Book Love: Julia Voznesenskaya’s The Women’s Decameron

(This blog post had to happen sometime.)

Sure, we’ve all fallen in love with people, but some of us have also fallen in love with books. I was in my early twenties, living in a newly post-Soviet Moscow, where I’d gone to work after college. Censorship had collapsed along with the Soviet Union, and many types of previously banned literature were flooding the Russian market. Tables with piles of books for sale were regular features outside many of the city’s metro stations. They were an incongruous mix of serious fiction by the likes of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, self-help manuals, erotica of dubious provenance, and Russian translations of detective novels by James Hadley Chase. I don’t have an exact memory, but given that a good number of my books from that period were purchased off such tables, it is highly likely that this is where I found a novel titled Zhenskii DekameronThe Women’s Decameron (transl. W.B. Linton, publ. Atlantic Monthly Press; other editions in Russian and English exist). Without a doubt, the fact that the word zhenskii was in the title was a major selling point. It was by a writer named Julia Voznesenskaya (here and elsewhere, I am using the spelling of authors’ names as they appear on their English translations, but given my willingness to die on the hill of Library of Congress transliteration, I am absolutely cringing inside). I’d never heard of her. She changed my life.

Voznesenskaya wrote The Women’s Decameron in 1985 while in exile in what was then West Germany. Many writers were expelled from the Soviet Union, but what makes her case highly unusual was that it was due to feminist activity. She came to feminism via her involvement in the dissident movement in the 1970s, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. Although she wasn’t initially interested in women’s issues, time in all-women’s camps and prisons changed her mind. She and three other women founded the Soviet feminist movement (it was tiny, but still a thing); they formed a women’s club and put out journals of women’s writing, for which they were hounded by the KGB and made to leave. Three of the four founders, including Voznesenskaya, were religious, and their views resembled Russian Orthodox teachings more than feminist theory, but The Women’s Decameron bears little trace of this. In the West, they broke up over their religious-secular divide, but not before being interviewed by Ms. Magazine. In the process of editing this post, Olga found a Calvert Journal article about the exhibition Leningrad Feminism 1979, devoted to this Soviet feminist collective; it was shown in St. Petersburg earlier this year, and once COVID-19 conditions allow, will move to Moscow and then to locations in Western Europe. Thank you so much, Olga, for this amazing, and unexpected find — hopefully, this exhibition is a start to making these Soviet feminists better known in both Russia and the West. Voznesenskaya herself won’t know about it: she died in Berlin in 2015. There’s a good chance, though, that she wouldn’t want anything to do with it. After emigration, she wrote detective novels, but then spent some time in a French monastery, whereby she renounced her previous works and turned to writing Russian Orthodox fantasy (don’t ask; I don’t know).

The Women’s Decameron is Voznesenskaya’s first, and best-known work, although in this case, “best-known” is a relative term (I was surprised and overjoyed when several people on Twitter responded to my, um, numerous posts saying they’d read it, although given all the brilliant Russian literature people on Twitter, I shouldn’t have been surprised). Because Voznesenskaya was exiled, The Women’s Decameron was not published in the Soviet Union; when it became available in post-Soviet Russia, it went seemingly unnoticed. She may be most familiar in Slavic academia in the West, and even then, not so much.

My poor love deserves better. A reworking of Boccaccio’s Decameron from a female point of view, the novel features ten women of different backgrounds and life experiences quarantined together after giving birth in a late Soviet-era maternity ward because of a spreading infection (if nothing else, read it for the unintentional parallel with our current situation, although I promise you, there’s much more to it than that). They pass the time telling stories about their lives and those of their friends and families in ten chapters containing each of their ten stories, with an author-narrator who opens and closes the pieces. Each chapter is devoted to a different theme; when I teach this novel in my course Writing the Body in Contemporary Russian Women’s Fiction, we read “First Love,” “Sex in Farcical Situations,” “Rapists and their Victims,” and “Happiness.” Love and happiness (or, rather, a distinct lack thereof) are common themes in Russian literature; but the two other titles, and the all-female space of this novel, signal that The Women’s Decameron is a different type of book.

Russian literature has no shortage of women writers and female protagonists. But as Barbara Heldt notes in Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature, which I could cite directly if it weren’t for the pandemic-induced closure of our university library, what is considered the Russian canon is overwhelmingly made up of male writers and male protagonists. Female protagonists, while crucial to the plot, are usually complements to their male counterparts, and their own development is rarely shown. Other scholars have pointed out Russian literature’s puritanical approach to the body and sexuality, which were not considered appropriate subjects for “high” literature. Once in a while, male characters got to be physical, but women rarely did, and one was thrown under a train for trying.

This changed in the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost’ and the early post-Soviet period, which witnessed an explosion of women’s voices. In defiance of Russian and Soviet patriarchy and puritanism, writers such as Svetlana Vasilenko, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Valeria Narbikova, and Marina Palei, among many others, created a female-centered space in Russian literature, with women protagonists who were both intellectual and physical beings. Their works, often explicitly concerned with the act of writing, were characterized by a palpable presence of female bodies in various manifestations: sex, violence, pregnancy, abortion, disease, etc. While none of them had read French feminist theory, and several openly eschewed any association with feminism, they were, in Hélène Cixous’s formulation, writing the body. In Slavic Studies in the West, these writers, who do not form a coherent whole but have enough in common to be talked about together, became known as New Women’s Prose, first and foremost due to the pioneering efforts of Helena Goscilo, in such publications as Dehexing Sex: Russian Womanhood During and After Glasnost (having relied on it extensively in my dissertation, this one I have on my shelves).

The few scholars who have written on Voznesenskaya place her in the general category of Soviet women’s literature, while those who write on New Women’s Prose don’t include her. This is understandable, since living in West Germany, she had no connections with the other Russian women writers. But the striking similarity is that Voznesenskaya also writes the body: The Women’s Decameron centers women’s narratives of sexuality, violation, etc. It’s a pretty convincing argument, if I do say so myself (I did say so myself, in my dissertation and in the article I wrote about The Women’s Decameron).

An account of sex on the roof due to a lack of privacy in an acute Soviet housing shortage – that’s in there. The story about appearing in front of a theater audience in bed with your lover due to the mechanism of an inopportunely revolving stage — that’s in there too, as is a romp with an American “spy” on top of the heads of three KGB agents hiding under the bed during a room search gone awry. Also in there are the more somber stories of child sexual abuse and the many instances of rape, some of which the women verbalize for the first time to each other. Powerless to stop being raped in life, they support each other and try to heal themselves through telling their stories. And in one instance, they, and we, are overcome by unadulterated hilarity and gratitude because a character was able to get highly painful revenge on her would-be attacker with a pair of imported mittens. Female bodies, both their pleasures and pains, are very much written here.

Admittedly, in a novel that consciously tries to represent a spectrum of women’s experiences, making them all mothers is a regressive move. That said, Voznesenskaya goes against convention in allowing motherhood to coexist with sexuality (take that, Tolstoy), and notably, the characters bond over a range of topics, not motherhood itself. Indeed, she espouses several ideas that make her ahead of her time. She openly terms one protagonist a feminist, which, let’s just say isn’t something one expects from late Soviet-era works (or, really, many other eras). There is also a recognition that other types of oppression intersect with gender: several protagonists’ lives are shaped by their economic standing, whereas another’s is by being Jewish, the latter also indicative of Voznesenskaya’s rejection of Soviet anti-Semitism. A storyline about one of the protagonists’ love interests mentions racism toward those from the Caucasus. There’s more to say about what else The Women’s Decameron does, including revealing aspects of Soviet life that the regime tried to silence, but that would require another post.

When I say Voznesenskaya changed my life, partially I mean that she largely determined my academic path, handing me my dissertation topic and leading me to discover the other contemporary women writers, whom I teach and have written on. More fundamentally, I mean that The Women’s Decameron was my first time reading a Russian work that gave voice to viscerally honest, specifically female experiences. Over the years, I’d had lots of amazing conversations with Russian books, but this was the first one that spoke back in a shared language. In the women writers course, my students really respond to this novel. Some of them say about all the writers that they didn’t know there was Russian literature like this. I didn’t either, until Voznesenskaya, and through her several others, showed me that there could be.

Below is the opening of The Women’s Decameron. The right-hand image underneath that shows the never-to-be-detached Post-it notes from graduate school. Although this novel is, sadly, out of print, the English translation is still available here and, as much as I don’t want to recommend a particular mail-order giant, here. In Russian, it seems to be available here and online here (although I have no personal knowledge of either of those sites). Try it. Who knows; you might fall in love, too.

The Women’s Decameron by Julia Voznesenskaya

“How is it possible to read in this bedlam!” thought Emma. She turned over on to her stomach, propped the Decameron between her elbows, pulled the pillow over her ears and tried to concentrate.

She could already visualize how the play would begin. As they entered the auditorium and spectators would not be met by the usual theatre attendants, but by monks with their cowls drawn down over their eyes; they would check the tickets and show the spectators to their seats in the dark auditorium, lighting the way and pointing out the seat numbers, with old-fashioned lanterns. She would have to call in at the Hermitage, look out a suitable lantern, and draw a sketch of it … The stage would be open from the very beginning, but lit only by a bluish moon. It would depict a square in Florence with the dark outlines of a fountain and a church door, over which would be the inscription “Memento Mori” – remember you must die. Every now and then some monks would cross the stage with a cart – the corpse collectors. And a bell, there must definitely be a bell ringing the whole time – “For whom the bell tolls.” It was essential that from the very beginning, even before the play started, there should be a feeling of death in the theatre. Against this background ten merry mortals would tell their stories.

Yet it was difficult to believe that it happened like that: plague, death and misery were all around and in the midst of this a company of cavaliers and ladies were amusing each other with romantic and bawdy stories. These women; on the other hand, did not have the plague but a simple skin infection such as frequently occurs in maternity hospitals, and yet look at all the tears and hysterics! Perhaps people were much shallower nowadays. Stupid women, why were they so impatient? Were they in such a hurry to

start the nappy-changing routine? God, the very thought was enough to make you want to give up: thirty liners, thirty nappies and as many swaddling sheets, rain or shine. And each one had to be washed, boiled and ironed on both sides. It could drive you crazy. In the West they had invented disposable nappies and plastic pants long ago. Our people were supposed to be involved in industrial espionage, so why couldn’t they steal some useful secret instead of always going for electronics?

“Hey, girls! You could at least take it in turns to whine! The noise is really bugging me. If my milk goes off I’ll really freak out!” This outburst came from Zina, a “woman of no fixed abode” as the doctors described her on their rounds; in other words, a tramp. Nobody came to visit her, and she was in no hurry to leave the hospital.

“If only we had something nice to think about!” sighed Irina, or Irishka as everyone called her, a plump girl who was popular in the ward because of her kind, homely disposition.

And then it suddenly dawned on Emma. She lifted the Decameron high above her head so that everyone could see the fat book in its colourful cover. “Dear mothers! How many of you have read this book? “Naturally about half of them had. “Well,” continued Emma, “for those who haven’t I’ll explain it simply. During a plague ten young men and women leave the city and place themselves in quarantine for ten days, just as they’ve done to us here. Each day they take it in turns to tell each other different stories about life and love, the tricks that clever lovers play and the tragedies that come from love. How about all of us doing the same?”

That was all they needed. They immediately decided that this was much more interesting than telling endless stories about family problems.

Making People Feel Uneasy: Joanna Chen in Conversation with Katherine Young

Katherine Young, a poet and translator, gave this interview on BLARB, the blog of the esteemed Los Angeles Review of Books. In 2018, Academic Studies Press published Young’s translation of the trilogy, Farewell, Aylis, by Akram Aylisli, currently a political prisoner in his native Azerbaijan (Young has spearheaded efforts to free him, including a recent petition circulated on social media). Olga Zilberbourg reviewed this novel, which Punctured Lines noted in our post. As we also noted, an excerpt from his novella, A Fantastical Traffic Jam, translated by Young, can be found here.

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 can read the full interview here: https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/interviews/making-people-feel-uneasy-joanna-chen-conversation-katherine-young/

Q&A with Lea Zeltserman: Looking at Soviet-Jewish Immigration through Soviet-Jewish Food

Today Punctured Lines features a Q&A with Lea Zeltserman, a Toronto-based writer focusing on, among other things, Soviet-Jewish immigration and food. Lea is a contributor to The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List (Artisan, 2019) with her piece “The Secrets of Soviet Cuisine.” Her two most recent food-related pieces are “TweetYourShabbat is all about embracing diverse – and imperfect – Shabbat dinners” and “Where the Russian Grocery Store Means Abundance,” whereas her “Announcing the Soviet-Jewish Decade: A 2010s Top 10” is a round-up of books, plus a documentary and an album, about Soviet-Jewish culture. Lea answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: You publish a newsletter, The Soviet Samovar, “a monthly round-up of Russian-Jewish news, events and culture,” with the emphasis on (ex-)Soviet Jews in the North American diaspora. What motivated you to start this project? What audience(s) is it aimed at and what do you hope they get out of it?

Lea Zeltserman: When I first started writing about Russian-Jewish issues, there was nothing out there. We were all just starting to get online, starting to come into ourselves as a community. I was excited each time I saw an article about Russian Jews in the media, and I simultaneously realized that there are many things we ourselves don’t know about our history. The Soviet Samovar was a way to bring that together. By now, there’s so much great work coming out of the Russian-Jewish world that I can be more selective. It’s shifted into a more literary, culture and book-focused round-up.

A lot of my work is for broader North American audiences, but the newsletter is aimed at Russian Jews. Though of course everyone should subscribe! The content is for everyone, and articles featured are often published in mainstream publications. But when I’m writing my commentary, there’s a distinct sense of “we, Russian Jews and our experiences, and here’s what we think about the world and our place in it.” I don’t tiptoe around, or hold back if I think something is damaging to our community. Which is not to suggest that it’s a monthly rant. Not even close. There is lots of thoughtful, smart, insightful writing out there, which I’m always excited to feature. There’s much to be proud of in our accomplishments, and The Soviet Samovar is a way to bring that together, draw attention to one another, and hopefully, give us all something to think about – about our history and the people and events that shaped us.

PL: You write a lot about Soviet-Jewish food, specifically how it reflects Soviet-Jewish culture and history. As you say in your essay for Tablet Magazine, “Defining Soviet Jewish Cuisine,” “For most Jews, the first bite of pork is a transgressive, often formative, moment. But for Soviet Jews, pork-laden sosiski [PL: wieners/hot dogs] were an everyday food.” Why the focus on food – what can looking at what Soviet Jews ate and continue to eat tell us more broadly about Soviet-Jewish life, both in the former Soviet countries and in the diaspora? 

LZ: I’ve always been interested in food. When Tablet published their “100 Jewish Foods” feature online, I was surprised to see everyday Russian food on the list (borsch, cabbage rolls, rye bread, pickles, herring) associated instead with “Old World Russia.” This food might be “Old World” for many Jews whose Russianness lies several generations in the past, but for us, this is the food we grew up on. It’s our “now food.” This oversight is symbolic of the frozen-in-time understanding of Russian Jewry that habitually ignores the existence of the contemporary Russian-Jewish community. That really bothered me. So I wrote them, and they were great and very interested, and my article came out of that (and then was included in the 100 Jewish Foods book).

The sosiski, of course. They’re such a powerful image for Jews. For Russian Jews they’re real and nostalgic, and for North American Jews, they were something that was used dismissively toward Russian Jews to question our legitimacy. So yes, you start with jokes about sosiski and suddenly, there’s a whole story about who we are and what we overcame, why we stopped keeping kosher but still felt so strongly about our Jewish identity. And that happens over and over – you ask a few questions about our food and, because everything was so centralized and controlled, entire historical episodes, Jewish and not, come tumbling out.

Many Russian Jews don’t reflect on our food either. I’ve been so touched by the reactions to my writing and my talks on the subject. People really respond to hearing that this everyday “stuff” matters. That what their mothers and grandmothers do (or did) is relevant and weighty, and has significance to Jewish history and Jewish lives. Our dishes get at the story of our lives in a different way, especially for Soviet families, where getting and preparing food was such a major part of daily routine, never mind bigger moments like war, famines, the Shoah.

I also think about it as a parent, and what I want my children to know of their heritage. Kugel, brisket, and knishes aren’t our recent history. I don’t want them thinking that’s their food, or wondering why their food isn’t legitimately Jewish. Our stock list of Jewish food needs a shaking up and I strongly believe that our Soviet-era food, from all the republics, has a rightful place on that list. As for why are we still eating it? That’s something I’m still exploring, that intimate relationship between comfort and familiarity, how it fits into immigration and being refugees, all mixed up with the worst parts of the USSR. It reflects all the complexity and contradictions of our heritage, which we, quite literally, fill our bellies with every day. It’s part of our identity. It would be a betrayal to sweep it away and replace it with knishes and bagels (well, maybe the bagels).

Food is a little scrap of the past that I can touch and taste. I’ll never hear the sounds of the train station from which my paternal grandmother escaped the coming Nazis when she evacuated from Zhitomir. But a pot of soup, I can make an attempt at.

PL: The discussion of Soviet-Jewish pork consumption brings up something else you’ve written about, namely, the often stark differences between (ex-)Soviet and North American Jews. These differences exist not only in terms of food, but more generally: as you point out, they manifest themselves in terms of attitudes toward Soviet-Jewish immigration (“Why Russian Jews Don’t Want to Hear About Being Saved”), experiences of the Holocaust (“On #FirstSurvivor and the Russian-Jewish Holocaust experience”), and more playfully, treasured customs like New Year trees (“O Yolka Tree, O Yolka Tree”). Can you talk about what you see as the main differences between the two communities and also what, if anything, can be done to bring them closer together – or whether this is necessary?

LZ: Hmm, that’s a great question. And an unexpectedly difficult one. I’m going to start with the second question. Which is that, I don’t know anymore what will “work.” As time passes, we naturally become more integrated. Even myself, as an example – I grew up in the mainstream Canadian Jewish community, but always feeling like an outsider. My kids will feel less that way, I imagine. There are more writers now in Jewish media who straddle both worlds and bring a Soviet perspective as the norm – look at someone like Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt at the Forward. But, I still get comments about going back where I came from in response to my work. There are still separate Limmud conferences, as one major example of communal non-integration. If you go to Jewish events, at least in Toronto, there’s rarely anything Russian/Soviet – you have to go to the Russian-Jewish events for that. That’s not always about exclusion though. Those types of communal spaces and events are important for Russian Jews too. It’s a space for us to talk among ourselves, to share experiences and find commonalities (and stop explaining ourselves). There are programs like the J-Academy camp in Toronto, which build Russian-Jewish culture and identity. There’s tremendous value in that separation, too.

On the flip side, there are great examples of “cross-cultural moments,” like Yiddish Glory, spearheaded by Anna Shternshis and Psoy Korolenko, which has been rightfully recognized all over the world and brought legitimacy to our experiences, especially in the Holocaust. (Yad Vashem has a special focus on the Holocaust on Soviet territories, for example; writers like Izabella Tabarovsky have done a lot of work in bringing that history to broader audiences.) I think that it’s partly because Yiddish Glory taps into the Holocaust and yiddishkeit and nostalgia. And to be clear, it’s an amazing project and I talk it up at every opportunity – I’m thrilled it’s received the acclaim it has. But I do think its popularity in the wider Jewish community is partially tied into the reasons above. Hopefully though, these types of projects will start to bridge that gap. It’s changing, but slowly.

There’s increasing interest in Soviet Jews and our experiences. My “Soviet-Jewish Decade” series generated strong interest from a Russian and non-Russian Jewish audience. At the same time, I still see frequent reminders that we’re not part of the mainstream. Minor things like headlines about “old world borsch,” as if we’re not eating that in the here and now. It’s disconcerting to see your everyday discussed as if it’s some relic left behind, belonging to impoverished shtetl immigrants. Other examples are more blatant and angering, but I don’t want to get into a list of outrages here. We remain an afterthought; not part of a broader understanding of what the Jewish community is. We don’t fit tidily into existing narratives of Jewishness. Occasionally, I’ll see a writer who isn’t a Russian Jew mention us as a matter of course in articles about the American-Jewish community. And standout examples like Rokhl Kafrissen, whose Tablet column on Yiddish culture and history regularly includes Soviet Jewry as a “normal” topic. I suspect that this feeling exists across other minority groups within the Jewish community too.

To the first part of your question, I think our differences are muting over time. But we’re still seen as an Other, someone to be remembered or included, but not a group that’s inherently part of the North American-Jewish world. And we’re still referenced as a means to an end, part of the narrative that the Soviet Jewry movement enabled US Jewry to grow, which, well, no one wants their suffering to be someone else’s stage of development. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to many Russian Jews who feel that they’re looked down upon and seen as inferior. Highly successful people in their careers and lives, and yet, this feeling persists. And culturally, there are genuine differences. Language, obviously. Food, history, family stories. Anekdoty [PL: jokes] – those never fully translate. Our fundamental definition of Jewish identity is still different, though that’s several articles in itself.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is Soviet-Jewish immigration, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LZ: Absolutely! I’m still amazed at finding all these people, and the many, many points of connection among our experiences. I never had that growing up. Though I mostly felt very Canadian, there were always gaps and differences that I tried to ignore – or often took as a sign there was something wrong with me or my family. I’m still exploring that and still finding a lot of meaning in those connections and the realization that my experiences weren’t alone.

I read a lot of other immigrant writing and I often share it online and find those pieces that I can relate to. But in terms of what I’d consider my writing circle, it tends to be Russian-Jewish online, and more generally friends and other writers in my physical life.

PL: How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in Canadian vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LZ: I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I grew up in a city that didn’t have a large Russian community, and we didn’t have a lot of family around. So I was generally shielded from the worst parts of Russian misogyny, and had more of that stereotypical Soviet intellectual experience where everyone was expected to function at a high level, to be well-read, successful in school, go to university and so forth. Most of the gender issues I encounter are more broadly Canadian issues, and will be familiar to anyone in the US.

I get irate when people cheer about how feminist the USSR was, or talk it up on March 8, in particular. And that’s where my food work comes in – the more I delve into food, and read about Russian households and kitchens and labor, I see more clearly how deeply gendered the roles were. Russian women started working and got to “lean in” that much sooner. In fact, I’m working on a personal essay right now about my grandmothers and Russian food, so I’m full of facts and stories about just how hard they worked on keeping their families alive. (Though, to be fair, my grandfathers did too.)

There’s a great book that came out last year, called Seasoned Socialism: Gender and Food in Late Soviet Everyday Life, edited by Anastasia Lakhtikova, Angela Brintlinger and Irina Glushchenko, with a foreword from Darra Goldstein. It’s a fantastic book, and it talks about food through the lens of literature, film, and popular Soviet culture, so it ticks all the boxes for me.

I’m not sure I can speak to how the broader community has changed. I’m sorry to disappoint but I don’t have direct, personal experience with it, and I think the people I interact with the most are a self-selecting group. With gender issues, I’m just more tuned into, and concerned about, Canada than the Russian community specifically.

PL: Lastly, what are some of your favorite Soviet-Russian-Jewish dishes? If our readers want to find out more about this cuisine – and/or make it themselves – where would you recommend they look?

LZ: Top of my list are tinned sprats, pelmeni [PL: meat dumplings], and grechnevaya kasha [PL: buckwheat] fried up with butter. And then soups – kharcho, solyanka, shchi and rassolnik are all in our basic rotation. My loyalty to mayonnaise as a life essential, I’ve learned, is very Russian, so I have to include that.

For basics, start with Anya von Bremzen and Darra Goldstein. von Bremzen’s Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, is a go-to in our household, along with Darra Goldstein’s books, A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality, The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia, and her newest, Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore. That’ll give you a thorough grounding in Russian/Soviet cuisine.

And Bonnie Frumkin Morales’ Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking (with Deena Prichep) is a great book and Soviet food explainer. She speaks to a North American audience in a highly accessible way. (Morales has a restaurant and now small shop in Portland – a growing, mini- empire, which I desperately want to visit.) In the UK, there’s Alissa Timoshkina’s Salt and Time: Recipes from a Modern Russian Kitchen, which has just been nominated for an IACP cookbook award. Both of these are more “nashi,” representing the immigrant, diaspora generation. Morales was born in the US, and Timoshkina left her native Siberia for the UK as a teen.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I don’t plug my own work – in addition to my article in Tablet, I recently published a piece on Soviet history as reflected in the Russian grocery store, in Heated. I’ve given several talks on defining Soviet-Jewish food and I’m speaking at a few upcoming conferences this spring.

Q&A with Lara Vapnyar: Divide Me by Zero (Tin House Books, 2019)

Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Me by Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Divide Me by Zero is your sixth book. In an interview with Svetlana Satchkova forThe Rumpus, you’ve called it your most intimate and biographical. Has your writing process changed during your work on this novel?

Lara Vapnyar: There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?

PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian?  Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting?  Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?

LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!

PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?

LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.

PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. 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?

LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.

I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?

LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.

PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.

Q&A with Olga Livshin: A Life Replaced (Poets and Traitors Press, 2019)

Today on Punctured Lines, our Q&A with Olga Livshin, author of the recently released A Life Replaced: Poems with translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman. We announced the book’s arrival here and you can listen to a podcast discussing it here. She and Olga Zilberbourg will be reading from their collections at an upcoming event in Rochester, NY on November 9, 2019. Olga answered our questions by email.

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.

Notable Books: Russian Titles in English Translation, 2009-2019

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.

For this reason, we chose not to include writers who are well-known in the Anglophone world, but of course we love them too. We note proudly the women whose work has been translated into English numerous times: Anna Akhmatova, Svetlana Alexievich, Eugenia Ginzburg, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Dina Rubina, Olga Slavnikova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ludmila Ulitskaya, and Tatyana Tolstaya (whose problematic views on women and feminism may be less known).

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.

Contemporary Prose

Elena Chizhova, The Time of Women, translated by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas; Glagoslav, 2012. 

Linor Goralik, Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview, edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokur; Columbia University Press, 2017.

Ksenia Buksha, The Freedom Factory, translated by Anne Fisher; Phoneme Media, 2018.

Alisa Ganieva, Bride and Groom, translated by Carol Apollonio; Deep Vellum, 2018.

Margarita Khemlin, Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Columbia University Press, 2019.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha, translated by Lisa C. Hayden; Oneworld Publications, 2019.

Contemporary Poetry

Anzhelina Polonskaya, Paul Klee’s Boat, translated by Andrew Wachtel; Zephyr Press, 2012. 

Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, Relocations: Three Contemporary Russian Women Poets, translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester; Zephyr Press, 2013.

Maria Rybakova, Gnedich, translated by Elena Dimova; Glagoslav, 2015.

Inna Kabysh, Blue Birds and Red Horses, translated by Katherine E. Young; Toad Press, 2018.

Aigerim Tazhi, Paper-Thin Skin, translated by James Kates; Zephyr Press, 2019.

Olga Livshin, A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman, Poets & Traitors Press, 2019.

Recent Translations of Earlier Prose Works

Teffi, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg; NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press, 2016.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov; Columbia University Press, 2017.

Olga Berggolts, Daytime Stars: A Poet’s Memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw, translated by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum; University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

Doba-Mera Medvedeva, Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva, translated by Alice Nakhimovsky; Academic Studies Press, 2019.

Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life, translated by Barbara Heldt; Columbia University Press, 2019.

Irina Odoevtseva, Isolde, translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg; Pushkin Press, 2019.

Drama, a Graphic Novel, and an Anthology

Yaroslava Pulinovich, Olga Rimsha, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, translated by Lisa Hayden; Glas, 2014.

Victoria, Lomasko, Other Russias, translated by Thomas Campbell; Penguin and n+1, 2017.

Teffi, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Lydia Ginzburg, Galina Scherbakova, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Svetlana Alexievich, Olga Slavnikova, Irina Muravyova, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Margarita Khemlin, Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature, edited by Natasha Perova; Dedalus, 2018.

Hilah Kohen responds to Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone science fiction, a Twitter feed

In a post from a few weeks ago, I mentioned Completely Different — a Russian-language collection of queer science fiction published in Bishkek, and Calvert Journal’s publication of a translation of one of the pieces. In a series of Twitter posts, Hilah Kohen responded and partially reviewed this collection. Given how rare conversations about queer Russian-language science fiction are in the English-language russophone zone, and my delight in them, I asked for Hilah’s permission to put her response on Punctured Lines. Enjoy! (I’m preserving most of the Twitter grammar.)

Hilah Kohen:

Completely Different, the collection of queer Russophone sci-fi and fantasy that this story in @calvertjournal comes from, is available [on Academia.edu as a PDF]. I was late to the party and haven’t read all of it, but what’s really struck me so far is how many pieces center the aftermath of all queer feminists splitting off from society completely and (literally, cuz sci-fi) building their own world. (Sounds dead obvious, I know, but imo it’s not & says something really interesting about post-Soviet opposition politics).

In this piece, the queer separatist utopia is a planet where residents rebuild their own bodies rather than terraforming. In another, it’s a “dimension” that only special augmented reality glasses can see (the patriarchy has its own, mutually exclusive AR system).

(Worth nothing that “kvir-feminizm” works differently in Russian than in English. Even waaay outside scholarship/theory, people use it to label a worldview aligned with intersectional feminism and opposed to TERFism/”radical feminism” but in the same semantic category as both.)

Anyway, with earthly utopias so lacking, these stories could just indulge endlessly in their fictional utopias (since they did take the unexpected imaginative step of separating them out), but no, they have to struggle with the prospect that no matter what beautiful, willfully self-contradictory society Russophone queer feminism might build on its own, it’ll never be content without going back to the old world ~forever~ because the very fact of reproduction means some citizens of the utopia will always be abroad.

(insert dramatic music)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast: Olga Zilberbourg in Conversation with Jennifer Eremeeva

Olga Zilberbourg spoke with Jennifer Eremeeva about Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) in a podcast for The New Books Network. It’s a fantastic interview, including about cultural misunderstandings, which starts with Olga reading the inventive and touching “Dandelion” from her collection. Listen to the conversation and follow Jennifer on Twitter @JWEremeeva – we do!

“A new generation of Russian emigres is blessed — or cursed — with the ease of long-haul flights and frequent flyer miles, Skype and FaceTime, Google translate, and regulations that seem anyway to be more forgiving about former citizens traveling to and fro. For them, the border has become far more porous than it ever was, and the choices are now more nuanced. However, there are still plenty of cultural minefields to navigate. To this generation that includes writers as disparate as Gary Shteyngart and Irina Reyn comes Olga Zilberbourg with a new collection of short stories, ‘Like Water and Other Stories.'”

https://jennifereremeeva.com/like-water/

Interview with Olga Zilberbourg by Odette Heideman

A Q&A with Olga Zilberbourg in Epiphany Magazine about LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press):

“As a writer, when I’m structuring a collection of stories, I make an assumption that, like me, my readers are interested in the human being who shows up most fully in the white spaces between one’s story ending and another’s beginning. From the information on the cover alone, my reader knows that I’m a woman, that I grew up in the Soviet Union, and that I live in the US and I write in English. So, yes, nearly automatically, my story is framed as an immigrant’s story. Then comes the interesting part.”

http://epiphanyzine.com/features/2019/11/27/short-form-olga-zilberbourg  

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