As readers, feminists, and ourselves parents, we at Punctured Lines are happy to learn that Drs. Muireann Maguire and Eglė Kačkutė are organizing a two-day conference to launch the Slavic and East European Maternal Studies Network. The conference is to take place on January 28 and 29, 2022, and the stellar list of presenters and topics includes our contributor Natalya Sukhonos’s paper on Motherhood, Math, and Posthumous Creativity in Lara Vapnyar’s Russian-American novel Divide Me by Zero. We ran a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar shortly upon the publication of that novel.
Our contributor Svetlana Satchkova will participate in an online discussion on Motherhood, Gender, Translation and Censorship in Eastern European Women’s Writing, and scholar and translator Muireann Maguire will present a paper on Breastfeeding and Female Agency in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel.
The full listing of events is available on the conference’s website. To register, please email SEEMSmaternal @ exeter.ac.uk by January 21st, 2022. The sessions will be conducted in English.
To mark National Poetry Month in the United States, Punctured Lines asked two poets with recently published collections to interview one another. Both poets have strong personal and professional connections to the larger Russophone world. Natalya Sukhonos’sA Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press) explores themes of the mother-daughter connection, grief and loss, and finding someone and something to love in locales ranging from Odessa to San Francisco. Katherine E. Young’sWoman Drinking Absinthe (Alan Squire Publishing) concerns itself with transgressions, examined through a series of masks, including Greek drama, folk tales, Japonisme, post-Impressionism, opera, geometry, and planetary geology. In addition to their written comments, Sukhonos and Young have also produced a short video conversation highlighting several poems from each collection.
Katherine E. Young: Your book is set in so many places: San Francisco, Odessa, Rome, New York City. And yet the theme of leaving old places and finding new ones, finding “home,” seemingly plays only a minor role in the book. This book doesn’t dwell on typical themes of emigration / immigration; instead, there are the constants of familial love, amorous love, and putting down roots wherever the earth will accept them. Even the ghosts in your book travel with the speaker and seem at home in multiple cultures. In that context, please talk a little about the line “Home. A dreamscape we flee until it consumes all others” from “The Red Farmhouse.”
Natalya Sukhonos: Thanks for this interesting question, Kate. I think that home is a very fraught concept for me. I’ve moved around a lot—from Odessa to New York, then to Boston and San Francisco, with Turkey and Rio de Janeiro as short sweet sojourns in between, and then back to New York. Each of these places romanced me, intrigued me, made me want to stay there forever—until it didn’t. San Francisco, for instance, was enchanting but forbidding in terms of living expenses, though I still find it very beautiful and have good friends there. And Naomi was born there, which makes it forever special. Why is home a “dreamscape we flee”? I guess I’ve always had that desire to flee, to carve my own path. I’m grateful to my family, but like many families, it imposed its own vision of me which I often longed to tweak or even contradict. But I ended up returning to New York—returning home with my own family, creating my own home, a kind of mise-en-abyme, if you will. Though “The Red Farmhouse” was written before the pandemic, you can see how home and family have become all-consuming entities especially now, for better or for worse.
Katherine E. Young:Mothers and daughters inhabit almost all of these poems, and sometimes the connection is fraught, as in “My Personal Vampire.” Other poems such as “Nadia” celebrate “the wild grasses of love.” The second section of the book contains poems that grieve the loss of a mother. Talk a little about the importance of the mother-daughter connection in these poems.
Natalya Sukhonos: We moved to New York City from San Francisco after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This collection came out of the process of grieving for her and remembering her. My mother read Gogol’s Dead Souls to me and recited Russian poetry, which she knew inside out—Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, you name it. She was dramatic, a smart dresser, and had an easy laugh. My mother and I were really close, and four years later, I’m still grieving. The poems in this collection try to ask “why,” but they also try to remember. Simone Weil once said that attention is the purest form of prayer, and this resonates with me even though I’m agnostic. I wanted to pay attention to the little details about her life—her love of gardening, for instance—and also record the process of losing her. When she was gone, I felt really unmoored, as if I didn’t know who I was. But as I was writing the collection, I also had to mother my two-and-a-half year-old daughter Naomi, who is now six. In “Theater of Bones” and “The Lioness and the Wolf, or Words as Prehistoric Shells” I tried to record how she was processing death and grief through questions and magical thinking. And I wanted to be honest about how damn difficult it is to be a mother. Motherhood is often romanticized, but not enough attention is paid (especially by men) to the loneliness, the self-doubt, the very physical burdens that motherhood places on you (hence the comparison of a baby to a vampire). Almost two years ago, I had another baby, Nadia, who bears my mother’s name (Tamara) as a middle name. It’s been delightful to watch the beginning of another life, to do it all over again. And I felt like having this new baby and also reflecting on mothering Naomi has made me reclaim motherhood in a way that wasn’t painful or grieving. At the same time, motherhood made my connection to my mother stronger.
Katherine E. Young: Several of your poems speak of the body as a map, and the poems often feel as if bones, stones, shells, forests, and especially stars are of much more importance and permanence than human constructs of geography and cartography. Talk about the stars and other natural phenomena that inhabit so many of your poems.
Natalya Sukhonos: When I lived in the Bay Area, I was really awakened to the beauty and power of nature because it was everywhere: step seconds away from your house and be surrounded by a giant mountain and giant eucalyptus trees! And the cold sublime of the Pacific! I think that as someone who has lived in cities all her life, I’m puzzled by the natural world, and that gives me comfort—the fact that the ocean just IS, that it doesn’t have to fit into a human story. It has its own story, which we may or may not understand. Maybe this sounds too mystical or vague, but for me what can’t be put into language can provide a source of relief. There’s something important about the fact that my mother loved to garden, and I don’t practice this at all. Or that we witnessed the Pacific Ocean roaring on a remote beach together. Why is this significant? Well, only poems can tell.
Also, the poem where I am a lioness and my husband is a wolf speaks to the way children construct mini-narratives around everything they see, and those stories are often filled with magical, dangerous forests and nature that’s comprised of signs only they could decipher, a sort of Baudelairean forêt des symboles. I think Naomi has taught me a lot about seeing nature this way.
Katherine E. Young:Your poems often reference classical myths, as well as modern literature. In one of my favorite poems, the ekphrastic “Night Sky #16 by Vija Celmins,” the speaker remembers her mother reading from The Little Prince, interleaving references to Saint-Exupéry’s book with lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy 1.” You have a PhD in comparative literature. What is the importance of literature, both classical and modern, to your poems?
Natalya Sukhonos: Believe it or not, literature has always had a sensory or sensual appeal for me. When I was eight years old, I had a sudden epiphany that every book, every author has their own flavor. Since then, literature has always been a huge part of my life: the first time I met my husband, I recited Rilke’s first elegy on the street, for instance. Given that the book revolves around my mother’s life and her legacy, literature plays a vital role in this, too. My mother loved The Little Princewith a passion, and staged it at Camp “Idea” where she was the director and where I worked. The love of literature is something that she and I shared in a way that was rhapsodic and visceral. When I started to write seriously, I couldn’t help but interweave little strands of whichever author I was reading—Borges, Elena Ferrante, Baudelaire—into my poetry. I do this in ordinary conversation, and poetry is another such conversation. For me, literature poses essential questions about identity, existence, good and evil in a way that is liberating because it inspires you to look further. The Master and Margarita, which I’m teaching in the Fall for Stanford Continuing Studies, is one such book, so key to me that I reread it every five years or so. One of my favorite lines by Emily Dickinson is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In The Master and Margarita, Woland does this by asking what the Earth would look like if it were stripped of its shadows. In a “slant,” indirect way, Bulgakov is talking to us about the interconnectedness of good and evil, and for me, this idea is interesting precisely because of the way in which it is conveyed—through slant, poetic meaning.
Katherine E. Young: While free verse is a part of contemporary Russian poetry, it’s a relatively recent formal development, and plenty of Russian poets still write in rhyme and meter—many more than do so in contemporary American poetry. Can you tell me about the formal choices you made in writing these poems and how you came to make them?
Natalya Sukhonos: Even though I grew up reading Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Khlebnikov, when I came of age as a poet writing in English, I was more captivated by the free verse of Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens. That said, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and their mosaic of mythologies and truth-seeking has always fascinated me, and Eliot plays around with rhyme and meter quite a bit.
In my own writing I try to be cognizant of the length of my lines and stanzas, the end words on each line, and the “volume” of words on a page. This all contributes to the way I see sound as vital to any poem’s meaning. So in “Parachute” I play around with the length of the lines to imitate the falling parachute of the poem’s title. I let the form carry the tension of my grandfather jumping off a parachute exactly 94 times during World War II. But “Aphrodite,” for instance, is composed of tercets because it’s a love poem, and I’m harkening back to tercets in Romantic poetry.
I do have some poems in here that experiment with form. “Pantoum of Grief and Birth” is a pantoum because I wanted to get at the repetitive, obsessive nature of grieving my mother while giving birth to my youngest daughter. “Protect Me, Lord” came out of an assignment in a poetry class where I had to put a Shakespearean sonnet into Google Translate twice, choose the best lines from what resulted, and also incorporate several colors, animals, and trees of our own choosing into the poem. And “Lost Souls—After Rilke” is actually a golden shovel, spelling out the first stanza of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy in the ending words of its stanzas. I like to be playful with form, so “In Failing Light” has alternating couplets that are formatted differently and interweave the event of remembering my mother while cooking potatoes and ramps with the actual memory of visiting the Pacific Ocean with her in San Francisco.
Natalya Sukhonos: Especially in “Birdsong,” “The Bear,” and “Nakhla,” I noticed your interest in animals and animal imagery. Can you comment on the way that animals are linked to the theme of freedom vs. unfreedom in your poetry? On the one hand, they’re images of otherness, an alternate perspective, but on the other hand, they’re confined to particular places and spaces by their human subjects…
Katherine E. Young: Hm. I hadn’t thought about this at all before your question, but there are two main groups of animals in these poems. The first group includes birds, cats, the prehistoric sea creatures of “Nakhla,” snakes, a dissected frog, lizards, cicadas, monkeys, bats, the fig wasp, and an actual, historical dog who had an unfortunate encounter with an achondrite (a kind of meteorite). But with the possible exception of the fig wasp, these animals are mostly part of the background flora and fauna of the poems. The other group of animals is quite different: they’re talking animals, and they may not be animals at all. There’s the wish-granting fish of “The Golden Fish,” a tale I first read in Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book (where the fish is an enchanted prince); I read Alexander Pushkin’s version of the tale much later. The enigmatic talking bear of “The Bear” is, of course, the performing bear of countless European folk tales, alternately menacing and pathetic, also possibly enchanted. For me, these creatures aren’t all that different from Bluebeard, the ogre who murders his wives, or the succuba who haunts a man’s waking hours, both of whom also appear in these poems. It’s these talking animals and monsters (or are they humans who have lost their essential human-ness?) who are truly unfree, trapped in enchantments, forced to perform for their supper, or condemned to fulfill various gruesome fates over and over again—they and the humans who become trapped in their tragic, endlessly repeating dramatic arcs.
Natalya Sukhonos: In “Nakhla” and “Euclidean Geometry” I was fascinated with your link between the macroscopic and the microscopic: cataclysmic events like the fall of a gigantic rock and human, intimate events such as a singular act of love. Please comment on this link in your poetry.
Katherine E. Young: Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We go running around the world, eating, reproducing, defecating, dying, and from the biological perspective we’re doing just the same thing as ants. I don’t know what distinguishes one ant from another (although I’m told they sing to one another), and from a bird’s-eye perspective you can’t distinguish one human being from another, either. But when we write, when we make any kind of art, we’re saying “Stop! Look at me! I’m here!” Same for when we fall in love, which is also a kind of art. “Nakhla” started during a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where they have a fragment of this amazing achondrite from Mars that fell rather spectacularly in Egypt in 1911 (and apparently did kill a farmer’s dog). A run-of-the-mill igneous rock on Mars, 1.3 billion years old—the only thing unusual about it is that it got blasted off the Martian surface and ended up here on Earth. You can touch it! I was just charmed by the notion of this anonymous and yet singular rock—as anonymous and as singular as other such interplanetary travelers that brought things, including perhaps some of the elements of life, to Earth. Same for “Euclidean Geometry”: an act of love is both anonymous and singular, seemingly governed by laws and rules as ancient as the universe. Sometimes we mistakenly interpret those laws and rules, though—hence, logical fallacies such as circular logic.
Natalya Sukhonos: In “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” as well as “Place of Peace,” where you describe love as “bursting riotously into bloom,” you write beautifully about love as fruit. There is so much sensuality in your fruit metaphors! The poem “Fig” is a whole extended metaphor of love as a bloom as well, and it is stunning! And in “Succuba,” as well as “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” and “A Receipt to Cure Mad Dogs,” you connect love to herbs and their various flavors. Please say something about the ways in which the “tastes of love” resonate in your poetry through imagery of herbs and fruit.
Katherine E. Young: As I was writing these poems, just about everyone in my close circle, including me, was undergoing really big and often traumatic life changes. So, I was very much coming to the poems asking the hard questions: Who am I? Where am I in life? Am I the person I wanted to be, and if not, what can and should I do about that? The basic idea that one can more or less cultivate oneself as one cultivates a garden speaks to a certain kind of urgency one gets in midlife to take stock and make adjustments, sometimes radical ones. During that period, I was lucky enough to have some choices—not always easy ones, not always good ones, but real ones. To some degree, then, the notion of flowering in these poems is aspirational—what I hoped would happen if I took better, more conscious care of my garden, both for myself and for those I love. Also, I just really, really love figs!
Natalya Sukhonos: What’s the link between the mathematical and the erotic in your poetry? I’ve noticed many poems touching on math, and this was fascinating, maybe not least because I just finished Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero.
Katherine E. Young: Excellent question! I don’t really have an answer, except to say that as a young person I wanted to be an astronaut—that’s also the reason I started studying Russian, by the way—and I felt very comfortable with math and science, at least until I ran afoul of a college calculus class. Much later, when I was getting my MFA, I took a wonderful course on the rhetoric of science, and I spent more time than I care to admit reading the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. I was fascinated by the mental steps that natural philosophers in the early nineteenth century had to take to be able to conceptualize dinosaurs out of a bunch of bone fragments stuck in rock. And you already know that I find odd bits of space debris decidedly erotic… Maybe I was seeking a system of beliefs and practices in math and science that might inspire me with more confidence than the beliefs and practices in human relationships that I had found simultaneously confining and unreliable—although true mathematicians and scientists would probably say that their laws and beliefs can be just as confining and unreliable…
Natalya Sukhonos: You are a professional literary translator who has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for translation. How does the work of translation inform your poetry (and I’m using “translation” here both in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical process of translation)? Comment on the process of cultural translation, as your poetry includes intertextual references to Mrs. Pinkerton, the Golden Fish, Manet, Euclid, and so many other rich and unexpected sources.
Katherine E. Young: Honestly, I don’t really see much difference between writing “original” poetry and translating it. In both cases, making a poem starts with “translating” the impulse for that poem into words. Translating someone else’s impulse—as opposed to your own—is essentially the same process, although there are a few more steps involved. But I’m always trying to make music with words, whether the poem started in my own head or in someone else’s. There are particular benefits to being a translator, though: recently I was asked to translate a selection of poems by Boris Pasternak, and I found that every single one of Pasternak’s lines taught me something important about writing my own poetry in English.
As far as cultural translation, all the cultural flotsam and jetsam in this book comes from things I’ve squirreled away, from the mating habits of ancient sea creatures to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I first saw in London as a teenager. A lot of my references come from the former Soviet Union, where I first traveled as a student. I didn’t really get serious about writing poetry until I lived in Russia in the 1990s, though—while there, I was lucky enough to read the entire canon of Russian poetry with a scholar who spoke no English. It was that immersion in Russian that helped me to hear my own language, English, with fresh ears—and it certainly helped make me a better poet. I like to joke that I’m the only American-born poet I know who owes more to Pushkin than to Walt Whitman—if that’s not cultural translation, what is?
Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of Poetry, The Saint Ann’s Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Mama, Middle Gray Magazine, Really System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press. natalyasukhonos.com.
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.
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 Meby 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.
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 a 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.
Today on Punctured Lines, we have a Q&A with Masha Rumer, author of Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting, whose arrival we previously announced here and are very excited about. Masha answered our questions by email.
Punctured Lines:Describe, briefly, your process in writing this book.
Masha Rumer: My decision to write the book was pretty simple: I wished there was something like that when I became a parent, and since there wasn’t, I figured I’d write it. I was born in Russia and my partner was born in the U.S., so in addition to navigating differences common to a multicultural relationship, having a baby brought up questions, nostalgia and my awareness of straddling multiple cultural identities. How do I teach my kids Russian, without forcing it? How do I connect with other parents, even if I lack certain shared childhood experiences? Is a peanut butter sandwich an acceptable meal? How much borscht is too much? The more I spoke to others, parents or not, the more I realized that these concerns are very much shared, but people don’t always feel comfortable discussing it.
Surprisingly, I found no nonfiction book about the contemporary immigrant parenting experience, even though there is a record high of 43 million immigrants in America today and over 18 million kids with at least one foreign-born parent.
I realized there needs to be a research-driven, accessible look at what it’s like for immigrants to raise kids in the U.S., not a “how-to” parenting manual, but a realistic portrait of sorts. The book will have a bit of everything: candid conversations with families across the U.S., personal narrative and interviews with experts in psychology, language development and sociology. And beets. Lots of beets.
PL:What is your relationship with contemporary Russian literature? Who are some of the writers that inspire you?
MR: I really wish I’d read more contemporary Russian literature, but a significant chunk of my reading is in English (unless we’re talking news or kid lit – I try to read Russian books with my children daily). That said, I’ve recently been enjoying the work of Dina Rubina and of the investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, and have been getting into translation more (just finished a delightful Russian translation of A Man Called Ove [PL: This Swedish title by Fredrik Backman has also been translated into English]).
PL:Do you find yourself working against some Russian cultural stereotypes?
MR: Sometimes I find myself dodging jokes about being a spy, especially in the wake of the 2016 presidential election (I’m not a spy). I’ve also been questioned whether I came to the U.S. “on my own” and “with papers” or if my husband ordered me via a catalog. The people who ask are demure and almost apologetic, but they want to know. Recently, though, a job recruiter was pretty explicit about questioning my immigration status and any political connections. And something many female-identifying Russian speakers have probably experienced – there’s often an assumption that our closets have this secret compartment where we stash sable fur coats and leather outfits from a James Bond movie.
PL:As a writer who addresses stories of immigrant families, do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?
MR: I definitely find myself connecting with other diaspora writers. It’s probably due to the shared immigrant experiences of reinventing and translating yourself and the trauma of having been uprooted. I love the work of Lara Vapnyar and Dinaw Mengestu; they both write so incisively and honestly about diaspora realities. Eva Hoffman and Jhumpa Lahiri were among the first contemporary immigrant authors I read, and it felt so validating. Then there’s the work of Edwidge Danticat, Anya Ulinich and Natalia Sylvester, particularly her recent essay on being bilingual, and the Foreignish blog, run by Yaldaz Sadakova. I’m also excited to read the new collection Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg. It’s thrilling to see that the contemporary immigrant narratives are no longer othered as “niche,” but are becoming a part of the “mainstream” literary canon.
Shortly after my mother died, the kids and I established the routine of taking long beach walks about an hour before sundown. We lived on Staten Island then, the long beautiful stretch of Great Kills beach was only seven minutes away by car. My husband and I had separated just a few months before my mother’s death, and all three of us were still reeling from these two blows. David was almost 18 then, Stephanie had just turned 15; I would look at our shadows and see that they were about the same lengths. We looked like three orphaned siblings rather than a mother and her kids.
One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar. I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents. I never thought of it as extravagant or a romantic delicacy. My mother would offer me some before important tests in school, because it was chock-full of phosphorus that supposedly stimulated brain cells. I remember eating caviar before school, at seven am, still in my pajamas, shivering from the morning cold, seated in the untidy kitchen of our Moscow apartment, yawning and dangling my legs, bumping my knees against the boards of our folding table, holding that piece of bread spread with a thin layer of butter and thinner layer of caviar.
On a personal note, this observation about caviar did hold up in my family, in part. When my grandmother was dying, my mother fed her caviar sandwiches. (Before the tests, though, I got a chocolate bar.) I’ve never seen this detail about caviar captured in prose before–it resonates so deeply.
As a reformed math school student (Leningrad, 239 shkola), I can never get enough of math stories in fiction. The publisher’s description makes this book sound delicious:
As a young girl, Katya Geller learned from her mother that math was the answer to everything. Now, approaching forty, she finds this wisdom tested: she has lost the love of her life, she is in the middle of a divorce, and has just found out that her mother is dying. Half-mad with grief, Katya turns to the unfinished notes for her mother’s last textbook, hoping to find guidance in mathematical concepts.
With humor, intelligence, and unfailing honesty, Katya traces back her life’s journey: her childhood in Soviet Russia, her parents’ great love, the death of her father, her mother’s career as a renowned mathematician, and their immigration to the United States. She is, by turns, an adrift newlywed, an ESL teacher in an office occupied by witches and mediums, a restless wife, an accomplished writer, a flailing mother of two, a grieving daughter, and, all the while, a woman in love haunted by a question: how to parse the wild, unfathomable passion she feels through the cool logic of mathematics?