From Black Panthers to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and More: A Conversation with the Author of Revolutions of All Colors Dewaine Farria

Revolutions of All Colors (Syracuse UP, 2020) first came to my attention when we were putting together Punctured Lines’ 2021 Books for Review list. The novel’s description indicated that it featured African-American characters and was set, in part, in Ukraine. Intrigued, I looked it up and found myself completely immersed in the multi-generational saga that intertwines locations and histories that I had not previously seen connected.

This novel opens in New Orleans in the 1970s, with Ettie, a young African-American woman who, unsatisfied with what she perceives as her preacher father’s complacence in the face of racial violence, becomes involved with the Black Panther Party. The story details a dramatic incident of police brutality against the Panthers and the long-term repercussions of this violence.

The novel then jumps forward in time to the 1990s, when Ettie becomes a prison counselor and raises her son, Simon, in Antoine, Oklahoma—a town where a quarter of the population is employed by the state prison. We then move to a different point of view character, Frank, a well-respected prison guard, who takes Simon under his wing and raises him alongside his sons, Michael and Gabriel. From there, the book opens up even further to the perspectives of these young men and moves locations to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2005, and Kyiv, Ukraine in 2004, before returning stateside to New Jersey in 2006 and later that year back to Oklahoma.     

Though this book has been called a novel-in-stories, and each piece stands very well on its own, at the end of each story I found myself yearning to turn the page, to know what happened next in the lives of these characters. In this way, it reads as a multi-generational family saga condensed to a few brief chapters.

Having finished the book, I emailed the author, Dewaine Farria, and he generously agreed to answer a few questions. The following conversation was completed over email during Farria’s residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony.

Punctured Lines: In a Q&A with Book Culture, you said that the book grew out of the first story set in New Orleans. Could you tell us more about how your writing developed from there—when and how did you conceive the three central characters, Michael, Gabriel, and Simon, whom we first meet as young boys and see grow up in the course of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: While a Boren Fellow at the Kyiv Linguistic Institute from 2004–05 (during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), I supplemented my income by teaching English as a second language. In this capacity, I substituted at a posh Ukrainian secondary school for a couple of weeks, taught “Business English” for a few private firms, and tutored one very rich kid in a high-rise apartment overlooking a Soviet-era TSUM department store that now blinked with advertisements for Benneton and Bvlgari. I returned to the States in late 2005 to begin a position as a contract analyst in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, mostly doing translations. It was around this time that I first got the idea for a novel about a Black American teacher of English as a second language in Kyiv—the character that eventually morphed into Gabriel.  

I first conceived of Gabriel’s brother Michael and their friend Simon for the short story “Walking Point,” the original version of which was published in Line of Advance back in 2017. In the story, Frank—the prison warden narrator that you mentioned in your introduction—describes his service in Vietnam to all three boys, but at the behest of Simon who is considering joining the military.

Tim O’Brien once remarked that, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” I originally conceived of Michael holding Frank accountable for the war story he tells the boys. Bookish, bisexual, and brooding, Michael suffers to defy Black masculinity’s rigid confines of expression. The experience renders Michael emotionally bulletproof. He learns young that there’s no way not to suffer, but that people will try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it—including lying to each other and themselves.    

From his pedigree (Black Panther parents, war hero grandfather) to his service in the U.S. Special Operations community to a stint as a professional mixed martial artist, violence is central to Simon’s arc. For those capable of giving themselves over to it, violence can be one of life’s most intense pleasures: a visceral moral proposition that rearranges the universe into the present at its most absolute. As emergency medicine and mixed martial arts are among the endeavors that have demanded my closest consideration of violence, Simon became a paramedic and a fighter. 

Punctured Lines: In the scope of this novel, the chapters set in Ukraine take up a fairly small part. Gabriel, the youngest of the three protagonists, is an aspiring writer, and he goes to Ukraine to teach English and also as a quasi-retreat where he hopes to finish his book. While there, he falls in love with a woman named Tamara, who encourages him to move from writing Tolkienesque fantasy and focus on something closer to his own life. In a lovely post-modern gesture of make-believe, you allow the reader to assume that at least part of Revolutions of All Colors belongs to Gabriel’s pen. I know from reading your biography that you spent some time in Ukraine, and I would love to know how that time has helped to shape you as a writer?

Dewaine Farria: My wife, Iryna, anchored me to Kyiv, but my fascination with that part of the world began long before she and I met. During my junior year in high school, I happened upon a copy of Tolstoy’s Master and Man and Other Stories, which contained the grandmaster’s fictionalized account of the real-life 18th century separatist guerrilla, Haji Murat. For a sixteen-year-old obsessed with fantasy heroes, Tolstoy’s tale of valor, violence, and betrayal struck all the right notes. It was also the first story I ever read about counterinsurgency, a mode of conflict that has defined warfare in the 21st century. I subsequently flew through Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov’s short stories.

In Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou writes of her discovery of the Russian writers: 

I walked the sunny California streets shrouded in Russian mists. I fell in love with the Karamazov brothers and longed to drink from a samovar with the lecherous old father. Then Gorki became my favorite. He was the blackest, most dear, most despairing. The books couldn’t last long enough for me. I wished the writers were alive, turning out manuscripts for my addiction. I took to the Chekhov plays and Turgenev, but always returned in the late night, after I had collected my boodle, to Maxim Gorki and his murky, unjust world.

For my part, I pictured cities that were snow-dusted amalgamations of Moscow, Prague, and Paris. Locales brimming with intellectuals, radicals, and artists living in the sort of romantic poverty that I imagined bred great culture.

Dewaine Farria, Amman, Jordan, 1999

I enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school and volunteered for embassy guard duty at the first opportunity (back then you had to earn the rank of corporal before applying). After finishing a year and change at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, the Marine Detachments in Saint Petersburg and Moscow topped my “wish list.” I jotted the Detachments in Vladivostok and Kyiv into the third and fourth place slots with (as anyone who knows anything about the Marine Corps can attest) inordinately optimistic disregard.  

In December 2000, I stepped off a Ukrainian Airlines flight at Boryspil International Airport, blowing into my palms and looking up at a sky like a dull, grey smear—a twenty-something Marine Sergeant brimming with lion cub swagger. I last visited Ukraine in the summer of 2019, to christen our third child, return my father-in-law’s remains, and get some dental work done—more family business than vacation.

I ended up returning to Kyiv again and again for the same reasons other folks end up returning to Caracas or Cleveland. You meet someone, fall in love, and then discover that the package deal includes their hometown. For me now, Kyiv is friends and family who knew me when I was young. It’s dacha summers of darting swallows, dragonflies, and sun flowers—as well as drunken fistfights where I feared for my life. I’m not sure how Ukraine shaped me as a writer, but I do know that I cannot pretend to be unbiased when discussing the country or its people.                

Punctured Lines: Gabriel studies ballet, and his Soviet émigré teacher Sergei is a big influence in his life. But thinking further about the connections that you draw between the United States and the Soviet and post-Soviet space, you mention Angela Davis receiving USSR’s Lenin Peace Prize. The Soviet Union famously made overtures to prominent African Americans, affecting support for the cause of Black liberation—a bit of political theatre, with some kernel of earnest engagement. I’m curious to know to what extent this history is a part of the context for this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Along with the rest of his generation, the Black Power movement colored my father’s views of international relations. So—despite his career in the United States Air Force—my dad frequently touted Soviet anti-racist and anti-colonial rhetoric as one of our Cold War enemy’s most redeeming features. As I didn’t make any distinction between “Soviet” and “Russian” back then, my dad’s attitude certainly affected the way I approached the work of the Russian writers I read in my teens.

Under Putinism, the Russian Federation continues to exploit the West’s weakness and division, and race continues to play a huge role in this. The Cold War maxim that “Everyone in America is racist and everyone in Russia is Russian” reflects how the American concept of race remains an easily exploited societal fault line. In the novel, I wanted to give a glimpse as to how the political theatre surrounding exploiting this fault line looked to the public within the Soviet Union.  

Incidentally, I first heard the story of Angela Davis receiving the Lenin Peace Prize from one of the drivers at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv back in 2000. Guy named Andre. Big Stevie Wonder fan.

“She had been one of the Чёрные Пантеры,” Andre said of Angela Davis during our conversation, and I immediately committed the phrase to memory: Чёрные Пантеры. Then, he asked, “Whatever happened to them?”

Punctured Lines: Going beyond Soviet sloganeering, what Gabriel encounters on the streets of Kyiv is a whole bunch of unfettered racism as well as some benign curiosity about a Black American traveler. He also meets a local woman, Tamara, and the two begin a passionate love affair. Tamara is quite a sinister presence—she works for an international arms dealer, and her contracts extend to Africa and Asia.

In addition, you introduce a Jewish character, Max, who helps Gabriel and the reader to navigate the complex cultural landscape with nuance and savvy. These and other characters in the story create a fascinating representation of Ukraine at a transitional moment without falling back on stereotypes. I’m curious how you came up with Tamara and Max and what were some of the issues that arose for you in trying to describe Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004?

Dewaine Farria: I don’t attempt to write characters with an identity different from mine unless I already have someone like that in my life whom I love. I don’t necessarily model the character on that person but keeping them in mind sustains my cognizance of the responsibility writing outside of your identity entails. Especially when you’re writing from the first-person POV, as I do with Tamara.

With a Georgian father and Russian mother, Tamara refers to her ethnicity as “mongrel,” but I like to think of it as “Soviet.” Either way, Tamara is a citizen of Ukraine. Max’s ethnicity is Jewish, and he too is a citizen of Ukraine. Two citizens with very different views of the country, due—in part—to their ethnic identities. Gabriel couldn’t have asked for better cultural liaisons.   

For Tamara, the Orange Revolution holds the prospect that her country—the only country she has known for her entire adult life—might finally shed the residue of the empire capitalism defeated. As she puts it in the novel:

Before the Orange Revolution, Kyivites bitched about the wife-beating Afghan war veteran in the flat next door and the bumzhiki drinking themselves blind in Mariyinsky Park. Now we were having our first inferiority-free discussions of the European Union, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance was running vacancy ads in Kyiv’s English-language weeklies. Even expats like Gabriel—that is, expats without Ukrainian hyphenated identities—could not ignore the fire in the air. For a stark beautiful moment, my tribe—by far one of the world’s gloomiest—transformed into true believers.

Many of the aviators in the United Nations Department of Peace Operations hail from the former Soviet Union. While working in Mogadishu, I would occasionally find myself inebriated with these guys and—man—did they have some stories. One of which sparked the idea to make Tamara an arms dealer. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc: Flying with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers and Misha Glenny’s McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld also influenced the world of white, grey, and black arms deals that I wanted Tamara to inhabit. A world that also bleeds into Simon’s chapter in Somalia, “Mercenaries, Missionaries, and Misfits.” 

Max’s perspective as an Eastern European Jew corrects some of Gabriel’s more rosy notions about the Orange Revolution. As Max puts it in this exchange with Gabriel in the novel:

“The hypocrisy of these anti-Semitic Cossacks suddenly pretending to be liberal with all this Orange Revolution nonsense disgusts me. Truly. I swear, I prefer the Russians now. At least you know where you stand with them.”

Before I can get a word in, Max jams a finger into my sternum.

“Save it. I’m an Eastern European Jew, man. I know the depths these motherfuckers can sink to.”

When I served in Kyiv, the U.S. State Department rented a large home in the city’s Syrets district for use as the Marine barracks (usually called the “Marine House” in U.S. diplomatic circles). As the infamous site of the Babi Yar massacre, living in Syrets got me interested in Kyiv’s Jewish community. An interest that led me to Anatoly Kuznetsov’s memoir, Babi Yar—a phenomenal book that, for some reason, no one really talks about much. Kuznetsov named his book for the ravine across the street from the Marine House, where Kyiv’s German occupiers murdered at least 33,771 Jewish children, women, and men.  

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything’s Illuminated influenced how I wanted Max to sound.   

While working in Jerusalem as UN field security officer, I got the idea to make Simon a “re-patriate”—someone who returned to Kyiv after serving his mandatory stint in the Israeli army. The Israelis are by far the most casually racist security personnel I worked with during my career. But, as a former Marine, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I recognized aspects of their police and military culture. But most of all, Max is based on a friend, and he remains one of my favorite characters.         

Punctured Lines: Thinking about the book’s title, I posit that each character in this book experiences his or her own revolutions, both in the very real political sense, as well as metaphorically—revolutions that transform their understandings of themselves and the world around them. What does this title mean to you and how did you come up with it?  

Dewaine Farria: Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview with Adrian Boneberger at the WBT podcast. In his explanation of the title, he’d found a correlation between the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and American race relations. I just listened to the episode again and his explanation still sounds pretty good. But then your explanation feels right on point, too… Far be it from me to tell readers how to interpret the title!    

Punctured Lines: One of the central themes of this novel, I believe, is the culture of violence to which Black and Brown kids are so often subjected growing up in the United States. Simon, perhaps, comes the closest to embracing this violence and turning it into a kind of art, first by joining the military, and later as he becomes a mixed martial arts fighter. I see Gabriel attempting to reflect on this experience of violence in his fiction. Michael, Gabriel’s older brother, has the most exceptional response to violence. As a teen, he suffers from the Dostoevskian “sacred disease”—epilepsy, and his epileptic episodes often seem to occur in anticipation of, or as a reaction to fighting around him. He starts to understand himself as a bisexual, becomes a fashion writer, and moves to New York City. In the same Q&A with Book Culture you mention being heavily influenced by the work of James Baldwin. Am I right in reading Dostoevsky and Baldwin as two of the prototypes for this character? I’d love to know what your additional influences in writing this novel have been.

Dewaine Farria: I drew heavily from both Dostoevsky and Baldwin for the character of Michael. Thom Jones’s story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” also played a big role in my conception of the left temporal lobe fits that plague Michael during his teen years. Here’s Jones’s Vietnam veteran narrator describing “the sacred disease”:  

Dostoyevski {sic} was nervous and depressed, a tormented hypochondriac, a compulsive writer obsessed with religious and philosophic themes. He was hyperloquacious, raving, etc. & etc. His gambling addiction is well known. By most accounts he was a sick soul.

The peculiar and most distinctive thing about his epilepsy was that in the split second before his fit—in the aura, which is in fact officially a part of the attack—Dostoyevski experienced a sense of felicity, of ecstatic well-being unlike anything an ordinary mortal could hope to imagine. It was the experience of satori. Not the nickel-and-dime satori of Abraham Maslow, but the Supreme. He said that he wouldn’t trade ten years of life for this feeling, and I, who have had it, too, would have to agree.

Punctured Lines: Your book came out in December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and now Ukraine, the country that plays such an important role in this book, is under attack from Russia. Your characters feel so alive to me that I’m tempted to ask, how Simon, Michael, and Gabriel are holding up through it all. I am also impressed with how well the characters and the world you’ve created prepare us for this violence that broke out in the real world: you pointed out so many problems that have been brewing for decades. I would love to know what you think writers can do in the face of war, and if your thoughts on this have changed after the publication of this novel?

Dewaine Farria: Thank you so much for saying that, Olga. I really appreciate the care and attention with which you read my work.  

The war in Ukraine is this generation’s Spanish Civil War—the conflict that future generations will look back on and wonder why good people didn’t do more. This generation’s response to nationalist-fueled authoritarianism will define it. As Timothy Snyder pointed out recently in the New York Times, people continue to disagree, often vehemently, over what constitutes fascism—but today’s Russia meets most of the criteria:

It has a cult around a single leader, Vladimir Putin. It has a cult of the dead, organized around World War II. It has a myth of a past golden age of imperial greatness, to be restored by a war of healing violence — the murderous war on Ukraine.

In many ways, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a war against the humiliation that many Russians felt during the tracksuit banditry that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union. Grievance-fueled nationalism has always been a precursor to war and revolution. In such circumstances, writers would do well to remember that all art is political, and we owe allegiance—above all—to the truth.

Punctured Lines: This novel was such a wonderful read, and I can’t wait to see where your writing takes us next. If you care to share what you’re working on now, I would love to hear about it!

Dewaine Farria: I’ve been hard at work on a dystopic short story collection that stitches together myriad points of view and overlapping timeframes to de-familiarize the brutality of America’s criminal justice system, highlighting the connections between the marginalized and disaffected the world over. The project focuses on the central premise of both militarized policing and mass incarceration: the view of certain communities as outside the social contract, subject to the state’s authority, but without the full protections of citizenship. It has been a slog. As Oklahoman Ralph Ellison put it, “the writing of novels is the damnedest thing that I ever got into, and I’ve been into some damnable things.”

Please donate to help people fleeing from violence in Ukraine. Dewaine Farria says: “As a former UN staff member, I know that UNHCR and UNICEF are doing good work in Ukraine now.” 

Dewaine Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, War on the Rocks, the Rumpus, Literary Hub, and the anthology Our Best War Stories: Prize-winning Poetry and Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Award. Tobias Wolff selected Farria’s debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, as the winner of Syracuse University’s 2019 Veterans Writing Contest. Farria holds an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma and an M.F.A. from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has received fellowships from the National Security Education Program, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. As a U.S. Marine, he served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Farria spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. You can find more of his writing at dewainefarria.com.

Cultivating the Habit of Looking: A Q&A with Julia Zarankin

Julia Zarankin is the author of a memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (Douglas & McIntyre, 2020) that was warmly welcomed by both the birding and the literary communities. She was born in the Soviet Union and as a child immigrated to Canada with her family as part of the Jewish refugee movement. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught in the US before returning to Canada. She lives in Toronto and publishes essays and short fiction in English-language magazines both in Canada and in the United States.

Punctured Lines: Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder combines elements of an immigrant’s memoir with a love story with a self-help guide to finding a perfect hobby, and last but not least is filled with information about birds and stories of bird sightings—and the different genres brilliantly mesh together to create a page-turner. How did you come up with the structure for this book and did it change during the writing process?

Female spotted towhee. Photo source: Wikipedia

Julia Zarankin: Thank you so much for calling my book a page-turner, that is so kind of you to say and is the greatest compliment. Writing process: before the book, there was a humorous blog called Birds & Words, which I started writing immediately after seeing my first bird and realizing that I had plunged head-first into a bizarre and unlikely subculture. Starting my blog was the only way I could make sense of birds and birding. I wrote about all my adventures in misidentification, I pontificated about avian coiffures. But slowly, I noticed that my posts were growing beyond the length of a jocular blog post. I remember a specific turning point: after chasing (and finding) a spotted towhee that had flown way off course, I started wondering whether the bird felt lost or displaced in this unfamiliar landscape. And suddenly I found myself feeling a sense of kinship with the bird; thinking about the spotted towhee led me to contemplate all of my own peregrinations—some more successful than others—and the migratory journeys undertaken by my own family. This moment of seeing myself in birds—a wholly unscientific endeavor by the way; one isn’t supposed to anthropomorphize!—was a sign that I had to take my writing about birds more seriously and that I was probably writing something more meaningful than a series of blog posts. That’s when I started working on the book in earnest; I always envisioned it as a series of essays, and the more I wrote, the more I started seeing connections between my life and the lives/experiences of birds. I played with the order of the essays as I started to envision the book as a whole, with a solid narrative arc.

Punctured Lines: You place your personal story in the context of the migratory urge of certain birds, normalizing, to some extent, human desire to change our circumstances. Are you making a distinction here between immigration that stemmed from political tensions and the general human desire to be in motion?

Julia Zarankin: I think I’m fascinated by both of these desires. As a person, I’m wildly afflicted by wanderlust. Falling in love with birds gave me a sense of home that I hadn’t experienced before; now that I know where birds can be found in Toronto, I feel much more at home in the city and feel less of an urge to escape and run away at every opportunity. In a sense, birds have really taught me how to be present, stay put, and enjoy it! When I started volunteering at a migration monitoring station and began reading about bird migration, I came across this fantastic German word Zugunruhe, coined by natural historian Johann Andreas Naumann, to describe the migratory restlessness of caged songbirds. I realized that the word itself applied not just to birds, but also to my own life and the trajectory of my family’s history. Suddenly I felt that there might be an explanation for my own near-constant feeling of migratory restlessness. Migratory birds are hardwired to live a life in constant motion, and their journeys are perilous! Their lives are dictated largely by a quest for food and a desire (biological imperative) to reproduce. My personal migratory restlessness is of a different nature. Initially politically motivated (my family fled several political regimes), my desire to be in motion could also be summarized by a quest to find a home and to escape the familial curse (or gift?) of being forever displaced.

Punctured Lines: You have devoted much of your professional life to the study of Russian literature. In the book, you mention how after you became a birdwatcher, you started noticing references to birds everywhere, including the chickens in Uncle Vanya:

“I had always focused on the play’s larger message and hadn’t ever paid much attention to the chickens. Yet there they were. And rereading the play, I saw that the chickens [. . .] depicted continuity, the small, mundane actions that we cannot live without, the ones that give contour to our lives.” 

Do you find that, as a birdwatcher, you approach books differently, bringing a different quality of attention to the pages in front of you? 

Julia Zarankin: I’ve certainly started reading Chekhov and Tolstoy differently now that I’m a mad birder! I used to skip over nature scenes and snipe hunts (shh! don’t tell anybody) because I found them lacking in action, but now those scenes come alive for me in new ways. They are so often a locus of epiphany. I feel like birds have also helped me get to know Chekhov differently—as more of a prescient environmentalist. Birds have definitely taught me to slow down in almost everything I do, including how I read: to attend to words, scenes, details differently and more deliberately. The connections between birds and Russian literature are surprising (and plentiful). I’m fascinated by the fact that Velimir Khlebnikov is the son of a really famous Russian ornithologist, Vladimir Khlebnikov (not only that, but he accompanied his father on ornithological expeditions). All of this now makes sense to me, because it feels like in Khlebnikov’s futurist verse words are literally taking flight, often away from sense, toward a new way of experiencing language and poetry.

Punctured Lines: The narratives about human relationships with animals have a long history. One book that came to mind in relation to yours and that had enjoyed an enormous popularity in the USSR was Gerald Durrell’s My Life and Other Animals, a humorous account of a young boy transplanted with his family from Britain to the island of Corfu. What were the books that were influential for you during your writing process?

Julia Zarankin: Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “My Bird Problem,” was the piece that made me want to try my hand at birdwatching. Franzen writes about how falling in love with birds made him less cynical, and I think I read that essay at the right time—I was going through a career transition, auditioning hobbies, searching for something that would give me inner peace and improve my patience (without having to do yoga and spend time in the downward dog position). I’m very much indebted to Kenn Kaufman’s work (especially Kingbird Highway), and also Simon Barnes’ curious little book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. Barnes gave me permission to make (sometimes egregious) mistakes and taught me that there is no right way to be a birder; as long as one cultivates the habit of looking, one is doing it right. I reread Chekhov often, both for his attention to detail and narrative craft, and also for his reminder not to take oneself too seriously because at its core life is fundamentally absurd.

Punctured Lines: You write about growing up in a family of professional musicians and, being trained as a musician yourself in childhood, having to participate in music competitions. As a musician, a writer, and an academic, one must learn to bear the extremely competitive nature of these fields. Though birdwatching, too, as you say, can be a very competitive pursuit, it seems that for you it has been an opportunity to transform your relationship with competition itself. I was fascinated by your suggestion that birds teach you how to deal with disappointment in other areas of life. Do you find that birdwatching helps by teaching you how to reframe your ambitions, or that the sheer unpredictability of the birds’ behavior habituates you to waiting and helps you to avoid blaming yourself for everything that doesn’t go as planned? Or?

Julia Zarankin with a black and white warbler

Julia Zarankin: I really believe that birding is the perfect antidote to smugness. Whether you like it or not, birds force you to take a Humility 101 masterclass (over and over again). Birding helped me undergo an apprenticeship in failure, because so much about birdwatching is learning to become comfortable with your (constant) mistakes. It only dawned on me much later that one cannot learn to identify birds without simultaneously learning to misidentify them (and recognizing what your mistakes are). Whereas I used to be ashamed of my mistakes and tried to hide them, birding showed me how mistakes are part of the learning process. Unsurprisingly, this also really helped me as a writer!

Punctured Lines: An important thread of this memoir has to do with the question of having children, with you trying to balance your desire to become a parent with factors that preclude you from doing so. This aspect of the book seems to resonate with a lot of contemporary writing by women on the difficult set of decisions that they face around motherhood. (I’m thinking, for instance, of Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood). Do you see your book in dialogue with the books that problematize the notion of traditional motherhood?   

Julia Zarankin: Thanks so much for asking this question. I wrote this book as I was also coming to terms with the fact that I would never become a parent. In a sense, the book is also about learning to find meaning in midlife when one’s life doesn’t go as planned (or as one expected). I’m the first woman in five generations of my family (at least!) not to have a baby by age 21, and although my parents and grandmothers were kind and never mentioned that fact (at least not directly), I felt the weight of it on my shoulders and felt like I was failing or disappointing my entire family line. The book traces my journey of coming to terms with the fact that there are many ways to live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I really credit birds and birding for helping me see that.

Punctured Lines: Because I know that you hate this question yet ask it of everyone else: What is your favorite bird at the moment?

Female American kestrel. Photo source: Wikipedia

Julia Zarankin: I’m answering these questions from a farm in the Eastern Townships, in rural Quebec (this was as close as we could get to a trip to Vermont, since the land border is still closed to Canadians), and every morning this week I’ve been waking up to three American kestrels sitting in a bare tree outside my window. They’re gorgeous birds, with bright orange and blue and a wild, zebra-like face pattern. How nature came up with this bird, I do not know, but it’s magical. Too bad they terrorize (read: eat) the tiny songbirds, but hey—nobody ever said that nature was for the faint of heart. Yes, kestrels are definitely my favorite bird at the moment.

Q&A with Boris Dralyuk: “I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways”

Today, we’re thrilled to present a Q&A with Boris Dralyuk — renowned translator, writer, LARB‘s Executive Editor (thank you for fine-tuning my reviews), former colleague, and old and dear friend. Based in Los Angeles, Boris has been instrumental in promoting Russian and Russophone literature in translation both in the United States and abroad. His recent poetry cycle can be found here. Boris answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Your family emigrated from Odessa to Los Angeles when you were eight. In an interview with Melissa Beck on The Book Binder’s Daughter, you’ve told the story about turning to translation at the age of 14 in the hope of sharing a Pasternak poem with an English-speaking friend. You felt that translation was something of a calling for you. And yet there’s often a long path between that first desire to translate and professional translation. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered at the beginning? What resources (mental, emotional, literary, etc.) did you draw on to keep going?

Boris Dralyuk: First, let me thank you both for inviting to review the path I’ve traveled. It seems, from here, to be longer and more winding than I usually imagine it to be. I tend to focus not on the path itself but on the small number of items I’ve picked up along the way. It’s these items – discrete memories, some pleasant and inspiring, others disappointing and embarrassing – that offer comfort and refine my perspective when I run into new challenges. A large part of professionalization is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much?

One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.

I can’t imagine coming to any of these realizations earlier than I did – it all takes as long as it takes. What has helped me through every stumble, setback, and paralyzing fit of regret was the sympathy and encouragement of my mentors, who had cleared these hurdles before. The smartest thing I did in my early years as a translator was to seek out such mentors, and they all became dear friends – Mike Heim, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and others.

PL: Some of us were lucky enough to study with Michael Heim at UCLA, but you also worked with him in terms of translation. You touched on this experience in your very poignant tribute when he passed away. Can you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with him?

BD: As I wrote in my little piece, it was the time Mike devoted to my infantile efforts – the interest he showed, when he could well have shown me the door – that proved decisive. I wish I could say that I didn’t need encouragement, or that I don’t need it now, but I very much did and do. Yet I want to stress that Mike didn’t give me encouragement because he felt I needed it, he did it because he believed in translation itself, believed that it was an important art, that it was possible to improve one’s skills, and that I was dedicated to the work. His purity of intention was unmistakable. It was precisely what I was looking for in a teacher and reader, what I look for still, and what I try to manifest whenever I’m asked for feedback or advice. When Mike sat down with a student to go over a text, it isn’t that the world outside the text would disappear, it’s that the text would become the world’s center. And you’d leave his office with the sense that your work had, in its own small way, restored order to the world – had shaken it out as if it were a bedspread, revealing its true design. I feel that way every time I discuss a translation with Robert, Irina, Maria, and my wife, Jenny. Their tastes and sensibilities are even closer to my own than Mike’s were, but they all share the same world-shaking, order-restoring purity of intention.

PL: You’ve translated a range of writers from Russian, from Tolstoy to Babel and Zoshchenko to contemporary prose and poetry by Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya (here, your translations of poetry are to be commended for often keeping the original meter and rhyme scheme, which is extraordinarily difficult in English but is precisely what lets these poems come through, as opposed to being rendered unrecognizable, in translation). What draws you to a particular author or project? What are the differences, and/or similarities, in the way you approach translating the various genres and sensibilities of the writers?

BD: The greatest training ground and door-opener of my career was the invitation, extended by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, to coedit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. The correspondence we conducted over the nearly four years of work on that project led me to discover the range of voices inside me, voices capable of resonating with those of Vasily Zhukovsky, Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Petrovykh, Georgy Ivanov, Anna Prismanova, and other poets. I learned what I could and couldn’t do, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways, from every angle. Of course, when translating Isaac Babel, I don’t need to strain my ears – his Odessan language is the language of my family, of my childhood; and Zoshchenko’s tragic gags are also like mother’s milk. What I need to do, in both cases, is to find Anglophone equivalents for their voices, and, luckily, American literature is full of them. In the case of Babel, I was aided by Daniel Fuchs, Samuel Ornitz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and, for good measure, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. When Zoshchenko came knocking, Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley opened the door, with Damon Runyon peeking over their shoulders. In the case of Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya, something rather different happened. The voices I use in my translations of their work are often versions of my everyday voice. Better versions, because they always have more important things to say than I myself do. I loved what Anna Aslanyan said in her TLS review of Maxim’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, which I co-translated with the brilliant Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson: “Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.” We all make use of what we have inside us, of what we acquire from our reading and from our colleagues – the key is to make the very best use of it.

PL: In addition to translating, you also work with books in another way: as a frequent reviewer, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and of course as the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is thanks to you that this publication has come to amplify coverage of translations from the former Soviet countries, as well as diaspora literatures and scholarly works about the region. What do you look for in terms of the books/writers you feature in LARB?

BD: My editorial goal is, first and foremost, to empower and encourage the editors of our sections – which represent over a dozen genres – to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re covering a diverse array of books and uplifting the voices of critics and reviewers who may not have access to other major venues. We love giving authors their first break. I’m not interested in boilerplate reviews of the latest bestsellers or political exposés. I want our pieces to dig deeper, to be deeply informed but also deeply felt, and to come at books from unexpected angles. A good number of our reviewers are associated with colleges and universities, and their first drafts often bear the telltale signs of academic discourse: lots of jargon, sentences that are far more convoluted than they need to be, etc. The jargon may have its place, but one must remember that many readers are encountering these specialized terms for the first time. We always remind our contributors that they’re writing for a general audience of curious non-specialists; the goal is to welcome people into the discussion, not to stupefy them with a display of one’s erudition. The good news is that academics usually learn quickly – that’s why they’re academics.

PL: We talk a lot on Punctured Lines, and elsewhere, both about how to promote translations from Russian in general and of women writers in particular. In your essay “The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation” for Translation Review you name the stellar translators and publishers that have made translation from Russian an incredibly vibrant field. What are your thoughts on how we as a community – of translators, scholars, publishers, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, etc. – can work toward greater visibility of female authors within Russian-to-English translation overall?

BD: From Constance Garnett and Louise Maude on down, women have long been at the forefront of Russian-to-English literary translation. It seems to me that many, if not the majority, of our most prolific and accomplished contemporary translators are women. Among them are Marian Schwartz, Antonina W. Bouis, Lisa Hayden, Katherine E. Young, the late Jamey Gambrell, and Joanne Turnbull, whose shimmering translations of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky have restored that half-forgotten master of dark fables to his proper place, beside Borges and Calvino. But the work of male Russian authors has, until recently, dominated the market. When Anglophone readers think of a typical “Russian author,” I would bet many of them still imagine a bearded face… This is changing, slowly and steadily, because translators – both women and men – are more enthusiastically advocating Russian women’s writing. The resurgence of interest in Teffi, fueled by the efforts of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and the team they’ve assembled, is just one indication of this shift – and may be one of the driving forces behind it. Pushkin Press, which releases the Chandlers’ Teffi volumes in the UK, has now also put out phenomenal books by two other émigré women authors, Irina Odoyevtseva’s Isolde, translated by Bryan Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg, and Banine’s (Umm El-Banu Assadullayeva) Days in the Caucuses, translated from the French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova. The openness and dedication of small- and medium-sized publishers like Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics, and Will Evans of Deep Vellum, which has released two novels by Alisa Ganieva in Carol Apollonio’s translations, as well as of Christine Dunbar of Columbia University Press’s Russian Library, should be applauded without cease. And Lisa Hayden, who not only translates Guzel Yakhina and Margarita Khemlin but also highlights the work of countless other women authors on her indispensable Bookshelf, is a hero and an inspiration to us all. As members of the community, we must actively seek out the widest variety of Russian voices and, if any of these voices resonate with us individually, we should try to bring them across into English ourselves or to suggest them to other translators.

PL: Soviet and post-Soviet lives don’t always fit neatly into the contemporary American classification of identities. For instance, in conversation with Katya Michaels at Odessa Review, you described Babel as a Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian-Soviet writer. This sounds about right and yet in American parlance this often gets shortened to “Russian writer” or “Soviet writer.” How do you approach this work of identity constructions that critics and translators are often asked to do?

BD: Yes, this is always a challenge. I suppose the first and most important step is to determine how these authors see – or saw – themselves in their own time and within a given tradition or set of traditions. But once you establish that, what do you do with it? If your press allows you to supply the text with an introduction, or even a brief translator’s note, that’s an opportunity to enrich a reader’s understanding of an author’s identity. And there are, of course, decisions to be made within the text itself. Is it appropriate for Yiddishisms, both syntactic and lexical, to color a Russian text in English translation? If you ask me, Babel wouldn’t be Babel without them. And would Lev Ozerov, a Soviet Jewish poet who, although he wrote in Russian, was raised in Ukraine, counted Ukrainian intellectuals among his closest friends, and translated scores of Ukrainian poems object to our using the spelling “Kyiv” in our rendering of his work? I think he’d heartily approve. Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and that’s the beauty of it.

PL: What are you working on now? What project(s) is/are on your wish list?

BD: Right now I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees – a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. (Talk about Ukrainian place names!) Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me, and I’m always on the lookout for little treasures to share on my blog – like this delightful poem by Sofiya Pregel.

Follow Boris’s work at https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com/