing about books and even have authority in certain circles, do it superficially. They briefly describe the work and provide their assessment. They don’t want to analyze and work with the text, fail to see its context or perceive what lies outside the scope of their expectations and ideas. Most importantly, their hearts are not open or ready to try to understand and hear the other. Even the way they write carries a surprisingly revolting, brash intonation, as if they have seen all things in the world and know everything about everyone. This intonation is full of fatigue, smugness, depreciation, and contempt. These critics do not presume the author innocent: the fact of publication means for them that the latter wants to sell them something, foist it on them, while they consider it as consumers and say: “alright, this will do” or “ugh, I don’t wanna buy this.” There is no understanding that the author writes their book not because they expect something from the critics or society but for no reason, because they cannot behave otherwise. These people often have a consumerist attitude to books, it’s like a food cycle for them: consuming and then producing an evaluative review. And they think everything exists just for this purpose. I’m reminded of the time when I taught philosophy to first-year physics majors. We were supposed to discuss the philosophical texts and try to understand them, but often the students simply expressed their value judgements and opinions. I found this practice strange. “Opinion” is actually a cunning thing, a lot has been written on it in the philosophical tradition. Opinion and thought are widely distinct.
Criticism, for me, is definitely not about opinions or judgments. It’s rather a possibility of thought. A possibility of understanding or misunderstanding, where the latter can also be valuable. When I engage in criticism, I combine the analytical and the hermeneutic approaches, trying to understand and shed light on how the text is organized on different levels and what stands behind it. In a way, I explore the author’s artistic mind. Tracing the links and contexts, I primarily draw on my own encounter with this text, analyze the interaction that happened between us. Hence, my criticism is not only about the author I’m writing about, but also about me, I also open up in it. I can be biased but I try to see and acknowledge my bias. Fundamentally, I try to withhold my own taste and ideas about literature from my analysis of the work under review, but instead look for its inner law, read it according to the rules that are most applicable. And my own plasticity is important here. Not judging the text based on the primitive procedure of correlating it to my idea of good and bad but seeing it on the atomic level. For example, when you write about different poets, you can see very clearly that they understand poetry and poetic utterance differently on the atomic level. You have to change your optics accordingly. You have to be extremely flexible but cannot lose yourself. And here’s how I combine poetic and critical practices: I try not to write criticism at all. And if I write it, I try to do it in a way that enriches me as a poet. So that I get something out of exploring another poet’s thinking and their poetic world, or clarify my relationship with this author, or understand something I was trying to understand. That is to say, for me, criticism is a work of the conscious mind just like poetry and prose.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Your poems and short stories have been translated into many languages, including English. Is it important for you to participate in the translation process, and maybe affect how a prospective readers’ community that doesn’t speak Russian receives your work?
Alla Gorbunova: I prefer to meet a good translator – a professional and a fellow thinker – and entrust my work to them. In the case of English, I try to check translations for obvious semantic misunderstandings, which can happen with the best translators. In the case of other languages that I don’t speak, I cannot do this for the obvious reason. But I’m always open to participating in the translation process and ready to answer in detail any questions from the translator.
Alexandra Tkacheva:It’s the End of the World, My Love was categorized as autofiction. How did you come to this genre? What kind of relationships exist between the author and the heroines in your texts?
Alla Gorbunova: No one knows what genre this is. You may categorize it as autofiction or not. Honestly, I have discovered this word “autofiction” only recently after the release of It’s the End of the World, My Love. I saw it in the reviews and then googled the definition. Current interest in autofiction was news to me: I didn’t aim for any trends and just wrote the book that felt organic to me at that moment. However, I think that the fact that different writers in various countries choose this genre or, to maybe put it better, create it, is not because of a fad but rather because they independently exhibit the desire for this kind of writing. Most likely, this desire is caused by certain underlying changes in our perception of literature and the demands we make on it, by the cultural shifts and the changing forms of our sensibility. Probably, there is an ongoing search for new ways of building a narrative and assembling a text, and autofiction is a possible direction of this search.
But when you talk about autofiction in contemporary Russian literature – here everything instantly turns into a trend, a movement that seeks to capture, expand, and mark the symbolic field. I can’t stand all this hustle. I like it better when my books are described as “fuck knows what this is.”
Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your literary-artistic world built upon? Your childhood memories, the books you have devoured, dreams, the collective unconscious? Is it a single Wonderland with multiple entry points, the three worlds you mention in “Пред вратами [Before the Gates],” a folding shelf at your mom’s bed-foot? Who are your guides here?
Alla Gorbunova: I cannot answer this question, you see. Because if I do, we will end up with another blueprint or outline. My books speak for themselves; everything is visible there. I generally think the world has no foundation. Not only the world created by a work of art, but also our common world is founded on the lack of foundation. And artistic possibility emerges from this lack of foundation as well. However huge and total the world created by a work of art is, there must be an empty space, a blind spot. That empty space is a pledge of openness that enables the world, including the world of a work of art, and prevents it from turning into an enclosed structure. The world cannot be captured by a net.
Alexandra Tkacheva: You write about your experience of growing up, female friendship, sexuality, and motherhood. Are you embracing a woman’s perspective? Does your work have a feminist agenda?
Alla Gorbunova: I never had a female identity as such, I don’t identify myself through the traditional gender binaries. I just write about human experience and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a female experience or not. Some regions of this experience are considered female, while others are not. There’s nothing deliberately feminist in my writing but there’s something else that might also work to benefit women. My internally free heroine can also liberate, and annoy certain kinds of men, those who believe that a woman should know her place and that thinking, art, self-knowledge, extreme freedom, and radical experiments are not for women. My heroine, in my view, dramatically illustrates that this is not the case.
Alexandra Tkacheva: In your poems we often observe metamorphoses, the borders between opposites are erased, and the human lyrical subject dissolves, while animals, plants, and objects acquire agency. How do you feel about a posthumanist reading of your poetry?
Alla Gorbunova: It’s true, in my poems, everyone and everything is alive, animals speak, and there is no clear distinction between the living and the dead. The borders between opposites are being erased and everything turns into everything else. Some people can interpret this as posthumanism, others, in contrast, as a return to archaic mythical consciousness (maybe these approaches are not mutually exclusive). But the connections in this world are poetic, amorous, and existential and not based on technical rationality. I still understand posthumanism as a technological utopia (using technologies to transform bodies, seeking physical immortality, merging human consciousness and the computer). And I don’t really trust technological utopias.
In my view, the main poles of attraction that determine the direction in which we reflect on technicity today are Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon. Heidegger’s philosophy treats technology with caution and focuses on revealing its threatening side. And Simondon analyzed technical objects from another side, offering a strange inhuman optics. The possibility of intersection of digital and human lives, the possibility of a not quite human perspective on our everyday life, unusual, bold ideas and futuristic forecasts ushering in anthropotechnic hybrids and affecting our existence as humans scare and fascinate me at the same time. They always make me question whether, in our mixing of human and technical, we are starting to schematize the unschematizeable, universalize the unique, count the uncountable – apply our calculating thinking to the things that cannot be calculated.
Alexandra Tkacheva: Do you identify as a Russian poet? Is your writing grounded in time and space of contemporary Russia? Do you feel the need or responsibility to make sense of the ongoing events for your readers?
Alla Gorbunova: I perceive my poems as a part of the Russian poetic tradition as well as a part of world poetry. For me, these two things are not contradictory, and I think that contemporary Russophone poetry can, on one hand, be deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and, on the other hand, be completely open, future-oriented, and welcoming to the experience of other cultures and languages.
Actually, I have my own take on tradition. For me, tradition isn’t an “inheritance.” I cannot say I need any inheritance. It feels like creation always happens from the ashes, in conditions of an original catastrophe. There is no default “cultural heritage” or “tradition” at all, it’s a fiction we’re taught in school. The continuity of a poetic tradition is established by every poet anew. Every poet assembles this tradition themselves: it’s a shadow cast into the past, and a searchlight directed towards the future. A poetic tradition needs to be obtained, assembled from the initial ruin. Every creator started from the ashes: in the 19th and in the 18th centuries, as well as today. For me, as a poet, this beam through the past illuminates names that are very different from each other. My favorite poets from the first part of the 20th century are Velimir Khlebnikov and Osip Mandelstam, and from the second – the poets of the Leningrad Underground: Leonid Aronzon, Elena Shvarts, Aleksandr Mironov, Sergei Stratanovskii.
I think it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the local and global events without being a hypocrite today. There are two kinds of danger: the first comes from following the headlines too closely and turning art into a front page, and the second – from building an ivory tower and treating your art as detached from reality, so it becomes a decorative embroidery. I think we need to seek some living, non-trivial ways of letting social reality into the text.
There are things around us that you can hardly ignore because if you pretend you don’t relate to them or don’t see them or they don’t exist, this is also a certain position, a way of relating. There are things you simply cannot stay away from because it equals betrayal. And there are more and more things like that every day.
But we should not forget that art has an autonomous capacity to produce its own differences: it creates its own space and time so it cannot live simply as a socially mediated phenomenon or be reduced to certain conventions. (Which does not contradict the critical potential of art: the creation of space and time itself is an act of radical social critique as it creates an opportunity to change our point of view and highlight things and ideas that had previously gone unnoticed.)
After all, contemporaneity does not contain things but is created by them. Time doesn’t act as a container for things, but things themselves create, produce time. An object of art does not merely satisfy the requirements of some conventionally established contemporaneity, but creates its moment in time. The so-called contemporary moment is always being created by writers, artists, among others. A work of art defines and forms time.
Alexandra Tkacheva is a PhD student in the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include modern and contemporary periods in Russian literature and culture. As a graduate student, Alexandra applies feminist and posthumanist critique to the works of canonical and lesser-known Russian-speaking authors. She graduated from Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan) with a BA in World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in 2019. When not deconstructing patriarchy, she rides her bike, learns about the human mind, or wanders through the local coffee shops.
We’re delighted to publish our conversation with Konstantin Kropotkin, an author and literary and film critic who reviews LGBT books and movies, as well as trends in Russian culture. Kropotkin’s novels and collections of short stories centering queer lives are available on Amazon, in Russian. His commentary on queer culture appears daily on his Telegram blog “Sodom i umora,” and he contributes full-form critical essays to top Russian-language publications. Kropotkin lives in Germany and this conversation was conducted in English and Russian over email, and subsequently translated by the interviewer.
Olga Zilberbourg: Much of your fiction has been focused on portraying the lives of gay men, and as a critic you pay particular attention to LGBT literature and film. Your popular Telegram blog “Sodom i umora” is dedicated to queer books and movies in Russian or in translation to Russian. Despite the retrograde homophobic laws that Russia has passed in recent years, and horrific persecution of gay people in Chechnya, you have shown that Russophone queer literature is a vibrant field. In your blog you seem to strive for balance: you write about various forms of homophobia and also about the many creators that are participating in Russophone queer culture. How would you describe your cultural project as a critic? Does this project change in any way when you turn to fiction?
Konstantin Kropotkin: To get through to the mind, you need to pave the way to the heart. I have arrived at this principle in the early 2000s, when I began to write queer prose, and today I continue to uphold this principle. In 2018, I launched my project #содомиумора where I illustrate the idea that queer literature and queer film, on the one hand, follow their own conventions, and on the other, speak to universal values and can be of interest to a very wide audience. I’m trying to squelch the prejudice that LGBTIQ themes are exotic, incomprehensible, far away, alien. Using examples from books and movies, I’m trying to make the case that these themes are socially significant, have artistic value, are entertaining, familiar, and accessible to anyone.
In other words, I’m working on the same problems as the LGBTIQ rights organizations, though unlike them I’m addressing not only queer people, but an audience of potential allies (“Here, mom, if you want to understand me better, read this!”). This is why I welcome opportunities to write for publications that don’t position themselves as queer. These publications allow my essays, book and film criticism to reach people who are not familiar with LGBTIQ issues. These publications are also a means of habituating queer content within the professional communities, in this case, of film and literary critics.
In the same vein, my Telegram channel #содомиумора is deeply valuable to me as it allows me to deliver a service to my subscribers: everyone, no matter whether they are affiliated with the LGBTIQ community or not, can come here to find a movie or a book to enjoy. Then, the fiction itself does the work of enlightenment, providing readers or viewers with role models, stock phrases useful in everyday life, typical situations, vocabulary for articulating experiences that previously had been taboo.
I also showcase foreign books that would be good to have in Russian translation. I know that publishers and editors read my columns, and my recommendations can be of use to them. I should note that, unlike books, foreign queer movies are translated to Russian almost instantly. This is a paradox of a country where it’s difficult to make money on LGBTIQ content. Queer movies are pirated and translated by the pirates, and nobody represents the interests of the copyright holders in Russia. Russian distributors often steer clear of queer movies, especially indie productions: these movies are rarely profitable even in the West, and the distributors prefer to avoid the risk, given the hostile legal environment.
The work of education that I provide in my reviews, as well as the information provided by the books and movies themselves, is particularly crucial in the country whose government backs homophobia. Adopted in 2013, the “gay propaganda” law endangers the lives of queer people and has had a damaging effect on the Russian cultural landscape. The law is vaguely written and has been used selectively—as an instrument of repressions. I set out to illustrate, with examples, why homophobia causes harm in every way: both in people’s lives, and in the sphere of cultural production.
Olga Zilberbourg: I first came across your work in Gorky, and the essay that grabbed my attention, “Waiting for Boring Men,” was dedicated to the vibrancy of LGBT literature from Georgia. Invited as a guest of honor to the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgia made LGBT literature one of the central themes of its program. In this piece, you pointed out that Georgian literature has been able to address the traumas that Russian literature still dismisses as imaginary. I want to pause for a moment on the traumas you allude to: I assume you’re talking about the homophobic policies of the USSR and the near total silencing of the existence of LGBT people during the late Soviet era. What do you think have been some of the difficulties that Russophone writers experience in approaching these traumas? Conversely, do you believe it’s possible to sidestep the Soviet legacy altogether and to focus on contemporary issues without delving into the past?
Konstantin Kropotkin: The example of Georgia, a fellow post-Soviet state, shows the way contemporary Russian literature could develop if Russia’s homophobia wasn’t a government-level enterprise. (I use the word “homophobia” in an old-fashioned way that includes trans- and bi- and queer-phobia.) Both Russia and Georgia share history as republics of the Soviet Union, but today Georgia is pursuing a democratic route, while Russia is set on the reconstruction of the Soviet monstrous form of government. This difference shows up, among other things, in the literary production of the two countries. Notably, Georgia is a much smaller country than Russia, with less than 4 million citizens, and a relatively poor one. Its literary community is correspondingly smaller, and trends within it are more noticeable. It’s also more flexible in its response to the demands of the times, and to social change. What we observe as true for Georgian literature might well become true for Russian literature at a much later date. It’s important to consider how Georgia is addressing prejudices against queer people. There, LGBTIQ books are published with governmental support, which serves the advancement of their national literature overall and increases the visibility of queer experiences. This is crucial knowledge for Russian knowledge makers.
The Soviet Union’s LGBTIQ history demands a comprehensive, expert reflection, and I think, sooner or later, this will become obvious to people in Russia as well. Unfortunately, much of this history has already become inaccessible: most of the people who’d borne the Soviet queer experience have silently passed away, and so many important stories have been buried with them, unrecorded.
Olga Zilberbourg: You have thought deeply and argued for the importance of genre in the world of literary production. You have written about the slowly emerging genre of LGBT literature in Russia—and about the refusal of some writers who do center LGBT characters in their books to accept the label of “LGBT book” as though it were a diminishment of their accomplishment, wishing their books to be treated as literary fiction because it is a more desirable category. Something analogous happens, I think to women writers, who often refuse the label of “woman” writer believing that to be a diminishment. How do you explain the reluctance to use these terms? To what extent, do you think, is this a reflection on the state of literary criticism in Russia today?
Konstantin Kropotkin: Yes, in Russia, there’s still a strong prejudice against the marker “LGBT literature” (the term “queer fiction” is still in its nascent phase); people feel that it’s a marker of second-rate literature, that it signifies something overly sexualized, scandalous. The reason for this, likely, lies with the Soviet tradition of literary studies that treated sexuality as a taboo subject. Another explanation might be in the hierarchical structure of thought—at its heart, an imperial quality. An empire cannot accommodate the world’s multipolarity; the value of an individual, the significance of each unique “point of view,” is outside of its purview.
This state of affairs is slowly changing, thanks, to a great extent, to the escalating prominence of women’s voices (including the voices of queer women). Both within literature written originally in Russian and within literature published in translation to Russian, women writers are gaining more attention and significance. Dismantling the outmoded status quo with the help of “the female gaze” is useful for queer literature—it clarifies the value of diversity in literary spheres. I believe the cumulative effect of incremental cultural change will play its part, too: for queer work to achieve visibility within the professional community, we need to see commercially successful publications of queer books, large print runs, and dynamic, publicly out queer authors. We’re bound to see all of these things in the next few years—provided that the government will not launch a new homophobic campaign.
Olga Zilberbourg: Your own novel Sodom i umora (2007) is a delightful romp about three gay men who share an apartment in the middle of Moscow in the early 2000s, getting into situations that make me think you set out to write a version of the American sitcom “Will and Grace” set in Moscow. Do you agree with this assessment? What I particularly enjoyed about this novel is that you’re both reproducing lovable stereotypes about gay men (i.e. fashion sense and gaydar) and complicating them, including with the specificities of everyday life in Moscow. The guys are for instance not out to their families and neighbors, which creates a number of situations that are funny in a way deep trauma can be sometimes processed as laughter. Did you have a sense of a particular audience you were writing this book for? How did your book resonate with readers in Russia?
Konstantin Kropotkin: My novel Sodom i umora was written spontaneously, without an outline; it didn’t go through a professional revision and editing process. It was a new form for me at the time and, as such, from where I stand now, has a number of shortcomings. (Artistically, my later queer books Dnevnik odnogo g and Zhivut takie parni are far more successful.) Overall, however, Sodom i umora is an original, for Russian literature, attempt to write about “gays with a human face” (in the words of one of my readers). I wanted to show gay men as approachable, likeable, and moving, and to achieve this I relied on certain devices that are rather cinematic in nature. This is a sitcom novel: I wrote it, imagining a TV series. I’ve never seen “Will and Grace,” but I was thinking about situational comedy as a genre, as an idea. (At the time I studied playwriting, and a few of my plays were later published.)
One other source for this book, I should say, was Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. It had a great effect on me. This American classic of gay literature is yet to be translated to Russian; I’d read Maupin’s novels in German translation. I was attracted to the idea of home as a safe space, particularly important for a queer person in a hostile environment. Truly, my novel is an embodiment of such a “safe space”—the very book is a place that a reader can inhabit without getting hurt. Later, I used the genre of autofiction in my book Zhivut takie parni to talk about the everyday happiness of a partnership between gay men (I chose selected chapters of that book for the definitive collection Takie parni): this is a story about a German-Russian gay family living in contemporary Germany.
The novel Sodom i umora has had a happy life. Right upon the publication of the first chapters online, the characters immediately found a warm reception from the online audience; later, the book was published in print by the now defunct Kvir Press. Soon afterwards, it was picked up by a German publisher. The German translation, Russen WG, showed good sales numbers. For a German-speaking audience there wasn’t anything particularly new in the plot and the everyday events described in the book, while within the body of Russian-language prose, Sodom i umora remains to this day a unique phenomenon: tragicomic fiction about queer people is yet to materialize as a Russian-language genre.
At the beginning of 2010s, I wrote a sequel. Sozhiteli, a mystery and a comedy of manners, took up the story of my characters ten years later. As a result of the “gay propaganda” law, the book’s only chance for publication was self-publishing. It’s available on Ridero. Perhaps, in another ten years, I will write the final chapter of this story.
Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve particularly enjoyed your end of the year columns where you summarize not only the important LGBT books that have come out but also devote some time to highlighting the trends in publishing, promotion, and reception of queer literature. You’ve concluded your 2020 post with a very hopeful outlook: LGBT books are coming out, the scandals they cause are few and far between, and the spectrum of LGBT literature in Russian is starting to resemble what’s been happening across Western Europe. It seems that translation is playing a large role in this process: many books on your list are translations of American and West European authors. What role do you think capitalism is playing in this process and in Russia’s ability to participate in this global marketplace—not only of ideas, but of books as physical objects that have certain sales numbers attached to them?
Konstantin Kropotkin: The strictness of Russian laws is matched only by the laxity of their enforcement. Today, the book industry treats the “gay propaganda” law mostly as a fiction. Government representatives pretend that they enforce the law; publishers that they obey it (in fact, both merely fulfill the required formalities). Publishers attach a sticker “18+” on the covers of queer books, and in most cases, that’s all there is to it. Queer books for teenagers do reach their target audience. However, the homophobic “norm” does increase self-censorship, both among the authors and the publishers. Telling the stories of queer people remains challenging, and the themes of homo- trans- and bisexuality are largely absent in print. The very existence of the homophobic law hangs over literary authors as the sword of Damocles, threatening the development of queer voices and movements.
That said, the number of LGBTIQ books is increasing. It’s becoming obvious that queer books can be money-makers. High-profile queer fiction is translated to Russian at an increasing rate (and the quality is improving). Simultaneously, publishers are looking to create their own queer stars. One example of such publishing success is Mikita Franko, who writes as a “trans-guy” (in his own words). He published two novels in 2020: one, a story about a family with two dads, Dni nashei zhizni, and another, about a family where one of the parents is a trans person. The first of these novels has been a great commercial success, and the second was warmly received by the critics. I was happy to have been asked by the publishers to contribute a blurb to Franko’s first book: my praise was displayed on the back cover of Dni nashei zhizni alongside contributions from the representatives of “conventional” literature. I expect that this novel will soon be translated into foreign languages, and I’ve heard that TV-series rights are in negotiations.
As long as the government doesn’t impose homophobic censorship, capitalism performs miracles. In Russia, there are at least two small presses that openly mention the significance of queer literature in their promotional materials—Popcorn Books and No Kidding Press. Large publishing houses are producing queer books ever more readily, though they try not to attract too much attention to the LGBT aspects of these books. I don’t think this is a partisan war against a homophobic government. More likely, they want to turn a profit with minimum risk. One recent example is the novel Moy beliy, a bildungsroman about a heterosexual young woman, a Muscovite, who is growing up with two mothers. This semi-autobiographical novel by Kseniya Burzhskaya was published by Inspiria, an imprint of the giant publishing house Eksmo.
Some books that are emerging today are of exceptional artistic quality. Katya Chistyakova’s novel Tam, na perimetre tells the story of a relationship between a homeless gay man and a volunteer of a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless; it can be compared, in part, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Chistyakova’s novel received a small print run from a large publishing house, and though it’s a superb portrait of a queer person, the book was not marketed as a queer novel. (I see my job as a queer critic to point out the inequity of this approach.)
Notably, most authors don’t like to have the term “queer” attached to their work. Some go quite far in their desire to distance themselves from the LGBTIQ community. To a Westerner, Mikita Franko’s first interviews might appear as straight homophobia (I believe the young author had been insufficiently informed about queer history and theory). Kseniya Burzhskaya, who penned the novel about a lesbian family and had lived in France for a few years, protested in an interview against the usage of the word “queer” to define her book. According to her, queer desire is not differentiated from other forms of desire, it doesn’t have its own specificity. These words, I believe, were dictated by the wish to be perceived as an author conforming to the conventions of Russian-language literature. In both of these cases, the books speak more progressively than their authors. A writer doesn’t need to be a literary scholar, but my task as a queer critic is to point out convincingly the areas where the writer has made a bad call; this method of trial and error is the only way to formulate a new social consensus, appropriate for the contemporary moment.
Olga Zilberbourg: What role do you think diaspora authors, authors who live outside of Russia, are playing in the Russophone LGBT literary space?
Konstantin Kropotkin: Personally, I have the opportunity to dedicate myself to queer literature as an author and a critic only because I reside outside of Russia. Nobody censures me; I lead an active social life as a gay man, and I can publicize this experience in Russian without fear. I think my experience is an emblematic one. There are other queer authors who write in Russian and live outside of Russia, and they bridge two world views, the Western and the Russian, and among other things, this reveals new opportunities for Russian literature. Lida Yusupova, who lived in Canada and Belize, published lesbian prose and now has become a prominent representative of the new Russian poetry. Evgeny Shtorn, in Ireland, wrote a good autofiction, Khroniki bezhenstva, where he voiced his experiences as a gay refugee. Anatoly Vishevsky, a writer from Ukraine, who has taught at a U.S. university and now lives in Prague, wrote an excellent Russian-language novel, Khrupkie fantazii oberbossierera Loisa, which can be read in the vein of and developing the ideas of English-language canonical queer fiction from Edmund White to Alan Hollinghurst to Michael Cunningham. This novel was published in Russia last year, and I was glad that my support had contributed to making this publication possible.
Olga Zilberbourg: Contemporary Russophone LGBT authors emerge from across Russia — though homophobia is, reportedly, stronger outside of Moscow’s city center, there is plenty of talent outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg and young people are finding creative ways to share their writing. Do you see a trend in LGBT literature coming from Russian regions, or are the books that are becoming visible still important outliers (I’m thinking, for instance, about Mikita Franko)?
Konstantin Kropotkin: I’m confident that there are noteworthy writers in Russia outside of the metropolises. So many unique queer experiences have been left in the darkness, so many stories could become wonderful books. Considering current global literary trends, there might be a lot of interest in the voices of queer people from minority ethnic backgrounds—Chukchi, Evenki, Tatar. Indeed, Russia is a multiethnic state.
Today, queer authors from the provinces produce exclusively self-published writing, using fanfic websites, often anonymously. The example of Mikita Franko coming from the provinces, however, demonstrates that a queer person is able to become a successful author in Russia. Publishers claim that they are ready to publish homegrown, Russian LGBT literature. The demand for queer voices is growing.
Olga Zilberbourg: I’ve been using the moniker “LGBT” literature in this Q&A, and I want to pause on the fact that terminology remains a hotly debated topic. In your blog and elsewhere you’ve used terms “gay literature” (гей-литература) and “queer literature” (квир-литература). My question at the moment is about the comparative visibility of the books and authors representing the entire spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities in Russia. What identities do you see represented in Russophone literature most vibrantly and what identities do you think still remain underrepresented?
Konstantin Kropotkin: I persistently use the term “queer literature” (квир-литература) because it describes the entire spectrum of identities. This general term sounds better in Russian than “LGBTIQ+” (ЛГБТИК+). I also allow myself to use the shortened term “LGBT prose” (ЛГБТ-проза). The euphonic, pleasing sounds of the terminology are important to me, because I want my work to be received by a wide audience. I need to use language that’s not overly complex and isn’t marked as fundamentally, radically new. This is why I allow myself to use the somewhat old-fashioned synonyms—for instance, “gay prose” (гей-проза), a term that doesn’t describe the rainbow spectrum. I introduce new terms with caution—readers of my blog, my articles, my books must feel that I want to be understood. The measured, unintrusive introduction of the new vocabulary naturalizes these words in everyday parlance.
It’s clear that the Russian language lacks words to describe queer people. The case of agender, nonbinary people is particularly revealing. We are yet to arrive at a consensus about how to mark nonbinary identity in Russian, how to appropriately describe it. The arguments among linguists have been gaining notice. Some translators, including Tatiana Zborovskaya, attempt to translate Western agender books, books free from gender categories. The results of these attempts are quite interesting. It turns out that Russian grammar is capable of representing a gender-neutral character. Zborovskaya is translating the novel by a Swiss author Anna Stern, das alles hier, jetzt, in which the protagonists are not marked as “men” or “women.” According to the first published fragments from this work, Russian language is able to match the capabilities of German in this regard. (The translator has written a scholarly article about this.)
Olga Zilberbourg: Is it even productive to ask a question that centers the Western notion of “identity” in the Russian context? After all, coming out as anything still feels dangerous in Russia, and authors often prefer to obscure their personal identity.
Konstantin Kropotkin: It’s particularly important to manifest one’s queerness in the country where the laws against “gay propaganda” are in force. Though, of course, one ought to do this only when not in danger for one’s life. In the large Russian cities, there are opportunities for this. Things are different in smaller cities and in the regions where patriarchal traditions dominate—in Chechnya, for instance, where people die if their affiliation with the LGBTIQ community is discovered. An author is free to provide as much information about themselves as they consider necessary. I don’t think a single, universal strategy of queer self-representation could exist in such a large country as Russia. My rule is: if you are able to speak out, do so, but take care of yourself first; you only have one life—don’t take unnecessary risks.
Olga Zilberbourg: Last but not least, “Sodom i umora” is the title of your current Telegram blog, and your novel from 2007. I’ve also come across a text from 2003, where you used it as a title for a fictional medicine. I’ve been thinking of how to translate it to English, and the best I can come up with is “Sodom and raw humor” — to preserve the similarity with Gomorrah, though Russian “umora” is one of those untranslatable words that I think most closely describe this notion of laughter from deep trauma. Where did the phrase “Sodom i umora” come from and what does it mean to you?
Konstantin Kropotkin: “Sodom i umora” is word play and a callback to that tale about the sad fate of Sodom and Gomorrah that religious moralists love to use as a threat. The protagonists of my debut novel call their house “Sodom i umora.” To explain my method in this novel, I came up with the “safety instructions,” as they do for drugs. I don’t want to “cure” people from homophobia. Using entertainment literature as a placebo, I am asking people to cure themselves. I want them to use their own reason to arrive at the conclusion that homophobia is a hindrance for all of us.
In 2009, as I was arranging my novel for the German publisher, I proposed the title Sodom and Humorrha for it. (The publisher decided that it was too unwieldy and the book was published under the title Russen WG.) The version “Sodom and raw humor” sounds, perhaps, even better, it’s more precise and rhythmically closer to the original. Yes, laughter, even when it’s bitter, tragic laughter, is curative. That first book was a kind of therapy for me. It helped me to heal (or accept) my own psychic traumas—in Russia, I had been a victim of homophobia more than once. My funniest stories come out during the moments of the greatest emotional upheaval, when I feel exceptionally awful. Laughter is a step on the way back up, toward recovery. It’s only the very first step.
Noncommercial project #содомиумора with informational content about queer culture can be accessed on a variety of platforms:
Telegram (new content daily; is particularly important in Russia as a space protected from government censorship): https://t.me/gaybooksfilms
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!
When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
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.
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?
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.
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:
William Barclay, with Bulat Khanov’s novel about an angry academic, Gnev.
Michele Berdy, with various stories and a novella by Tasha Karlyuka.
Huw Davies, with Dmitry Bykov’s historical novel June.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega, with short fiction “Aslan’s Bride” by Nadezhda Chernova and “Black Snow of December” by Asel Omar.
Annie Fisher and Alex Karsavin, co-translating Ilya Danishevsky’s queer modernist experimental novel Mannelig inChains.
Polly Gannon, with Sana Valiulina’s Soviet-Estonian historical novel, I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard.
Lisa Hayden, with Alexei Salnikov’s debut novel The Department.
Alex Shvartsman, with K.A. Teryna’s science fiction novella The Factory.
Isaac Sligh and Viktoria Malik, co-translating Viktor Pelevin’s novel iPhuck10.
Sian Valvis, with Narine Abgaryan’s semi-autobiographical novel of an Armenian childhood, Manunia.
Sarah Vitali, with Figgle-Miggle (Ekaterina Chebotaryova)’s novel You Love These Films So Much.
Lucy Webster, with Andrei Astvatsaturov’s satirical novel on Russian academia, People in Nude.
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.”
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.
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.